The Five Big Ideas for Higher Education in 2025

Higher Education April 02, 2014

I recently returned from the Education Innovation Summit at Arizona State University, an annual gathering known as “Davos in the Desert,” that brings together some 2,000 entrepreneurs, investors, and policymakers from around the word. 

This was my fourth year at the event, and this time there was a sense among some of the veterans of the conference that the pace of innovation in education seems to have slowed. Most of the talk around change these days, particularly in higher education, quickly devolves into debates between traditionalists (who want to hang on to the old model at all costs) and disrupters (who want to totally throw out everything we’ve learned about education over the centuries), with little agreement in the middle. 

As a result, big ideas for change in education have yet to take hold in any meaningful way. A few years ago, there was plenty of excitement at the Arizona conference and elsewhere over the potential for Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, to offer education at scale around the world. But that excitement (most of it early hype) has died, which is probably good for the long-term development of any new idea. 

Remember the early days of the Web? “No one knew what web search would become in 1998,” Ryan Baker, a professor of cognitive studies at Columbia University who has taught a MOOC, told me. “We had Infoseek and Altavista, and Yahoo tried to do it like a phone book. And then Google came along and that’s how we remember search today.”

So what are the big ideas for the future of higher education that are being talked about today and could end up outlasting the hype cycle? Here are five possibilities: 

The university for life. It used to be that we could go to college at 18, graduate at 22, and then remain employed for the next 40-plus years with that knowledge, and mostly in one career and perhaps with one employer. Not only are we living longer today, but the average worker changes jobs every four years. In the future, university education will need to be accessed in small chunks throughout our lifetimes, much like we use a YouTube video to figure out a recipe or the Khan Academy to brush up on high-school math. Instead of only degree programs and courses, universities will increasingly offer smaller and smaller slices of education when we need it throughout our lifetimes.    

Delayed starts. Most students are not ready for college at 18, yet in most countries we don’t have anymore else to put them, so campuses become convenient warehouses. But as the price of higher education continues to rise, more alternative pathways to college will take hold, whether jobs or national service, allowing students to gain valuable experience, as well as money and perhaps even some college credits.

Student segmentation. As higher education is accessed throughout our lifetimes, universities will end up serving a broader array of students who are coming to campuses for vastly different reasons. A new study by the Parthenon Group, a consulting firm, has found that students have vastly different reasons for going to college that transcend demographics. The study, based on a survey of 3,200 students in college or considering enrolling, divides the market into six categories based on their motivations. Today, most colleges try to serve them all in the same way, a one-size-fits-all, expensive experience. In the future, the colleges that want to survive will be forced to serve only one or two segments with specialized offerings that appeal to their motivations.

Personalized education. The talk at the Arizona summit was about adaptive learning, where teaching is tuned to the individual needs of the student, not the average student in the classroom. Personalized learning remains the big promise for higher education because it could be the innovation that truly bends the cost curve by reducing the time to a degree.   

Hybrid learning. While online education won’t make campuses extinct in the near future, it will play a growing role at traditional schools by giving students more options to take classes outside of their home institution, accelerating the pace to completing a degree, or serving as a supplement to a face-to-face course. Take the University of Central Florida, where each year 60 percent of students take an online or hybrid course, or nearby Rollins College, which is part of a group of 16 colleges in several states where a professor on one campus teaches a course shared through video conferencing with the others.

The tech sector is impatient with change in higher education because they are accustomed to releasing new products every few years. But the truth about change in higher education is that we tend to overestimate its speed while underestimating its reach. So a note to those inpatient with the pace of change: just give it time. 

Jeffrey J. Selingo is author of College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students and a contributing editor to The Chronicle of Higher Education.