Higher Ed in 2050: Why the Future Is Not as Bleak as Many Believe

03/20/2015 04:28 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

Co-authored by Dr. Jeff Borden, associate vice president of teaching and learning innovation at Saint Leo University, in Saint Leo, FL.

On a listserv for college and university presidents last month, someone asked who among us was forecasting 30 years out. Few if any of us were, but the question set us to thinking: Where are we headed long-term? What might the nation and world be like in 2050? What might higher education look like in 2050? Year over year trend watches are common for institutions that actively react to changes in the industry and also direct the path it takes. As helpful as these annual predictions are for college leaders, they are less reliable when further extrapolated over decades. Since Magic 8-Balls haven't proven much better, we need to settle for an overarching look at the global climate for possible answers.

As our planet speeds toward 10 billion people (likely 9.5 or so by 2050), it's not hard to believe all life will look very different. Struggles for energy, water, food, and other resources will create a myriad of challenges never before seen. It's worth asking: "Will colleges and universities be relevant in 2050?" We believe more than ever.

At its heart, education is a place to learn how to fix problems and live well. We will see some grand challenges indeed in 35 years. But luckily, we will also have some tremendous breakthrough tools and assets with which to combat them.

Colleges and universities will be at the forefront of the experimental research and practical applications for new ways to produce nearly everything. We will likely need to rethink food. With most of the world moving to the middle class, transportation will be hugely important. But with fossil fuels harder to come by and contributing to climate change, many new fuels will be needed. That's quite an opportunity for students and faculty research.

We suspect that we will see new food-based programs and recycling degrees. We will also see one in five adults on our planet over age 65. Medicine and health degrees will be even more valuable than today, especially when you include the administration of new systems that truly personalize medicine and connect patients to care anywhere, anytime. So, from programmers and data analysts to doctors and nurses, medicine will be huge. Degrees and certifications will still be required.

Most campuses will likely be commuter campuses as institutions continue to utilize face-to-face learning as well as technological learning environments. While technologically driven education will grow, some students will still need college to help develop and mature socially. So, while we are likely to see schools in places unseen today, like the Harvard office suite atop a London office building or a Saint Leo food science degree on a farm in Iowa, there will still be some residential campuses.

Will those campuses have football? It seems hard to believe as Super Bowls continue to break viewership records and popularity for the sport remains high, but many predict what is today's "America's game" will go the way of boxing. Too many concussions and punishment of children's bodies may give way to lacrosse or ultimate Frisbee taking new spots on Saturday TV.

Likewise, we are bound to see more and more schools with no sports at all. Some of those colleges may even be huge, "company" schools. Is Google U really that much of a stretch? Will those schools be accredited? Transferability is an important question. Of course, with so many schools around the world competing legitimately with the U.S., Britain, and other notable brands today, the concept of transfer will likely get trickier before it gets better. After all, the notion that Comp 101 is taught better by a state school than by a community college is pretty silly--especially when the same professors teach both sections. Imagine that debate with the University of Tesla or Motorola College. Students go there for the promise of a job upon graduation, but parents will struggle if their daughter's BIO 101 class will not transfer anywhere.

But 2050 should find us with systems that are actually adaptive, with computers legitimately mapping skills, progress, cognition, and behavior. All learning will be "eLearning." Just like health, education will finally see systems that follow a single student throughout their learning career. Those systems will provide learning architects with invaluable triggers and dimensions of personality, learning preference, pathways, and connectivity.

It's easy to believe that this possible future forecast is more conservative than progressive. We may actually achieve all of this by 2030. But, while everyone's dream of the Jetsons' flying car will likely still not be reality, there will be plenty of "amazing" to go around. Some research schools will likely be playing with chips by which to upload learning into a brain, if that is not already available. So, whether a student attends school through their implanted contacts thereby creating an augmented reality, by actually riding to campus in their computer-driven car, or virtually from their office in India or Israel, learning options will be mixed with plenty of old and new.

It's easy to read this as a higher-ed utopia. That's far from the case. There are bound to be plenty of political battles, turf wars, and arguments about what actually constitutes "best" learning. Many schools we know today will have closed.

And by 2050, we may see the swing going the other way with regard to standardization, which might be seen as the antithesis of things like brand, innovation, and personalized learning. But regardless, the landscape will look different than it does today. It's on us to get it right.