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Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education

Reviewed by Stephen J. Handel, PhD

May 01, 2024

This review by ECMC Foundation's Stephen J. Handel, PhD, was originally published in College & University Journal.

There are two kinds of books that attempt to describe U.S. higher education’s future. The first and best sort need not be accurate, only fantastic—like a believable science fiction movie: other-worldly yet moored to familiar shores. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) over Solaris (2002/1972). The second kind of book attempts something more difficult, perhaps even more useful, but is almost always a dreary reading experience for me. Rather than claim a single narrative for the future, the visionary author offers several, almost always contradictory, universes. Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education by Bryan Alexander falls into this second category of books. It is closely aligned with similarly futuristic books I have reviewed in this journal, including The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future (2021), The Low-Density University: 15 Scenarios for Higher Education (2021), and Alternative Universities: Speculative Design in Higher Education (2019).

Candidly, both book types trouble me. I can never get Jimmy Stewart’s Harvey (1950) out of my head. These futurists—erudite, enthusiastic, earnest—seem to be describing a big white pooka that I want to see but can’t. Moreover, despite the fact that higher education futurists are serious people making ambitious but thoughtful claims, their books strike me as almost beside the point. Making predictions—especially about the future insisted Yogi Berra—is both hard and inconsequential when one considers the titanic forces of global commerce, political expediency, and the climatic impact of nature that shape our destiny. I realize I am out on a limb here. You will rightly argue that peering into the future—and making bets on that future—is a key characteristic of Homo sapiens. It is perhaps our most important skill. Stockbrokers betting on pork-belly futures, not to mention college presidents pouring money into the latest STEM majors, stake their respective careers on making the right call. One could argue that planning for the future has kept our species viable (the Black Plague, the Chicago Fire, and almost every movie by Marvel Studios notwithstanding). That realization, however, does not make reading such books for me any more revealing than my certainty that airline seats will get narrower in my lifetime.

So why did I offer to draft an essay on Academia Next? I was intrigued because the book was published immediately before the pandemic but was reissued in 2022 with a new introduction from the author. Sheepishly, I was interested in knowing what Alexander got right. (More unfairness. Every futurist will tell you that they don’t make predictions, only informed speculations. I don’t know if psychics have a union, but if they do, that could explain futurists’ reticence to prophesize).

Alexander’s book begins well with a description of five trends (and one mega trend) that will impact higher education. There is nothing especially new about these trends; those of us who work in higher education have been grappling with their implications for some time. His examples include the shifting demographics of the college-going population, the rise of income inequality in the United States, and the potential of silicon- and carbon-based technologies to transform higher education. Alexander then uses these well-understood trends as a throughline to inform his speculations about what our colleges and universities will look like in the future. Still, almost out of the gate, Alexander alerts us to the following: “Imagine a future academy after a major pandemic has struck the world, perhaps along the lines of the early twentieth century’s Great Influenza…Would distance learning grow rapidly as people fear face-to-face learning because of perceived contagion risk? Similarly, would we take conferences and other forms of professional development on-line? Would athletes refrain from practice…or would institutions and the general public demand more college sports as an inspirational sign of bodily vigor in the context of sickness and death?” (23).

Prescience of a very high order or a good guess? Alexander would argue something in between. He marshals an enormous amount of data in support of the scenarios that form the bulk of his book. And he has great talent for making abstractions concrete (as in the quote above, where he invokes prosaic concerns about sports in the midst of a pandemic). Even better, Alexander knows how to ration his research findings in ways that do not overwhelm the reader. (If you wish to be overwhelmed, however, study the book’s notes section, which is more than 80 pages long).

Alexander offers seven higher education scenarios. Three of these scenarios are positive (if not gloriously so then at least not apocalyptic). “Renaissance,” as the title suggests, describes a higher education future in which the flowering of digital technologies unfolds in the same breathtaking outburst that advanced science and literature in 14th century Italy. Somewhat less dramatic is “Open Campus Triumphant,” in which the two-decades long promise of open-source technologies and resources finally hits a tipping point, becoming a powerful force in the democratization of higher education.

