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Changing Students, Faculty, and Institutions in the Twenty-First Century

The twenty-first century is now a decade old, and higher education is facing forces that are bound to affect how faculty teach and how students learn over the coming decades. This essay explores some anticipated changes in who and how we teach. We highlight innovations in both pedagogies and teaching-related technology, and discuss growing pressure to curtail the traditional liberal arts focus of undergraduate education. We also examine the implications of projections for changes in faculty and student demographics over the next ten years. Additionally, in this era of fiscal belt-tightening in almost every sector of higher education, we briefly touch on issues about the assessment of educational outcomes for student learning and the basic financial health of the higher education sector.

New Pedagogies and Curricula

What we know about learning is changing educational institutions, faculty roles, and student populations in the twenty-first century. The traditional teaching methodologies (e.g., lectures and tests) are becoming obsolete in a world that encourages people to think critically and creatively. New forms of pedagogy, active learning, self-guided instruction, and group work are transforming teaching approaches, moving them away from traditional lectures to passive audiences (Travis 1997). In response to this sea change, educators are beginning to accept the notion that “one size” does not fit all learning styles, and have started rethinking standard metrics such as “x hours of seat time a week for y weeks = z credits.” For example, the Circles Program at the University of Texas, El Paso, provides early gatekeeper classes delivered in small modules through which students can progress at different rates, repeating units if necessary before moving on. This self-guided instruction accommodates issues of preparation and outside responsibilities without compromising rigor, because it allows well-prepared students to accelerate through some courses and even graduate faster. The key to the success of the Circles Program is using mastery—rather than norm-referenced grading on a fixed schedule—to evaluate learning.

Student–faculty interactions are changing in step with new pedagogies (Anderson and Carta-Falsa 2002). The instructor is no longer the sage on stage in classrooms and lecture halls, and often serves multiple roles through interactions with students that include teacher, mentor, and adviser.

This new emphasis on active learning is reflected in a number of innovations. In lecture courses, individual response systems (clickers) are now commonplace. Strategies such as supplemental instruction and peer-led team teaching have been effective at engaging students through cooperative learning. As part of the active learning movement, undergraduates are encouraged to be discoverers rather than receptacles of knowledge, and consequently there is more involvement by faculty in undergraduate research mentoring. Different modes of teaching must take advantage of students’ various learning styles as student populations become more ethnically and economically diverse. Teachers will need to be sensitive to the full spectrum of diversity that our students and their respective communities present.

Another area that is changing rapidly is the integration of different disciplines. One example is the effort to integrate the science curriculum in entry-level courses in response to the publication of Bio2010, an influential report by the National Research Council (2003) on restructuring the undergraduate biology curriculum for the twenty-first century. These initiatives are being fueled by funding agencies, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education.

Finally, Web 2.0 technology (such as the social networking Web site Twitter and the photo-sharing Web site Flickr) is reshaping the educational landscape in the twenty-first century. Eventually, traditional lectures may be replaced by online learning communities. Faculty and students may no longer meet three times a week in a classroom but instead interact through learning communities in cyberspace.

The challenge in developing and institutionalizing innovative pedagogy and curricula is getting buy-in from three different sectors: administrators, faculty, and students. Real professional recognition for innovative and effective teaching, not just research productivity, must become part of the institutional culture. Innovative teaching should be an important component in tenure and promotion decisions. This will require linking teaching effectiveness to outcomes assessment. Traditional end-of-semester course evaluations will have to be replaced with more student-centered instruments such as students’ self-assessment of their own learning gains. There will need to be a concerted focus on faculty development to train instructors in new pedagogies utilizing active learning and educational technology. In addition, faculty from different disciplines should be encouraged to work together in groups to develop team-taught interdisciplinary courses. Many students have some discomfort when they are responsible for their own learning. This attitude of being an “accidental learner” must be replaced by a constructivist approach to learning. Faculty should provide the conceptual scaffolding in the discipline to enable students to think critically and discover new forms of knowledge on their own.

If we are to be successful, it will require a confluence of factors to create the “perfect educational storm.” Administrators have to be willing to commit funds for faculty release time to develop innovative curricula and must create mechanisms to give faculty from different disciplines course credit for team teaching. Institutions need to provide training in new teaching pedagogies, and faculty should be willing to learn and use these methods. They will have to abandon their “same old, same old” mentality and approaches. Students must take charge of their own learning rather than be passive observers in the classroom.

Limitless opportunity for twenty-first-century curricular offerings

Just as technologies have greatly influenced how we teach the twenty-first-century class, new knowledge has added to the possibilities for what we can teach, and this combination of new technologies and new knowledge has resulted in almost limitless opportunity for twenty-first-century curricular offerings. We can teach more because we know more; in some situations technology allows all of us to do a better job in the delivery of information. The academy also faces challenges in continuing to explain and help students embrace the traditional liberal arts and science disciplines. As students’ choices of academic majors turn to applied and professional interests consistent with their own and their families’ concerns about postcollege employment, we need to keep vital the values and intellectual skills associated with the traditional liberal arts. It would be a bleak world without poetry and song, but we also must understand and respect the motivations that drive students to practical and applied studies. The challenge is to provide a career-relevant education that also produces critical, enlightened thinkers and lifelong learners.

