Will Colleges as We Know Them Become Obsolete?

Rankin Hall - University of Montana - Missoula, MT

In 2016, I was a senior in high school planning my next step for secondary education. I was panicked at the thought of not having chosen where I wanted to attend college, or what I wanted to study. Once I had settled on the University of Montana, things slowly started to come together and I looked forward to experiencing the UM college life.

However, people had made several judgments on me pursuing an education at a Liberal Arts school. People would snicker at the thought of a liberal arts degree, while voicing their disapproval of college life at the University of Montana; everyone considered my pursuit a waste of money. There was a time that I used to take great offense to this. However, today it has inspired me to share some of the greatest lessons I have learned through my college experience, which have challenged my thoughts on whether colleges are going to exist in the future or if we’ll all move into the digital realm of education.

Formal education was founded around the time of the Industrial Revolution and early schools were “less about improving children’s minds than producing a punctual, obedient workforce for the new factories.” (The Possible). I graduated high school in 2016 and this was still the case. This is what colleges have been prepared to cater to. However, that was then and this is now.

Actual and Projected Undergraduate Enrollment according to National Center for Education Statistics

Today, jobs are becoming more and more digitized, making our workload smaller and in some cases, removing jobs from the force entirely. Statistics have shown a steady increase in enrollment within the past 20 years and although they aren’t predicting much of an increase within the next decade, it isn‘t expected to decrease. High school students no longer need to be prepared to work in a factory their entire lives, considering several factory jobs have already been replaced by artificial intelligence. In turn, they’ll start learning new problem solving methods, trades, and critical thinking skills. As schools start shift their teaching methods and learning strategies, such as SEL, colleges and other tertiary schools will be soon to follow.

“SEL, also called whole-child education — is a systematic, evidence-based approach to teaching kids how to achieve goals, understand and manage emotions, build empathy, forge relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

According to Nerdy Mates, colleges are expected to make drastic changes. The changes they perceive happening include accommodating homeschooled high school students, personalized learning, increased e-learning platforms, Project-based learning & Rise of EdTech in the classroom, teacher as a guide format, social and emotional skills as a priority, and the discontinue of physical campuses. They emphasize Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) through group work, discussions and reflections, yet they view the future of college campuses as a touch point.

I would agree that this is possible in high school. However, I would argue the importance of personal interaction in higher education. High school’s purpose is defined as “to impart the ability to be prepared during critical times of life. Moreover, the high school prepares you for competence to act in the employment market with ethical principles, and it also provides the necessary knowledge to exercise the rights of citizenship.” (Quora). Secondary education, however, is where you go to further enhance those traits through labs, mentorship, studies, and other hands-on experiences. Although there are several classes that could be digitized, the value of one-on-one interaction cannot be replaced.

According to Forbes, the four things you should take away from college are subject specific knowledge, learning skills, adult-ing skills, and personal relationships.

With “adulting-skills”, comes personal growth. The transition from the room at your parents’ home to a 130 square foot dorm is a huge stepping stone. Living either on your own or with a stranger forces you to tackle challenges you’ve never been exposed to, then to construct different problem solving strategies. Living in the dorms, attending on-campus events and experiencing new opportunities are all key aspects to growing up and creating your own personal path. Living on campus, away from home, is the first step towards becoming your own person, building personal relationships and adult-ing skills.

According to U.S. News, “In addition to cost, experts say many online students still want access to on-campus resources. Prospective online students are also often more familiar with local public schools, Seaman says.” They believe this is why students still choose colleges near them to pursue an online degree.

Along with building personal relationships, experiencing college on campus creates opportunity you couldn’t get anywhere else. Because of campus opportunity, I have had the privilege to work hands-on under mentors, professors, and even student groups. If I hadn’t attended some of the networking events, shows, or games on campus, I wouldn’t have met half of the people who have influenced my life both personally or professionally.These are relationships and experiences that cannot be created without the campus culture.

Aside from the social aspect of college, look at athletics. According to USA Daily, the NCAA generated close to $1.1 billion in 2017. If colleges were to transform their campuses into part-time research areas, then what would happen to the million dollar establishments erected towards collegiate athletics? Will professional teams begin to recruit directly from high schools?

Then, as you build empathy, you should also develop a new sense of appreciation. Colleges create a very diverse group of people, ideas, and talents. Diversity and exposure force you to challenge your beliefs and to build a deeper understanding of things you may not understand. Exposure to diversity will make you appreciate other cultures and lifestyles.

And, of course, academics. Science is the backbone of our being, as it explains the existence of all living creatures. Math demonstrates the fundamentals of problem solving. All of those word problems we were forced to do in grade school are what shapes our thoughts today. However, art, music and entertainment are what gets us through the day. Art is what makes us human and that is something that cannot be learned through a computer screen.

People are still going to want to learn the guitar, they’ll want to learn to act, sing, and be exposed to the finer arts in person than on a screen. It’s the same reason vinyl records came back around. There will always be an appreciation for the things used to be. Even though we’re already experiencing a drastic shift into the digital realm, there will always be a demand and appreciation for the physical copy of many things.

If secondary education were to become completely digitized, there would be majors of all varieties available to everyone in the long-tail. However, along the long-tail there will always be the people who thrive on hands-on learning, lectures, and exposure to the diverse learning liberal arts colleges offer.

In summary, although there are several benefits to online courses and digitized courses there will still be certain aspects of secondary education. Even as digitized education increases, the college culture and experience is what is going to prevent the desist of secondary education.

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