Alexander’s third positive scenario is called “Augmented Campus.” In this scenario, Alexander describes the use of artificial intelligence and augmented reality in higher education as an enduring characteristic of traditional colleges and universities. Campuses will look like they do today, but student and faculty reliance on advanced digital technologies will be central to daily academic life. (I note that Alexander’s scenario predicts the adoption of technologies that are causing a great deal of consternation now, such as the use of ChatGPT in the classroom.) On the downside, Alexander believes that higher education’s costs will grow under this scenario, since institutions will be required to stay up-to-date on technology to attract students who might otherwise obtain their education from a growing number of online competitors. Alexander uses the example of movie theater owners who have had to enhance their audience’s movie-going experience to
entice them away from their home streaming services.

Alexander’s final scenarios are less rosy and more radical. In “Siri, Tutor Me,” colleges will adopt the widespread application of online learning analytics and artificial intelligence. Widespread adoption, however, could make campuses obsolete. An individual’s smart phone might be the only device necessary to earn a college degree. Even more shockingly, Alexander speculates that under this scenario, “faculty members [will be] replaced by tutoring software” (191).

Alexander’s “Peak Higher Education” scenario is one in which U.S. higher education’s best days are well behind it. That’s because our current model is built on enrolling larger and larger numbers of high school graduates. Such a growth model for higher education, however, is unsustainable given the declining birth rate in the United States since the Great Recession. Of course, many colleges and universities are attempting to recalibrate their campuses to accommodate a broader set of student constituencies, but I suspect the demand of adult students for residence hall living is limited.

If higher education as we know it is in decline, what will replace it? Alexander argues that the nation’s increasing focus on health care will dominate the future economy and our colleges and universities as well. In this scenario (titled “Health Care Nation”), as Americans age with arithmetic certainty, more and more individuals will need care. Higher education will respond with programs to train more health professionals of every stripe who we might need for that future. Alexander notes the liberal arts may have the most to lose in this scenario, “as colleges seek to strike a balance between career preparation and non-market based intellectual inquiry” (162).

In “Retro Campus,” Alexander riffs on the power of nostalgic notions to recreate a higher education milieu that is cloistered and reactionary. It is a return to higher education of 20 or 30 years ago, deemphasizing digital technologies, and (re)establishing college and university campuses that existed prior to the Internet age. You might scoff at such a scenario, but the tendency of societies, including the United States, to return to more “traditional” roles is a powerful one, especially when change is rapid, and individuals feel threatened as a result.

In the final section of the book, Alexander focuses his gaze toward 2050 and beyond. His most important insight here is the realization that current scenarios for change are almost always based on digital and electronic transformations. But what about the impact of biological and genetic advancements? As he notes, the dangers are obvious and troubling: “Research into brain science has allowed early methods of physically intervening in human cognition, leading to explorations of altering mental states, connecting minds directly to computers or linking minds together… The potential for torment and abuse here is vast…” (211). In his last chapter, Alexander attempts to synthesize his speculations. He offers some suggestions about what higher education leaders might do now to better prepare for the future. His suggestions include reforming the curriculum, improving teaching, expanding access to college, and narrowing the economic divide. Alexander’s most compelling conclusion is nonetheless pessimistic, observing that most trends “describe a challenging if not dark near- and medium-term future for American higher education” (220). 

Academia Next does not insist on a white pooka. Alexander’s scenarios are neither outrageous, nor (alas) fantastic. Rather, they emanate from the author’s intellectual temperament, which strikes me as moderate, even modest. I remain uncertain, however, of the benefits we gain from those who take the time to contemplate the future. Reflection alone will not prevent the next global pandemic any more than watching Star Trek reruns will give us photon torpedoes and warp
speed. Still, if planning for the future is hard-wired in us—a dubious proposition given the number of people like me who live in California’s earthquake country—I suppose it can be done well or badly. Futurists like Alexander want us to do it well.


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