Higher education in the United States is, in many ways, exactly the same as it when the University of New Hampshire (UNH) was founded in 1866 instigated by the passage of the Morrill Act of 1862. The Morrill Act permitted the federal government to purchase land to donate to each state for the sole purpose of establishing universities to teach “agriculture, home economics, mechanical arts, and other practical professions¹”. These “land-grant” institutions were in many ways the first time that a layperson could obtain further formal education to solve problems closer to home. And home for most people was the family farm.
In 1860 farmers represented approximately 48% of the US labor force² making the establishment of land-grant colleges an enormously effective way to get new technologies into the hands of farmers. But the tipping point of the US agricultural revolution can be directly attributed to the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 which established a partnership between the land-grant colleges and the US Department of Agriculture. The USDA’s definition of the act states “At the heart of agricultural extension work, according to the Act, was developing practical applications of research knowledge… During the Great Depression, state colleges and the USDA emphasized farm management for individual farmers. Extension agents taught farmers about marketing and helped farm groups organize both buying and selling cooperatives³.” In other words, colleges shifted to a market-focus to ensure demand for production.
Farm productivity increased slowly until universities began to suggest fertilizer use with other technological change. Throughout the 1930s (first hybrid seed corn), 1950s (machines exceeded farm animals for the first time), 1960s (Plant Variety Protection Act, i.e. plant patents), and through the introduction of GMO plants in the 1980s, the growth curve changed from gradual to nearly linear continuing to this day; and all while the total number of farmers dropped from 31 million in 1940 to just over two million in 1990. We are starting to see similar productivity increases in the 21st century as computers and the internet have moved from being expensive and poorly understood, to technologies that can create tremendous opportunity with little upfront investment.
The agricultural economy of the 1860s has been replaced with the knowledge economy of today whose “crop” is intellectual property. We’re now more focused on copyrights than cows, and on patents than plows. As we fulfill our mission to grow the research and knowledge base, our knowledge output will grow exponentially and the institution must construct a framework to identify, manage, and use these proceeds efficiently and productively. Higher education must acknowledge that universities are no longer the gatekeepers of the distribution of knowledge. In fact, the hardest element to manage for universities in 2040 may be how to manage and respond to all of the information prospective students receive before entering the academy. But how do we take advantage of hundreds of years of infrastructure without upending the entire college experience?
We frameshift both the entry point and experience that universities can offer.
I believe that by 2040, the average student experience will no longer be four years of high school followed by four years (or more) of post-secondary education. Rather the university experience will frameshift with more and more students entering college having already gained and proven competency in the foundational subjects normally taught as freshman and sophomores. Using a concept first introduced to me by my boss, Dr. Jan Nisbet, university will now start in what was traditionally one’s junior year, and the four-year experience on a college campus will now comprise studies that lead directly to a Master’s degree or two years of classroom education followed by two years in an applied entrepreneurial experience allowing students to pursue firm-formation or social innovations that directly relate to their course of study.
Reviewing higher-education’s history is exactly why we should be comfortable embracing this future. Ideas and knowledge have always flowed backwards, earlier and earlier into the educational continuum. Computer science, a field that did not have its first US undergraduate degree program until 1962 (Purdue University4), has some principles now taught as early as kindergarten. Just as the introduction of nitrogen-based fertilizer led to increased farm productivity and efficiency, addressing challenges earlier and earlier in higher education will lead to improved solutions for society. And the power of university-backed ideas is incredibly strong. Data from AUTM shows that in the 30 years since data has been collected, almost 55% of all university-backed startups are still in existence, compared to national data that show 70% of new companies fail within 10 years5. Better still, over 70% of university-backed startups still operate in the county in which they are formed Universities can and should look to drive experiential learning earlier and earlier in the academic experience, even partnering with K-12 schools and community colleges to ensure the principles of startup formation are introduced as early as possible. Universities could also consider awarding credit hours for startup companies actually created by students prior to enrollment.
A university aligned this way already has a head start on identifying students thinking beyond their undergraduate study, and one could easily see these as nested decisions rather than a choice either of a Master’s degree or an entrepreneurial experience. Simply put, in the six years’ time it now takes to have our students get both an undergraduate degree and a Master’s, that same student will receive a Master’s degree and spend two years trying to make a direct impact on the world. Existing facilities and resources will be repurposed towards this more research- and applied-solutions focus.
“Universities would have to bring on staff and talent dedicated to helping mature and accelerate ideas out of the university and to the marketplace”
The advantage of this approach is clear — ideas start off more mature due to the advanced education focus and those ideas have more time to incubate in the university, de-risking and improving the outcome. This is not to say that the final two years in the academy will be course-free, but rather that coursework could be focused on improving entrepreneurial outcomes; a startup co-op, as it were.
In 2040 universities will continue to enhance the “practical professions” outlined in the Morrill Act by embracing the potential of asynchronous/ online education to stay focused on knowledge-creating activities like research and startup formation. Future students will make their impacts on the world earlier and with higher chances for success, leading universities in 2040 to wonder how they should change to meet the demands of 2080 and beyond. While we’re still not sure if androids dream of electric sheep, perhaps in 2040 a student will dream of being a CEO of her startup while studying for a PhD.
¹ Morrill Land Grant College Act, 1862, www.csrees.usda.gov/qlinks/extension. html
² www.agclassroom.org/gan/Rmeline/ farmers_land.htm
³ Morrill Land Grant College Act, 1862, www.csrees.usda.gov/qlinks/extension. html
4 Brian Zink, Computer science pioneer Samuel D. Conte dies at 85, 2002
5 Office of Advocacy, Do economic or industry factors affect business survival?, 2012
6 Biotechnology Innovation Organization & Association of University
7 Technology Managers, The Economic Contribution of University/Nonpro
Marc Sedam, Associate Vice Provost for Innovation and New Ventures and Managing Director of UNHInnovation, joined UNH with an extensive background in intellectual asset management, licensing, and start-up formation. Marc was the founding director of the Peter T. Paul Entrepreneurship Center and serves as the Executive Director of the New Hampshire Innovation Research Center. He is currently the PI of UNH’s National Science Foundation I-Corps Site, Chair-Elect of AUTM, and served on the AUTM Board of Directors between 2015-2016 as the Vice President for Professional Development.
Prior to UNH, Sedam was Chief Operating Officer of Qualyst, Inc., the global leader in the study of pharmaceutically relevant drug transport. Sedam has a B.S. in biochemistry from The University of New Hampshire and an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s KenanFlagler Business School. Additionally, he is a well-known lecturer on topics of university innovation and start-up formation.
** Cover photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels