Four Scenarios for Academia

What will the academic world be like in 25 years – 2035?  Thinking 25 years into the future is quite difficult, as is evidenced by thinking back to 1985 and imagining our current iPhones, Kindles, and pervasive social technology such as Facebook. Nevertheless, it is interesting – and potentially useful – to consider future scenarios.  We know one thing for sure.  Any one scenario will inevitably be wrong.  Thus, we need multiple scenarios.

Driving Forces

Scenario development should be based on best practices on this topic.  All of the pundits begin by defining the forces that drive the future. There are — at least — four strong driving forces that will affect academia’s future:

1. Competition among top universities will become increasingly intense, both for talent and resources — there will be a clash of the titans

2. Globalization will result in many academic institutions, particularly in Asia, achieving parity in the competition — it will become hot, flat, and crowded

3. Demographic trends portend an aging, but active populace leading to an older student population — higher education will need to become a lifespan mecca

4. The generation of digital natives will come of age, go to college and enter the workforce — there will be no choice but become a networked university

We cannot escape these forces; nor can we fully predict the ways in which they will interact to shape the world of 2035.  We can be sure, however, that for academic institutions to compete in this future, their strategies must be sufficiently robust to accommodate these forces.  If, instead, they focus on just one scenario — for example the clash of titans that most closely resembles business as usual, perhaps on steroids — they will almost certainly be at a competitive disadvantage in the future.

Clash of Titans

I have worked at, consulted with, or served on advisory boards of quite a few top universities.  Every one of them pays attention to their U.S News & World Report rankings.  They aspire to battle with the titans of higher education, and hold their own.  This scenario has universities continuing that clash, perhaps clawing their way to higher rankings, albeit in an increasingly competitive environment.

General Description: Academic institutions continue to battle to achieve dominance in various academic disciplines, as well as compete with top universities for overall rankings within the U.S., and with premier international universities for global rankings.

Dominant Issues: The competition for talent becomes fierce, with well-endowed faculty chairs becoming the minimum for attracting talent; top students at all levels expect and get near-free education.

Economic Implications: The top players continue to dominate receipt of Federal funds, with considerable pushback from other players; costs of facilities and labs soar, much of which must be raised from philanthropic sources.

Social Implications: University cultures are sustained, with adaptations for a decreasingly Caucasian male population – for both students and faculty — but one that is committed to the values and sense of purpose that has been central for recent decades; changing demographics impacts how alumni best relate to their alma maters.

Hot, Flat & Crowded

Tom Friedman has argued that the world is flat and we should no longer assume business as usual – his revision of this best seller included a chapter on Georgia Tech and how we are transforming education in computing.  More recently, Friedman has argued that the world will be hot, flat, and crowded.  In this scenario, academic institutions have to compete with a much wider range of players in a global arena.

General Description: Global parity emerges in graduate education in science and technology, particularly for traditional disciplines and subdisciplines; greater collaboration among institutions emerges; demand for higher education in the U.S. will nevertheless increase substantially.

Dominant Issues: Many of the best jobs are in Asia; scarcity and constraints dominate sustainability debates; clashes of belief systems create political turmoil and security concerns; meeting demands presents strong challenges.

Economic Implications: Federal and state support diminish as portions of budget; industrial and philanthropic support are increasingly competitive; sponsors become sensitive to where resources are deployed; undergraduate tuition stabilizes and increases are less and less acceptable.

Social Implications: Global footprints of top universities increase by necessity; social, cultural, and ethnic diversity of faculty and students increases in turn; traditional business practices, e.g., promotion and tenure, must change to accommodate diversity.

Lifespan Mecca

It is easy – and convenient – to assume that the students of the future will be much like the students of today.  However, over the past decade, the number of graduate students 40 years old and older has reached record numbers. From 1995 to 2005, the number of post-baccalaureate students age 40 and older at U.S. colleges and universities jumped 27%. And during the next two decades, the number of older citizens will rise at even faster rates, which suggests that the number of post-baccalaureate students age 40 and over very likely will continue to grow.   In this scenario, universities have to address a “student” population with more diverse interests and expectations rather different from students of the past and current eras.

General Description: Demand for postgraduate and executive education surges as career changes become quite common; demand steadily grows for education and artistic performances by an increasingly urban older population.

Dominant Issues: Two or three MS or MA degrees become common across careers, as do often required certificate programs; multiple artistic performance and sporting events per day become common at any top university.

Economic Implications: Tuition revenues soar for executive programs and graduate education programs popular with elders; revenues from artistic performance and sports venues become significant portions of university budgets.

Social Implications: Median age of students increases substantially, changing the campus culture substantially; older students in particular expect and get high quality, user-friendly services; diversity of faculty increases substantially to satisfy diversity of demands.

Network U.

Technology is increasingly enabling access to world-class content in terms of publications, lectures, and performances.  Higher education can leverage this content to both increase quality and lower costs.  This technology has also spawned the generation of “digital natives” that is always connected, weaned on collaboration, and adept at multi-tasking.  In this scenario, academia has to address different types of student using very different approaches to delivering education and conducting research.

General Description: Social technology prevails; access to the best content and faculty is universal; nevertheless, students go to college to learn and mature; however, the classroom experience is now highly interactive, both remotely and face to face.

Dominant Issues: Students and faculty have broad and easy access to knowledge, often via other people; with the “best in class” universally available, local faculty play more facilitative roles in small (10-20) “high touch” discussion groups.

Economic Implications: More teaching professionals are needed for recitation-sized classes; teaching skills are at a premium; increasing numbers of high quality programs result in strong downward pressure on tuition and fees; faculty research becomes near totally externally funded.

Social Implications: Students and faculty are networkers par excellence; both within and across institutions; students’ evaluations of teaching effectiveness play an increasing role; students seamlessly transition from K-12 to university to lifespan education.


Framing the future 25 years from now is quite difficult.  Yet, this is essential if academic institutions are to focus their competencies and resources on the possible futures in which our students – and all of us – will have to compete.  Our abilities to understand and manage the inherent uncertainties associated with these futures can be an enormous competitive advantage.  We need to enhance these abilities to maintain our competitive position in global education.


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