As the United States moves from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital knowledge economy, American higher education will undergo its second great transformation.
During the first, the agrarian, classical college with roots in the Middle Ages, gave way to new forms of higher education demanded by an industrial nation. The nation established research universities, institutions of applied science and technology, graduate and professional schools, community colleges and institutions serving women and Black Americans.
In the second great transformation, driven by profound demographic shifts, the advent of a knowledge economy, the digital technology revolution and globalization, we will witness the dramatic growth of nontraditional higher education providers, ranging from media, technology and commercial firms to libraries, museums, and other social institutions.
In the next 20 years, higher education will be available online anywhere, anytime, cost less, be easier to access, unbundled, and more connected to the workplace. The lines between colleges and industry will blur. Course content may come form MIT, the local community college, an international university, Google, or a digital platform. Students will receive instruction and certification online from organizations as varied as Google, Procter and Gamble, alibaba, Calvin Klein, L’Oreal, PBS, and the Museum of Natural History.
While pushing the boundaries of choice among providers can be a boon to students and some low-cost, high quality providers will enter the scene, the transformation poses the real danger that there will be two distinct models of colleges.
One model—with face-to-face instruction, residential learning, and all the trappings of traditional higher education, including degrees—will be available for more affluent, largely white and Asian students.
The other—for lower-income and mostly Black and Latino underrepresented students and adult learners—will be delivered online by nontraditional providers, including brand-name companies and cultural agencies. It will lead to more practical, cheaper, shorter and award certificates and microcredentials rather than degrees.
During the pandemic, enrollments in traditional higher education declined while student numbers in the nontraditional sector boomed. Coursera, a publicly traded online platform that offers courses from renowned universities, major corporations, and museums and other cultural agencies, saw its enrollment rise by 25 million students, more than the entire population of traditional higher education. Other online universities such as University of the People, a free online program (up 74 percent) and Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors Universities also experienced dramatic growth.
As a nation, we must continue to strive for greater equity in higher education and to give students choice among different systems.
A major step will be to formally redefine the term educational equity for a new era. The current definition is a product of the Industrial era and focuses on providing all students with access to the same educational process for the same length of time. The goal is to assure each student receives equal resources and experiences.
In the global, digital, knowledge economy, the emphasis shifts to outcomes. In this world, equity takes on a new meaning—assuring equal access to the same learning outcomes, providing students with the differential resources they require to achieve the same result. This is an approach the courts are commonly taking to adjudicate school fiscal equity lawsuits in the states.
The history of American higher education has been the story of an evolving system incorporating a growing number and diversity of students. This has often been carried out reluctantly with glacial speed, in curriculum, staffing, campus culture, physical plant, finances and admissions and retention practices. The nation also has not paid enough attention to adult workers who comprise a significant portion of students who will need more education in the knowledge economy.
If college access is to be a reality for the most disadvantaged Americans, the most underrepresented populations in higher education, the digital divide must be closed. The federal government has to take the lead in partnership with the states. In the industrial era, government-built highways. In the 21st century, government needs to make a comparable investment in digital highways.
Colleges must reconfigure their activities to compete for nontraditional students with nontraditional providers by ensuring the same degree of affordability, service, instructional quality and convenience.
To further ensure access, states and communities can expand Promise Programs, last-dollar scholarship programs that provide private funds to expand access to college with scholarships and comprehensive support. States and the federal government also should consider expanding free education from grade 12 that was set in the industrial era to grade 14 that is needed today.
But as we increase access and reduce the cost to students, we need to go further to ensure choice to attend any type of college. This requires establishment of a new type of financial aid program based not only on student need but also the type of higher education students choose. We must avoid establishing a bifurcated system offering the best we have to students of means and, for others, an efficient but unequal pathway to cheaper, more practical occupational certificates and microcredentials rather than degrees.
Dr. Arthur Levine is Distinguished Scholar of Higher Education at New York University and president emeritus of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and Teachers College, Columbia University. Most recently, he is the author with Scott Van Pelt of the forthcoming book, The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future (Johns Hopkins University Press, September 2021).