The Crystal Ball: Predicting the Rise and Fall of Unis Over the Next 30 Years

As a thought exercise, I wanted to raise the topic of universities’ fortunes over the next quarter century or so. If people could chime in and also fill in big initiatives at different schools, that’d be great. I insert what I know below.

Predicted Winners for the Next Quarter Century

I predict that the large, comprehensive research university is “IN,” and the smaller, more liberal-arts focused institutions will struggle over the next 20-30 years. Private urban institutions in particular are enjoying a renaissance.


Stanford (Stanford raises about $1B a year - an unimaginable amount for a mid-sized university. STEM is a core strength, but the school is also investing heavily in humanities, and recruiting aggressively in areas like Econ. What are some other big pushes S is making?

(I predict that these two will separate from the rest of the pack, and will be the two global leaders by some margin)






**Johns Hopkins/b

Vanderbilt - capitalizing on meds/ed focus in the southeast, broad infrastructure (law, engineering, med school, etc.)

Yale - may drop off from the very tippy-top, just as Harvard and Stanford have such momentum


Cornell - will the Ithaca location hurt it? I don’t know enough about the school. It has such an extensive research plant, which is good, but not sure about fundraising prowess and location.

USC - a very large private school, but fundraising is extraordinary - they’re on pace to raise $6-7 billion in their capital campaign. They also have a great location and extensive infrastructure (medical, law, business, engineering, etc. schools). Given Stanford’s dominance, USC could benefit from being the second-best private school in the region.

Princeton - iffy to put it here, but they seem to be becoming more of a “niche” school as the STEM “big uni” model gains traction.


Dartmouth - lack of an extensive research plant, sub-optimal location, floundering strategic mission (I believe they’ve delayed the start of their capital campaign). Once, Dartmouth was the most alluring college destination after HYP, but no more.

Brown - college should remain strong, but it’ll fall off the pace, perhaps, as liberal-arts focus dims in popularity, and the school’s research plant is dwarfed by its east coast neighbors.

Berkeley - plummeting state funding could continue to corrode what once was the very finest research university around - and it just won’t be able to keep up with Harvard and Stanford (once its true peer group at the research level)

(Small LACs will start to flounder more - as the BIG U approach takes over. Once, Amherst and Williams were more selective than Penn, Columbia, Chicago, and Hopkins, but no more.)

Thoughts? Fill in the blanks on the different unis too!

Mark Cuban has a different view.

or a Caltech prof:

All of the above “winner” schools have superb liberal-arts offerings…

All of the above schools (not just the ones you classify as “winner” schools) have superb liberal-arts offerings…

Agreed… the “loser” schools just happen to lack broader research offerings. I think the best-positioned universities are the ones with liberal arts college cores surrounded by world-class research (e.g. Harvard or Stanford). The schools that don’t have broad world-class research, and “just” have top liberal-arts offerings (e.g. Dartmouth) are not as well positioned.

I predict that this thread will lead to some angry posts, even grumpier than the usual CC offerings. :slight_smile:

None of the schools named will be “losers” compared to the undesired expensive privates that are struggling financially because they must discount heavily to get (usually barely college ready) students to enroll. These biggest “losers” are likely to be out if business in the future.

@ucbalumnus - you’re not describing “losers,” you’re describing schools that won’t even be able to play the game.

A case could be made for liberal arts schools and a case could be made for research schools.
We’ll see in thirty years.

Cue7, where does Michigan fall? :wink:

Seriously, it had the fastest growing university endowment of the past 25 years, currently enjoys a very lean operating budget as a result of years of watchful fiscal policies, reliance on economies of scale and the removal of redundancies, top 10 medical school, top 10 hospital, top 10 engineering program, top 10 MBA, top 10 Law school, top 10 in the Social Sciences, top 10 in the Humanities and top 15 in the hard sciences.

In reality, the big issue for the next quarter-century is the fate of state universities – you know, the ones that provide the only realistic higher education options for the majority of Americans. If Berkeley is a “loser” due to state funding cutbacks, then what are the implications for other state universities? In 25 years, will they be able to provide quality higher education at heavily subsidized rates to a large fraction of the American population? Or will the educational quality at state schools deteriorate, while tuition rises and enrollment falls due to unaffordability? If the latter, what are the implications for the US as a whole?

I am far more concerned about this than I am about the relative future rankings of, say, Yale and Stanford.

Winners will be the top privates in growing cities/regions. Duke, Emory, SMU, and USC come to mind.

Losers will be any state school in Illinois because of budget woes, Rochester, Syracuse and other upstate NY schools as the area slowly dies economically, and Rice if the oil-based economy in Houston goes away.

@Alexandre - I’m not sure, and it’s a good question! The funding cuts for State Unis are worrying though.

@Corbett and @Zinhead - yes, this thread is more about the race to be pre-eminent. You both accurately describe a much greater and worrying problem - the plight of higher education at large.

This thread isn’t about that though - it focuses on the much narrower (and less consequential) question of who will be the pre-eminent university in the decades ahead, and who will fall off in that race.

I think the “winners” of the future are going to be schools that offer high quality education online.

Perhaps Pennsylvania is a look at such a potential future. The “state related” flagship-level universities are expensive with poor financial aid even for Pennsylvania students, so they effectively function as somewhat discounted schools (relative to private schools) for students from upper income families. The transfer pathway to Penn State runs through expensive branch campuses rather than more affordable community colleges, so it is less available to students from lower income families. The non-flagship-level PASSHE schools are not exactly cheap either, and have more limited academic programs than those in other states, limiting the options for students from lower income families who do not have the top-end stats to get admitted to good-financial-aid private schools or earn full ride merit scholarships somewhere.

And the PASSHE schools have gone through six straight years of enrollment declines. The state is considering merging or closing of campuses.

There are two different worlds in American higher education. On the one hand, there are schools with multibillion dollar endowments that are competing madly to boost their average test scores from the 97th percentile to the 98th percentile, so that they can move from the Top 20 to the Top 10 in the USN&WR rankings.

But there are far more state schools, serving far more students, that are losing funding, raising tuition, cutting expenses like tenure-track faculty, and struggling to maintain enrollments.

Which world do you think College Confidential readers care more about ?

One thing interesting to note is that most of the PASSHE schools are relatively small (only 2 of 14 have 10,000 students or more). While this helps put more of the state population in commuting range of one (by having more of them, versus fewer larger ones), theoretically improving affordability (though tution and financial aid problems work the other way), it also means that it is harder for there to be enough of a critical mass of students at any given campus for some types of academic programs (e.g. engineering majors) to be worth offering.

For comparison, California, with about 3 times the population of Pennsylvania, has “only” about 1.5 times the number of non-flagship-level campuses (CSUs). Although their locations still put a large percentage of the state population in commuting range of at least one, each campus has a considerably larger enrollment, and a large number of them do offer engineering majors.

The type of AI Cuban envisions is at least 40 years away.

My crystal ball is 30 years from now, most public universities will teach most of their classes online. Tuition at public colleges will finally stabilize, with increases at the same rate as inflation. With most classes available online, most lower and middle class families will live at home or commute to college. The traditional college experience of small in person classes and living in dorms will revert to what it was before WWII, a luxury experience for the upper middle class to wealthy, except at a small number of schools that meet full need. The very top tier of private schools will be able to continue as they are, using their massive endowments.

Well, at what point would unabated climate disruption affect cities and towns and the colleges associated with them?