Higher education is at a crossroads. During the May forum, we heard directly from students planning to attend college express their excitement for a career as well as concerns of affordability. Reduced state funding and an ever-changing employment landscape continuously challenge the industry. Panelists shared examples of technology, online learning, and partnerships that have led to some remarkable successes. Panelists included:

Dr. Becky Johnson (Vice President, Oregon State University-Cascades)
Dr. Shirley Metcalf (President, Central Oregon Community College)
Damon Runberg (Economist, Oregon Employment Department)

We continued the conversation after the forum by asking our panelists, what is next for colleges and universities?

Becky Johnson headshot by Steve Gardner.

Dr. Becky Johnson, Oregon State University-Cascades:

The biggest change happening is the number of students choosing to take courses online. At Oregon State University last year, 43% of students taking face-to-face classes also took at least one online class. As more students get comfortable with online learning in high school, we expect to see even more students choose online learning in the future. Advances in technology and online teaching methods have vastly improved the online experience. There are now virtual labs online, and robust discussion formats for students in the classes. Those improvements will continue, making online learning even more appealing and effective in the future.

Access to online learning doesn’t mean that students will stop coming to a physical university. Going to college involves much more than just taking classes. Whether it’s participating in athletics, clubs, Greek life, or simply hanging out with other college students, I believe that people will continue to value those types of connections in the future. There is also a multitude of student services available on a college campus, such as advisors, tutors, counselors, and health clinics. So maybe in the future, we will have fewer classrooms and more gymnasiums!

Another thing we’re likely to see is a movement toward “personalized” education – a suite of degrees, certificates, badges, or other credentials that meet a specific student’s needs, rather than one-size-fits-all four-year degrees. Even within those credentials, there will be more ability for students to customize their education through “modularization” of current coursework. For example, a 16-week business course might be broken into 4 modules that can be taken separately. A student with some previous experience in business may find they only need 2 of the modules and can test out of the other 2 modules. When such a course is offered asynchronously online, students could also take modules at their own pace, allowing for truly personalized education.

Dr. Shirley Metcalf, Central Oregon Community College:

I feel the future of higher education will include
• Artificial Intelligence
• Increased technology resources
• Online learning
• Non-credit credentialing
• Employment

Community colleges will need to be nimble to identify jobs in the Artificial Intelligence field, as well as corresponding career paths. Higher education will be answering questions like, “How will technologies like 3D printers, self-driving cars, and drones affect the labor market?”

In the case of technology and online learning, innovative resources will be found in the classroom as well as online. Free or low-cost online resources such as Open Education Resources will continue to expand, helping students to save money and reduce total debt. Student services will also need to increase their online presence. Academic advising is an integral part of student success, providing personalized guidance to navigate students’ academic path. Offering an engaging online advising option will increase online student persistence.

Lastly, higher education institutions must address the issue of student debt.

Damon Runberg, Oregon Employment Department:

Our relationship with higher education is changing dramatically. We as Oregonians have never been more educated, yet at the same time, the costs of pursuing a degree are becoming out of reach for many families. Higher education has always been a long-term investment with the average 4-year graduate’s earnings, not exceeding their high school peers until 34 years of age. Even when accounting for the higher costs we are seeing today, the investment in higher education is still very much worth it.
As tuition costs have soared, it has placed a greater emphasis on vocational training, CET, engineering, nursing, and other degrees tied to a specific technical occupation. This makes sense. We want to get a job if we invest in a degree and we want a good paying job. We, as labor economists are likely as guilty as anyone when it comes to directing young people towards skills-based training by sharing occupational wages and employment outcomes. However, I wonder what this means long-term for the traditional liberal arts education. The liberal arts concept was founded around educating the whole person and developing critical thinkers. The idea is not to train in one specific skill, rather it is to expose you to a wide breadth of ideas and engage those ideas critically.
As we look towards the future of higher education, I hope we find ways to maintain many of the traditional liberal arts principles. Now more than ever, employers (and society) need critical thinkers who can problem solve, adapt, synthesize information clearly, and think big picture.

Do you have other ideas? Help us continue the conversation and take action…

  • Share ideas on City Club’s social media: https://www.facebook.com/CityClubCO/
  • Start talking, reach-out and engage others in this dynamic topic.
  • Watch for opportunities to get involved and to provide support.

Thank you to Stephanie Spalding Bilbrey, First-Year Experience Director at Central Oregon Community College and City Club of Central Oregon Marketing Committee Member for helping continue this conversation.