Perspectives February 14, 2022

Innovate or perish: New strategies and higher education’s future

Bowling Green State University Maurer Center
Bowling Green, Ohio

It has been said that institutions of higher learning can change the course of history, but they can’t change the history course. Although higher education has been traditionally cautious about adopting short-term trends, the tremendous, almost overnight response to a global pandemic has proven its resilience and responsiveness. As we now begin to look beyond the pandemic to the planning and design of next-generation campuses and buildings, several factors are becoming clear.

The future isn’t radically different, it’s just radically closer. In all reality, the impacts of COVID, while unforeseen, were not totally unanticipated. While some of these impacts will be short-lived, we anticipate that some effects will be permanent and last for decades. In effect, the future of higher education arrived in March 2020.

UBC Gateway
Vancouver, British Columbia

Insights Gained.

Researching the future of education has been a passion at Perkins&Will for decades. And certainly, the past two-years have made the necessity of planning for unexpected impacts increasingly obvious. As we look forward and predict the future of education, the impact of the pandemic–and the associated lessons learned–several insights are becoming clear:

1. Myth Busting.

There was a common myth that online education is incompatible with face-to-face learning. Over the past 22-months, this myth–and its associated myth that online students “aren’t really here”–have both been soundly discredited. The reality is that hybrid education is here to stay and must be effectively incorporated into the future design of both indoor and outdoor learning environments.

2. Equity and Social Justice.

Today’s students arrive on campus expecting their educational experience to actualize their personal values regarding social purpose and to elevate the realities of equity, justice, and diversity. Our projects must create welcoming environments and eliminate real or perceived barriers to access. Seamless hybrid technologies will enable institutions to increase their outreach and connect with thousands of people historically beyond the reach of traditional higher education–many of whom are in economically and socially marginalized communities.

3. Preparing for change.

Flexibility and adaptability have never been more important than they are now. Moving forward, designing flexibility into education buildings that will then serve as facile frameworks for unforeseen future technological or pedagogical developments will be critical to the long-term success of academic institutions. Consider the impact that today’s incoming freshman (who finished high school online) and returning sophomores (who have never actually been to campus), who are arriving on campus with unprecedented needs and expectations, have on faculty, staff, and facilities. Not only were they weaned on the search access of Google, the immediate delivery of Amazon, and the service ambience of Starbucks, but because their last 18 months of education have been entirely online, they potentially lack the social and collaboration skills fundamental to succeed in college. New learning spaces must accommodate a level of adaptation required to meet these and still other yet to be determined requirements.

The Long Term.  

Beyond the immediate insights described above, several long-term influences are becoming clear. Future students will continue to blur the boundaries between work, play, learning, and just “being.” As they use campus facilities, they will expect team-based everything, blended flexible “do-it-yourself” spaces where functions are determined by the etiquette of the users, not by some preconceived signage on the wall. They will look for “common ground” that welcomes everyone and embraces lifelong education and lifelong belonging.

Last spring work from anywhere/learn from anywhere capabilities (WFA/LFA) transformed almost overnight from abstract ideas into day-to-day realities for countless individuals worldwide. The effects of WFA/ LFA technologies have been – and will continue to be – deep, lasting, and widespread.

On one hand WFA/LFA has liberated us from the office or classroom and taught us the irrelevance of location. We can accomplish many aspects of learning and work from almost anywhere. On the other hand, an equally important lesson has been in realizing the incredible importance and irreplaceable role of place. Gathering as a strong campus community requires more than a Zoom portal or a Teams meeting, it requires a thoughtful and meaningful place. Moving forward the campus environments will need to become the common thread woven through the education of countless students for decades to come.

George Mason University, Horizon Hall
Fairfax, Virginia

A New World of Facilities Development.

In the recovery from an unprecedented, pandemic-induced financial shock, almost every institution of higher learning quickly and drastically reshuffled their list of strategic priorities, and those priorities are now being implemented. Institutions are searching for alternative funding sources and embracing nontraditional methods and roles to raise much-needed capital.

The new world of higher education has taught us that an institution’s greatest asset is not its real estate or its endowment, it’s their people. Acknowledging this shift and associated transformations in the future of learning and work, our Campus 2.0 strategies assist institutions in marshaling their people to drive the “demand” that will actualize real estate “supply.” Campus 2.0 enables institutions to leverage large cohorts of their alumni wishing to re-engage with the university through a platform of distributed facilities.

Where Is It All Going?

To this generation of students, access is the new purchase. In their view, the new status symbol isn’t what they own, but what they are smart enough NOT to own. They expect “just in time” access to any service, purchase, or convenience associated with their educational experience. These expectations have created a “dip-in / dip-out” mindset that will foster the need for a truly lifelong educational engagement–a 50-year curriculum, so to speak.

We foresee that students in the future won’t just attend college, they will join them–for life. Tuition will transition from its current ‘pay-as-you-go’ self-financed model to a lifelong subscription-based model. Education will be delivered over a network of distributed places through a two-way relationship with highly engaged alumni. Higher education will morph from a luxury product mostly accessible to those of some degree of privilege, to a widely available enabler of social equity and increased opportunity.

Of course, there will always be an important role for the traditional four-year residential student experience. Whatever way a student chooses to engage with learning, changes like these will transform many aspects of education as we know it. These changes offer the higher education community unprecedented opportunities for the advancement of education, community engagement, and economic development.