Press Kit Contact Buy Clark Aldrich Designs Bio Books and Articles Blog, Facebook, and Twitter

Monday, April 9, 2012

Four Potential Futures of the College System

Unschooling Rules 49: College: the hardest no-win decision your family may ever make.

What is the future of colleges? What are different models for tertiary education, and how might they come about?

A think tank asked me to be on a panel discussing the future of colleges. To organize my thoughts, I used the framework from The Art of the Long View (which I had used at both Xerox and Gartner). In this methodology, the 'futurist' first considers two pairs of extreme conditions, which together create a 2 X 2 matrix, and then populates the four possibilities.

For my first axis, I choose the supply side. At one extreme - let's call it "Single Philosophy / The One Golden Path" - colleges and universities continue to control the bottle neck for intellectual and ambitious workers to achieve a productive lifestyle. At the other extreme - in "Multiple Philosophies" - single credentialism fades away as society shirks at the cost and perceived disconnect of the degree at traditionally accredited institutions. 

For the second axis, I looked at extremes around the demand side. On one side, large enterprises are the model employer, be it corporations or government. On the other, small start-ups become the more typical or influential first jobs.

From these two pairs come four different scenarios.

I. The Indentured Graduate / Faith in Institutions
This first scenario is an extension of today. The tuition and other costs of colleges and universities continue to outpace inflation and house-hold earning power (along a similar curve to health care).

But the culture continues to believe that college and masters degrees are the key to 'white-collar' jobs. Four-year programs continue as the norm. New government loans allow for longer and longer borrowing periods for larger and larger education bills. The facilities of the top colleges rival top hotels and cruise ships as the student-life arms race continues. School-begging - the habit of society of pleading with schools to do things they won't and can't do- also continues (see New York Time Column: Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade for a current example of school-begging). Few of the thoughts of Unschooling Rules come true or are needed, and the Gates Foundation's view of the world is validated. "Learning to know" remains the academic goal.

Harvard wants to keep the world here.

II. Portfolios Rule
In the second scenario, large enterprises continue to be employers of choice. But universities are increasingly criticized and sidestepped as the single, sufficient path to get there. Enrollment levels go down significantly and college drop-out rates go up. Society stops begging colleges to improve and settles in for a cost-effective approach (see Rock the Ivory Tower).

In this scenario, HR departments have to take a more proactive role in evaluating potential new hires, and are restaffed appropriately. They have to think more about entry-level talent, not just filter.

Also in this scenario, virtual universities grow, covering curricula and content cost-efficiently through a check-box/ online-workbook approach. Virtual universities are successful not because they are better but because they are cheaper.

The college experience and associated costs are minimized (a Walmart approach to higher ed). It may even take seven or eight part-time years to get a four year degree for many. For some, a college degree goes on the bucket list. Students, without compunction, take time off formal learning to pursue interesting jobs and opportunities. People who aspire to white collar jobs worry about their portfolios more than any transcripts.

III. The Nimble University
In this model, most young people want jobs in small start-ups and fast growing businesses. This may be to make a lot of money, and it also may be to escape the trappings of creaky and toxic large institutions. They still want a structured learning program with credentials, processes, and critical content, but they also want to hold it to a higher standard both in terms of cost-effectiveness and quality of experience.

In this model (as with II), new virtual universities grow, but in this case following the model of today's virtual masters programs (such as Full Sail). They focus on developing "learning to do" skills around current tools, helping individuals learn about themselves, and creating productive virtual communities. Virtual universities integrate into a student's professional life. Traditional colleges and universities evolve to support a less lock-step but more intense student experience, modeling themselves after programs such as The Acton MBA. Advanced media such as simulations replace textbooks completely. It may take many students just two or three years to get a four year degree.

This is the best scenario to create vibrant and innovative universities that are prepared to evolve into the future.

IV: The New Existentialism
In the fourth scenario, large institutions lose their credibility from both the education supply and education demand side. Universities and large enterprises are each seen as out-of-date dinosaurs, bordering on immoral (see video War on Kids). Colleges never learn to adapt. Large corporations are mired in legal and bureaucratic limbo, are top-heavy from a staffing perspective, and become branding, integration, outsourcing, and holding companies (see chart of the rise and fall of traditional clothing companies). Creation of value only happens at small, boutique organizations or using the Hollywood model of fluid teams. (For example, Disney's prize assets of ESPN and Pixar were bought, not developed.)

Here, bottom-up social media and other web and open-source tools become increasingly powerful, eventually BTC (better than college), for providing skills, experiences, infrastructure, portfolios, and contacts. (See The Shift in Education from Vertical to Horizontal Specialization.) College/university enrollment becomes a niche, falling faster than newspaper subscriptions. (See blog entry: The New Existentialism)

In any such scenario planning, there is never one answer. But it does unleash the mind to think beyond the confines we have today. Because over time, there is nothing that reality punishes more severely than industries with a lack of imagination.


  1. I have never thought of post-secondary education in this sense before but I will divulge that the longer I stay in school the less innovative my ideas seem to be. It seems the the best ideas are those that come outside the classroom by incorporating a hands on approach much like those that you have previously mentioned. Best of luck on the panel.

  2. I believe what you are saying is true of any industry, and any intellectual camp. If new ideas are wanted, they need to be pulled in from the tangents. My own strategy has been to balance academic, corporate, and military, so as not to get too comfortable with any one set of assumptions.