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ask about the future

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James L. Morrison

Question: "What will higher education look like in 2020?"
Response by -
James L. Morrison, Professor Emeritus of Educational Leadership, UNC-Chapel Hill and Editor-in-Chief, Innovate

In order to respond to this question, we need to understand the forces that are driving higher education today: demography, globalization and economic restructuring, and information technology. I will address these forces one at a time and conclude with a brief statement of how colleges and universities may look in 2020.

Demographic forces. The ethnic identification mix of the general population is changing across most regions of the US, albeit at different rates. For example, before the end of this century, demographers generally expect Euro-descended Americans to make up less than half of the American population, the majority to be composed primarily of Hispanic and Afro-American groups. Too, the demand for access to some form of post-secondary education is increasing profoundly among an ever-greater proportion of high school graduates who are enrolling in college.

Globalization and restructuring. Of the world’s 100 largest economies, 51 are corporations. Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest corporation, has more capital than over 180 nations combined. We are also seeing the emergence of regional free trade associations. In response to these forces, businesses are downsizing and restructuring to meet an increasingly competitive global economy. Consequently, workers need frequent retraining if their employers are to stay in business and if they are to keep their jobs. The American Society for Training and Development estimates that 75% of the current workforce will need to be retrained just to keep up. Globalization, in conjunction with the pressure from secondary school graduates for higher education, means that the existing campus structure of colleges and universities cannot cope with the demand for access.

Information technology. When we combine smaller, more powerful, and less expensive (and therefore more accessible) computers with the power of the Internet to quickly connect people around the world via audio, video, and text, we have the means to transform our culture. And that, of course, is what is happening now. 

As a consequence of these forces, the higher education landscape will look quite different in 2020 from what it does today. There will still be many bricks-and-mortar residential campuses, particularly for the young, but their classes will be hybridized (i.e., a combination of online and in-class instruction). Lectures will no longer be the predominant mode of instruction; rather, group and individual project-based learning will be the norm. The focus of education will be to produce graduates who can use a variety of information technology tools and techniques to access, evaluate, analyze, and communicate information and who can work effectively in teams with people from different ethnic groups to address a wide range of real-world issues and choices.

Comments may be made directly to Dr. Morrison at morrison@unc.edu