A Sideways Look at the Future of Higher Education

Opinion | Higher Education

A Sideways Look at the Future of Higher Education

By Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt     Jun 17, 2021

A Sideways Look at the Future of Higher Education

Digital tech has changed other knowledge industries much faster than higher ed, but seismic shifts are still coming to colleges. So a sideways look at consumer behaviors when it comes to music, movies and newspapers provides insight into where higher education is going and what leaders can do to prepare for the future.

Once upon a time, the music industry meant gramophones, Victrolas and record players, and large companies called labels controlled what got recorded, the talent that recorded it and the sale of the recordings. The advent of the cassette tape began a steady decline in the power of labels by giving consumers the ability to record the music they wanted rather than having to buy the whole album the label sold. But it was the digital revolution and the introduction of the MP3 audio file format and music file sharing services started by Napster that turned the industry on its head. Today, consumers—owing to online streaming services like Apple, Spotify and Amazon—can stream all the tunes they can handle for the price of a small subscription.

The motion picture industry was similarly dominated by a small number of studios that controlled talent, production and distribution. The studios faced competition and antitrust regulation that broke their grip on both production and distribution. The development and widespread adoption of new technologies—VHS tapes and DVD discs- empowered consumers. But the digital era has brought the rise of Netflix and other streaming services—so many that these days it's hard to keep track of them all. Several have even extended their activities to include film production. The bottom line is that consumers gained control of where, when, and what media they consumed.

The nation’s newspapers started earlier than these other industries and were different in two major ways. They grew locally and the majority of revenue came from advertising rather than from customers. As radio and television came onto the scene, newspapers sought to adapt and control the marketplace by purchasing radio and television stations. By 1953, newspapers owned 40 percent of TV stations in the U.S. and 64 percent of the radio stations in operation. The Federal Communications Commission in 1975 established regulations limiting media cross-ownership. Then came the Internet, along with alternative news sources, social media, podcasts, blogs and the rest. Newspaper circulation dropped by nearly half between 2005 and 2018, from 53.3 million to 28.5 million, and advertising revenue decreased by more than 70 percent over the same period, from $49.4 billion to $14.3 billion. Consumers could place classified ads for free on sites such as Craigslist and advertisers could more efficiently reach their target audiences with digital advertising through Facebook or Google. Again, digital disruption had upended an industry.

Higher education, of course, is decidedly different from those consumer sectors. Many colleges are nonprofits. A considerable number are public. And students only enroll for discrete periods of their lives, though the benefits last a lifetime.

Our colleges have certainly had to adapt to changes caused by digital technology, but they have as yet been spared the level of dramatic disruption seen in other sectors.

That said, the notion that higher education will be immune to these consumer driven forces of the digital age would be akin to the music industry believing that listeners would reject easily-accessible MP3 files because they lacked the high-fidelity quality of vinyl records. A small percentage of audiophiles still opt for those recordings, but the majority of listeners have clearly opted for access, choice and control.

As a second wave of digital advances develops including greater use of big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality along with increasing access to broadband technologies, higher education should expect that alternative methods will emerge to challenge the current model. Early signs of that include the recent growth of alternative credentials, the need for continuous learning and upskilling to stay current and the growing concern about the cost and value of higher education.

Looking sideways can help higher education avoid some of the mistakes other industries have made as they faced digital disruptions. To do that, higher education leaders will need to:

  • Recognize that higher education is in the education business, not the campus, degree or credit business.
  • Know that tomorrow will not be a repeat of yesterday.
  • Think long term rather than principally short term.
  • Shift emphasis from the current industrial era model of higher education focused on organizations and production to the digital age concerned with consumers and consumption.
  • Understand that the early failure of innovation and reform initiatives does not equate to a wholesale validation of traditional models.
  • Carefully monitor and learn from emerging competitors, changing consumer tastes and new technologies.
  • Study and learn from the history of higher education, the social forces acting on colleges and the knowledge organizations outside of higher education.

Looking sideways at other knowledge industries cannot tell us what higher education will look like, the precise nature of change it will experience or provide an exact timeline for change, but it does help. Because the odds are that the digital revolution will put more power in the hands of the learner and lead to anytime, anyplace, student-driven options and could shift our current model to something more like an unbundled, “all-you-can-eat” (possibly subscription-based) personalized education.

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