Predicting the future: 4 changes coming to higher education

June 1, 2020
  • Change Management
  • Competencies
  • covid-19
  • for the record
  • podcast

“Higher education” is a moniker which time has passed, says University Registrar Doug McKenna of George Mason University.

The concept of lifelong education better frames and describes the kind of engagement institutions will provide, he argues, and the term “learners,” rather than “students,” better fits this revisioning of education that serves people throughout their lives.

“So you go to ‘high school’ and now you're off to ‘higher school,’” he observed. “So one of the shifts that we'll see in the next 20 to 30 years is an overall commitment to engaging students as ‘lifelong learners.’” 

The mystery of next year

In the most recent episode of the AACRAO podcast For the Record, McKenna imagines the future of higher education as the next few decades unfold. Of course, he disclaims, predicting anything right now is a gamble.

“It is a fascinating time to be contemplating the future of anything, much less an industry as entrenched and ingrained in the American psyche as lifelong education, and doubly so when many of us aren't even certain about how our institutions will deliver classes this fall,” McKenna said.  [Connect article: "Returning to campus: When, whether, how?"]

However, it’s not hard to believe that the next five years are going to be challenging due to the fallout of the financial effects of COVID-19. Institutions may close, people may struggle to pay tuition, and governmental funding may further dry up. 

Post-post COVID

“COVID-19 has most certainly been disruptive, but the question for us to ponder as we think 20 to 30 years down the road is has it been disruptive enough?” McKenna said. “I don't think it has.”

Institutions are exceptionally slow to change, so the pandemic likely isn’t sufficient to disrupt the status quo enough to transform higher education. Changes won’t happen spontaneously, but require conscious planning and commitment. 

To flourish in the coming decades, McKenna argues for 4 major shifts in higher education, including:

1. Societal changes as a prerequisite for lifelong education.

2. Modularization of degree programs.

3. Interoperability of credentials and credentialing.

4. Technology as the thread weaving through each aspect. 

“Really, only time will tell,” McKenna admits. “It's all speculation… This is fundamentally a speculative exercise.” 

But, McKenna argues, these four projections are recognizable to most higher education lifelong learning administrators, and worth understanding and exploring. 

Hear in-depth about these four prospects in the most recent episode of For the Record.