“The idea that one can earn a degree at the age of 22 and be set for a career has become as antiquated as the pocket watch.”
—Jeffrey R. Brown, dean at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois, from his position paper: “It’s Time to Transform Higher Education”
- How do we prepare students and workers to do jobs that don’t even exist yet?
- For challenges we can’t even imagine yet?
- To compete in industries and with business models that haven’t even been invented yet?
Higher education is facing one of its biggest periods of unknowns in recent memory. There’s not a single person or aspect of education that hasn’t been utterly shaken by the pandemic.
But that’s not the only source of uncertainty. Technology changes so fast, the skills we master in school are constantly changing and becoming outdated in a matter of years. Some of the most exciting career opportunities might be for roles that don’t even exist yet in industries we can’t even imagine.
We must acknowledge the pace at which technology evolves, and the extent to which the traditional model limits access to education. Experts across higher education suggest that education should look less structured and make room for more variety: calling for new paths, multiple streams, a wider array of credentials — so people can reskill as needed and put those skills to work immediately.
One of those experts is Jeffrey R. Brown, dean at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois, author of this report: “It’s Time to Transform Higher Education.”
He argues that to fully embrace their mission, higher education institutions and educators must think differently about the suite of educational “products” they offer. In his report, he calls for “new forms of content delivery, new ways to assess learning, and new ways to certify that a learner has mastered various concepts and skills.”
I had a conversation with him to explore those ideas further. He started with a reminder of the original purpose of higher education.
“If we go back to the classical, liberal education, the idea is to make us more rational, more thoughtful, more informed citizens,” he said. “And that has benefits not only to the individual receiving the education, but also to society at large – to teach us that there’s a bigger world out there, to think about the world’s problems.”
Higher education used to be a luxury for a small segment of society, but it has become more of a necessity for people to be able to thrive, take care of their families and solve the grand problems of the world. He said there’s still a role for traditional education, but what we also need today is lifelong, skills-based training that is available to people at any point in their lives.
“That’s the transformation that needs to take place,” said Brown. “We’re working with a very old model, and that old model is not as well-suited to the needs of today’s citizens.”
He outlined three main ways higher education needs to evolve.
Transformation in higher education: 3 ways to make it more accessible, lifelong and skills-based
1. The future of higher education is democratized. He wants to democratize education by taking advantage of technology.
“We need to use technology to expand our educational offerings to be less expensive, to work around people’s work and family lives, and to reach people who are not fortunate enough to live in an area where they have access to top scholars and top universities. ”
2. The future of higher education is individualized. Once you’re operating at scale and with technology, you can individualize education. He recommends expanding our idea of what types of credentials are valued – getting beyond the four-year degree to include sub-degrees or less-intensive credentials, certificates, or digital badges. Some people don’t necessarily need to spend two years getting an MBA, but they could benefit from learning cutting-edge materials in business, finance or analytics. There should be recognized credentials for doing so.
“It might be enough for me to take three courses in these areas that I really need right now to reach that next level of excellence in my current job. I can individualize my educational needs to where I am in my life, where I am in my career.”
3. The future of higher education is accessible. He talked about breaking down the many barriers that exist for people to get the education they want. Those barriers might be that it’s too expensive, they’ve got a family and a full-time job, or there are no good schools within a 50-mile radius of their home. Leaders can demolish those barriers with some intentional design.
“We’ve tried to design our program not only in terms of your ability to choose content, but also with some scheduling flexibility to accommodate when you’re able to jump in and out – to truly make it more accessible.”
For more insights on the future of higher education, listen to our conversation below.
Future Generations and Higher Education: Students need to Lead the Way
I have a seven-year-old daughter, so I asked Brown: What’s the higher education experience going to look like for her?
“Children need to learn how to learn in multiple environments,” he said. “I know the pandemic was a painful time for lots of school-aged children. But they’re going to need to learn to navigate in a world where they have face-to-face interaction, online interaction and, increasingly, virtual interactions – using augmented or virtual reality. Gaining exposure to a wide range of learning modalities, in addition to a wide range of fields and materials, is going to be really important.”
Leaders in higher education, take note: change is coming whether you’re ready or not. As Brown put it: “You’ve basically got three choices. You can lead. You can be a very fast follower. Or you can become irrelevant.”
Higher education has been through the ringer over the past few years. Make sure you don’t simply rebuild what you’ve been doing since the 1600s and miss your opportunity to evolve.
“What makes a great leader today is the ability to tolerate and even welcome a future that’s unknown,” said Wendy York, dean of Clemson’s Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business.
Are you ready to adapt? If you can’t change your institution, how can you claim the ability to shape the next generation of leaders that society needs?
To learn more about how leaders are preparing for the future of higher education, register free for the virtual version of the 2022 Leadership in the Age of Personalization Summit hosted by Clemson University’s Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business on October 14.