U.S. Higher Education in Transition

By James Morrison

[Note: This article is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon (2003), 11(1), pp. 6-10. It is posted here with permission from Emerald. The Spanish translation was published in Uni-pluri/versidad, Vol. 3, No. 1, in March 2003.]

American higher education is undergoing substantial change in terms of the way colleges and universities are organized and function. This change is being driven by the combined forces of demographics, globalization, economic restructuring, and information technology (IT)—forces that will, over the coming decade, lead us to adopt new conceptions of educational markets, organizational structures, how we teach, and what we teach. The purpose of this article is to describe these forces and speculate on their effects on higher education in the US and other mature industrial societies.

Demographic Forces

Today, four demographic changes are affecting higher education. First, the ethnic identification mix of the general population is changing both in the US and in the world, although the changes vary by geographical area. This is perhaps best represented by examining the proportion of the white population in these areas. Between 1970 and 2000, New York City’s population shifted from two-thirds to one-third white. In several states white children are no longer the majority in the elementary grades. Before the end of this century, demographers generally expect Euro-descended Americans to make up less than half of the U.S. population (Nasser, 2000). This change is reflected worldwide, in that the proportion of the population that is white is decreasing and is projected to continue to decrease. To be effective in this environment, colleges and universities must ensure that their curriculums provide opportunities for students to learn how to function effectively in an increasingly diverse, multi-cultural global environment.

Second, the demand for access to some form of postsecondary education is increasing dramatically. An ever-greater proportion of high school graduates is enrolling in college (67 percent today vs. 56 percent in 1980), and the size of the high school graduating class will grow by more than 20 percent between 1996 and 2005. The National Center for Education Statistics (2001a) reported a 2 percent increase in college enrollments in 2001 and projects that enrollment will grow by an additional 16 percent over the next decade, mainly because of an increase in the college-age population. The  demand for education is exacerbated by a general shortage of postsecondary faculty members; the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of college and university faculty will need to grow by 16.6 percent during this decade to meet replacement and growth demands (Snyder et al.,  2002).

Third, the age demographic within the US and other industrialized countries is changing. The National Center for Educational Statistics (2001b) estimates that in the US, 43 percent of adults will be age 50 or older by 2010, and 50 percent of all college students will be over 21. By 2004, 100 million Americans will take part in adult education programs (for 1995, this figure was 76 million). The “graying” of the population is also reflected in the graying of the workforce, a workforce that needs continuing education to remain viable.

Fourth, within this decade, more than 20 percent of college and university faculty members will retire (American Demographics, 2001), thereby allowing new talent into the ranks of the professorate—talent that is comfortable using information technology tools in their work. 

Globalization and the Economy

Globalization generally entails the international movement of capital, labor, products, technology, and information in increasingly expanding amounts. The global economy is driven by regional free trade, multinational corporations, and information technology. Of the world’s largest economies, 51 are multinational corporations and 49 are countries. The gross domestic product of Wal-Mart is greater than that of 12 countries combined (Wolf, 2002).

IT industries play a major role in the global economy. In the US, 60 percent of the GNP is related to them. Since 1995, IT has sustained more than one-third of U.S. economic growth. In five years, most new US jobs will be in computer-related fields: The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2002) projects that computer-related occupations will grow 86 percent from 2000 to 2010. 

In this environment, business-to-business e-commerce is also expanding rapidly. The Gartner Group projects that this economic sector will exceed $7 trillion dollars by 2004 (Iwata, 2000). Consequently, some 95 percent of the workforce will soon need to use some type of information technology in their jobs.

In response to emerging free trade initiatives, business organizations are downsizing and restructuring to adapt to an increasingly competitive global economy. Workers need constant retraining if their employers are to remain in business and if they are to retain their jobs. The American Society for Training and Development estimates that 75 percent of the current workforce will need to be retrained just to stay sufficiently qualified for employment (Marklein, 1997).

To summarize, in the US and in mature industrial democracies around the world, there is increasing demand for access to higher education from increasing numbers of secondary school graduates. When we combine this demand for higher education from youth with the growing need to retrain employees mid-career, we can confidently assume that the existing labor-intensive, bricks-and-mortar campuses will not have the resources (physical or financial) to meet the demand.

In order to meet unprecedented demand for access, colleges and universities need to expand their use of IT tools via online learning, which will enable them to teach more students without building more classrooms. Moreover, in order for professors to prepare their pupils for success in the global economy, they need to ensure that students can access, analyze, process, and communicate information; use information technology tools; work with people from different cultural backgrounds; and engage in continuous, self-directed learning.


