What is the Future of Higher Education? 

What is the future of higher education? What is the value of a college degree? Does every adult need to go to college? How will students learn? Will all classes be taught online?

By Elizabeth A. Davis

There is a wave of change hitting colleges and universities across the country, and it is questioning the very existence, purpose and value of higher education. When you ask people what they think higher education will be like 20 years from now, you get all kinds of answers and ideas. No one knows exactly what the future holds. Some online proponents believe everyone can get the college education they need from the Internet—for free. Doomsday scenarios include vacant college campuses. Some political and industry circles accuse higher education of being out of touch with the needs of the workforce and producing unprepared graduates.

The college experience is evolving. If you graduated 10 years ago, you would already find differences on campus. Technology, government policy and the economy are some of the influences guiding change in higher education. What students learn, how they learn, how long it takes them to learn and how their degree can help them after graduation are parts of the college experience being debated by those inside and outside universities.

Beyond teaching and learning, universities and outside policymakers are looking at tuition models, governance, graduation, workforce training and accountability, turning them upside down and shaking them to see what to keep, what to change and what to throw out. University administrators and politicians are grappling with the “iron triangle” of access, affordability and quality, trying to improve each side without weakening the others. Expectations are high. President Barack Obama wants the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Gov. Bill Haslam’s goal is for the state to have 55 percent of Tennesseans with a two-year college degree or higher by 2025, and, in January, he tapped Knoxville business executive Randy Boyd (Knoxville ’79) as his higher education advisor. Consider these goals higher education’s version of President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon. It’s even harder for public institutions, which are working to achieve state and national goals with dwindling state appropriations and pressure to not drastically raise tuition.

President Barack Obama wants the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.At the University of Tennessee, there have already been changes, and there are more to come. Administrators have been studying UT’s online programs to see where the path may lead, evaluating ways to enroll more students in summer school to hasten graduation and encouraging some students not immediately qualified for a four-year institution to earn credit at a community college and then transfer to a UT campus.

UT System President Joe DiPietro talks freely about the need for change and the demands on the university to change. He sees it as both challenging and exciting, and this movement of change comes as the university continues implementation of a five-year strategic plan that addresses goals for education, research, outreach, operations and advocacy. So let’s put this one question to rest right here: Will UT campuses still exist in 20 years? Yes, says DiPietro, but there will be change. “Sticking your head in the sand like an ostrich, pulling it back out and thinking the future will go away is not going to work,” he says about the need for change. “But it is still important to provide an education that includes learning to be independent, making decisions and learning how to cope with adversity without your parents. Residential campuses provide that experience.”

Gov. Bill Haslam’s goal is for 55 percent of Tennesseeans to have a two-year college degree or higher by 2025.Chancellors of UT campuses agree that change is necessary to remain competitive and to offer students of today and the future the best education possible. At UT Martin, the home base for UT Online, Chancellor Tom Rakes predicts more personalized education and use of technology. “The extent of the success of UT Martin’s continued growth and value-added programs will be rooted in a blended mixture of technology-linked, personalized learning opportunities drawing upon virtual, on-site and field-based experiences in multiple areas of study,” Rakes says. New UTC Chancellor Steve Angle predicts more decentralization and continued change in the philosophy of teaching. In a flipped classroom, in which listening to an online lecture is the homework and discussing and working on real-world problems is conducted in the class period, “faculty will focus on what students are learning, not on how they teach,” he says. UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek envisions more students on campus and the creation of more interdisciplinary programs. Cheek points to an engineering alumnus, Dwight Hutchins, as an example of the well-rounded education graduates of the future will need. Hutchins demonstrates how graduates are becoming more flexible and morphing, as Cheek says, into fields they did not envision as undergraduates. Hutchins earned a degree in chemical engineering and went to work for DuPont. His supervisor encouraged him to get an MBA, and now Hutchins is the global managing director of Accenture’s health and public service strategy practice. “We’re going to have even greater graduates in the future,” Cheek predicts.


Epic Change: What is the precedent for change?