In light of the cost of education, undergraduate students in particular will be more and more impatient to focus on their majors immediately. Institutions of higher education must discover ways in which to deliver a more rounded education than is found in a narrow specialty, while still being mindful of time and cost. The opportunity this provides for institutions of higher learning is to collaborate more thoughtfully with the public sector in order to define and implement career skill sets within academic programs that meet the needs of an ever-changing workforce. At the same time, higher education needs to nurture both students’ minds and souls, and we must do more to affirm the notion of the intrinsic value of education.

In response to all these factors, we are proposing an interconnected bottom-up and top-down strategy of educational reform, with the ultimate benefactors being the students who will be better prepared to take on the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Twenty-First-Century Students

U.S. Census Bureau (2008) data predict that by 2050, 54 percent of the U.S. population will be individuals from groups currently called “minorities.” This change will clearly affect college enrollments. But enrollment numbers and demographics are difficult to predict because they are influenced by many factors, including the overall economic climate, legislation for support to attend college, the number of students in various age groups, and the rates of high school graduation of majority and minority students. The most extensive projections for higher education enrollments, from the U.S. Department of Education, extend only through 2018. Total undergraduate enrollment is expected to increase by 12 percent by 2018 (National Center for Educational Statistics 2009). Graduate enrollment and professional education will continue to grow, but both will have much lower absolute numbers than those enrolled at the undergraduate level.

By these same projections, college populations will be getting slightly older over the next eight to ten years. Projections show only a 9 percent increase in the eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old cohort. Most of the enrollment increase for traditionally aged students is estimated to arise from an increase in high school graduates, which are also projected to increase by about 9 percent, as will enrollments of students over the age of thirty-five. Over the same interval, a 25 percent increase is projected for the twenty-five- to twenty-nine-year-old cohort. The trend for increased enrollment by women will continue—women make up about 57 percent of all higher education enrollments now, and this is projected to increase to 61.5 percent by 2018.

Ethnic diversity will also increase slightly over the next decade. The percentage of white non-Hispanic students is projected to decrease from 64 to 59 percent of total enrollment, while there will be gains in the proportion of total enrollment for blacks (13.0 to 14.5 percent); Hispanics (11.6 to 13.8 percent); Asian/Pacific Islanders (6.7 to 7.6 percent); and Native Americans (1.0 to 1.2 percent). Because of smaller absolute numbers for minority groups, white non-Hispanic students will continue as the largest group of enrolled students. However, within each minority group, there are projected to be significant increases in the percentage of students attending college. Should these trends persist, college students will become much more diverse in the coming decades, provided that higher education continues to be at least as accessible as it is currently.

The Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE 2008) predicts that by 2015, compared with the previous decade, there will be increases of 54 percent in the number of Hispanic high school graduates, 32 percent for Asian and Pacific Islanders, 7 percent for Native Americans, 3 percent for black non-Hispanics and an 11 percent decline for white non-Hispanic high school graduates. Whether this will result in changes in college populations will depend on whether high school graduation rates for minority students increase in proportion to their population percentage, and whether their families can afford college. The percentage of high school graduates who go on to college relates directly to family income. The percentage of children from affluent families going to college is as high as 93 percent, but is only 63 percent for those with lower incomes. This underscores again how college enrollment is dependent on social and institutional support for low-income students. As the title of a 2008 WICHE report suggests, higher education is a vital “engine of economic opportunity,” provided we are able to continue to improve college attendance rates among all our students. This is a major challenge.

Higher education will need to adapt to a student population diverse on many dimensions. To be successful, our institutions need to be prepared to accept and respond to this diversity (Musil 1997). Lower income levels correlate with lower levels of initial preparation, so that many students will enter higher education through community colleges. Over 50 percent of minority undergraduates attend community college at some point. These students must be prepared to meet the challenge of a four-year college, as well as graduate and professional schools, to fulfill the promise that education offers society.

As K–12 preparation for college is increasingly a factor in college attendance, colleges need to redouble their efforts to participate in effective K–12 teacher preparation. With the expectation that more college graduates will enter graduate education in the next few decades, we also need to rethink the relative distribution of resources to master’s and doctoral education in the context of the types and numbers of employment positions for students with graduate degrees both within and outside of the academy.

