The Future of College: Are We in the Midst of an Education Revolution?

Opinion Aug 28, 2020

College degrees are a part of our identity, it can give instant credibility and lend weight to career growth.

Having a degree does add value.

Except many believe college is a scam. Being a dropout is fashionable today. And social media is packed with anti-college opinions.

college scam meme

But that doesn’t seem to have any effect on the graduation rates.

Canada—which tops the higher education charts—has 56% of the population between the age of 25 and 64 who completed a higher education course.

In the US, it’s around 45% with approximately 3.9 Million graduates in 2019.

That’s an enormous amount of time, money, and effort put into earning college degrees!

US graduation rates data

But college is being challenged by debt burdens and disruptive forces of the internet.

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic made many college students re-evaluate the degree’s worth.

With these developments, what does the future of higher education look like? This article will try to find what factors can radically transform colleges.

Tuition Costs vs. Value of a Degree

students protesting high debts
Photo Credits: Tom Woodward

Starting a career is heavily dependent on acquiring a college degree. Perhaps this is why most students are willing to take on loans that can affect their income for years.

Student loans are crippling millions of people, many of them fresh out of the college. Imagine starting a race and then the guy with starter pistol uses the gun to shoots you in the leg.
~ Hasan Minhaj, Comedian

The tuition fees in both public and private colleges and other expenses have increased. However, students will continue to invest in college degrees. Here’s why:

Students don’t see inexpensive options like community colleges as good alternatives. And colleges keep spending on infrastructure and maintenance to attract more students. Thereby making it more expensive to graduate.

Sometimes those infrastructure expenses take away resources from things that help students learn.

water park at university
A water park for students at Texas Tech University.

The problem is in the perception and preferences which can be quite resistant to change.

A college degree is actually pretty important for higher earnings. Degree holders earn as much as 80% more than diploma holders.

70% of Americans think a college education is “Very Important” and are willing to accept debts. The implications are visible in federal data that shows a 107% increase in student loans in the last 10 years.

There’s also a growing concern of automation which will affect a lot of low-skilled and some high-skilled roles. So there are more incentives to get a college degree.

While there are online certification courses for upskilling, they mostly useful in specific set expertise after some work experience.

So there’s a dilemma of ever-increasing cost and value out of a degree.

Although tuition fees are high in many colleges, I don’t think increasing costs will force colleges to radically transform. Costly degrees do have cheaper alternatives.

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable System

The internet is the largest medium for all the collective knowledge of humanity, one of the best ways of communication, and an unstoppable force of disruption.

Information Technology (IT) has digitized a vast number of traditional businesses and a significant part of lives, including higher education.

However, it cannot revolutionize the higher education system.

Bart future graduation

Traditional universities and colleges will thrive for decades to come. That’s because you cannot replace social institutions and experiences like classroom discussions, dorm life, sororities, football, and so on.

Today students are using the internet as one of the mediums in distance education. Most of them view online education as a convenience rather than a primary medium.

Moreover, the internet won’t become a significant medium for graduation in the future. Let me explain using an example of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

MOOC: The Prince that Was Promised

MOOCs are free to learn platforms that provide quality learning courses. Many course providers are traditional universities and colleges (because that’s where the professors are).

MOOC was touted as a revolution for the higher education system.

But up until a few years ago, MOOC was considered a failed model and nearly dead.

MOOC meme John Snow Alive

There has been a turn off course however.

Popular MOOC platforms like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, edX, and FutureLearn have seen tremendous growth that’s not just in signups but also in revenue.

Coursera, the leading MOOC platform, had a revenue of USD 100+ Million by 2019. Albeit only about 1600 students graduated with an online degree in 2018.

MOOCs have been mostly used for upskilling rather than earning a college degree. The enrollments are also skewed towards course categories like Business, Computer Science, and Languages.

It’s not surprising if online degree enrollments increase during the COVID pandemic. But MOOC won’t be a more valuable alternative to college in the future.

Colleges & COVID Pandemic

Colleges have a tough choice between bankruptcy and student health. The revenues are dropping sharply. If the situation worsens, financially weak colleges are not likely to weather the storm.

Some people think COVID has brought a much-needed change in the higher education system. It’s said that students can now have affordable education, universities are getting a well-deserved punishment for exorbitant tuition fees.

While COVID catalyzed the digitization, it will have a net negative impact on education. That’s because colleges and students are in a symbiotic association. If colleges are affected, students will be too.

A pandemic is no solution for faults in the higher education system.

So What Can Revolutionize Colleges?

Colleges won’t revolutionize but evolve in response to higher costs, the internet, and pandemic. Like in any other social institution, the transformation of college is slow and will be evident in hindsight.

That said, colleges in the US are at high risk. The higher education system has many faults that can shake and alter the foundation of colleges.

Among many issues is the plight of adjunct professors and the looming student loan crisis that has the potential to shock the US economy for years.

So it’s more likely that a deep shock or critical change in government policy will force colleges to radically shift their processes.

Whether college is a scam or not is subjective. Traditional higher education is here to stay. A majority of students will graduate from traditional colleges for decades to come.

It’s time for students and colleges to start making better choices.


Bipin VK

Bipin is the co-founder of Savay app. He's passionate about building products that help people in learning, skill development, and productivity.