Several points in history have led to change in American public higher education. One of the first was the federal Morrill Act of 1862 that created land-grant institutions. Even if you don’t recognize that distinction, you are familiar with those schools. The University of Tennessee is Tennessee’s land-grant university, as are North Carolina State University and University of Georgia in their states. Land-grant status added the education of agriculture and mechanical arts to the liberal arts and letters education of mostly elite citizens. This change ushered in students seeking ways to improve their farms or build bridges. Student populations and universities changed as women were allowed to enroll. The GI Bill helped thousands of World War II veterans earn a college degree. Nearly 8 million veterans participated in the program in the ensuing decade, inundating college campuses with students who might never have been able to go to college. Another watershed moment was enrollment of African-American students as part of the civil rights movement. Other historical moments include the creation of state and federal financial aid programs and the establishment of community colleges that allowed even more students access to a college degree.

Some believe the current period of national attention on higher education is proving to be another era of change. Rising tuition and decreasing state appropriations have been in the news for many years, but now comes the added weight of a newer question from students: Do I really need to go to college?

Do you really need to go to college? By 2020, 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a recent study.In August 2012, the UT Board of Trustees, DiPietro and members of his staff convened in Nashville for a two-day workshop on academic innovation. The workshop began with an introduction of what is happening in higher education, and then the moderator of the workshop said, “I’m going to scare you.” What happened next was silence for 10 minutes during the showing of EPIC 2020, a short documentary released last year and written and narrated by a former Silicon Valley executive serving on a technology commission in Ohio. It predicts a higher education apocalypse—the end of college tuition and degrees by 2020. It lays out how any person anywhere in the world any time of day could learn from professors by taking online classes for free and how Apple will buy Amazon and provide educational offerings through iTunes. It says public institutions of higher education will sit on the sidelines and become obsolete. That has not proven to be the case for the University of Tennessee.


Change from the Outside: Who is asking the questions?

The need to produce more graduates is a goal encouraged by the president of the United States and the governor. They are not the only ones wanting to see more people get diplomas. The Gates Foundation, led by Bill and Melinda Gates, has spent $472 million on higher education initiatives since 2006, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which reports daily on the completion goal and technology’s effects on universities. The private Lumina Foundation is solely devoted to the task of increasing the number of Americans with college degrees or similar credentials to 60 percent by 2025. Gates and Lumina and other organizations have funded Complete College America, another group with the same purpose that works directly with states, including Tennessee. Complete College helped Tennessee overhaul the state appropriation funding formula for higher education. Instead of basing funding on the number of students enrolled, which rewards schools with large populations, the Complete College Tennessee Act (CCTA) of 2010 established completion metrics such as retention, progression and graduation as the mechanism to determine funding. Prior to passage of the CCTA, UT campuses were already beefing up advising programs and other initiatives to better guide students and improve retention and graduation rates.

This spring, the UT System entered into an agreement to pilot a handful of classes on the Coursera platform for 18 months. The classes start this fall.At the same time, there are others who are questioning the value of a degree, and their point is made every time a college graduate has to settle for a job outside the degree field or can’t find a job at all. Some business and industry leaders have complained that college graduates are not prepared for the workforce and that they lack skills like teambuilding, problem solving or even knowing to show up on time. Other people questioning a college education are students and parents. They want to know that an investment in tuition is going to pay off in four years. There are plenty of studies to counter this criticism. For each millionaire entrepreneur without a college degree, there are studies and concrete examples showing the vast number of college graduates do benefit from having a degree. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has been churning out studies linking higher earnings to degrees. In June, the center reported 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree by 2020 and that there will be 55 million job openings by that year from a combination of new jobs and retiring workers.

There is concern from inside higher education about the push from the outside to quantify the value of a degree. For some, it is no longer enough for colleges to say students received a well-rounded experience in the classroom and from extracurricular activities. These efforts are hard to measure. “Colleges are places of self-discovery where students explore and discover interests and values. Colleges are guarantors of democracy. We educate students to respect our economic and political heritage and also educate them in intent and skill to ask probing questions of those in power,” says Grady Bogue, who served as interim chancellor at UTC this past year and has served in previous leadership roles in higher education. He also has taught higher education administration at UT Knoxville. His views are shared by colleague Norma Mertz, interim program coordinator and UT employee since 1974. “There has been a staggering shift in what we seem to think higher education is about and who is deciding it,” she says. “Higher education has not been able to demonstrate that it makes a difference, and that has left us vulnerable.”

