Will Colleges and Universities Exist in 50 Years?

Will Colleges and Universities Exist in 50 Years? I have posed this question to several groups of undergraduates at different colleges, and their answer is always a resounding Yes.

Naïve, right? These are college students, after all—the ones who made it. How can we expect them to question their birthright, their key to success?

Oh, but listen:

Here’s what some people are saying, I tell them. Colleges and universities are outmoded institutions, unable to meet the pace of change. Like cable companies, they bundle together a bunch of options, some of which you want and some of which you don’t, and you pay a high price for the whole thing. Wouldn’t it be better if you paid only for what you need to get the jobs you want? Wouldn’t it be better to get skills when you need them, rather than having to spend four years sitting through classes? You could get most, maybe all, of this online, through providers who have modularized content into small packages that you can purchase à la carte.

This is all possible today, I assure them. Backed by enormous investments of venture capital and emboldened by the relaxing of federal financial aid guidelines to allow students to use their aid for non-institutional providers, companies are flooding the higher education marketplace, offering a wide range of industry-aligned micro- and nano-credentials. Who’s in?    

No hands.

I sweeten the pot. What if I waved my magic wand and made this whole get-into-the-right-college-and-get-the-best-job rat race go away? What if how and where you got your education didn’t matter to employers? What if the only thing that mattered was what you knew and could do? Now who’s in?

One hand, maybe two, half-raised.

You’re still going to college? Please explain.

We don’t know who these people are. Anyone can put content online. We get content online all day long.

But aren’t you just getting content in your classes, too?

Not in the good ones. In the good ones, you learn how to think. Your professors are experts in the topic, but they also know how to help their students learn.

Can’t this happen online?

It can. We’re not against online learning. But teaching well online might be even harder than teaching well in person, so you still need good profs. We came here to learn, not to be fed content.

Didn’t you come here to get jobs?

Yes. And for much more. We want to grow as thinkers and as people, support our families, give back to our communities, and work on the problems your generation and those before you left for us—global warming, crumbling infrastructure, global terrorism, the rise of authoritarianism. This is a scary and unstable world, and we want to do something about that.


So just getting specific job skills is not enough. We need big-picture understandings of those big problems, and we need expertise that will help solve them. We need to understand the human and the technological aspects of those problems. We need to learn inside and outside the classroom with peers and experts who support and challenge us.

Sounds like you’re talking about integrative experiential learning.

Um, sure. Whatever you want to call it, we will need it throughout our lives, not just for four or six years. The world is changing fast, and so are professions. We’ll need different kinds of education and credentials at different times in our lives. So maybe those companies are onto something, and maybe colleges should partner with them. But we need the guidance and expertise of faculty, and the experience has to all come together.

Is that what you’re getting now, in college?

Yes and no. Sometimes the experience feels disjointed. Professors from different disciplines don’t seem to talk to each other much. Classrooms sometimes seem cut off from the so-called real world. And we have a lot of adjunct professors who aren’t very well supported by the college. We’ve noticed that, by the way. For what we pay…

Speaking of which: the kind of education you’re describing sounds expensive.

We’re all for making it less expensive. We’re sure there are things colleges can do to be more efficient. Maybe some services can be outsourced or handled through partnerships. If colleges really have lazy rivers or whatever, nix those. (Has anyone ever seen one of those? Actually, it would be nice if they’d just fix the elevators and the leaky roof.) Do we really need all those administrators (ouch)? But yes, the education we want probably is expensive.

So what do we do about all the people who can’t afford it?

Some of us can’t afford it! You don’t see the sacrifices we’re making, the risks we’re taking. Nearly half of us don’t have enough to eat. But the answer is not to create second-class education on the cheap for those of us who don’t have rich parents. It’s to make high-quality education more affordable to more of us.

Sounds good, but how are we going to pay for this?

How do we pay for tax cuts for rich people and military build-ups?

Ok, let’s make a deal. We get to work on those big problems, and you give us a lot more help paying for college. How’s that sound?

Sounds like I’d better get cracking on that book.

Chris W. Gallagher is the Vice Chancellor for Global Learning Opportunities and a professor of English at Northeastern University. He is the author of College Made Whole: Integrative Learning for a Divided WorldReclaiming Assessment: A Better Alternative to the Accountability Agenda and the coauthor of Our Better Judgment: Teacher Leadership for Writing Assessment and Teaching Writing That Matters: Tools and Projects That Motivate Adolescent Writers.