When Thomas Jefferson created the University of Virginia in the early 1800s, he submitted that it would "be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation." This idea, resonant with so many then and over future decades, advanced the notion that university life should be one of exploration and discovery, of reflection and contemplation. Residential life was key to learning at this higher level; universities offered a 24/7 opportunity for the exchange of ideas.
Fast-forward 200 years: These original notions of higher education are under scrutiny. For starters, the college students of today and tomorrow look nothing like the students of 150 (or even 50) years ago in this country. Unfortunately, as a group, they are less prepared. They are more diverse economically, and much more likely to work full time while in school than ever before. Importantly, the quest for knowledge, in and of itself, is being replaced, it seems, with the quest for jobs — and these, for graduating college students, are in short supply.
Against this backdrop of changing objectives, countries beyond our borders are themselves racing to meet the human capital demands of the global knowledge-based economy. China, India, and others are increasing the production of college- and university-educated workers at astonishing rates. Once the envy of nations across the world, the American university may well find itself in catch-up mode.
What constitutes a "good education" will be a defining debate in the next decade. What is college for? What will graduating college students need to be "successful" in the future? Will it be "core knowledge"? Demonstrated capacity for critical thinking? Passing an exit exam that fits an employer's job requirements? Professional training?
College costs are sky high; student debt comprises one of the largest liabilities on our collective balance sheet. Is our current model of college education sustainable? As technologies augment students' learning, and online courses — cheaper, more accessible, perhaps more career-pertinent — become more mainstream, how will universities conform to realities of the global market yet maintain their individual standards, goals, and agendas for academic excellence?