What is the Future of Higher Education?

A bachelor’s degree is more valuable than ever before, and yet college enrollment in the United States is on the decline. As the economy has improved and tuition has increased, more young adults have sought options outside of higher education. The plight of for-profit colleges—which tend to enroll low-income students—has accounted for much of drop in enrollment. State support for higher education has also weakened. Seven in 10 seniors who completed their degrees at public and private nonprofit colleges in 2014 graduated with student debt.

Colleges have resorted to an array of cost-saving measures, relying increasingly on adjunct faculty and student-tuition increases, among other strategies. Although MOOCs—massive open online courses—may be past their heyday, virtual education continues to gain traction. Vocational and career-and-technical education is having a comeback, while liberal-arts programs are under attack.

One of the most remarkable phenomena to reach colleges this year have been the student protests, their participants vying to improve race relations on their campuses. The unrest has prompted schools to rethink their institutional missions and services and commit to properly serving new types of students; several staffers and university leaders have been fired or resigned amid these administrative shifts.

We reached out to some of the leading scholars of, experts on, and advocates for higher education, and asked them what, as the year comes to an end, is giving them cause for hope and despair. Below are their answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Reason for despair: I am in the field of higher education, and I am continually reminded of how challenging it is to transform this world through technology. While we’ve seen technology revolutionizing so much of the world around us, and providing so much access to everything from entertainment to communication, the same cannot be said of quality education. Education is a basic human right, but has remained relatively resistant to technology, and continues to be either of poor quality, or simply out of reach for so very many people around the world.

Reason for hope: The progress we’ve begun to see in technology-enabled learning gives me reason to hope. Online learning has the potential to revolutionize education in both quality and scale, enabling anyone with an Internet connection and a will to learn access to an education. Experiments with MOOCs have demonstrated that quality education can be offered to millions of students worldwide at near-zero marginal cost. Recently, barriers to university credit for MOOCs have also begun to come down, giving me tremendous hope that soon people will be able to get an education and also a meaningful credential to showcase their work.

Education has also been recognized as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the United Nations, so I’m hopeful that nations will now see a reason to invest more heavily in education.