Peter P. Smith's career in and out of higher education has not followed the straight and narrow.
Amid forays into politics (as a member of Congress and lieutenant governor of Vermont) and international affairs (at UNESCO), Smith has been a higher education innovator, helping to found the statewide Community College of Vermont in 1970 and serving for 10 years as founding president of California State University's Monterey Bay campus, beginning in 1995.
In those jobs and his current one, as senior vice president for academic strategies and development at Kaplan Higher Education, Smith has pushed existing colleges and universities to better serve the adults and other students who have been least well served by traditional higher education. In his new book, Harnessing America's Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning  (Jossey-Bass), he argues that the country needs to reach deeper into its population than it historically has to produce a sufficient number of educated and skilled workers, and that the thousands of current colleges cannot do that job.
He responded via e-mail to questions about the book.
Q. You write that only a third of American ninth graders even take a shot at college, and that the country can't continue to function effectively, let alone compete economically and internationally, unless those in the "middle third" -- that is, those who finish high school but do not experience college -- get some postsecondary training. What have been the biggest factors preventing them from doing so until now?
A. The middle third also includes people who have some college experience, but no certificate or degree. I think of this phenomenon as a “failure to thrive” educationally. Many of the reasons described in the book – mode of teaching and learning, lack of recognition of transfer credit and learning done outside of school – contribute.
There is a huge expectations gap. Like the student named Bob, whom I mentioned in the book, people have been acculturated to believe that college is not for them, an expectation that is reinforced throughout high school. This ties directly to the lack of personalization and customization in the traditional model. The real low-hanging fruit here are the estimated one million high school graduates every year who are qualified but simply don’t go to college. So, we have to work on how we offer post-secondary education to capture this audience. We also have to work on communicating to the public that people have potential and capacity, and that college is for them.
Q. You argue that the existing higher education system (or, more accurately, "non-system," as you point out) won't be able to educate that middle third -- that it is both "maxed out" in terms of capacity and incapable of changing (or unwilling to change) the nature of teaching and learning to accommodate the different needs of today's learners. Why do the students you're most worried about hit a "dead end" in our current education system?
A. There is a long list of reasons why students hit a dead end, some of which colleges and universities cannot control. For example, when I was at California State University, Monterey Bay, we had to work very hard to keep first-generation Latino students in school because cultural norms called for them to live at home and work rather than attending college.
The metaphor that I would use to describe this challenge is swimming under water. The longer you are under water, the more it hurts. And, if your goal is to swim to the other end of the pool, but you have never known anyone who did it, it is easier to simply climb out of the water and walk away. On the other hand, if you believe you are meant to swim, it is easier to fight through the pain and reach your goal.
With first-generation learners, it is critical to connect with them personally, customize the learning to their needs, offer unwavering support, and respect their personal story and the learning that comes with it.
Q. An underlying theme of your book is that higher education has essentially failed to innovate sufficiently. Yet your own career path -- starting two different (and, at their time, innovative) types of institutions, and now working at a third that is part of a emerging sector trying new approaches -- would seem to challenge that view. How do those square?
A. In the first two cases, I watched as the rest of the field either ignored or explained their success as an exception. I am frankly astonished that there has never (to my knowledge, anyway) been a replication of the Community College of Vermont model. Cal State Monterey Bay is a terrific institution that incorporates several core “best practices” in its operations. But that institution is still subject to the same constraints that I described in the book. For example, with the current budget crisis in California, each CSU has faced employee furloughs and student body caps, leaving thousands without access to higher education. One reason that I chose to come to Kaplan Higher Education after my time at UNESCO is to experience a culture without these types of constraints.
At Kaplan Higher Education, we do have some fairly traditional practices, but we also have the capacity to innovate, develop, and continuously improve. For instance, if we want to implement diagnostics in the post-enrollment process, we can do so and then evaluate, refine, and improve our processes. The traditional model lacks this type of nimbleness and flexibility. Without the constraints inherent in the traditional model, we can model emerging best practices, help define them and, in effect, help lead the change we seek.
Q. Define the "personal learning" that you think is undervalued/under-recognized by the current higher education system. And do the current mechanisms that exist to account for knowledge gained outside the classroom (the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning's prior learning assessments , and the American Council on Education's military credit system , for instance) not get at this issue?
A. Students are rarely asked, in depth, what they want from their college education and are almost never engaged in an ongoing conversation about it with someone who can affect their higher education experience. Until institutions personally connect the learner with the curriculum and the college experience, the learner is vulnerable. And the “at risk” learner is always more vulnerable.
