3 Things to Watch for in 2020 and Beyond


Welcome to 2020.

It’s a year that has long been used as a marker of “the future.” It has fueled reports on what’s in store for higher ed (and every other sector of the economy) as well as dozens of campus strategic plans.

And now that it’s finally here, we start looking forward to what’s next: 2030 anyone?

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3 Things to Watch for in 2020 and Beyond

Here are three things I’ll be watching closely as we enter the third decade of the new millennium.

1. Amazon in the age of continuous learning

It’s been called everything from “universal learning” to the “60-year curriculum” to “lifelong learning.”

The idea that learning is always on is nothing new. The first distance-education courses in the U.S. in the late 1800s introduced the idea that education wasn’t always about young people learning in a classroom. Those correspondence courses completed by snail mail gave way in 20th century to distance education via the airwaves at first and later the Internet.

What’s different now: The skills needed to keep up in any job are churning at an ever faster rate, making it increasingly difficult for legacy degree programs at traditional universities to keep up. Master’s degrees and certificates used to be seen as the credentials to stay current in a career but they offer too much, take too long, and cost too much in an era when people need skill development constantly and in much shorter spurts.

What’s happening: YouTube, LinkedIn Learning, and General Assembly among others recognized the demand for shorter, on-demand learning last decade. Now traditional higher ed is playing catch-up. Arizona State and Georgia Tech — two campuses where I have part-time advising roles — are in the early stages of plans to build an infrastructure for continuous learning.

But, the big development to watch: Amazon

  • The company that seems to do everything announced last summer that it plans to spend more than $700 million to train 100,000 employees for higher-skilled jobs over the next six years. But look through any of the news stories about the announcement and what you won’t find is a mention of any college or university that will deliver that training.
  • Rather, Amazon built its own education and career development program for the company’s employees.
  • Just like when Amazon built cloud computing to solve its own business needs first, my bet is that Amazon has similar plans in education. Build the platform internally, perfect it, and then scale (and license it) to everyone else. That was the playbook for Amazon Web Services (AWS).

To compete, colleges and universities need to shift their thinking from serving students to the needs of learners.

2. The lasting impact of Varsity Blues

When the Varsity Blues scandal broke last March garnering tons of mainstream press coverage, those who work in college admissions frequently pointed out how little the universities caught up in the scandal actually represent “American higher ed.”

Even so, ten months later, the scandal continues to grab public attention. It is the subject of a serial podcast and at least three books coming out this year and next. If you’ve ignored most of the coverage since March, here’s a great graphic from the Wall Street Journal on where the various criminal cases stand.

But the wider — and perhaps longer lasting — impact of Varsity Blues will be the conversation it has sparked about a broken admissions process.

Last September, I moderated a panel about Varsity Blues at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference with nearly a dozen admissions leaders.

A key takeaway from that discussion was that admissions needs to be more transparent.

Count me as skeptical of more openness with a process that largely serves institutional goals, not the needs of students and families. While we might never see inside the black box of admissions, other changes to the system are probable in the decade ahead. Here’s why:

  • The test-optional movement faces its own big test, and soon. The University of California system is expected to decide this winter whether to drop the SAT and ACT tests in admissions decisions. If it does, other selective colleges will follow given the size and influence of UC’s applicant pool.
  • The Supreme Court will take another higher ed affirmative action case this decade. And the fate of race-conscious admissions is unclear with the current makeup of the Supreme Court. Any future court decision that strikes down affirmative action would also put limits on so-called holistic admissions, which right now give admissions officers wide discretion to admit the class they want. The bottom line: colleges will need to find new metrics in order to judge applicants.
  • Too many applications, not enough time. For the most selective colleges, application numbers continue to grow, yet they haven’t figured out a way to add more time to reading season between January and March. As a result, colleges will be forced to rethink the application to focus on what really matters to them — and what really needs to be reviewed.

“The concern I have is not fraud, but the overall fidelity of the correspondence they send us. Grades are inflated, activities are embellished, recommendations lack negative comments, and the standard now is test prep and multiple editors for essays.”

John Latting, dean of admissions at Emory University

3. Outsourcing, but also insourcing

The last decade in higher ed was defined in large part by something that happened the previous decade: the Great Recession. Budget pressures forced colleges to look for quick fixes on both revenues and expenses.

To do so, they turned to outsiders and outsourced anything that wasn’t part of their core mission and even things many on campus thought was central to their work — like building academic programs and recruiting students. That’s why we saw the rapid growth of a new group of companies that helped colleges build and market online programs (Online Program Managers, or OPMs) as well as draw full-paying international students (Pathways programs).

On the expense side of the ledger, many colleges now use public-private partnerships, or P3s, to build new residence halls without incurring debt or raise money quickly by selling off assets like parking lots.

The next potential target for outsourcing: student wellness

  • More than 60% of college students said they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year according to the American College Health Association.
  • A healthy campus is about wellness, as mindfulness and meditation can promote students’ mental and emotional resilience.
  • Colleges can’t hire mental health counselors fast enough, and many campus leaders admit throwing more of their own people at the problem isn’t the solution.

To some in higher ed, universities give up significant autonomy in outsourcing and some public-private partnerships haven’t turned out as expected. The decade ahead is likely to be more of a mixed bag between outsourcing and “insourcing.”

Take dining services, as one example. Last year, Ithaca College, my undergraduate alma mater and where I sit on the Board of Trustees, moved its food services back in-house after nearly 20 years with Sodexo. Will others follow? Maybe, especially given rising concerns over food insecurity among students.

Campuses want more flexibility in the meal plans they offer and the ultimate cost. Also, campus dining is a big source of student employment and institutions want to make campus jobs more meaningful and relevant to life after college.

What will you be watching in higher ed in this year and decade ahead? Hit reply or drop me a note and I’ll feature some responses in a forthcoming edition.

What’s NEXT

It’s not only a new year, but this is a new look and name for my newsletter.

First, on the name: NEXT. Nearly a decade ago after I left the editorship of The Chronicle of Higher Education, I started a blog called NEXT. It was an effort to explain what I was seeing as I traveled to report my book on the future of higher education, College (Un)Bound. Now, I’m reviving the name and idea here to talk about what’s NEXT — not only for higher ed, but also the future of work and the topic of my next book on college admissions.

Second, the new look is the result of joining with the family of Open Campus newsletters. Open Campus is a nonprofit news organization, started by my former colleagues Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood. It’s built around a simple, yet powerful, premise: That more thoughtful coverage of higher education can help decrease public cynicism.

Drawing on philanthropic resources, they hope to put more reporters on the higher-ed beat across the country. And they want to support smart, sophisticated coverage like NEXT.

I’ll be hitting your email box more frequently in the year ahead and I’ll be adding more regular features to NEXT in the coming months, including excerpts from the new book.

Thanks for reading, and as always, let me know what you think and have your friends sign up.

Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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