The fourth section of the report considers a distant future through four lenses: the country’s level of social cohesion; the needs and characteristics of the workforce; the use of Big Data and the level of access to information and advanced educational technologies; and unforeseen natural or human-generated global challenges. The Commission focuses on these factors because they seem the most plausible and pertinent to its principal concerns of quality, completion, and affordability. Speculating on a range of possibilities, the Commission imagines what the nation’s needs may be and how colleges and universities might respond:
In a future that may lean toward greater social division, colleges and universities should play a large and constructive role in promoting greater cohesiveness. As cultural crossroads and sites of reasoned debate, they could set new standards for civility and mutual understanding in a society sorely in need of new models. An increasingly fractured nation will require more common spaces and more opportunities for meaningful interaction, whether they exist physically or virtually.
Advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and enhanced and virtual reality technologies are all evolving so rapidly that many of the tasks now performed by humans may increasingly come to be performed by machines, while a growing “gig economy” could mean a significantly greater share of the workforce hired on a task-by-task basis. Colleges and universities will need to meet the demand for more shorter-term, flexible options available to students over a lifetime that support a highly skilled, technical, and adaptable workforce. But institutions must also double down on teaching the skills that are most difficult for machines to replicate, such as solving unstructured problems, working flexibly with new information, and working effectively in groups.
The amount of data collected by technology giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon on their users is seemingly boundless, while the growth in smartphones and tablets along with the digitization of libraries is making information available across the world at the touch of a screen. Colleges and universities will need to define their own parameters for the collection and use of student data, balancing privacy concerns with the potential of Big Data to help refine and personalize teaching and advising. Colleges and universities may even take the lead in the public debate about the proper use of personal data more generally. The continued expansion of online lectures, digitized textbooks, and wikis of all kinds would not only continue to make information more widely available but could also speed the evolution of teaching.
The era of the iPhone and the rise of social media have been accompanied by global terrorism, the Great Recession, and an acceleration in the degradation of the natural environment. Colleges and universities are well positioned to help society respond thoughtfully and effectively by examining new ideas, teaching new skills, and producing new research. Their importance will only be amplified in a future characterized by transformative discovery or world-changing cataclysm, and they would serve the world more effectively by maintaining a certain level of financial, curricular, and intellectual flexibility in order to meet unforeseen challenges.
Whatever combination of these scenarios should come about—or whatever else comes about that we have not anticipated—the fundamentals of strong undergraduate education this report has identified will continue to be important:
- High-quality teaching and learning that addresses both students’ practical career needs in conjunction with their more lasting capacities for critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and civic participation.
- An educational system that does as much as possible to put students in a position not only to access higher education, but also to succeed in the programs they undertake.
- Ensuring that educational opportunities are widely available to all who can benefit.