The college 2025 conundrum

If someone asked you to forecast what “college” will look like in the year 2025, how would you respond?

That’s the key question for an international group of corporate and higher and secondary education leaders and funders convening at the Galileo Summit in Essex, N.Y. in April. Our explorations will focus on the technological advances that are posed to expand access to college in the coming years, and on the challenges that currently leave so many young people behind.

All of us feel a special sense of urgency as leaders from industrialized nations increasingly acknowledge that college is the new finish line, the equivalent credential in today’s job market of a secondary school diploma a generation ago, and that not nearly enough young people are even starting, let alone finishing, the race.

The United States projects that 20 million new, high-paying jobs will go unfilled in the next decade because they require post-secondary training and credentials. It’s just as bleak in Europe, where a McKinsey report cites a lack of skills and training as a primary reason why nearly a quarter of the youth today are without jobs.

Unfortunately, the global higher education system is plagued with uncertainty and challenges. In 2012, researchers at the University of Melbourne ranked the USA higher education system No. 1 in the world despite its broken funding formula and other flaws. Since 1985, the price of a college education in the USA has increased 539 percent while student loan debt now totals $1.2 trillion.

Couple these cost challenges with the drastic changes driven by social media and technology that are disrupting traditional models of teaching and learning, and it’s no surprise that the next decade will bring an even greater transformation in higher education than we saw in the last 100 years.

Consider what’s happening with MOOCs, or massive open online courses. In the last 18 months, Harvard, MIT and other universities worldwide have offered free courses to 2 million online learners through the platform edX. Digital learning promises to revolutionize the classic variables of higher education, including location and place, access and cost. While college as we know it is becoming increasingly unrecognizable, the value of a college degree has more value today than ever before.

Inequality, the biggest challenge of all

The variable that most needs to change is also the most daunting. Higher education must reach the millions of low-income young people who traditionally have been excluded. While Korea and China are showing gains in the inclusion of low-income youth, most nations continue to struggle mightily. In the USA, access and graduation rates between low-income students and their upper-income peers continue to widen. Although this trend and others paint a bleak picture, there are proven initiatives in the USA and other countries, including College For Every Student and the Trinity College Access Programmes, that provide rays of hope.

Finding answers to a vexing problem

These challenges can no longer be solved by one nation in isolation. Our economies, governments and education systems will only become more interdependent. Global solutions rooted in communication and cooperation are vital for creating and sustaining higher education opportunities that meet the needs of a changing world.

This is why higher education and corporate leaders, funders, policy makers and secondary educators from Shanghai, Ireland, Great Britain, France, the United States and other nations will convene on April 9 and 10 in Essex. It’s a fine group, and we hope it will continue to grow with the addition of college presidents and others who can share unique insights on the critical nexus between access and opportunity in the years to come.

Following the Galileo Summit – jointly sponsored by College For Every Student and Trinity College Dublin – the organizers will produce a solutions-driven white paper on what college will look like in 2025 and specifically what action we must now take to significantly increase the proportion of low-income global citizens with college degrees.

Only by understanding the challenges and variables that will define College 2025 can we achieve our goals to build and sustain the social capital that will allow our youth worldwide, regardless of economic circumstance, to enter and complete the higher education race.

Cliona Hannon is the director of the Trinity Access Programmes. Rick Dalton is president and CEO of College For Every Student, a nonprofit group based in Essex that helps low-income students gain access to college. CFES currently serves 20,000 students in 24 states and Ireland.