Colleges of the Future Must Go Back to the Future

03/30/2015 12:08 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015

Much has been written about what colleges of the future will look like. "Erase every preconception you ever had about college learning and step into the future," writes Kate Hilpern in The Independent, as she outlines the elimination of classrooms and lectures, student-tailored degree programs, replacement of tenured professors with learning tutors, and institutions run by businesses. "The Future of College" focuses on the Minerva Project, an entrepreneurial venture that boasts of a stripped-down collegiate experience: "Lectures, gone. Tenure, gone. Gothic architecture, football, ivy crawling up the walls -- gone, gone, gone." The Wall Street Journal predicts colleges of 2023 will focus on professors running courses over digital platforms, eliminating the need for face-to-face interactions.

Futurists predict these and other changes to the current model of higher education--and the demise of many institutions: "In 50 years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist."

While I agree that the model of higher education will change in the future, that many institutions will close -- Sweet Briar College is a recent casualty -- and that technology will continue to impact the delivery of knowledge, we need to approach such changes with caution. For example, we should not presume that Generation Z and future net-savvy generations desire expanded use of technology or a depersonalized classroom experience. In fact, a Northeastern University study concludes that Generation Z is "less fixated on technology than might be presumed," and their preference is a traditional undergraduate experience that teaches entrepreneurship and offers hands-on experiences and practical skills.

The future I envision in higher education must go back to the future -- to its original purpose. For centuries, colleges and universities served as the curators of our nation's society. Beginning in the colonial period, formal education was required to create a better, more enlightened society through the development of intellect as well as moral and spiritual character. Holding to the belief that education would shape individual character and, ultimately, the nation's character, Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1832, "I desire to see a time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present."

I agree with a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article that notes, "Colleges have abandoned their historical role in shaping students' character... what sort of upstanding citizens they should become." I firmly believe that the future of higher education must expand President Lincoln's desire -- for education to enhance and elevate the quality and morality of American society -- to a global platform. We must become the curators not only for our society, but for all people, all cultures, and all communities. To do this, we must:

Spend less on amenities. In "The End of the University as We Know It," Nathan Harden writes, "Last year Yale finalized plans to build new residential dormitories at a combined cost of $600 million... The project is so expensive that Yale could actually buy a three-bedroom home in New Haven for every student it is bringing in and still save $100 million." Providing students with luxurious accommodations -- which students may not even be accustomed to in their own lives -- does not convey the reality of how the majority of the world's population lives. Instead of scaling rock climbing walls in state-of-the-art fitness centers, students should be learning how to surmount the mountains of poverty in the world. They need to develop a global focus -- one that provides a deep understanding of the crises millions face who live in poverty, do not have access to clean water, and face food insecurity on a daily basis.

Do more to prepare students for the future, both professionally and personally. Young people live in a world of immediacy. But on-demand programs, self-designed majors or programs launched to meet a current "hot" interest will not fully prepare them for an unpredictable future. Higher education must educate young people for jobs that do not yet exist, to solve problems that have yet to be identified. Upon graduation, they must be fully capable of adapting to change and reinventing themselves throughout their professional careers. Their education must include the development of an agile mindset, which includes empathy, divergent thinking, an entrepreneurial outlook, and social and emotional intelligence. These are the skills employers require, as outlined in a report by the Association of American Colleges & Universities: "A candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major."

In addition to professional development, it is vital that institutions go beyond work-related preparation to help students shape and develop their beliefs, attitudes, ideas, and ideals. Students who are given opportunities to discover and develop their spiritual and emotional selves -- such as through clubs and organizations that bring together diverse groups of people for a common purpose or passion -- will be more capable of creating satisfaction in their personal lives and striking the right work-life balance.

Set the moral compass toward globally responsible citizenry. The article "Global Citizenship -- What Are We Talking About and Why Does It Matter?" states: "A university education which does not provide effective tools and forums for students to think through their responsibilities and rights as one of the several billions on planet Earth, and along the way develop their moral compass, would be a failure." Colleges and universities must develop this moral compass so students can contribute to the betterment of society, both holistically and globally.

While the future is filled with uncertainty, institutions must not forget or abandon the integral role they play in developing responsible citizens of the world. As Nelson Mandela once eloquently said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."