Out with cursive, in with texting, in in-class writing exercise (essay)

Depending on the geographic locus, the beginning of the semester is upon us and we have begun to do real work, finishing the musical chairs game of finding seats for students in the classes they need or a match with an instructor that they can live with for 50 minutes three times a week.

In my English composition classes we are now at work on the narrative and in order to not just talk about English 1101 being a workshop or activity class, my students and I took 25 minutes out for what is commonly called "in-class" writing.

When I say "we" I mean that my students and I write at the same time.  This is by no means a radical or new pedagogical tactic, though for some reason most colleagues I have had over the years do not write with their students.

I write with my students because I want to feel what 25 minutes really feels like when one has been told to keep the pen or pencil going. Of course my 25 minutes might be very different from my students' 25 minutes, and that 25 minutes might differ as it relates to the writing experience from student to student.

I could not help but get philosophical, and maybe even a little nostalgic, about in-class writing this fall, the beginning of my 22nd year of full-time teaching at the college level.

My mind began to survey as I heard tables in the class creak -- most likely wood laminate surfaces, and these tables were good, tall tables where three students could sit, a far cry from the desks of my own school days and also most of my teaching career, which were uncomfortable and represented a strange continuance from secondary education. Come to think of it, and I did of course do so during this in-class writing session, most students would have a difficult time fitting into the "retro" desks; perhaps that is one reason they are no longer widely used.

Fortunately some things remain the same, such as students contorting their necks a certain way as they write, some with faces just above the erasure marks they make on notebook paper, while others have their own light imprint and yet others boldly press onto papers so that a felt tip pen would be short-lived prey in their hands. Thank God for cheap ink pens that are strangely resilient in the hands of some.

As I wrote this year I could feel my right hand hurt; I have begun to feel that very quickly these past three years or so, to be honest. It would be lovely to say that this is from all my years of hard manual labor of the mind and hand-writing. The truth lies in my orthopedic surgeon's diagnosis, "You're just like a car with a lot of miles on it."

I think most of my students will be spared, are already spared the experience of involving the whole hand, arm, shoulder, in the manual labor of writing. They are thumb writers, more advanced than I am when it comes to producing electronic texts.  I use one finger to type out texts, more advanced than many of my middle-aged peers if I may say so proudly and slightly in illusion and defense of being youthful still. My students are athletic writers made for our times, I have for the first time not only come to accept but also to observe with some admiration.

In my introduction to writing I somehow spontaneously said, "You can probably write an essay with two thumbs on your smartphone," and this remark was very well-received by my students, friendly smiles and eyes lighting up in a positive way. I must have hit a nerve. And as my students were making the desks creak before me, some even wearing earphones because I had encouraged them to wear them to be in their own world as long as they kept them turned down enough so that no one else could hear them, I thought, I should experiment this semester and have students write their one timed, in-class essay on their smartphone.

I began to take this enormous pride, almost parental, at the thought of my students brilliantly, or at least with accomplishment, writing an essay with probably better results than they could produce on paper simply by typing on their tiny electronic device, performing a feat I and many others of middle age would consider almost something for the circus.

My free-writing brain then ventured into the territory of students' in-class writing over the last few years.  I had one of those eureka moments, or if not that, the time was right for a revelation. Suddenly the answer was before me. I knew now why I had increasingly been receiving neatly printed essays and also anything that I had asked for to be written in class, in letters that were not cursive writing. I had over the years marveled at the students' scriptorium work, as if they were continuing some tradition, like monks illuminating manuscripts.

But the truth is more related to the gradual abandonment of cursive writing and the teaching of cursive writing in public schools.

I observe this not with negativity or in some kind of subdued snarl. Why would students really need cursive writing?  Why do so many of us complain that students do not know this "art," and why might we say, "Look at this stack: only one person wrote in cursive"?

No, students have evolved and they have no need to write in cursive, not even during in-class writing. Judging by the amount of words they can produce they have adapted to print faster.

And look at us -- we might employ that ancient, "lost" "art," but really, often that is used to record a thought that might as well have been committed to our idea bank on a smartphone. And when was the last time you wrote an entire essay or article by hand and then transcribed it on the computer? Let's be honest here. Evolution has taken place.

Is there room for cursive writing as we now begin the academic year in the not-so-hallowed halls of academe across America?

Sure, but along with this kind of circus-act writing there is room, even more so, for the two-thumb essay.

Ulf Kirchdorfer is a professor of English at Darton State College.
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Professor removes ban on 'bless you' from syllabus

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Professor at Coastal Georgia revises syllabus amid uproar that the college says didn't really reflect what was going on.

Colleges start new programs

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Beloit releases annual 'mindset list'

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Beloit releases annual "mindset list" to remind professors that their newest students won't get the term "press pound" and never had reason to fear the Unabomber.

