What will higher ed look like in 25 years?

Less funding, more demand, new challenges, say two experts

Is the "golden age" of higher education coming to an end? In a Chronicle of Higher Education post, two experts speculate on the state of the industry in 2040.

Morton Schapiro is the president of Northwestern University, and Gary Saul Morson is a professor of arts and humanities at the school. Schapiro and Morson recently released a book, titled "The Fabulous Future? America and the World in 2040," which examines how higher education will look in 2040.

Here are seven key trends that Schapiro and Morson think will be driving the industry in the coming decades.

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Tenure's decline will continue. The number of faculty in the tenure system has been falling for decades, declining from 57% of full- and part-time faculty in 1975 to less than 30% today. Schapiro and Morson say that trend will continue—and speculate that only 10% of faculty will be in the system by 2040.

Public research universities will face funding challenges. Schapiro and Morson say state and federal support for large research universities may rebound somewhat, but is unlikely to fully recover. "The days when public higher education attracted a stable share of state expenditures—once 7%, now 5%—are long gone," they write.

The focus on STEM should decrease. "The STEM fields are today's darlings, with the humanistic social sciences, the arts, and the humanities forgotten or worse," the pair observes. Yet, they say focusing on STEM alone is "shortsighted."

For instance, over the long term, many humanities majors earn salaries similar to their STEM counterparts. Moreover, the humanities teach emotional and intellectual empathy, which will become more important as "increasing globalization and social diversity will put a premium on that crucial skill," say Schapiro and Morson.

The liberal arts will maintain its niche. In recent years, the number of liberal arts colleges has declined, with one recent study finding there are only 130 remaining liberal arts schools. However, the trend may be about to stabilize, Schapiro and Morson say. "The elite of the 130 remaining liberal arts colleges are stronger than ever," they point out.

Technology will not overtake traditional instruction. When it comes to education, Schapiro and Morson say "presence matters." Students have the strongest educational experiences in the context of their favorite classes and academic cohort. "It is hard to believe they will ever cite beloved MOOCs," in the same way, Schapiro and Morson argue.

Demand for higher education will increase—and bring new changes. The rate of higher education enrollments in the United States is already higher than it has ever been. Seventy percent of graduating high school seniors now attend college within 12 months.

Yet, the demand for high-quality and low-cost education will put pressure on colleges to meet student demand in new ways. As a result, colleges and universities will have to think creatively of new models to affordably educate students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Fewer international students will come to the United States. Because international students typically do not receive financial aid, they are an important source of revenue for many colleges and universities. However, Schapiro and Morson warn studying in the United States may become less desirable in the future.

"As other countries open new colleges and universities, and increase the prestige of existing ones, the attractiveness of studying at an American institution without a global reputation will be reduced," they observe (Schapiro/Morson, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/26 [subscription required]).

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