The Future of Higher Education in a Digital, Skills-Based World


As new high school students are entering colleges and universities both online and on campus, the value of higher education is under attack as Americans question the return on the investment. Our beloved institutions are expected to produce graduates that can function in a variety of environments of ongoing learning, adapting quickly to technological changes, problem-solving, innovating and having appropriate human-centered skills. Within the confines of the ivory towers, administrators worry about attracting and retaining faculty, the rising costs of deferred maintenance and much-needed investments in technological infrastructure. Universities are at a tipping point as their traditional academic and research models become less viable. Furthermore, there is increased competition, soaring tuition costs and escalating pressures of accessibility, relevance, and practical research. As recently featured in the Wall Street Journal, employers are thinking about new ways to hire, and some are even removing four-year degree requirements from their job descriptions. Not unlike the newspaper business, those in higher education need to adapt to survive.

A dynamic force at play here is the changing relationship between higher education and employment. The world is evolving away from having life-long relationships with employers who define an employee’s sole identity. Loyalty to one corporation has become more of a reflection of the past as retirement benefits change and companies downsize, merge, collaborate and restructure. Cutbacks in benefits and changes in tax structures globally are accelerating increased risk to the individual employee in the future. Furthermore, digital advances have transformed the way we think about our workplaces and demonstrated skill sets. Technology has changed the types of work available for people as well as the expectations of new hires.

To further complicate the situation, some employers argue that professionals are not leaving higher education institutions with the necessary set of skills to enter the workforce. The reality is that it may be more common in the future for workers to not have permanent jobs. Contracts, skills-based work, free-lance, part-time, and adjunct positions are becoming more commonplace today than ever before. This shift is requiring a new skill set that future generations will need to embrace strategically over time to be successful. We are in desperate need to bring the future of skills to the future of work in America which puts new pressures on our legacy educational systems. Furthermore, as burnout and boredom in aspects of corporate life accelerate, the drive towards engaging and meaningful work becomes more relevant.

There is an ongoing academic debate around if universities exist to provide skills-based training or if they exist to deliver social impact for the general good of society or something else altogether. Given the rapid pace of digitalization and globalization, it is imperative that all leaders in higher education continue to get their hands in the mud in experimenting with these trends to protect society’s future.


Some higher education institutions have already started to reshape incentives to support faculty research that responds to real-life challenges. Social impact learning has the benefit of positioning students and educators to serve the public good in a scalable way to deliver sustainable value. Whether it is based in solving the social problems of local communities or addressing real-world business challenges, this is the era of transferring new knowledge into workable skills. For example, at Cornell University there is currently an evidence-based research partnership to address the opioid crisis in update New York. The university is working on a real-life problem that addresses the community concerns.


From a skills-based perspective, University of Virginia School of Engineering’s Link Lab has a graduate program for students to make discoveries and translate their knowledge into new technologies, products, and services. They place a specific emphasis on the Internet of Things and big data innovations in solving large-scale, societal problems. At Penn State, graduate students are getting early clinical experience with a web-based program based on real experiences by clinicians. “What this program does is provide graduate students with guided learning on simulated cases before working with real patients,” said Anne Marie Kubat, Director of the Speech and Language Clinic at Penn State.

Colorado Schools of Mines is looking into the future of work and offering the first graduate degree program supporting mining in outer space.

Given that taxpayers subsidize some large institutions, academic research is becoming increasingly focused on the uses in the outside world that are timely, relevant or accessible. As the curriculum continues to adapt to the skills-based economy, key questions for administrators include:

•   What are the skills that are worth developing? How are these explicitly stated and communicated to students?

•   How well do these skills match those required by businesses? Do we need to add or adapt existing skills to make them more relevant?

•   What teaching methods are most likely to lead to the development of these skills?

•   What are the opportunities for practice and feedback on the development of the selected skills?

•   How are such skills accessed? What are the desired outcomes?

Scenario planning can be a useful tool for institutions facing these complex challenges by identifying significant events, leading actors and their motivations. Leveraging scenario planning tools during strategic planning retreats, for example, can account for the social impact of change by creating different versions of the future that hedges changes in social preferences.  The reality is that each institution faces unique challenges and a wide range of future scenarios. But, by talking to key stakeholders about the future and ranking each scenario, prioritization is possible.  Scoping the key issues to address is important to identify relevant trends, outcomes, options, and actions. However, it must be stressed that there is a tendency to believe the future is an extension of the past but through proper scenario planning it is possible to examine these large-scale forces that can push the future into different directions. Some of the forces in addition to the ones listed above include demographic and lifestyles, economics, politics, environmental factors, and technology. A useful tool is in identifying the main driving forces behind trends is mapping the scenarios. The example shown below was created by Edinburg to help inform the future of e-learning.


While this graph was built originally in 2008, as Dr. Wade shares, “Some of these case studies describe scenario planning exercises that took place a few years ago. In those instances, we already have some idea which ‘future’ is materializing now, and with the miracle of 20/20 hindsight, we can see how the planners may have missed certain developments that turned out to be important. But we can also see how prescient some of the scenarios were, mapping out a ‘big picture’ that comes close to what is actually transpiring, even if a few of the details are wrong.”

Legacy institutions will need to adapt their business models to be more flexible and relevant in light of emerging trends. As the evolution of higher education is underway, leaders will need to find new methods to encourage and inspire minds during these transition periods to position graduates for success in a global environment. As Drs. De Bonte & Fletcher share, “Perseverance is required if you intend to implement change at scale. Fixing products is easy. Fixing the processes and organizations that build them is hard.” While colleges and universities can sometimes have a reputation for being resistant to massive change, it is time to step out of the comfort zone to ensure the investments in our beloved higher education institutions have relevance in the future. Staying focused on the real-world needs of students is a step in the right direction.

#HigherEd  #SkillsBased  #Digitalization #ScenarioPlanning

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