The University of the Future. Now

The University of the Future. Now

A new university is emerging to meet the demands of our fast-changing, deeply-networked, and uber-globalized world. Teaching in this university is becoming focused on the skills that must be developed over a lifetime rather than on awarding one-time degrees, and its research and service missions are converging around attempts to address the world’s most pressing problems. America’s growing inequality is one such pressing problem. Universities have a particularly important role to play here given the increasing salience of post-secondary skills as a foothold to the middle class.

It will not be easy for institutions of higher learning to transform themselves to effectively meet the changed teaching and research needs of the university of the future; but only those that get there will survive the rowdy transitions ahead of us.

The drivers of transformative changes are easily observable around the globe including North Carolina, the ninth largest of the United States of America. You need only focus on the following two drivers in North Carolina to see the opportunity and challenge ahead for higher education.

Employers are Hungry for Universities to Deliver More People with High-Demand Skills

More than ever, universities are expected to produce graduates who are prepared for work and provide educational opportunities that serve their learning needs throughout their entire careers. North Carolina is projected to add more than 550,000 jobs by 2024. The fastest growing job categories will require some form of postsecondary educational attainment. Already, however, the state’s commerce department’s 2018 Employer Needs Survey, which polled employers from all 100 counties in North Carolina, found that a large percentage of those employers that needed to hire people were having a hard time. Close to 80 percent of the employers had attempted to hire one or more workers during 2017, and half had experienced difficulty. A lack of technical skills and education were cited by 49 and 43 percent of employers, respectively. Employability and soft skill challenges were cited by 65 and 49 percent of employers. (See Fig. 1)

The New “Traditional Student” Will Come from The Existing Workforce

North Carolina has a population of 10 million people. Of that number, there are currently 905,000 adult residents who have some postsecondary credits but no degree. (See Fig. 2). This number represents a significant opportunity for the state’s 53 public and private colleges and universities, as well as 58 community colleges.

Many of the 905,000 are on hiatus from, or have given up on, their postsecondary pursuits. For a myriad of reasons, too few North Carolina students who attended two- or four-year institutions completed their programs. In the UNC System, for example, 68.2 percent of students complete a degree or certificate within five years according to The State of the University Snapshot 2018. According to the N.C. Community Colleges’ 2017 Progress and Persistence Report, of all the curriculum students who were enrolled in a North Carolina community college in the fall of 2015, only 27 percent had graduated or transferred by the subsequent fall semester.

Existing workers with some credits, but without high-quality certificates or degrees, are low-hanging fruit for the university of the future. They will have different learning requirements than the traditional learner who is young and is enrolled in an on-campus, lecture-based program.

“This “new traditional” student will demand more “learner-centered” environments, which include real-world problem solving and multidisciplinary approaches to curricula”

To respond effectively to these two drivers, higher education in North Carolina will need to offer:

  1. More customized and on-demand training – Students will need access to learning, in real-time, anytime and from anywhere. New generation platforms will support them, and they will expect, to study in multiple modes, switching seamlessly between in-person, completely on-line and blended learning.
  2. More qualifications that are not based on a degree – The future of work won’t be about degrees. It’ll be about skills. Students will expect microcredentials for both technical and the non-technical skills employers seek, including cognitive skills, such as problem solving and creativity; interpersonal skills, such as communications and leadership; and intrapersonal skills, such as adaptability and discipline. Most institutions of higher education are unprepared to deliver that future today.
  3. Greater cross-sector collaboration and institutional entrepreneurship. Universities will need to partner in unfamiliar (and, perhaps, uncomfortable) ways with industry partners to co-create rapidly changing credentials for an ever-churning mix of skills in high demand. The new connections will be enabled by the fact that university and industry will often be co-located in spaces that operate as “living laboratories” and afford collaboration on projects that solve real-world problems.
  4. Innovations that support students with circumstances that challenge their likelihood of completion. There are a number of primary reasons that students don’t complete higher education programs. Those include financial challenges and debt, inadequate academic preparation, low motivation and conflicts with work and family obligations. Colleges will need to be prepared to help students navigate these challenges.
  5. Community supports that create opportunities for more students to have access to higher education. Post-secondary attainment is not just the business of universities. Communities increasingly understand that economic opportunities locate where there is talent. The future university will need to organize itself to maximize the new levels and types of cross-sector support seeking to help students attain the skills in high demand by industry.

Technology will continue to shape and re-shape the higher education landscape; however, wise university leaders will recognize that technology serves as an enabler rather than a driver. The true driving forces will be the unforgiving demands of learners and the people who will employ them. Those leaders who ignore these drivers do so at risk of peril for their institutions. Those who heed them, and do so well, on the other hand, will create the University of the Future – prepared to face, with firsttime agility, unprecedented challenges and unparalleled opportunities to innovate.



¹ NC LEAD (Labor and Economic Data and Analysis),2018, based on an analysis of data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Conference Board, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Center for Educational Statistics (IPEDS)

² 2016 American Community Survey, IPUMS-USA, Nettles 2017 (percentages may not sum to 100% due to rounding)


Anita Brown-Graham rejoined the UNC School of Government in September 2016 to lead the public launch of ncIMPACT—a special initiative that seeks to expand the School’s capacity to work with public officials on complex policy issues. Brown-Graham’s first tour as a School faculty member was from 1994 to 2006, during which she specialized in community economic development. In 2007, Brown-Graham became Director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State University. There, she led efforts to build North Carolina’s capacity for economic development and prosperity, working with state leaders in business, government, and higher education to focus on issues important to North Carolina’s future. Brown-Graham is a William C. Friday Fellow, American Marshall Fellow, and Eisenhower Fellow. In 2013, the White House named her a Champion of Change, and the Triangle Business Journal has named her a 2014 Woman in Business for her policy leadership and a 2017 CEO of the year.

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