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January 11, 2000


Some Thoughts on the Future of Higher Education

kressley.gif - 15934 Bytesby Konrad Kressley

[Note: In 1998 Konrad Kressley wrote a series of nine Harbinger articles about the future. Some of the forecasts were incorporated into his book, LIVING IN THE THIRD MILLENNIUM, published that year. It's now a best seller among the books distributed by the World Future Society. Kressley is currently working on another manuscript which considers the impact of Information Age technologies on culture and society. Some of his observations on the future of higher education are found below.]

The arrival of the Information Age is transforming all aspects of our lives. Education is no exception and will feel the impact as we restructure various social, political and economic institutions. In the process, colleges and universities will acquire new directions, while the role of faculty members will change dramatically to accommodate a different occupational world and more diverse student body. Finally, technological t trends will dictate the way in which future instruction will be delivered.

A Change at the Helm

I teach at a mid-sized urban university which recently witnessed the retirement of its president and appointment of a successor. Since there was no formal search, faculty leaders are scratching their heads, wondering why they were left out of the selection process for the new institutional head. Was this a snub, or a sign of the times?

I suspect it is the latter: educational institutions have ceased to be autonomous centers of learning governed by scholars, and are becoming quasi-public corporate institutions. History has witnessed universities' evolution from centers of religious piety, through charm schools for young aristocratic men, to the research and occupational training grounds of today. Institutions of higher learning reflect the social milieu of their times, and the future will be no different. So, where are we headed?

Aside from the obvious technological imperatives, which will be discussed later, the Information Age society is characterized by a blending of corporate and public structures, guided by a consumer ethos. In earlier times, a small number of autonomous institutions provided graduates with elite status; in the future, most public institutions will be devoted to providing marketable skills for a diverse population.

As this process unfolds, the role of the autonomous scholar declines. Faculty governance, which still exists in a few private, elite institutions, is becoming an anachronism for the rest. Corporate and political elites are taking their place at the helm. Traditional scholars focused on esoteric knowledge; the new leadership elite, found in corporate boardrooms or state legislatures, views educational institutions as a community resource. "What can this university do for a city or state?" is the question. This would include skills required by local industries, medical and social services, as well as entertainment in the form of collegiate sports. Finally, this clean, labor-intensive industry is an economic asset to any community.

A closer examination of the new institutional bosses sheds additional light on the emerging trends. While they may flatter themselves as educational experts, very few trustees or educational bureaucrats have much personal experience or expertise in the field. Trustees are appointed for their ability to deliver financial or political clout. Business people are named by politicians in search of campaign support; ethnic minority appointees create "balance" and ability to deliver votes from their communities. Finally, appointments to a university's governing body are a dandy way to reward old friends, allies and campaign contributors.

Corporate Make-over

As this trend continues, it should be no surprise that our institutions of higher learning are getting a corporate "make over." After all, the same has happened in the world of publishing, where literary types have yielded to corporate tycoons, or in medicine, where doctors are now the underlings of business managers. The world of current and future educational leaders is one of market shares and financial balance sheets. Remember too that colleges and universities, which once relied exclusively on tuition and donations for support, increasingly depend on public funds and self-generated income. Small wonder that they view education principally in "bottom line" economic terms. Then there is the temptation to micro-manage. The collegiate sports business is an example. Trustees aspire to the role of professional sports franchise owners like Ted Turner or George Steinbrenner. It's all too obvious how many of them use their personal fortunes and influence to choose coaches, recruit players and construct facilities to suit their personal egos. You get what you pay for, right?

Before going further, a word needs to be said about current and future differentiation and stratification of this educational industry. While the concept of high school is well defined, the public has only a murky perception of how technical institutes, colleges and universities differ. They all seem to have some type of a campus, student body and hopefully a winning football team. Institutions are relatively free to select a designation without regard to objective criteria. In reality, there are indeed distinctions. At the risk of oversimplification, we would observe the top level occupied by elite Ph.D. granting institutions which pride themselves on research output. Teaching is not a high priority there. Some of these universities have more graduate than undergraduate students. The next tier of institutions aspires to conduct research, but economic necessity dictates a greater reliance on teaching. They grant bachelors and a number of masters degrees. The final tier is devoted exclusively to teaching and has no graduate or research aspirations. Problems typically arise when institutions undergo transition between these categories and suffer identity crises. This is also frustrating for faculty members, who are trained at the higher tier and then find themselves employed somewhere below. In the not-too-distant future, institutions will be categorized on the degree to which they offer distance learning over the internet. Think of it as a split along class lines: The selective upper echelon will continue to rely on personal contact; the automated distance-learning establishments will serve everyone with open-ended enrollment policies. The coming divorce between socialization and knowledge- transmission functions in higher education will be discussed in more detail later, so let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Finally, the future of two-year institutions should be mentioned in this context. Educational bureaucrats would like to create a seamless web, linking them as "feeders" or subsidiaries to the rest of the educational system. Standardization is the key. As the docking maneuver proceeds, we can already see how community colleges are acquiring the trappings of universities, while the latter are increasingly adopting the curriculum and student policies of their junior partners.