Essay calling on faculty members to learn their students' names

As summer ends, professors across the country are gearing up for a new academic year: refurbishing old syllabuses, reviewing some alternate readings, perhaps adding service learning or a new assessment tool to their courses. I’m designing one entirely new seminar, plus working with colleagues to rethink our team-taught intro class. It all requires time and energy, and has to be done. But the best thing I do to improve students’ work in my courses is far simpler.

I will learn and use their names. It’s easy, and it works.

Using those names in class is uniquely powerful. As Dale Carnegie said, “Remember that a man’s [sic] name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the English language.” (Of course we know today that this is true for a woman too.) A student who hears his name suddenly becomes completely alert; one who hears herself quoted (“As Hannah said, Machiavelli was just trying to be realistic”) will be replaying those words in her head, over and over, for at least a week.

I used to learn names by taking the class list and scribbling descriptions, and for a time I would videotape students actually speaking their names, then review the tape every morning over my Cheerios. My current technique, at least for larger classes, is flashcards. The first day I line up the students alphabetically (they’ll already be smiling at each other, with a nice excuse for meeting), then take their pictures one by one, bantering like a novice fashion photographer  (“Excellent!”  “You look sharp,”  “Nice t-shirt,”  “Great smile,” and so on).

After being photographed, the students write their preferred first and last name, with phonetic guides if needed, on a pressure-sensitive file label, a sheet of which lies on the desk. At the end of the day, I deliver the pictures to a one-hour development kiosk, and by morning have a full deck of photos, each with a name stuck on the back.  Before each class meeting I spend a few minutes going through the deck again, memorizing the names. Whenever I pick up a new tidbit about a student I’ll write it on the back: “Plays lacrosse,” “Civil War buff,” “always wears these glasses,” “from Vermont.” The names take maybe four class meetings to learn; last fall, when I had 82 students in two courses, it required about two weeks in total. 

And the technique, or at least its principle of individualized recognition, is scalable. With smaller classes (say, 29 students or less), you can make up nameplates – just a folded paper card will work, with names on the front. Within a few days not only will you know their names, the students will also know everyone else’s – a nice side benefit, and very helpful in seminars. With larger classes, learning the names certainly takes more work -- although a dean of students I once knew was famous for knowing and using the names of all 700 or so students at his college, from the day they matriculated. It’s impressive if you do learn so many; even if you can’t, your teaching assistants can learn students’ names in their sections. Or even without knowing any names, a lecturer who pays attention can spot a puzzled student and say, “Do you have a question?”  It is possible to connect well, with even a large class.

Why is knowing someone’s name or acknowledging them individually so important? Any person’s name is emotionally loaded to that person, and has the power to pull him or her into whatever is going on. By putting that person at the center of attention, naming takes only a moment from you – but for them, it is deeply affecting, and lasts.

But more than that, calling a student by name opens the door to a more personal connection, inviting the student to see the professor (and professors generally) as a human being, maybe a role model or even a kind of friend. In the 10-year longitudinal study that Chris Takacs and I did of a cohort of students moving through college (for our book How College Works), students who found congenial advisers, or even full-fledged mentors, were more likely to stay in school, to learn more, and to enjoy the entire experience.

Several years ago I saw Jon Stewart, the television show host, deliver a marvelous 74-minute stand-up comedy routine for an audience of 5,000 people, apparently with no notes whatsoever. Stewart worked the crowd, picking up on what we liked, playing off of a few local references, sensing groups in the audience who responded differently, asking questions, riding the laughs but knowing when to quiet our responses.  He connected with us; he made us part of the show. It was exciting and memorable.

I’m no Jon Stewart, nor a match for that dean of students. But once about 20 years ago I had a social psychology class of 144 students. Armed with the freshman facebook (small “f,” remember that?) photos and some scribbled hints, I worked on their names for a couple of weeks. Then one day I came into class and started pointing at each student, slowly speaking his or her name. Some were easy, others took a moment; still others I skipped, to return to when I remembered or had eliminated possibilities. As I progressed around the room, students became increasingly focused on what I was doing, smiling and laughing at who was remembered, and who took a minute.  Eventually I got to the last few, the people at the outer edge of my mnemonic ability. When I declared that last name – correctly -- the entire class hesitated, and then erupted in a long, sustained round of applause. Some cheers were thrown in.

And the course went well.


Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College. He is the author, with Christopher G. Takacs, of How College Works (Harvard University Press).


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Essay on how to improve retention

In the hope of improving American higher education, President Obama set a goal in 2009 of improving college degree attainment rates from 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020. This represents a 50 percent increase in attainment rates. This does not seem to me to be an outlandish objective. Indeed, we accomplished just such a 50 percent improvement at my college over an eight-year period. It happened by accident, but we learned something from it about the kinds of things that might help one meet such a goal intentionally. Here is the story.

