Trends to watch in 2016: education contexts

What can we anticipate about education and technology in 2016?  Trends from 2015 may shed some anticipatory light, if we extrapolate from them.

I’m basing this post and successors on my FTTE report.  I’m also inspired in this post by Audrey Watters‘ recent series of ed-tech trends (here’s the latest) and by Webb Media‘s very rich 2016 technology trends presentation.

Let’s look first at the immediate contexts of education: demographics, policies, finance, and culture, with an emphasis on the United States.  It’s a complicated picture, with a lot of challenging and frankly dangerous trends.

Demographics.  Our median age continues to rise as the American population “grays”, with an expanding senior demographic and a smaller K-12 population.   Perhaps we’ll see campuses growing their adult education efforts, especially online, and maybe reaching out to retirees.

International education. While America continues its experiment with privatizing and financializing higher education, the rest of the world has been busy looking on with horror sending some students our way, while generally trying to grow their own postsecondary capacity.  When some universities consider raising prices in the barest hint of an American direction, students often rebel.

Trends, photo by Mike Coghlan

Economics. America’s economy continues to mutate away from 20th-century norms.  Workforce participation has ratcheted down and stayed there.  Automation makes inroads, and we continue to switch over from manufacturing to information service jobs.

Income and wealth inequality looks likely to grow, as neither structural nor policy checks seem likely to take hold in 2016.  Instead, government policies actively support what looks a lot like an oligarchy. The middle class continues to shrink, as some people exit for riches, while others sink below. Primary and secondary schooling are already deeply determined by class differences.

Inequality has already started reshaping higher education.  It has driven a widening class divide in college attendance.  The gap between senior administration and adjunct faculty is pretty astonishing. Gaps between institutions in terms of their wealth – i.e., endowments, for those who have them – also grew, and will probably blossom.  On the media front, we’ve already seen a popular strategy of considering elite institutions as representatives of the whole.

Students and enrollment. The number of students taking classes from American colleges and universities has gone down over the past three and a half years.  If this trend holds, expect smaller enrollments in spring and fall 2016, especially in for-profits and community colleges.

overall enrollment decline 2012-2015

There is one interestingly opposed trend: the thought that maybe fewer people should go to college.  I rarely hear this expressed in public, but encounter it on nearly every campus I visit, sometimes muttered, otherwise stated proudly.

Recall that veterans will continue to constitute a significant and growing proportion of the student body.

When it comes to the traditional-age undergraduate population, I’ll bet money we’ll see continued bashing from older folks.  Ah, Baby Boomers complaining about today’s youth – that, at least, never gets old.

Student unrest suddenly spiked up in American academia during 2015.  Protests usually didn’t touch tuition and the economy, but instead focused on racism.

Graduates students are likely to become more international, more female, and more oriented towards STEM, if recent years are any guide.  There’s huge demand for nursing. Law schools may shrink further, merge, or close.

Financing higher education. Unless someone discovers a magic formula other than “being Harvard”, we should expect continued stress on what may be a generally unsustainable business model.  Adjunctification is likely to persist, even as adjuncts unionize.  Discount rates are likely to climb.  State support for public institutions doesn’t seem to be coming back, especially in some states. Fees should rise, including ones to support athletics.  Student debt should increase, unless there’s a massive pricing down-shifting in where learners go (one hint of that: more younger students are living at home).

Economies of scale might nudge students from smaller to larger institutions, as happened in New Jersey.  The impact of wealthy donors should increase, with possible side effects on academic freedom for the dwindling number of faculty who actually possess claims on such a thing.

Queen sacrifices hummed along nicely in 2015; we should watch for more in 2016. Look for campuses experiencing enrollment and revenue shortfalls.  Perhaps this strategy will be well known enough to become a bargaining chip/bluff in contract negotiations.

As an alternative to that sacrifice, we could see mergers occur.  Short of that, some actual inter-institutional collaboration in order to derive economies of scale, etc.

While some faculty and outside observers criticized high compensation paid to senior campus administrators, those packages show no sign of shrinking.

Politics. One year into the endless, hideously expensive presidential campaign and the politics are diverging.  There are signs of leading Democrats heading back to 20th-century levels of teacher support.  The collapse of No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top could signal the opposite stance in K-12, of the feds withdrawing.

2015 saw campus sexual assault concerns reach a historically unprecedented level, between media coverage, federal policy, and popular discussion… only to fall back in a whirl of one major story’s collapse, wrangles over the problem’s scale, lawsuits from accused men, and due process concerns.  I’m not sure how this continues in 2016, although it is possible the campaign season will see more attention paid.

Culture and attitudes. The crisis in higher education meme looks strong so far.  Americans are generally anxious about post-secondary schooling.  Unless this reverses, we should expect more popular pressure to somehow fix or do something to or about higher ed.

Except for science, which divides Americans.  There’s a rising current of pro-science, pro-engineering support, as seen in at least one popular movie.  Against this I’d pit continued anti-STEM feelings, especially on climate change or stemming (see what I did there?) from religion (cf Arizona).

Competition from outside. We saw coding academies take off in 2015; perhaps they will grow and eat up some students who would otherwise take classes in traditional institutions.  Perhaps European schools will be able to parlay their rogue business model (free tuition) and grab American students in larger numbers.  Overall, watch for competitors. (Horizon Report)

Next up: trends in technology.

(big trend arrow photo by Michael Coghlan)

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2 Responses to Trends to watch in 2016: education contexts

  1. Pingback: Trends to watch in 2016: technologies | Bryan Alexander

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