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Rhodes Lecture speaker: Innovation, adaptability keys to the future of higher education

Arthur Levine of NYU delivered the annual lecture presented by ASU's honors college


Arthur Levine, Distinguished Scholar of Higher Education at New York University, speaking behind a lectern.

Arthur Levine, Distinguished Scholar of Higher Education at New York University, talks about the future of higher education in the 2022 John J. Rhodes Lecture in Public Policy and American Institutions on March 22 in Tempe.

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March 24, 2022

Innovation, adaptability and the ability to compete in an ever-expanding market will be keys to the future of higher education in America, according to Arthur Levine, Distinguished Scholar of Higher Education at New York University, who shared his views in the 2022 Rhodes Lecture presented by Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.

“The United States is experiencing profound, unrelenting and accelerated demographic, economic and technological change, and the nation’s population is changing racially, aging, moving and coming from abroad,” Levine said in his March 22 talk, titled “The Future of Higher Education,” which took place at the Tempe Center for the Arts.  

Levine is president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University, and president emeritus of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. He has been a faculty member and chair of the Institute for Educational Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, president of Bradford College and senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation.

The country is undergoing a transformation from an industrial to a knowledge economy, and new digital technologies have emerged, he said, adding that the size, scope and rapidity of this current transformation in society rivals that of the Industrial Revolution.

“And one of the consequences of this is that all of our social institutions, every one of them, government, health care, finance, journalism and higher education, were all built for another time” and need to change to meet current challenges, he said.

Transformation in higher education will be driven by several factors, including competition in the higher education market, changing student demographics and technology, and colleges and universities will have to innovate to keep up, he said.

“We’re seeing this amazing proliferation of new content deliverers and distributors, and they’re all entering the higher education marketplace. They’re driving up institutional competition. They are providing more consumer choice and they’re driving down prices,” Levine said.

Among these are diverse independent, post-secondary institutions, as well as for profit and nonprofit organizations.

“They’re all mushrooming. They’re knowledge organizations. Libraries, museums, video companies and software companies, as well as new universities and entrepreneurial startups,” he said. 

One example is Coursera, an online, publicly-traded, learning platform company launched in 2012 that offers thousands of courses to millions of users, Levine said.

Businesses, such as Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, Price Waterhouse, Alibaba and Amazon, and nonprofits like the American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art and the World Bank, as well as universities such as Cal Tech, Colombia, Duke, Hebrew University, Johns Hopkins, Beijing University, Princeton, University of Michigan, Yale and ASU offer courses through Coursera, he said.

Specifically, for example, the American Museum of Natural History offers a doctorate in comparative biology, a Master of Arts degree in teaching, and professional development courses for teachers. Google and Microsoft offer certifications that are valued in the technology sector.

Levine called the number of programs offered outside of traditional colleges and universities “just staggering.”

“With Coursera, the real issue is not only the explosion of content, but non-elite universities are going to be particularly disadvantaged in competing with industry giants,” he said.  

Students will have “a lot more choices, and a lot of those choices will be at a lower cost and about when they learn and how they learn and where they learn,” he said.

Technology will force change on the delivery of higher education. With digital devices and the internet, students are going to seek from higher education the same things they’re getting from music, movies and newspapers, he said.

In these three industries, consumers choose round-the-clock over fixed-time access, anywhere mobile access over fixed locations, individualized over uniform or one-size-fits-all programs, and unbundled rather than bundled content — a track of an album or a story rather than a whole newspaper. In education, students will choose a course rather than buying a whole degree, he explained.

Student demographics also have a role to play in the changing higher education dynamic.

According to Levine, so-called traditional students who are 18–22, live on campus and study full time make up a small percentage of all college and university students. Many students are older, attend part time and don’t live on campus.  

These so-called non-traditional students are looking for convenience, service, low cost and relevant, up-to-date courses. They don’t want to pay for or subsidize things they don’t use, such as museums or gyms on campus, or electives they are not going to take, Levine said.

Levine explained that the reason higher education works the way it does in terms of time and process is because it is a product of the industrial age.

Higher education in its current form has worked well, but it won’t continue to work well, because it will be eclipsed by the knowledge economy that more highly values what students learn rather than how they have been taught, he said.

“It makes much more sense to focus on what do you want a student to learn, not how long you want them to study,” Levine said.

In terms of equity in higher education, the thrust has been on getting more students from underrepresented groups into colleges and universities.

“We’ve been focused on giving the same resources, the same time, the same faculty and the same resources. If we really care about outcomes, we need to give differential resources to these students. Give them the resources they need to reasonably have a chance,” he said.

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