It happened “by accident” because we did not set out to reduce attrition or increase graduation rates. Instead, we fixed things at the college that were not working well or were broken. It was an ad hoc process, with no particular order. Indeed, progress was often slowed for want of adequate funding. But with a few years’ attention to improving conditions for living and learning, we suddenly discovered we had another problem to address: We had a larger student body than we had intended because fewer students were leaving. As problems go, this was a nice one to have.

Let me give examples of the kinds of changes that produced this happy result.

  • We repaired physical facilities that had fallen into disrepair through petty acts of vandalism. And we found ways to increase student self-policing, which led to greater student pride in their campus facilities.
  • Since freshmen, as a general rule, were responsible for the largest portion of misbehavior on campus, we increased upper-class presence in freshman dorms, doubled the number of adult senior residents, and built new dormitories to bring back to campus a larger percentage of upperclassmen.
  • There were parts of the academic program where our students needed more help than they could get in class. So we established a formal group of paid student mentors to help individuals with their classroom studies.
  • Medical problems were the single greatest cause of students' leaving during the academic year. So we improved the quality and number of our medical, nursing and counseling staff.
  • We added a substantial competitive paid internship program that allowed students to build their own internships over the summer. This helped to greatly decrease the anxiety among upperclassmen about their future job prospects.
  • For students who felt the need to leave for financial reasons, we established a crisis fund, from which they could seek up to $3,000 to tide them over through an emergency.

These examples may sound familiar to experienced campus program administrators. But my point is that every college is going to have a different problem to solve at a different time. Each campus community has a better sense of itself and its needs than someone from outside. The only way we can improve student retention substantially is to support a wide range of self-identified improvement efforts at each college and university.

Every change identified above had a cost attached to it, sometimes quite significant. We did not spend our scarce resources on measuring the retention effects of each program. Instead we continued to invest in programs and improvements that our students and faculty told us would be helpful and good in themselves. Higher retention rates seem to have been an inevitable byproduct.

What we could have used was a start-up grant to help us test ideas before building them into our operating budget. Fortunately, funds were available to us from private sources. But imagine the impact that a grant program could have on such efforts — a program designed not to provide solutions from above but to support individual campus efforts toward meeting President Obama’s 2020 college completion goal.

Here is an idea for such a program that would be simple to administrate and extremely helpful, especially to the smaller institutions across the country that are the front-line providers of educational opportunities to first-generation college students and the seriously disadvantaged. The Department of Education could make a block grant to one of our national college presidential associations, or to the various state associations.

I imagine some of these associations would be eager to help ease the burden on both the department and the colleges in administering such start-up or incentive-based programs for their members, allowing member institutions to apply for such grants as would help achieve the purposes I have described.

I think it is bad public policy to have institutions breaking their backs to chase government money. Instead, government money should be following the need and investing in the efforts that local administrators and teachers believe will help keep their students in school, or better yet, investing in the programs that are already working to achieve the president’s objectives.

Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis.

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College-level statistics trumps remedial algebra in CUNY study

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Students fare better by skipping remediation and instead taking statistics with an additional workshop, new CUNY study finds, fueling state remedial reforms.

Essay on technology issues facing students and faculty members

Regular readers of the higher education press have had occasion to learn a great deal about digital developments and online initiatives in higher education. We have heard both about and from those for whom this world is still terra relatively incognita. And, increasingly, we are hearing both about and from those commonly considered to be to be “digital natives” –- the term “native” conveying the idea of their either having been born to the culture in question or being so adapted to it that they might as well have been.

When we think of digital natives, we tend to think of students. But lest we think that things are easy for them, let us bear in mind their problems. Notably, they share the general difficulty of reputation management or what we might consider the adverse consequences of throwing privacy away with both hands when communicating on the internet. More to the point in the world of higher education, many suffer from the unequal distribution of online skills most relevant to academic success –- yet another factor in the extreme socioeconomic inequality that afflicts our nation’s system of higher education.

But let us turn our attention to the faculty, and first to those relatively unschooled in new information technologies. At the extreme, there are those who view the whole business with fear and loathing. We must find ways to persuade them that such an attitude is unworthy of anyone who has chosen education as a vocation and that they would do well to investigate this new world with an explorer’s eye –- not uncritically, to be sure, given the hype surrounding it –- in order to reach informed positions about both the virtues and the limitations of new information technologies.

Others are more receptive, but also rather lost. They are fine with what Jose Bowen calls “teaching naked” (i.e., keeping technology out of the classroom itself), since they have been doing it all their working lives, but are unable to manage the other major part of the program (that is, selecting items to hang in a virtual closet for their students to try on and wear to good effect, so that they come to class well-prepared to make the most of the time together with one another and their instructor). What these faculty members need is the right kind of support: relevant, well-timed, and pedagogically effective –- something far less widely available than it should be.

