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Sam Davidson's blog

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What's College For?

As I travel and speak to various student groups, there's no doubt that the college system - its collection of academic, social, and communal resources - works. As it did for me (and my parents), colleges and universities provide a valuable experience that prepares one for future endeavors, be they running a business, finding a job, raising a family, or making a difference.

But, two recent articles showcase how this experience is radically changing and may be very different for my daughter (who's currently three years old):

  • This long article (but well worth the read) from The American Interest highlights how online learning is changing the game (for the better) for both students and institutions. But, if institutions don't adapt, they could go the way of music labels or publishing companies.
  • And this data from The New York Times shows the effects of the above article as student enrollment at higher education institutions is decreasing.

To me, the larger question isn't "What will colleges do to remain relevant?" or "How can colleges compete in an online world?" or even "What's college for?" as the title of this post suggests. To me, the question students and their parents must answer is:

"What will best prepare me for the future I want?"

This is the fundamental question of growing up, I believe. Whether you're 18 or 38, answering this question as best you can results in developing a plan that will help you get where you'd like to be.

If the future you want includes you being a surgeon, then there's a pathway to take to get there that very much involves a traditional in-person extended college experience. But if the future you want involves launching a few tech startups, learning to code may be a step in the right direction, which can happen in various locales, the least of which might be a four-year residential university.

What makes this all even more complex is that the future you want for yourself is bound to change. The future you want today is to launch tech startups. Let's say you give that a go and six years later you want to be a dentist or attorney. At that point, you'll need to find the appropriate way to get to that future.

Learning, therefore, looks different than ever before. I think that my daughter will have several careers, each marked by a period of learning and study. Maybe she'll try one thing after high school for a few years, then enroll in a university to prepare for a line of work, do that line of work, want to shift again, get the schooling needed, try that out, and so it goes. The expectation that one will learn by the age of 22 everything they'll need for a rapidly changing world is now extinct.

College, then, is always relevant. The question of when and how it's relevant is what's open for discussion. And the answer to that question may very well differ for each person asking.

Universities would do well, then, to be flexible, adaptable, and willing to change as needed. That's very nearly the definition of relevance after all.

What do you think? What will college look like in the future to address both the demands of students and the workplace?