In 2015, Kevin Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New American Foundation, wrote the book The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, where he made the bold prediction that higher education as we know it is finished. According to him, technology was going to revolutionize the industry. Whereas only a lucky few in the past had been granted access to a college education because of social capital and financial means, soon everyone would have access. Not only would this ubiquitous education be extremely cheap, but it would be of the highest quality, featuring professors at institutions with near-mythic reputations like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.


Carey begins the book by narrating his personal experience taking a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at MIT. An MOOC is a free online course open to anyone in the world with access to the internet. Now, anyone could sign up for a freshman biology class that MIT freshmen were required to take without the grueling admissions process. In other words, without near-perfect SAT scores, a sparkling GPA, and a slew of high school extracurriculars, you could take a class at the MIT.

Carey, and many like him, believed MOOCs would upend historical, antiquated models of higher education in rapid pace. Whereas knowledge had been confined to the gothic libraries of the Ivys and major research institutions, now it would be democratized. These MOOCs, however, haven’t ushered in a new era, at least not to the degree anticipated. It turned out that, although millions of people signed up for MOOCs, they registered abysmal completion rates. And, consequently, the optimism associated with MOOCs waned.

Still, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a massive transformation in the way we go about higher education in the future — there almost certainly will be.

With the evolving and global knowledge economy, rapid developments in technology, A.I., and digital platforms, greater understanding of effective teaching practices, rising college tuition costs, and heightened public focus on how universities should prepare students for the careers of tomorrow, the question is more important than ever: what is to become of higher education?

Preparing Students for … What?

If you asked someone on the street what the role of higher education is most people would provide a simple and reasonable answer: to help people get good jobs. While nods to the additional roles the university can and does play are important, the primary metric many use to judge the effectiveness of a school is whether it places its graduates in good, reasonably well-paying jobs. Of course, universities should be held accountable to this. And while there are certainly changes that need to be made within higher education, universities taken collectively still offer good overall benefits to those who graduate. According to a New York Times article, a college degree provides a mean $365,000 lifetime benefit for men and a mean $185,000 for women (this includes subtracting all direct and indirect costs of college over a lifetime). Further, it’s good for the country to produce college graduates. For every American that graduates college, federal, state, and municipal governments make a profit of $231,000 through lower unemployment benefits paid and higher income taxes.

investment in education

Although universities can clearly speak of the benefits for those who engage with and complete their services, suspicion remains about whether college is preparing students to be successful for the future. Part of this concern stems from the acknowledgement that the future of the “world of work” is uncertain. It’s estimated that by 2030 roughly 50 percent of current jobs will be replaced by technology, and no one knows exactly which new jobs will emerge as a result. Contract and freelance work has also ballooned by more than 50 percent in the ten years following 2005, and will only continue to do so, diminishing the presence of traditional, full-time work models. And employee expectations regarding their employers and careers have shifted, with greater demand now placed on workplace flexibility, career development opportunities, and roles that provide purpose as opposed to merely a paycheck.

How do universities ensure they aren’t only preparing students for jobs that will become obsolete in a few years?

Despite the ambiguity, though, the questions still remain for universities: how is the higher education system preparing students for jobs, some of which don’t even exist yet? And to take it a step further, how do universities ensure they aren’t only preparing students for jobs that will become obsolete in a few years?

Questions like these portend massive changes in the way teaching and learning will be conducted in the modern world. For over a century we have had a specific model of higher education: young students attend university for four years and are doled out focused attention and teaching (in optimal cases), preparing them for a long and successful career after they graduate. Aside from the minority who continue onto professional and graduate education, the time of intensive learning in this traditional model is circumscribed to roughly four consecutive years during early adulthood.

Jeffrey Selingo, author and founding director of the Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership, wrote in an Atlantic article that the future of education is “likely to be marked by continual training throughout [people’s] lifetime[s],” and that they will most likely do this “in short spurts when they need it, rather than in lengthy blocks of time as they do now.”

Such notions aren’t only the conjectures of an informed journalist, but a pending reality. Stanford is considering a concept known as the “open loop university,” where students don’t receive a traditional, four-year education in early adulthood, but are granted a total of six years that they can use throughout their lifetime, “looping” back into Stanford as needed to take courses for new skills as they progress through their careers. The University of Michigan’s top-ranked business school, Ross, already offers something like this, where graduate business students’ tuition is more of a “membership fee,” allowing them to continue to takes courses and access the business school’s vast resources later on as alumni.

