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What it means for students and educators

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“The idea that at 22 you can get a degree and have a career is as outdated as a pocket watch.”

—Jeffrey R. Brown, Dean, University of Illinois Gee’s College of Business, from the position paper “It’s Time to Transform Higher Education”

  • How do we prepare students and workers for jobs that don’t even exist yet?
  • For challenges you can’t even imagine yet?
  • How to compete in an industry or business model not yet invented?

Higher education faces one of the greatest unknowns in recent memory. There is no aspect of people or education that has not been completely shaken by the pandemic.

But that is not the only source of uncertainty. Technology changes so quickly that the skills we learn in school are constantly changing and becoming obsolete within a few years. Some of the most exciting career opportunities may be for roles that don’t even exist yet in industries we can’t even imagine.

We must recognize the pace at which technology evolves and the extent to which traditional models restrict access to education. Higher education experts suggest that education appears less structured and should make room for more diversity. Requiring new paths, multiple streams and broader qualifications will allow people to reskill as needed and put those skills to work immediately.

One of these experts is Jeffrey R. Brown, dean of the University of Illinois at Geese College of Business and the author of this report.

He argues that for higher education institutions and educators to fully embrace their mission, they must think differently about the range of educational “products” they offer. His report calls for “new forms of content delivery, new ways to assess learning, and new ways to prove that learners have mastered different concepts and skills.”

I had a conversation with him to further explore those ideas. He began by reminding us of the original purpose of higher education.

“Going back to classical, liberal education, the idea was to make us more rational, more thoughtful, more informed citizens,” he said. “And it’s beneficial not only to the individual being educated, but to society as a whole. It teaches us that there is a bigger world out there and makes us think about world problems.”

Higher education was once a luxury for some parts of society, but it is becoming increasingly necessary if people are to be able to prosper, support their families, and solve the world’s great problems. He said that traditional education still has a role to play, but what we need today is lifelong, skills-based training that people can take advantage of at any point in their lives.

“That’s the change we need,” says Brown. “We are using a very old model that is not well suited to the needs of today’s citizens.”

He outlined three main ways higher education needs to evolve.

Transforming higher education: 3 ways to make it more accessible, lifelong and skills-based

1. The future of higher education will be democratized. He wants to use technology to democratize education.

“We are using technology to make educational services cheaper, to help people avoid jobs and family lives, and to reach the less fortunate who live in neighborhoods with access to top academics and top universities. You have to reach out.”

2. The future of higher education is individualized. Leverage technology to start large-scale operations and personalize education. He recommends expanding our thinking about what kinds of qualifications are valued. This means going beyond a four-year degree to include a sub-degree or less focused credential, certificate, or digital badge. While some don’t necessarily need him to spend two years getting an MBA, he may benefit from studying cutting-edge material in business, finance, or analytics. You need recognized credentials to do so.

“To reach the next level of excellence in my current job, taking three courses in these areas that I really need right now might be enough. You can individualize wherever you are, wherever you are in your career.”

3. The future of higher education is accessible. He talked about breaking down the many barriers that exist to get the education people want. These barriers include too high costs, having a family and a full-time job, and not having a good school within an 80 km radius of your home. Leaders can tear down these barriers through deliberate design.

“We tried to design the program not only for the ability to choose the content, but also for the flexibility of the schedule so that you can dive in and out. This makes it really accessible.”

To learn more about the future of higher education, listen to the conversation below.

Future Generations and Higher Education: Students Need to Lead the Way

I have a seven-year-old daughter, so I asked Brown. What will her higher education experience be like for her?

“Children need to learn how to learn in multiple environments,” he said. “I know the pandemic has been a tough time for many school-aged children. We need to learn to navigate in an increasingly interactive world. Exposure to a wide range of disciplines and materials, as well as a wide range of learning styles will be very important.”

Higher education leaders take note. Change will come whether you are ready or not. Mr Brown said: you can lead You can become a very fast follower. Or you could become irrelevant.

Higher education has gone through Ringer for the past few years. Don’t miss your chance to evolve by simply reconstructing what you’ve been doing since the 1600s.

Wilbur O. of Clemson and Wendy York, Dean of Ann Powers College of Business, said:

Are you ready to adapt? If you can’t change your organization, how can you claim your ability to shape the next generation of leaders that society needs?

To learn more about how leaders are preparing for the future of higher education, attend the 2022 Leadership in the Age of Personalization Summit hosted by Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business at Clemson University on October 14. Register for free for the virtual version of