Inside the Ivory Tower

We noted earlier that control is passing from professional scholars to educational business managers at all levels, particularly the lower tiers. These institutions are also linked to local communities or state government, which provide a larger proportion of their budgets from public funds. This in turn influences academic policies. For instance, the curriculum was traditionally a faculty prerogative; professors reputedly like to teach what they learned during their graduate education. For better or worse, this implies that college courses were always one step behind the "real world." The current trend makes curriculum more responsive to the labor market and such business concepts as standardization within a state. Educational institutions, in other words, will operate more like factories producing reliable, standard graduates (read "products"). Finally, politicians are getting into the curriculum picture. According to an initiative of the Alabama legislature, all students in state-supported schools are now required to enroll in History courses. We can expect an acceleration of this trend.

As educational institutions are restructured in this corporate mold, a number of other developments are at hand. Students, for instance, will increasingly be viewed as consumers or customers. And, as you know, the customer is always right. Meanwhile, institutional standardization is creating a cutthroat competitive environment. To make sure that the business succeeds, promotional activities take center stage. In the case of my university, a football program is being touted as the key to local popularity and institutional growth. Meanwhile, faculty members can expect to drift into the role of production workers or clerks, as the business managers take control of higher learning. Perhaps the recent history of the medical industry is instructive on where higher education is headed.

Teaching in the Information Age

The evolving role of faculty members from autonomous professional to employee deserves further examination. To begin with, the terms of employment will change. Tenure is on its way out. It will be replaced by the flexible employment policy which industry recently adapted from the "just in time" inventory control technique for assembly parts. Personnel are hired and released as production demands dictate. In education, the trend is visible through the increased use of part-time faculty members. Tenure, like other forms of job protection, will lose its meaning. You will recall that the original purpose of tenure was to protect the free speech of faculty members. Nowadays, free speech is more or less guaranteed by law, while the typical university's transition to vocational training ground reduces the likelihood of critical or unconventional ideas.

Now, consider the students of the future. Demographic trends tell us that the next century has significant ethnic, gender and age shifts in store for the educational establishment. To begin with, the proportion of young people continues to decline in the general population. This means that educators will be turning from the traditional four-year degree programs to programs geared to mid-life and even late life. Labor statistics show that the "one life - one career" model is obsolete in a world of rapidly evolving technologies. It will take constant retraining just to maintain competence within an occupation. Rather than working their way through college, future generations will need to college their way through work. Even the elderly, faced with a longer life span and declining incomes, have started returning to school. Elder hostels are only the opening wedge. We can anticipate that the future of adult education will be a blend of occupational training and cultural enrichment.

While significant, age is not the only future demographic factor. America is becoming more diverse in terms of ethnic composition. The U.S. population now has a 75 percent preponderance of European ethnic stock. If current trends continue, the proportion will have dropped to fifty percent half a century from now as the ranks of minorities are swelled by immigration and higher birth rates. As these people enter the mainstream, the educational establishment will have to serve their unique cultural and social needs. West Coast institutions are on the forefront. Soon all of us will be talking about multi-cultural education.

Finally, it is worth noting that women are forging ahead in higher education. More women than men are currently enrolled, and are entering prestigious occupations long dominated by males. Today, roughly half of all law school students are female. This trend of female ascendancy is particularly pronounced in the African-American community. The reasons and implications are too complex to discuss here; suffice it to say that higher education may well be on its way to becoming a female-dominated activity in the Information Age.

Along the way, student-teacher relations will be changing. Many professors have already witnessed the transition from deferential learner to critical and demanding customer. While instructors are still grading the performance of students, the tables are turning as teacher evaluations assume an ever greater role in faculty personnel decisions. In the past, academics were evaluated by their peers, now the paying customers will be making the determination.