Twenty-First-Century Faculty

In this era of rapidly changing student demography and a fluctuating economy, the professoriate of the twenty-first century will continue to face interesting challenges and opportunities—an aging faculty, new colleagues and students with superior technical skills, and the potential for developing new and more effective teaching strategies. Faculty will also be held more accountable for learning as parents, accrediting and funding agencies, and legislators demand evidence that educational programs are improving learning.

Full-time faculty are graying, due, in part, to the fact that there is no mandatory retirement age for college faculty, coupled with the promise of lifetime employment to those who are tenured. In addition, retirement pensions have recently diminished. When they do retire, full-time faculty are often not being replaced by younger full-time faculty; instead, institutions are hiring part-time or non-tenure-track, full-time faculty. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that “contingent” faculty comprised nearly two-thirds of the faculty in institutions of higher education in 2006. If fiscal exigencies and “do more with less” mandates persist, institutions might continue to resort to the hiring of more part-time faculty who may or may not be held to the same standards as full-time faculty. The future of tenure for full-time faculty may also be changing in the next decades, as more new full-time hires are given multiyear contracts with reviews at intervals to determine whether they will continue to be employed. These trends show no signs of abating and may threaten shared governance, in which decision making has usually been reserved for full-time tenure-track faculty along with academic administrators. This will be particularly crucial at the community college level, which continues to have a higher percentage of faculty members between the ages of 45 and 64 than does any other segment of the academy. These trends could seriously threaten the ability of colleges and universities to sustain their mission for scholarship and teaching.

Finance and Budget

Although the landscape of higher education includes diverse types of institutions, such as those contributing to this report, every institution must operate within the same U.S. economy and respond to the same shifts in attitudes, priorities, and demands. As the economics of the United States and the world have changed and will continue to change, the challenges and opportunities that arise will force institutions of higher education to rethink operations and processes.

The economic recession currently causing tension in the United States has been preceded by many years of decline in public funding for institutions of higher education, reduced availability of financial aid for students, and pressure to develop programs designed to increase student access and retention. In response to this trend, President Barack Obama authorized the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). An analysis of this policy noted that the economic challenges are being addressed through a “significant infusion of one-time federal funds,” but cautions that the funds be used wisely:

While states and institutions are facing difficult times, this crisis cannot be construed as a reason to abridge historic commitments to affordability, access, and investment in instructional improvements needed to meet future needs for educational attainment (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education 2009).

Thus, one of the major challenges for institutions of higher education will be to leverage the short-term funding opportunities afforded by the ARRA in order to strengthen long-term financial health, while meeting the demands of changing demographics and workforce needs. As such, the opportunity arises to streamline processes and operations to attain this long-sought-after goal. In other words, as the policy statement recommends, “promote investment, not maintenance.”

From lawmakers to funding agencies to students themselves, constituents of higher education are scrutinizing the costs of education in order to find the most cost-effective opportunities. Institutions of higher education have the opportunity to create or utilize new financial models that “cost out” educational inputs and outputs (e.g., the Delaware model, which seeks to quantify “who is teaching what to whom at what cost”) in order to improve decision-making about the daily practice of education based on “value added” and cost considerations. These models allow institutions to make better-informed, though still difficult, decisions about eliminating ineffective programs and sustaining effective ones.

Finally, the economy is changing the roles of educational institutions, student populations and faculty roles by demanding the leveraging of resources and the integration of outcomes between the private and public sector. Preparing students to be productive members of today’s workforce will mean institutions must walk the tightrope between preprofessional subjects and the liberal arts and sciences, ensuring students meet workforce demands and learn the practical application of their knowledge. Programs such as earn-to-learn, work-study, and internships will demand a closer collaboration and consultation with the employers of the twenty-first-century workforce. The ivory tower, as academe has been called, is crumbling, just as the Berlin Wall toppled under the economic and societal pressures in an increasingly interrelated and complex world.


Anderson, L. E., and J. Carta-Falsa. 2002. Factors that make faculty and student relationships effective. College Teaching 50 (4): 134–138.

Gardner, S. K. 2005. Faculty preparation for teaching, research, and service roles: What do new faculty need? Journal of Faculty Development 20 (3): 161–166.

Musil, C. M. 1997. Faculty development: Shaking foundations/renewing minds.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2009. Projections of Education Statistics to 2018.

National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. 2009. ARRA Policy Statement.

National Research Council. 2003. BIO2010: Transforming undergraduate education for future research biologists. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Travis, J. E. 1995. Models for improving college teaching: A faculty resource. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 6. Washington, DC: The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2008. An older and more diverse nation by midcentury. News release, August 14.

Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). 2008. Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates by State and Race/Ethnicity, 1992-2022.

Louise Hainline is the dean of research and graduate studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York; Michael Gaines is a professor of biology at the University of Miami; Cheryl Long Feather is the research director at the United Tribes Technical College; Elaine Padilla is a distinguished service professor of sociology and anthropology at Rockland Community College, the State University of New York; Esther Terry is the provost of Bennett College for Women.

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