Additionally, the older one becomes the more experience one has to compare with what they are being taught. So, to fail to integrate someone’s experience into the curriculum both trivializes and frustrates them. That’s why starting with the assessment of prior learning is such an educationally important thing to do.
As one of the founding board members of CAEL, I agree wholeheartedly that its prior learning assessment and other approaches like the ACE military credit system are central to the issue. What people involved in both of these efforts, and others like them, will tell you is that the credits awarded are often honored “in the breach.” That’s a nice way of saying that they are not honored by other institutions and, in some cases, by other departments in the institution that awarded them. The biggest pain point for most of these approaches is that the credit will be included in a transcript, but not counted towards the degree.
What I am calling for in the book is the mainstreaming of these concepts and the development of a market that honors credit awarded by accredited institutions as progress towards a degree at other institutions.
Q. How much is this a credentialing problem? Are we as a society basically under credentialing (failing to give credentials for knowledge, etc., that isn't now recognized) or over credentialing (is there too much emphasis, by employers, etc., on credentials, rather than on the underlying knowledge that Americans have)?
A. Credentialing is part of the problem, but only part of it. As a society, we fail to recognize what people know. So, if a soldier returning from active duty service has not only courses but also experiences, why shouldn’t those things be acknowledged and included in his degree plan?
Also, as educators, we do not adequately value reflection on the part of the learner. I view reflection as the process through which the learner distinguishes between their broad experience (in a course or in life) and what they learned because of it. This is where and when learning is realized. Employers want accurate information about the qualifications of people wishing to advance in or enter a profession. So, while a credential might well be the exponent of that, the learning outcome and a validated third-party guarantee that the learning occurred will be increasingly important.
Q. What are the developments (you call them "game changers") that make you believe the time is right to create an alternate path to a postsecondary education for these students?
A. You see evidence every day. When AARP solicits proposals for a learning platform for its members, the balance has shifted. When the Peer-to-Peer University moves into its second “term,” the balance has shifted. When StraighterLine is recognized for its courseware alone, the balance has shifted. When the global OpencourseWare Consortium gets three million hits a month, the balance has shifted.
In the book, I devoted a chapter to the “End of Scarcity” and its impact on higher education. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this trend. Colleges are built and organized around scarcity – the expertise of faculty is in short supply, classrooms and labs are limited because they are expensive, and the authority to offer a course of study is limited. Additionally, reputation is built around who you exclude as much as it is who you include and who succeeds. In fact, the whole concept of meritocracy is built on the notion of scarcity because there is not enough room “at the top” for everyone.
Put this set of assumptions, and the practices that are in place because of them, up against the current reality. Excellent content is increasingly commodified and available. Time and place are no longer determinants of when a person can learn. And in the ultimate reversal, the educational challenge vis a vis the workforce can no longer winnow people out and validate merit. Instead, employers must help create merit because there are now more jobs that require higher education than there are people qualified for them. And this is projected to be the case for years to come.
Q. Explain the newfangled institution(s) that you envision -- Colleges for the 21st Century -- as a potential environment for these students. Do any existing colleges and universities (like your current employer) qualify? If so, which? If not, who would be likeliest to create them?
A. That is the big question. The reason I developed the characteristics of the Colleges for the 21st Century (C21C) and did not suggest a model is that I don’t know what it will look like. As Justice Potter Stewart said when discussing pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
What won’t change, however, are the elements in the higher education teaching-learning value proposition, although they might be rearranged. At its heart lies the transfer of information, the impact of that information on the receiver, and the assessment and reflection that assures the transfer is complete and meets a high standard. All of these things are organized around the human, intellectual, civic, and economic development of the learner. From a teaching-learning perspective, the focus will increasingly be on learning outcomes, the standards they reflect, and the process by which they are employed.
I believe that the services modeled by places like AcademyOne and its founder, David Moldoff, will change the back office of higher education profoundly, transforming learner mobility from a risk factor to a fact of life.
And I certainly hope (and expect) that when the list of C21Cs is first published that Kaplan Higher Education will be on it. And I believe that many in the market-driven sector will play roles in developing the concept of the C21C precisely because we are metric-driven laboratories of innovation. Having said that, Burck Smith has proven with StraighterLine that core change can come from any direction, not just those in the academy. In a world where learner choice and control is a driving force; where the learning platform, not the campus, is the basic architecture; and where the network, not the faculty, defines the process, new organizational structures will develop.