Talk about the future of higher education often reminds me of The Jetsons, the 1960’s era cartoon that imagined a tomorrow of flying cars, homes hovering in space, robot maids, and holograms. College will certainly be different in 20 years, but my belief after spending a year and half researching a bookabout the future of higher education is that the Hollywood vision of college—four years on a residential campus—will still exist in thousands of places around the country.
Sure, online education and alternative ways of obtaining credentials will play a bigger role for students in the future, but there remains a critical role for colleges as we know them today.
Just look at the life of Michael Bloomberg. As described in a story earlier this week in The New York Times, Bloomberg was “a middling high school student from Medford, Mass., who had settled for C’s and had confined his ambitions to the math club” when he arrived at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1960s. By the time he left, “he was a social and political star” that set him on the path to eventually start the company that bears his name and made him a billionaire.
In The Times article, Bloomberg, now the mayor of New York City, talked about his love for Hopkins in very personal terms. “I just thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he said. This week, Bloomberg donated $350 million to his alma mater, bringing the total amount of his donations to $1.1 billion.
Bloomberg’s story exemplifies the power of a residential college experience for 18-year-olds and what happens when an elite college like Hopkins takes a chance on an applicant. While I don’t believe that top colleges take chances on students like they once did because of their desire to constantly admit a better class, the transformative power of college still exists today for those able to find the right fit and afford ever increasing tuition prices.
Here’s what a campus can do better than the alternatives, at least for now:
A maturing experience
Let’s face it, most 18-year-old’s are not ready for the working world, and some are not even ready for a college campus. The four years of college turn adolescents into young adults and through the campus experience—living with different people, participating in activities and athletics, and being responsible for one’s self—gets them ready for life.
Access to mentors
Most of us who went to residential colleges can name a professor or two or other advisers who played a role in shaping our life and perhaps still do to this day. While mentors exist in online classes, the face-to-face interactions on residential campuses are invaluable to the maturing process. Of course, to save money, many colleges are replacing full-time faculty with adjuncts who often don’t have the time to make those personal connections.
We know from research that students learn more and retain more when they apply what they hear in the classroom through experiences in real life. Not all colleges provide easy access to these experiences, but for those that do, students have the ability to volunteer in the community, work along scholars to do research, and study abroad.
We don’t just remember the professors from college who had an impact on our life, but the friends who were there with us during those formative years. Those networks shape lives in so many ways, from romantic relationships to jobs to new companies (h/t to Michael Stoner for reminding me of this). Mark Zuckerberg might have dropped out of Harvard, but if you sawThe Social Network you might recall that Facebook would never have been if not for the Harvard residential experience while he was there.
Of course, this campus experience shouldn’t just be reserved for the children of Michael Bloomberg. But the fact of the matter is that at the country’s 200 colleges that are most difficult to get into, only 15 percent of entering students in 2010 came from families with incomes under $65,000. Nearly 70 percent came from families with incomes above $108,000. At this rate, we’re on the road to creating a two-tiered higher-education system that will ensure we don’t help foster the next generation of students like Michael Bloomberg.
Jeffrey Selingo is editor at large at The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the forthcoming book, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, scheduled for release on May 7.