Rounds with Leadership - Contemplating the Future of Higher Education

Published September 28, 2016

Welcome to Rounds with Leadership, a new forum for AACN’s Board Chair and President/CEO to offer commentary on issues and trends impacting academic nursing.

As academic nursing leaders, we share a responsibility for surveying the higher education landscape to ensure we remain effective at reaching the next generation of learners. To facilitate this critical work, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a report by former editor and best-selling author Jeffrey J. Selingo, which helps bring the next 10 years into focus titled 2026 The Decade Ahead: The Seismic Shifts Transforming the Future of Higher Education1. This report identifies three trends that will impact how we do business: 1) changes in student demographics, 2) the evolving faculty role, and 3) the proliferation of new models of education. 

In terms of the student population, most colleges draw from their local region to fill the majority of enrollment slots. With decreasing numbers of high school graduates in some parts of the country (particularly in the Northeast and Midwest), the supply of available space in college classes is likely to far outstrip demand. Given demographic shifts, colleges also will be admitting more racially and ethnically diverse students in the coming years as well as more students from low-income families. Academic institutions must plan now to put in place the support system needed to ensure strong graduation rates for all students given the present overall education attainment rate of only 40% nationwide.  

With regard to the professoriate, Mr. Selingo considers various scenarios for rethinking faculty deployment, including distinct tracks for faculty interested in teaching and those interested in research; three-member faculty teams composed of a professor, a preceptor, and a teaching assistant; and greater utilization of instructional designers to help faculty effectively deliver content using a variety of media. The author challenges the academic community to reconsider the definition of scholarship—something AACN’s Task Force of Defining Scholarship for Academic Nursing has been charged to do—and encourages institutions to infuse greater flexibility into the faculty role. The AACN publication, Advancing Healthcare Transformation: A New Era for Academic Nursing prompts rethinking the ways nursing faculty roles are integrated within clinical environments and the ways clinician roles may be integrated into teaching and research missions in colleges and universities.

The Decade Ahead concludes with a look at how learning is evolving, including the accelerating shift towards competency-based education and the use of technology to measure student learning in real time. Though degree attainment is still prized by employers and students, a diploma is now one of several assets that may be used to demonstrate learning. More institutions are moving to a greater emphasis on certifications and badges to illustrate specific skills and competencies achieved. The author also explores the “university for life” concept, which encourages graduates to return to school as needed to develop new skills, which may not always result in earning an additional degree.  

Given these trends and emerging realities, nursing education will look very different in the next 10 years. At the inaugural Thought Leaders Assembly held in conjunction with AACN’s Summer Board Meeting, Dr. Jeffrey Gold, the Chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, reminded us that the value of higher education is increasingly questioned, with significant doubt regarding the sustainability of current models. For academic nursing leaders to stay ahead of the curve and remain relevant, we must be willing to adapt while keeping our eyes on the near horizon. 

1 Selingo, J.P. (2016). 2026 The Decade Ahead: The Seismic Shifts Transforming the Future of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education: Washington, DC.