The Obsession with STEM

Beyond the shifting format of schooling, another response in light of our technologically-saturated landscape is a heightened focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. The logic proceeds that if indeed our world is going to be powered by A.I., the cloud, and legions of platform technologies, then that’s precisely where we need to be focusing our efforts. This, naturally, is true. The future will only require more college graduates to be equipped with technical skills, whether that’s being able to navigate current technologies in everyday work settings or to be successful in advanced tech fields. One consequence among many of this mindset: the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point recently proposed cutting 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences, including staple programs like History, English, and Philosophy to make way for programs with “clear career pathways.”

A college education is supposed to prepare students for a lifetime of career success, not just immediate success in their first job after school.

The problem with this view is that it’s strictly utilitarian. With only a myopic focus on return on investment, we lose sight of the other important benefits of higher education. Yes, it’s true that a student who graduates with a STEM degree, on average, can more easily obtain a higher salary from their first job than someone who majors in philosophy or history. However, basing the success of a student’s education on an entry-level job salary is shortsighted.

A college education is supposed to prepare students for a lifetime of career success, not just immediate success in their first job after school. Besides, while most majors in the STEM fields are going to correlate with higher initial salaries, in the long run this is not always the case.

Related Article: Women are underrepresented in most science, technology, engineering, and math fields. What are the various reasons for why this might be the case? And what can be done to create greater equality in STEM?

Left And Right Brain

“The longitude data shows that folks with liberal arts degrees actually earn more in the long run than some of our hard skill professional degrees, not that that’s a bad choice of course,” said Jim Daichendt, Ed.D., PLNU dean of colleges.

A Bloomberg article with the sensational title “Software Engineers Will Work One Day for English Majors” examines how humanities majors over time tend to make more money than some of their more technical counterpart peers. This isn’t to say that members from some of the highest paying STEM careers — physicians, architects, computer scientists — aren’t going to continue to command the highest pay scales, but that a humanities or liberal arts degree doesn’t automatically consign one to a meager life income.

Daniel Davis, Ph.D., a cultural sociologist at PLNU who studies the intersections of careers, higher education, and organizations, agreed that an immoderate focus on STEM and more vocational degrees (nursing, business, engineering, etc.) can be problematic.

“I get a little nervous when the majority of bachelor’s degrees are in vocational fields,” Davis shared. “I teach sociology students and sometimes near graduation I hear people ask, ‘What are you going to do with that degree?’ The reality is that they can do basically anything they want, as long as they still acquire certain job skills.”

Davis clarified that, yes, there are still certain skills that students of every discipline should have that are explicitly transferrable for work. Some of these skills should be taught within the university, especially in professional programs like accounting, nursing, and engineering. However, employers shouldn’t be off the hook either when it comes to training students. The employers that expect colleges to function essentially as training factories don’t always have a comprehensive view of what the university is meant to do.

An article in the Washington Post points to an Accenture study in 2011 that “showed that only about a fifth of employees reported getting on-the-job training from their employers over the past five years.” The takeaway? Employers haven’t always done their part in ensuring workers are constantly learning new skills.

University or Factory?

Turning back to the university, which still has a responsibility in preparing their graduates to be successful, it becomes about balancing teaching technical, on-the-job skills (even for humanities and arts majors) with more encompassing skills like creativity, critical reasoning, interpersonal relationship-building, and adaptive learning — the type of skills traditionally embodied by a liberal arts education.

“Jobs are changing so fast that the only skills that are actually going to be useful over time are the classic ones that include reading, writing, thinking, and so on,” Davis said. “The best education we can provide is teaching students to be self-learners, then we can add the vocational training on top of that.”

Paradoxically, the increase in the pace of technological development leads to a greater need for non-technical skills, especially in a world where a certain amount of technical work can be outsourced to A.I. A recent article in MIT Sloan Management Review examines the need to foster certain “soft skills” since these are precisely the type of skills that human beings have a distinctive advantage over machines in. Those courses on The Canterbury Tales, Romantic poetry, and Kantian ethics may not correlate to a specific “job requirement,” but the skills and perspectives gained in such courses do foster the ability to function well in a world constantly in flux. It’s in using our understanding of diverse cultural beliefs and histories, ethical principles and human behaviors, and philosophies and modes of expression that we can filter our application of technical skills to best meet the complex problems of the future.

Related Article: Technological innovations, the transformation of public values and priorities, and an increased emphasis on what can be called a “knowledge economy” are changing the world of business. PLNU professors consider how to prepare for it.