IT has a major effect on our lives today and will continue to do so in the future. According to Moore’s Law, formulated more than 20 years ago by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, the power of computer technology effectively doubles every 18 months while the price of technology decreases at the same rate. Intel, for example, has recently developed transistors with elements as narrow as three atoms wide. Chips with these miniscule elements can contain approximately 400 million transistors and can consequently run at 10 GHz on less than one volt of power. (In contrast, current Pentium 4 chips contain 42 million transistors and run at 1.5 GHz.) Although Moore’s Law has remained valid to date, researchers have speculated about when the laws of physics might stop it. Early in the last decade, Moore himself estimated that the trend would probably cease when transistors shrunk to around 0.25 microns. But chips with transistors that size came out in 1997. Since then, IBM has developed a gigabyte hard drive that is the size of two quarters pasted together, yet is large enough to contain 1,000 books. In August 2002, Seagate announced that it had exceeded IBM, squeezing 50 terabits to a square inch, and indicated that it will eventually offer a 1 terabyte (2-3 million books) drive for $300.00 (Ng, 2002).

The implications of Moore’s law are profound. We can expect machine intelligence to be embedded in smaller and more powerful devices, which may lead to computers that are capable of thought and that can support visualizations, simulations, modeling, and animation.

Metcalf’s law states that available bandwidth will double with no change in price every 18 months. Along with advances in wireless technology, this trend will make it possible to stay continuously connected to networks, anywhere and anytime. When we combine smaller, more powerful, and less expensive (and therefore more accessible) computers with the power of the Internet to quickly connect people across the globe via audio, video, and text, we have the means to transform our culture. And that is precisely what is happening now. We can anticipate that, in the future, computers will be as easy to use and as ubiquitous and reliable as telephones are today. These machines, equipped with decision algorithms and expert systems, will enable schools to greatly enrich the educational experience through virtual reality simulations and through such tools as peer-to-peer groupware to facilitate project-based team learning.

Signals of Change

All around us, there are a number of signals that higher education is headed for a major transformation. Consider the following:

4    The number of e-mails sent on an average day was 10 billion in 2000; 35 billion are expected in 2005 (Zuckerman, 2001).

4    Cable and phone companies are consolidating to provide more efficient forms of interactive multimedia programming (Stern, 2002).

4    Educational courses and programs are being designed, produced, and distributed by corporations.

4    The UK Higher Education Funding Counsel has estimated the global online learning market to be $70 billion (Kelly, 2000).

4    Merrill Lynch calculated that the higher-education market outside the US is worth $111 billion a year, and it projected a potential consumer base of 32 million students. More than half of the market, in terms of both students and money, is based in China (Moe, 1998).

4    The National Institute of Standards and Technology estimates that by 2004, the US e-learning market will grow to $46 billion; the International Data Corporation projects that it will expand to more than 35 percent of the total training market by 2004, up from 10 percent in 1999 (Morton, 2001).

4    Army online ( started last year and expects to have 85,000 online students by 2005 (Lorenzo, 2002).

4    The distance-learning market for fully online degree programs is growing at an annual rate of 40 percent (Gallagher & Newman, 2002).

4    A Pew-funded program at the University of Rochester has sponsored projects at VPI and other institutions to demonstrate how colleges and universities can use Web-enabled courses to handle more students more efficiently, and less expensively, without loss of quality (Morrison & Twigg, 2001).

4    Cisco's classroom programs cost as much as $1,800 per worker, whereas Web-based classes cost approximately $120 per worker (Sunday Times, 2001).

4    The total number of corporate universities expanded from 400 in 1990 to 2,000 in 2000. Average enrollment in these institutions is increasing 30 percent per year. By 2003, corporations will provide 96 percent of their training online. By 2010, corporate training universities are likely to outnumber traditional colleges and universities (Morrison & Meister, 2001).

4    The dean of the University of Chicago School of Business predicts that “Corporate training and distance learning will ‘wipe out’ many of the 700 MBA programs that issue 100,000 MBAs each year” (Jones, 2000, B1).

4    The Western Governors University, a virtual university sponsored by 10 western states, awards competency-based degrees (Morrison & Mendenhall, 2001).

4    At the University College of the Caribou (Canada), students pay monthly tuition until they have completed their courses (Morrison & Twigg, 2001).

4    At Rio Salado College (Arizona), student enrollment is continuous, with new classes beginning every 2 weeks (Morrison & Twigg, 2001).

4    In 2001, 72 percent of colleges and universities offered distance education courses; in 1999, only 48 percent of institutions offered such courses.

4    In 2000, 49 percent of colleges provided Internet connections in classrooms; in 2002, this figure grew to 64 percent.

4    According to a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 77 percent of colleges provided online enrollment to prospective students in 2001, up from 68 percent in 1998. Some colleges (e.g., West Virginia Wesleyan and MIT) require all prospective students to submit their applications online.