What will colleges and universities be teaching? Except for a small number of elite research institutions, the curriculum will gradually shift from theoretical to applied fields, or those subjects that have practical application. In my field, Political Science, such areas as Public Law, Criminal Justice, Public Administration and Survey Research will be stressed. At the same time, Political Theory, Comparative and International Politics will fade. Why? For one thing, faculty training and research is driven by grants. Now that the Cold War is over, Uncle Sam finances far fewer international and area-study training programs. The greatest impact of the world's changing political landscape has been on the study of foreign languages, where the demand for scholars has shriveled in recent years. Spanish, with its obvious commercial value, is the sole exception. Meanwhile, scholars are asked by their institutions to become more self-supporting. This translates into consulting, executive training and Public Service Institutes that channel research into practical applications.

Teaching styles are also changing. Today's innovations represent a logical step from the medieval tutorial system to an educational universe that caters to large numbers in a public setting. What began as a system of intense personal interaction between student and teacher has come to resemble mass production. Earlier technologies, such as sound amplification and machine scoring of exams, allowed for larger and larger classes. Now, the fruition of information technologies ushers in the next stage.


Have you heard of distance learning? Bringing students together to be "lectured to" is on the way out. The whole idea of traditional classrooms or an academic campus may be archaic. Expect the future learner to be at a place of his or her choosing while electronic channels deliver information. Books will be replaced by CD ROMs, libraries by the internet, and teachers by talking heads on a flickering video screen. Click one icon for a lecture, another for an exam and finally activate your printer to receive a diploma. The "virtual student," equipped with a home computer and modem, never needs to set foot on the grounds of the alma mater. But why visit there? It's just a shed crammed full of electronic equipment.

So what can we make of this vision? Supporters of distance learning point out that this is an opportunity whose time has come: we can save costs, eliminate the physical infrastructure, and reach more people than ever before. Critics contend that this is not much more than an electronic version of correspondence courses and that genuine higher education involves more than the mere transmission of information -- it also requires an interpersonal exchange of ideas that doesn't work well in the dehumanized electronic environment. Internet chat rooms, tele- conferencing, e-mail and fax communication simply cannot provide motivation or the emotional support of face-to-face communication. Finally, cyber credentials will become fair game for unscrupulous hackers.

How will future electronic learning institutions be evaluated? Traditional accreditation procedures relied heavily on "input" factors: physical facilities, library holdings, faculty credentials, and the like. The virtual university of the future, with its internet library and "canned" faculty presentations, will have to be judged by other criteria. In the opinion of many futurists, "output" measures in the form of nationally standardized tests for graduates are on the horizon. It is unlikely that today's credential system will survive.

The technological capabilities of the near future, while compelling, should not dictate the entire future of education. Residential colleges and universities have historically offered students a coming-of-age experience that behavioral scientists refer to as "socialization." Besides the course work, Joe College had experiential learning sessions with alcohol, dating, and perhaps even community service. Participation in theatrical and musical performances would enrich the rest of his adult life. Clubs, fraternities and athletic teams created a wealth of human contacts that would pay handsome dividends in future business and professional life. You might say that the "people skills" developed in the context of golf, tennis and rush week were as important as linear algebra or Shakespeare's sonnets in terms of Joe's ultimate success. Despite the high cost, Joe's parents were glad to pay for the assurance that their son would find a proper mate and join the right crowd during these formative years.

Now cut back to the solitary future web-student and his computer. He's certainly not alone; open admissions and economies of scale create nearly universal access. There is no question that highly motivated individuals can acquire skills and knowledge through distance learning. This version of home schooling offers educational opportunities to the disabled, convicts, expatriates and others who might not have access to the traditional campus. Also, it is relatively inexpensive and can be accessed at any time the student chooses to turn on his equipment. This makes it particularly attractive to working people of modest means. Unfortunately, the competence of the web student will be limited to standardized information and technical skills. What's missing? People and communication skills that are the hallmark of the managerial echelon in the virtual corporate environment of the future. Bluntly put, menial workers will be found at screens and keyboards, while their respective bosses interact at espresso bars and golf courses. Top leadership, in other words, will continue to grow out of human rather than electronic interaction. In higher education, this means that some semblance of residential institutions, offering a variety of human interaction, will survive and prosper in the Information Age.


Most futurists believe that some conventional institutions will survive because they serve other needs. Even as the campus loses some of its educational functions to the internet, it will continue to be the ideal location for affluent young men and women to pass through rites of passage such as learning social skills, making professional connections, or finding a mate. By the same token, the campus may become more of a cultural and educational center for all ages. Some institutions, notably the University of Virginia, have started offering sections of their campus as retirement homes for alumni. That seems to be a creative way to recycle those dormitories vacated by the virtual student body of the future.

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