The university, at its best, isn’t merely a factory for producing efficient and qualified workers, as if people are to be fashioned into well-oiled cogs of a productive economy.

“The role of university is not just about preparing students for the workforce, though there is a place for that,” Daichendt said. “But I also think the university, especially Christian higher education, has a larger purpose as well: training reflective thinkers who are committed to Christ and His work.”

The university, at its best, isn’t merely a factory for producing efficient and qualified workers, as if people are to be fashioned into well-oiled cogs of a productive economy.

This, again, doesn’t mean a university can’t and shouldn’t prepare students for employment, but that the university also serves trans-material purposes: the formation of a thinking citizenry, a space that inspires students to live well, and, at its apex, a community that opens up students to the reality of God and their purpose in life.

online education

An Outdated Learning Model

The way universities go about teaching is also on the brink of revolution. As is often the case when speculations about innovations are concerned, there is a tendency to immoderately extol technology. This was evidenced when the MOOCs were originally launched, and there was talk of A.I. being able to cheaply provide personalized, human-like attention to millions of individual students.

It’s true that as A.I. becomes more advanced it will become more likely for it to provide customized and specific attention to students in the form of online or digital learning environments. But we’re certainly not on the brink of a digital Socrates that can get at the heart of the vast complexities of teaching and learning.

Cathy N. Davidson’s, Ph.D., examines this issue specifically in her book The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux. Davidson is not only a professor, author, and director of the Future Initiatives at the City University of New York (CUNY), but she has also conducted substantial scholarship on higher education. With respect to the MOOCs, it’s not that the technology is inherently problematic (she would refer to those who take this stance as “technophobics”), but that using technology to reproduce what’s already happening in person is insufficient. We need to change the way we’re teaching students at the core. This is especially the case at large schools where most students sit in lecture halls and are fed information that they’re asked to regurgitate in controlled and limited settings. Of this traditional style of teaching, Mark Twain humorously wrote that “college is a place where professors’ lecture notes go straight to the the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.”

Davidson sees the current problem in university teaching spanning back 150 years, when Charles Eliot redesigned the university experience to align with measurable, scientifically valid practices. Heavily influenced by the industrial revolution and theories related to the division of labor and worker efficiency, Eliot moved all universities, starting with that acme institution — Harvard — to embrace “a system driven by selective admissions testing and measurable outcomes,” to create distinct and specialized departments, and to establish things like GPA and selectivity rankings. Davidson is not saying that in some ways these weren’t beneficial for the time, but, rather, that they’re becoming outdated.

Applying What We Know to Know More

The latest research in pedagogy and teaching reveals that we learn best when we work in collaborative environments. Davidson confirms this, writing in a study that compared the efficacy of lectures (“continuous exposition by the teacher”) to active learning (“the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class”) that active learning yielding “greater success rates, completion rates, and higher exam grades than the traditional lecturing methods.”

This is primarily why an MOOC that relies on lectures and generic homework assignments will not revolutionize the future of education.

PLNU chemistry professor Mathieu Rouffet, Ph.D., has relied on new technology not to replace his teaching, but to augment it. For Rouffet, to fail to incorporate the latest technologies and pedagogical insights appropriately to enhance learning is undermining to his commitment to the university and its students.

“If the world is changing and we don’t adapt to address the needs of our students, then we are not helping them become who they are called to be,” Rouffet said. Our students, and many of their parents, invest in PLNU, and it’s my responsibility as a faculty member to make sure that students learn what they need to learn.”

This is primarily why an MOOC that relies on lectures and generic homework assignments will not revolutionize the future of education.

A couple examples include using electronic clickers to allow students to anonymously indicate their level of understanding or employing cutting-edge presentation technology that allows Rouffet to meander around his classroom and engage students face-to-face while sketching diagrams and models electronically on the fly for the entire class to view.

Another example Rouffet offered is PLNU’s Summer Research program, where a selection of science students work in a lab for ten weeks over two consecutive summers with faculty mentors on real-world research.

“In our Summer Research program, we emphasize soft skills on top of the hard skills,” Rouffet shared. “One way we do this is by having students present their research bi-weekly to the other students, allowing us faculty to critique their presentations and improve their communication skills. Each faculty mentor spends a lot of time everyday with their students, guiding them on how to do research. Students become proficient at doing science, of course, but also learn to work in a team and know how to effectively communicate with others. This type of experience makes them ready to work in the field after they graduate.”

