Universities in 2040 will be as important to higher education in America as they are today, if not more so. The demand for bachelor’s degrees continues to grow and will keep growing: the number of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions exceeds 200 million globally and is expected to reach 660 million by 2040¹. To meet this incredible demand, universities will need to focus their future investment and innovations into better serving students whose economic or life circumstances prohibit them from living or commuting to a central campus of their university.
Many of the readers of this essay may have an image of what college should be – pack up the station wagon, move into the dorm, a tearful goodbye from the parents, and then off to enjoy the newfound freedom from living on a beautiful campus as a rite of passage into adulthood. As a result, many universities focus perfecting this Americana experience, by building more and more housing units so that a larger number of students can live on campus. Much of this frenzy is fueled by the private sector real estate market that has raised billions of dollars to service this captive student audience. The financial arms race to create more and more exclusive experiences directly leads to excluding thousands of students from lower and middle-income households from opportunity.
In high cost states such as California, this is especially problematic as the cost of room and board exceeds the cost of tuition. By pushing for more and more students to live on campus, universities are structurally doubling the cost of attendance at their institutions, making going to college a heavy financial burden at best and inaccessible at worst. At the University of California, tuition is $12,570 while the average room and board fee is $15,800². Once you add in the cost of books, transportation and other personal costs, it brings the total cost of attendance to over $30,000 on an annual basis. It’s not just a California issue, according to a survey released in 2018 by the college affordability-focused Wisconsin HOPE Lab, more than a third of students nationwide are struggling with fulfilling their basic needs such as food and housing.³
Universities believe that building on-campus units is better for students because student housing units are less expensive than living off-campus, and for the most part those beliefs are accurate. However, what most universities fail to acknowledge is that university curricula, teaching methods, and support services are all geared towards the traditional on-campus learning and living experience, and thus make it so that students must live relatively close to campus to have a quality experience. This entrenched paradigm amongst universities is creating the fundamental structural issue that limits accessibility and affordability for the fastest-growing student populations, many of whom are place-bound.
This paradigm exists because most University academia and leadership equate the idea of a quality education with one that must happen on a residential campus setting. Most do not believe that the key components of a University education can be modularized and delivered in a different form without sacrificing quality. For example, it is almost a universally-held belief that an online course is inferior to an in-person one, despite the fact that today’s best practices incorporate both. Thus, most universities today continue to scale the same way they always have – constructing more buildings and housing units on-campus, rather than spending resources on innovative programs that meet the needs of the off-campus student population. There will always be students that want to live on campus and have the residential experience however, that shouldn’t be the only pathway to a quality education.
Luckily, there are universities that are currently taking on the challenge of breaking the traditional paradigm and innovating on ways to deliver even better experiences than the current standard of the on-campus residential experience. The hard work of determining which alternatives can be successful in improving student outcomes is already being done by these early trailblazers.
These trailblazers have already built the technology infrastructure needed to create this new future. The ability to access educational resources from anywhere in the world is already available to students. There are already over 3 million students in the US pursuing their higher education fully online, or 15% of all higher education enrollment4. Programs that would have been deemed impossible just a few years ago are now available for students.
For example, Arizona State University (ASU), which has over 30,000 students pursuing online degrees in over 180 programs, recently developed an online biochemistry Bachelors of Science. In conventional academic thought, a science degree including courses that require physical lab experiments could only be offered on campus in tandem with lectures. However, in order to make the degree more accessible, ASU decoupled labs and lectures from the same timeline, allowing students to complete all the physical, in-person labs in an intensive, full-time week as opposed to a few hours per week spread over a semester. In fact, in this particular case ASU found that the intensive week of lab experiments actually led to better student outcomes than the traditional delivery of the course. Opportunities to reinvent curriculum delivery will explode alongside advances in augmented and virtual reality technologies. Relatively simple changes like these can make degrees far more accessible and affordable without sacrificing quality.
Innovations enabling access and affordability will not be limited to purely online or virtual experiences.
“In fact, programs that build vibrant student communities leveraging local facilities where students can gather will become even more pervasive, especially as they embed learn-work opportunities into their programs”
Institutions like the Minerva Schools at KGI, allow students a full 4 years of studying around the world in a cohort model, not anchored to any one campus, but rather seven living-learning experiences all over the world. Minerva School’s model is enabled by an active learning forum platform that allows fully synchronous interactions between students 75 76 and faculty in intense small group seminars. Large universities like Northeastern, Arizona State, and Southern New Hampshire are also embracing expanding their reach through satellite locations to create hybrid programs and experiences for students.
In the next 20 years, universities will break free of the harmful addiction to the Americana view of the university experience and will create the capa – bilities necessary to offer new stu – dent experiences that blend the best of technology and in-person experi – ences. These enhanced capabilities will create unprecedented access for all learners, empowering students, regardless of their economic or life circumstance to access world-class educational institutions and improve both their lives and the communities where they live.
¹ A. Calderon, (2015), What will higher education be like in 2040?
² University of California Admissions, (2019)
³ V. Romo, (2018),Hunger And Home – lessness Are Widespread Among College Students, Study Finds 4 S. Gallagher, (2018), The Beginning of a New Era in the Online Degree Market
As a Latina first generation college graduate, Maria Anguiano has dedicated her career to improving access to education for all learners. Currently she serves as Arizona State University’s Senior Vice President for Strategy. She previously worked at the University California for 7 years in a variety of capacities, including as Vice Chancellor of Planning & Budget and CFO at UC Riverside. Ms. Anguiano has also served as a senior advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s, CFO of ed-tech start-up Minerva Project and finance roles at Barclays Capital and Deloitte. She currently serves on the board of University of California Board of Regents, the Campaign for College Opportunity, Foundry College, and the James Irvine Foundation. Ms. Anguiano holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a BA from Claremont McKenna College.