Building the College of the Future - Jeff Selingo


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Building the College of the Future

It’s a probably a dream for anyone in higher ed: a blank piece of paper and the chance to design your own college. Better yet if you’re given land and $100-million.

That dream is about to become reality in New York City for one university. More than 20 institutions have submitted bids as part of a competition hosted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to build an engineering and technology campus in the city. New York will provide the land and the millions needed for infrastructure improvements. Bloomberg hopes the campus will make the city more like Silicon Valley by encouraging tech start-ups.

So what if you had a chance to start a college from scratch? As an experiment, let’s take Bloomberg’s vision and expand it. The college doesn’t need to be located in New York City or be limited to science and technology.

Now let your imagination run wild. That’s what I plan to do in this space. It’s my blank piece of paper to design the college of the future. In each post, I’ll focus on various aspects of a campus and imagine what the future might look like or at least should look like. I want to hear from you – offer ideas of your own or poke holes in my vision. Sign up by clicking the box on the right for regular updates. I also plan to begin an invite-only LinkedIn group to discuss this issue, and will be looking for people with interesting ideas to join.

Some might ask: What’s wrong with what we have now? Sure, many parts of a college education should be maintained, but few think the current model is sustainable for the future. Especially not when the news headlines of recent days scream that student debt will surpass $1-trillion this year.

Among the most pressing issues that need to be addressed in the college of the future:

  • Costs. It’s probably number one, two, and three on any list about the future. College costs cannot continue to rise at the current pace given that family income is likely to be stagnant for at least the next decade and we seem to be entering an age of austerity in Washington. We need to rethink the cost drivers on campuses and how we pay for college.
  • Infrastructure. Sure our idyllic vision of a college is that of a leafy campus quad in the Northeast, but do we really need dozens of buildings that are mostly empty at night, on weekends, and during the summer? If you had an empty piece of land for your college, which buildings, if any, are essential? Does every faculty member need an office? How many classroom buildings do we need? How large of a library do we need?
  • Delivery methods. The size of the campus, of course, depends on how we plan to deliver our courses. My college of the future will still be residential and offer mostly face-to-face instruction. But to save on space and insure on-time graduation, I plan to offer many courses online as well.
  • Majors. I don’t think my college would have departments. All that does is recreate the silos of today. Instead, faculty would be arranged around the major issues facing the world today: water, energy, food, information, language, along with others. Students would enter through gateway courses that stretch them in key areas such as critical thinking, problem solving, team work, writing, and oral presentations. Then they would specialize in specific areas in later years.
  • Faculty. Tenure or no tenure? When we talk about tenure, it’s always an either/or question. Are there alternatives to tenure that preserve its best qualities, allow flexibility, but still give professors some job security?
  • Quality. This college needs to be sure that its graduates are ready for the workforce or graduate school. How do we prove that?
  • Adult students. When the baby-boom generation retires, we run the risk for the first time in our history of being a less-educated country unless we increase the number of adults with a college credential. Except for community colleges and for profits, most traditional four-year colleges ignore adult students at the undergrad level. They need to figure out a way to find adults who need additional education and offer programs that are convenient for them.