Higher Ed Gamma: Challenges and Opportunities

A new version of the blog.

July 25, 2016

Times have changed since we began our multi-author blog, Higher Ed Beta, in December 2013. After a spring-summer hiatus, we've decided to embark on a reboot and a re-title, graduating from beta to gamma. The first three pieces, one authored by each of us, reflect on where we've been, what we've been up to, and where we hope to go with the blog, and more generally, with our own journeys in the higher ed landscape. - Steve, Michael, & Akiba 

The panic generated by MOOCs may have abated, but the challenges confronting higher education remain.

Some areas of public concern, to be sure, have been overstated. These include the notion that tuition increases are driven primarily by administrative bloat (since much of the growth in administration is the inevitable byproduct of governmental regulations, technology demands, and student support needs), “gold-plated” amenities (which add only marginally to institutional costs and have a positive impact on enrollment and retention), or institutional emulation (for example, many expanded graduate programs and research efforts address genuine local or regional needs).

But other issues demand our full attention. Among the most notable are:

  • Persistently low retention and graduation rates;
  • Racial and socioeconomic disparities in academic and employment outcomes;
  • The inverse relationship in spending on the most and least privileged students; and
  • Costs that discourage students from enrolling in four-year institutions or leave them mired in debt.

We have accumulated a great deal of evidence about practices that work. These include the use of:

  • Data to identify problem areas – both at an institutional level (such as roadblock courses, students closed out of essential courses, or departments with completion rates far below the norm) and an individual level (by monitoring such indicators as low levels of credit accumulation or variables about engagement, persistence, pace, performance, and self-efficacy moves).
  • Predictive analytics and automated advising tools to inform students of whether they are progressing toward a degree and help them select courses and majors that best align with their talents, strengths, interests, and career goals;
  • Academic alerts and behavioral nudges (including text messages and dashboards) that prod students to enroll in a larger number of courses and make better use of support services.
  • Life coaches and instructional facilitators (including peer mentors, near peer mentors, and academic coaches) to provide one-stop services and support.

 Other evidence-based examples include:

  • Emergency short-term loans or grants designed to help students remain in school and complete their degree;
  • Financial incentives for four-year graduation; 
  • Articulation agreements that ease credit transfer;
  • Ensured availability of essential courses;
  • Simpler, more coherent and transparent degree pathways;
  • Elimination of institutional roadblocks to a degree; and
  • Attractive options that allow students to pick up additional credits (including accelerated vacation courses)

But of all the lessons that I have learned over the past four years, one stands out: That the primary impediments to substantial improvements in student engagement and success reside in areas that many institutions have been loath to address – the design of the curriculum, course scheduling, semester length, instructional staffing, student support services, and business models.

Based on our own experience, we have learned that:

  • Team-, challenge-, and case-based learning can allow faculty to potentially serve more students while providing highly social, interactive learning experiences.
  • An assessment ecosystem that combines “checks for understanding,” frequent low stakes evaluations, and project-based-assessments can promote better and more efficient validation of student mastery of higher-order skills.
  • Gamification of courses (for example, by redesigning course activities around the accumulation of points) can greatly enhance student engagement, persistence, and endurance.
  • A combination of open educational resources and collaboratively created content and learning tools incorporated into tuition can greatly improve academic success while reducing student costs.

We are fortunate to be at one of those rare moments when it is possible to design, test, and rigorously evaluate new educational models. If we are to better serve the many populations that higher education has, historically, failed to serve well, we need to:

  • Better align the K-12, community college, and four-year institution curricula.
  • Devise credentials that do not require four years to vest.
  • Embrace instructional design, advising, and continuous course and advising improvements informed by fine-grained learning data.
  • Increase engagement with employers.
  • Place a greater emphasis on experiential learning, internship opportunities, and industry-aligned learning experiences.

We also need to create: 

  • “Crosswalks” that make it easier for students to move back and forth between experiences inside and outside the academy.
  • “Open loops” that provide students with multiple on- and off-ramps across their adult lives.
  • More windows into career options supplemented by dashboards that reveal how particular learning experiences or course sequences will augment a student’s job qualifications.

Two facts stand out: Most jobs now require a college degree and too many well-qualified students fail to earn a postsecondary credential, especially in those fields with the biggest payoff. The solutions are known. What we need is the will and determination to implement these evidence-driven answers at scale.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the Institute for Transformational Learning for the University of Texas System and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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