By 2040, the ivory tower will be rubble. No longer a secluded, exclusive outpost disconnected from the world around it, the research university will have become a bustling town square, a gathering place for teachers and learners, scientists and innovators, talent holders and seekers, accessible to people of all backgrounds through multiple physical and virtual gateways, and hyper-connected with other such spaces in key knowledge hubs around the world.
The idea of a standard point of entry—today’s narrow undergraduate admissions process—and an all or-nothing exit—either the coveted four-year degree or the dishonorable dropout—will be history. Yet the baccalaureate degree will not have disappeared. Its demise turned out to have been greatly exaggerated back in the 2010s. Criticized then as a costly, inefficient, classist signal to employers, the old BA and BS proved surprisingly resilient—even if they had morphed into a variety of forms.
A more traditional variety of baccalaureate program, with some resemblance to today’s residential, credit-based variety, will still endure and play an important role as rite of passage for about one-third to half of young people. But even this variety will have evolved significantly. It will be far more experiential and global than today’s. It will be built around transformative, collaborative, creative, active learning experiences—many of them outside students’ campuses and comfort zones—and supported by sophisticated, personalized, AI-driven learning and advisory tools. It will offer better connectivity with employers while still emphasizing the core critical thinking, analytical and communications standards of the old liberal education model.
More graduates, fewer institutions
There will be multiple pathways to pursue a baccalaureate degree. Flexible options for adult learners with family and work obligations, corporate-sponsored tracks in partnership with employers, and collaborative pathways for the globally mobile will be the norm. Students will be able to hop on and off while building portfolios of creative activities and collections of digitally available credentials on their way to a degree.
The baccalaureate degree will not have vanished, and, through the new, flexible pathways to achieve it, it will have expanded access to record levels—more than 75% of the adult population will have an undergraduate diploma nicely framed. What will have declined is the number of institutions providing the degrees. We will have learned that a hyper-fragmented collection of 4,140 institutions to serve an overall population of 327 152 million was too inefficient. To put it in perspective, the U.S. today has one institution for each 79,000 inhabitants, while Spain, with 76 universities, has one for every 612,000 people. If the U.S. had the level of concentration of Spain, it would have just 534 institutions (87% fewer than it does today).
Put differently, the average institution today serves about 5,000 students, for a total enrollment of 21 million. If, as I predict, enrollments were to grow to 30 million by 2040, students could be more efficiently served by the equivalent of 1,000 George Masons, 500 Ohio States or NYUs, or 300 Miami Dades. With a few exceptions of niche players backed by determined and deep-pocketed patrons, my prognosis for small schools that don’t find a path to grow or consolidate is not great.
The smart gets smarter
Some institutional diversity will remain. Pure for-profits will likely be a thing of the past, but publics and private non-profits will have blurrier lines among themselves and with the business sector, which will have found plenty of opportunity to partner and supply a host of services. Research will also be a dimension of major variance, both in terms of intensity—some schools, perhaps those originating in today’s community colleges, will remain mostly focused on education—as well as domain expertise, as schools develop symbiotic relationships with the economic fabric of the regions they support.
Which brings me to the question of location. Today’s knowledge hubs – Silicon Valley, Cambridge-Boston, New York, Atlanta, Austin, the greater Washington, D.C. area, to name a few – will become even bigger. This outcome was not necessarily the plan. Technology was supposed to make physical location irrelevant. We thought you could live anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world, and be connected.
We were wrong, mostly. Technology has made knowledge and talent a competitive resource. Talent attracts talent, talent breeds talent, and talent chases talent. Amazon building a new headquarters in our Northern Virginia neighborhood is one of the latest examples of going where the talent is. In the next couple of decades, Amazon will also help attract hundreds of thousands of well-educated folks who will trigger a new wave of technological innovation in our region.
Open for business
So, the regions that boast this talent will have even more of it by 2040, and the regions that don’t could experience a drop in population, economic activity and prosperity. Knowledge flows. These hubs, connected physically by major airports and defined by cultures that are increasingly open, inclusive and collaborative, will continue to attract talent from around the world and they will continue to export ideas and knowledge and products on a global scale.
“The major research university will be the hub of the hubs. Knowledge will permeate its walls, not be hoarded in an ivory tower long overdue for a repurposing”
Universities will have found new forms of collaboration with the businesses around them. Not just as service contractors or suppliers of smart talent, but as full-fledged partners in workforce training and education, research, and innovation. Companies will run innovation labs not across the street from State U but inside it, nestled within a new host of co-working spaces and incubators rivaling anything available downtown today.
One thing that will not have changed is the idea of higher education as a pillar of our democracy. The reason the baccalaureate degree will have survived is that the employment premium it affords proved to deliver a crucial economic and social incentive for educational achievement which happens to be necessary for a prosperous, free, and just society.
Ángel Cabrera serves as president of The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), a leading US research university committed to improving the human condition through advanced science and technology. Georgia Tech is a top ranked public college providing technologically focused education to more than 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students in fields ranging from engineering, computing, and sciences, to business, design, and liberal arts. With its main campus in Atlanta, Georgia, the Institute has international campuses located in Metz, France and Shenzhen, China.
Cabrera previously served as president of George Mason University (GMU), a top-tier research institution and the largest public university in Virginia. Before becoming Mason’s sixth president in 2012, Cabrera served as dean of IE Business School in Madrid and as president of Thunderbird School of Global Management (now part of Arizona State University). Cabrera is the first native of Spain to have served as president of an American university.