4    In collaboration with its partner libraries, the Library of Congress is launching a pilot project to form a global reference desk so that librarians’ expertise will be available to users 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

4    Five percent of all postsecondary institutions currently require students to have a personal computer.

4    In spring 2001, Stanford University graduated the first 25 students from its global online engineering program (Harmon, 2001).

4    Universitas 21—a high-profile international consortium of 17 universities in Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America—plans to sell online degrees to a global market. Created in 1997, the consortium intends to offer a master's degree throughout Asia in early 2003 (O’Hagan, 2002). 

Finally, younger students are changing. On the whole, they are far more comfortable using computers, telecommunications, and multimedia than their elders. In light of current trends in household computer use, most members of the upcoming Generation Z may be computer literate before they hit grade school. Currently, more than 50 percent of US school districts depend on some form of student assistance to maintain computer networks and to help instructors use IT tools. In a recent article in On the Horizon, Marc Prensky (2002) coined the phrase “Digital Natives” to describe the current breed of young students, who are accustomed to hypertext, phones in their pockets, a library on their laptops, and instant messaging. They have little patience for in-class lectures or modes of instruction that require them to regurgitate information through pencil-and-paper tests. Their cultural background is also reflected in their speech: For example, one kindergartener expressed his feelings at lunchtime by saying “,” while a high school student reportedly said, “Every time I go to school I have to power down.”

The Transition

Based on these trends, what sort of institutional changes can we expect to see in upcoming decades? I believe that colleges and universities will no longer limit themselves to a given geographical market area, but will view their markets as limited only to people who have Internet access and who are proficient in English—although the latter restriction may eventually fade with the development of computer-mediated language programs. This perspective will be adopted not only by an increasing number of comprehensive institutions, but also by two-year colleges, both public and private.

Although some inter-campus consortia exist today, such collaborations will be commonplace in 10 years. More and more institutions will establish extensive partnerships with vendors and with other institutions to enrich their online curricular offerings and to create organizational distinction and comparative advantage in a competitive environment. Many colleges and universities will be completely virtual, while residential campuses will offer predominantly hybrid courses: face-to-face classes supplemented by individual and collaborative online projects. Substantial online instructional capability will be a standard feature of practically all institutions in the USA. Moreover, institutions will predominately use competency-based exams (rather than credit-hour accomplishment) to award degrees and will guarantee that individuals who receive these degrees are indeed qualified to perform at the implied level.

In the coming decade, traditional semester/quarter/trimester academic schedules will be reorganized to incorporate varying lengths of time for online learning modules. Enrollments, once set at specific times during the year, will become continuous (e.g., once every month).

Most important of all, as changing demographics and technology alter the context of higher education, the mind-set of faculty members will have to change as well. Specifically, instead of viewing themselves primarily as content providers in their teaching role, professors will see themselves as designers of learning experiences for an increasingly diverse student population. Students, viewed today as sponges whose task is to soak up knowledge from their professors (Spector, 2002), will be seen as junior colleagues who acquire knowledge while working through project-based courses. Faculty members will no longer work in isolation, but will serve on teams of instructional designers, media support staff, and assessment specialists. These teams will prepare courses that can be taught online or as hybrid courses in campus classrooms. Classes will be conducted largely by junior professors, instructors, or, in universities, by graduate assistants who will mentor students as they progress through virtual courses.

For user-friendly environments to succeed, traditional administrative structures must change as well. Katz (2002) points out that administrators must work within a team-based, multidisciplinary organizations if they hope to meet student demands for round-the-clock access to services (e.g., online course materials, grade reports, loan applications and payments, and class registration).

At the same time that IT is transforming the world of administrators, teachers and students, it is also changing the context of scholarship. Specifically, the movement spearheaded by MIT in 2002 to put faculty scholarship online—in conjunction with the efforts of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPAR), as well as the free online scholarship movement—will establish the acceptability of peer-reviewed online scholarship in terms of merit, tenure, and promotion considerations.

In 2020, the landscape of higher education in the US will look very different. There will still be many bricks-and-mortar residential campuses, particularly for the young, but their classes will be hybridized (i.e., a combination of online and in-class instruction). Instructors will no longer rely on lectures as the predominant mode of instruction; rather, group and individual project-based learning will be the pedagogical norm. The focus of education will be to produce graduates who can use a variety of information technology tools and techniques to access, evaluate, analyze, and communicate information and who can work effectively in teams with people from different ethnic groups. In this way, institutions will better prepare their students to address a wide range of real-world issues and choices, the tidy answers to which are not in the back of a textbook.

The old hierarchical, geographically based university is dying. But progressive educators and innovative reformers are revivifying the institution, using rapidly maturing information technologies and building upon the timeless values of scholarship, collegiality, open dialogue, and intellectual integrity to create a post-industrial university that will be capable of reaching both new heights of academic excellence and new breadths of community access and social utility.

“Long life to the new university!”


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