Related Article: PLNU student Jasmine Myles shares about her Summer Research experience in chemistry.

Although PLNU has maintained programs like this one, the school continues to consider the need to incorporate technological innovation with the best in teaching practices in order to equip students for the future of work.

One way forward is the creation of a learning commons. A learning commons, according to Daichendt, combines cutting edge technology and modern architecture to allow for a space where students can collaborate with peers, practice presentations, study comfortably for long hours, and pursue the knowledge necessary for their studies and future careers. It also provides a “makerspace,” where high-level computer programs, 3D printers, textiles, scanning technologies, editing equipment, and more are available for students to complete various academic projects and acquire technological skills.

“Knowledge needs to be shared between disciplines, because that’s where the most complex problems are in life,” Daichendt said. “A learning commons is something that can create a space that facilitates that. It reorganizes the way a library is traditionally laid out so that you have access to various technologies. This would include training for students, because access to a space like this is one thing, but students need to learn how to approach problems and apply these new technologies in collaboration with others.”

Bridging Education and Work

These type of revolutionary changes in teaching and learning need to happen at all all levels of education, not only the university. Ed Hidalgo is the Chief Innovation and Engagement Officer for the El Cajon Union School District. He is involved in a program that integrates traditional learning subjects with modern, innovative programs to help prepare students for healthy careers and lives.

In this K-8 program, every child is exposed to a modern curriculum, which involves nurturing computer literacy, developing TedX presentation skills (each classroom has a red circle to emulate the famous presentation series), and fostering social-emotional skills that will matter in students’ future careers: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and so on. On top of this, students experience the “World of Work” initiative, where they receive hands-on exposure to different types of careers at every grade and develop self-awareness regarding their own interests, strengths, and workplace values.

Imagine if students went to college (assuming they felt it was right for what they wanted to do) already with a clearer sense of how their gifts, interests, and passions can align to find work that is both meaningful and financially sustainable? This makes a lot of sense, as it would prevent students from going into massive debt to attend college for a career path that might only require a two-year degree. College would still offer a time for exploration and self-discovery, but students wouldn’t be starting from scratch, so to speak.

“By the time you get to college, students should be learning advanced skills in collaboration with others and also getting their foot into places of work through internships and mentoring,” Hidalgo shared.

Providing students with experiences to learn more about the world beyond PLNU is a priority for Rebecca Smith, executive director for PLNU’s Offices of Strengths & Vocation, the university career center. Ten years ago, Smith actually worked with Hidalgo at Qualcomm’s employee career center.

Workers standing together

“You have made decisions, encountered obstacles, handled transitions, and followed God to arrive here at PLNU. Students need to hear those stories.”

“The world needs our students to live out their callings,” Smith said. “They tell me they are interested in so many things — travel, sustainability, music production, cyber security, visual arts, physical therapy, entrepreneurship. Most often, they just say they want to help people and make a difference.”

Watch Now: PLNU alum Nate Cadieux (08) works to build toward his dream of a more connected and relationship-based San Diego.

Smith believes that “career development,” which is the work of her OSV team at PLNU, can be shared by faculty and staff. During a recent new faculty orientation, she invited professors to consider their own career journey.

“You have made decisions, encountered obstacles, handled transitions, and followed God to arrive here at PLNU,” Smith said. “Students need to hear those stories.”

Professors resonated with her approach. One new professor talked about changing fields from science to writing. Another professor said she never envisioned herself as an educator, yet she’s found her calling in the classroom.

“We’re sending our students out into a world that is ever shifting. They may end up in jobs and industries that don’t yet exist, in companies and organizations that have yet to form,” Smith explained. “They may event start those new businesses. We have the opportunity to to remind students that God is our constant; He’s already prepared amazing work for us to do.”

It’s a formidable task, to be sure, for PLNU and other universities to engage, but a necessary one. It’s clear that universities will need to implement a combination of vocational skills and traditional liberal arts knowledge in a form and capacity that fosters authentic and lifelong learning to prepare students to be successful no matter what jobs exist tomorrow. And this can only be done by adopting new, innovative, and technologically-aided teaching models that focus on the student as a dignified individual, not an economic output. And for PLNU, this ultimately means offering an education grounded in Christ’s truth that not only aides graduates in finding good and well-paying jobs, but in pursuing the work they’re called to do to help all of us flourish.

Christopher Hazell is a writer and editor. He is the author of Ends in Mind, a newsletter about culture, technology, Christian spirituality, the arts, and more.