What should “the university” look like as we lurch further into the 21st century? If there were one thing I could change about higher education in the United States it would be to expand access, broadly speaking.
It is hardly a unique observation to point out the exorbitant cost of college attendance in the US. This is true even of public schools. The US is, in my opinion, behind the curve on recognizing that tertiary education, like primary and secondary, should be a right guaranteed to all of its citizens (and residents). A college education remains a privilege only available to some because of its large cost. And while I believe we should consider it a privilege to have the time to study and learn access to education should not be a restricted privilege available only to those who can pay.
I hope to see the university accessible financially but also physically. By this I mean I hope to see all universities and university buildings literally accessible to any and all students. Though slightly out of date, Inside Higher Ed reported in 2005 that students with disabilities were half as likely to attend college as their peers without disabilities. We need to ensure that the physical space of the university is accessible to people of all abilities. As importantly, we need to ensure that the university is a space in which those with disabilities are welcome and treated as an important part of the make up of the student body, staff, and faculty.
Moreover, black students and faculty are underrepresented on college campuses as well. I would like to see universities that are open, encouraging, and actively seeking students of all backgrounds and therefore reflect the composition of US society. Addressing the economic inequality that high costs perpetuates by making tertiary education free (or very close to free) is one way to address this. The other is to continue the work of education within the university and without to create the understanding in our society that all members, regardless of their socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and/or sex background, have equal rights and claims to a decent life.
Given recent trends a more accessible university will likely mean more online and distance learning classes. I think this can be an avenue to ensure that the university is open and accessible but it is not a foregone conclusion. It is important that online courses are carefully crafted to ensure that the level of instruction and deep engagement is the same as in a “traditional” classroom. Perhaps technologies such as VR could facilitate this in the decades to come. Even better, investment in high speed rail, another area the US lags behind in, could better allow students to travel to and from universities.
However it is accomplished, the most open and accessible university will be the best university in the future.