F.D.A and the Future of Higher Education


John Jackson discusses the future of higher education.

During the past two years, I have interviewed about 30 university presidents, spoken to scores of business, community, and political leaders, and have read 10-15 books that specifically address the subject of higher education. Of all the books I have read, the one that has spoken most concretely on the subject of innovation is the title The Innovative University by Christensen and Eyring. From that book, plus other readings, interactions, and personal reflection, I have come to believe that the future of higher education is within the acronym, F. D. A.


Every once in a while, I will think of myself as a “serial reductionist.” It is part of what I do. I try to take complex matters and make them simple. Lest you think I am unaware, let me point out that I know that some things are irreducibly complex. Yes, I know that making things seem simple sometimes does a disservice to the inquirer and to the subject. But, if you’ll humor me, I think we can all be helped by thinking about the future of higher education in FDA terms.  Let me explain what I mean by each of these terms.

Flexible: Do you remember the phrase “banker’s hours?” If you are old enough to remember them, you know that is an antiquated phrase. Today’s bankers work long hours, and their online services are 24/7. The future of higher education will become increasingly flexible relative to the when, the who, the where, and the how. Space does not allow me to describe all the ways this is true, but, suffice it to say, that there are many colleges where courses are being offered at all hours of the day and night, reaching a dizzying variety of student types, “classrooms” of assorted types, and through every modality including face to face, online, hybrid, and in what is now called “massive online courses” with tens of thousands of students. This flexibility will not only continue, it will accelerate. The future of higher education is flexible.

Distributed:  Following closely on the heels of the notion of Flexible is the idea of Distributed.  I view this as a required fundamental shift in the mind of the university. Education is not where I (as the university) say it is, rather it is where the student is. In other words, I believe the future of higher education will be distributed in ways and places that the learner chooses. Yes, I want to be face to face in a classroom on a campus. And, I want to be online at 2 a.m. And, I want to be at my favorite coffee shop or workplace with my learning cohort. All for the same class. Whereas previously, learners had to seek out teachers where they were, now teachers are going to be meeting students where they are and want to be and mediated through technology and social connections that are of the learner's choosing and not the teacher’s alone. The future of higher education is distributed.

Affordable: The cost of tuition increasing far beyond inflation rates. The lack of successful graduation rates by many schools and the student loan debt of college graduates relative to their workplace earnings have combined to create a national conversation about the value of a college degree. Without giving you my opinion on all of these things (yes, I have some!), let me suggest simply that a college degree has to be “affordable.”  What do I mean by that?  I mean it in fundamental economic and social terms. A college degree has value. Virtually everyone agrees with that. The question is, how much value does a college degree have? The intangible value has to do with character, integration of faith and knowledge, developmental maturity, critical thinking skills, etc.  The tangible value has to do with what job skills and employment results from a college degree.  In other words, affordable relates both to the economic capacity of the buyer and the value the marketplace puts on the particular degree and institution that awards it. I think we are heading to a future in higher education where learning AND employment outcomes will be factored in to the price of a university education. Affordable means that we will see variable pricing on degrees and schools based on learning outcomes and employment earnings outcomes as well. The market will more quickly punish, in the future, those schools that do not have the right equilibrium between the intangible and tangible benefits of their university education. The future of higher education is affordable.

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