Policies and points of accountability are not the only drivers of change. Students are demanding new ways to learn that fit with their lifestyle, and new technology is allowing learning to be conducted in ways not possible 10 years ago. The Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center at UT Knoxville trains faculty on new and better ways to teach. Flipped classrooms, service learning, co-learning and all forms of new teaching gadgets are part of their repertoire. Traditional lecturing is nearing extinction. “We are looking for more efficient ways to deliver education,” says David Schumann, director of the center and professor of marketing and logistics. “Students want to be actively engaged.” The rise of online education is making the conversation even more interesting.


Fast Change: Who are the architects of change?

Coursera is an online platform company launched in 2012 by two Stanford computer science professors. It is in the news mainly for offering what are called MOOCs, massive open online courses, and if you watched EPIC 2020, this is the kind of innovation predicted to spark the end of higher education as we know it. Thousands of people can take a MOOC at one time, and Coursera and other companies like it, such as edX and Udacity, are grabbing up university partners like allies for battle.

UT is not yet offering MOOCs, and it’s not clear if UT will. But the UT System entered into an agreement with Coursera in spring 2013 to pilot a handful of classes on the Coursera platform for 18 months. These test classes will be used in solely online and blended courses, which means part online and the other part in a traditional classroom. For instance, students might watch a lecture online and take a quiz. Then they would come to class for discussion and interaction with the instructor and other students. The Coursera platform differs from traditional online in that material is usually delivered in 12-minute bites, and the student takes a quiz to determine mastery of the material presented in the bite. Coursera provides instant feedback to instructors on which questions students get right and wrong, and Coursera uses technology that identifies the way an individual types so it can know whether the student or someone else is doing his work. UT worked with the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR), which oversees six public universities, 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology, to establish a statewide agreement to run the pilot program.

In terms of pace, this kind of development at a large university is considered very rapid. When a university hears a proposal and moves on it in six months, it is near breaking a speed record.

After a few months of discussions with Coursera, the real action began this April in a meeting in Atlanta at the University System of Georgia office. Representatives from Coursera, edX and Udacity gave presentations, live but via webcast, of course, to administrators from several state universities and systems. On that day, DiPietro; UT Vice President for Academic Affairs and Student Success Katie High; and Boyd, who lives in Knoxville, flew to Nashville to pick up John Morgan, TBR chancellor, and traveled to Atlanta together. During the flight, they discussed the prospects of trying out this new technology. Then they piled into a car and, with DiPietro driving, set off to the meeting downtown. No one will say for sure, but considering the challenges of negotiating Atlanta’s rush hour traffic, it’s easy to picture the executives contemplating driving directions and the future of higher education at the same time. Nevertheless, they made it to the meeting and were convinced of following through, even with a short timetable. Coursera wanted to get the classes up and running this fall. “We cannot remain on the sidelines,” DiPietro declared after the meeting.

In the midst of national news about faculty at other universities revolting from the MOOC effort, UT leaders needed to reach out to faculty and get their take. Members of the Faculty Council, a group of leaders from each UT campus, heard the proposal during a meeting in Nashville. They liked the idea. Then, faculty volunteers to teach the pilot classes were sought. They would have to learn about Coursera, develop the classes and video the 12-minute bites in two months before the start of the fall semester. High, who was in charge of coordinating the program, received eight proposals from instructors in less than a week. High also held town halls with faculty members. On May 30, Coursera announced it had secured deals with 10 public universities and systems, including UT and TBR.

Over the summer, faculty at UT Martin worked to have a music history class available this fall, and UTC instructors developed a freshman English course. UT Knoxville will have a test course in the spring. Feedback and data from the pilot classes will be used to determine if UT wants to put more classes on Coursera. Will students learn better in these courses? We need just a little bit more time to know. The answers will lead us toward the future.


Additional reporting by Bud Grimes at UT Martin and Cindy Carroll at UTC