Digitally adept faculty have challenges of their own, some of which are old problems in new forms. There is, for example, the question of how available to be to their students, which has taken on a new dimension in an age in which channels of communication proliferate and constant connectedness is expected.

And then there is the question of how much of themselves faculty members should reveal to students. How much of their non-academic activities or thoughts should they share by not blocking access online or perhaps even by adding students to some groups otherwise composed of friends?

Many of us have worked with students on civic or political projects –- though not, one hopes, simply imposing our own views upon them. Many of us have already extended our relationship into more personal areas when students have come to us with problems or crises of one sort or another and we have played the role of caring, older adviser. We have enjoyed relatively casual lunches, dinners, kaffeeklatsches with them that have included discussion of a variety of topics, from tastes in food to anecdotes about beloved pets. The question for digital natives goes beyond these kinds of interaction: To what extent should students be allowed in on the channels and kinds of communications that are regularly –- in some cases, relentlessly and obsessively –- shared with friends?

Not all of this, to be sure, is under a faculty member’s control. Possibilities for what sociologists call “role segregation” hinge on an ability to keep the audiences for different roles apart from one another –- hardly something to be counted on in these digital times. But leaving aside the question of how much online information can be kept from students, how much of it should be kept from them?

Will students be better-served, as some faculty members seem to believe, if they see ongoing evidence that their teachers are people with full lives aside from their faculty roles? Should students be recipients of the kinds of texts and tweets that faculty members may be in the habit of sending to friends about movies, shopping, etc.? Given how distracting and boring some of this may be even to friends, one might well wonder. Some students will perhaps get a thrill out of being in a professor’s “loop” on such matters, but do we need to further clutter their lives with trivia? This is an area in which they hardly need additional help.

To put this issue in a wider context: In her 1970 book Culture and Commitment, anthropologist Margaret Mead drew a distinction among three different types of culture: “postfigurative”, in which the young learn from those who have come before; “cofigurative”, in which both adults and children learn a significant amount from their peers; and “prefigurative”, in which adults are in the position of needing to learn much from their children. Not surprisingly, Mead saw us as heading in a clearly prefigurative direction –- and that years before the era of parents and grandparents sitting helplessly in front of computer screens waiting for a little child to lead them.

Without adopting Mead’s specific views on these cultural types, we can find her categories an invitation to thinking about the teaching and learning relationship among the generations. For example, should we just happily leap into prefigurativeness? 

Or, to put it in old colonialist terms, should we “go native”? Colonial types saw this as a danger, a giving up of the responsibilities of civilization –- not unlike the way the Internet-phobic see embracing the online world. The repentant colonizers who did decide to “go native”, motivated either by escapism or by a profound love and respect for those they lived and worked with, sometimes ended up with views as limited by their adopted culture (what is called “secondary ethnocentrism”) as were limited by their original one.  This aside from the fact that attempts to go native are not always successful and may even seem ridiculous to the real folks.

Perhaps it is helpful to think of ourselves first as anthropologists. We certainly need to understand the world in which we ply our trade, not only so that we can do our work, but also because we are generally possessed of intellectual curiosity and have chosen our vocation because we like working in a community. We believe that we have much to learn from the people we study and, at the same time, know that we can see at least some things more clearly because we have the eyes of outsiders.

But we are also missionaries, since we feel we have something of value to share –- to share, to be sure, not simply to impose. What might that something be?

In the most basic sense, it is the ability to focus, to pay attention, take time to learn, looking back at least as often as looking forward. Most of our students live in a noisy world of ongoing virtual connectedness, relentless activity, nonstop polytasking (how tired are we of the word “multitasking”?). Like the rest of us, they suffer from the fact that too much information is the equivalent of too little. Like the rest of us, they live in a world in which innovation is not simply admired, but fetishized.

So, even as we avail ourselves of the educational benefits of new information technologies, we might think of complementing this with a Slow Teaching movement, not unlike the Slow Food movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986 with the goal of preserving all that was delicious and nutritious in traditional cuisine.  We have such traditions to share with our students even as we become more knowledgeable about the world in which they move.

Our students and junior colleagues don’t need us to be them; they need us to be us. Or, as Oscar Wilde so engagingly put it: Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College.

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Essay on using or ignoring teaching innovations


Just because a teaching idea is hot doesn't mean you need to embrace it, writes Rob Weir.

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Essay on creating an alternative, nationally offered core degree experience

Last month the U.S. Department of Education announced a new round of experimental sites to test new competency-based education (CBE) models. There is a lot of excitement in the CBE community about this development, which will provide welcome regulatory space for aid distribution formulas, an important structural component to any new form of delivery.

However, buried further down in the department’s press release was an additional announcement that has received scant attention, but which made my pulse quicken:

To continue efforts to increase opportunities for Americans to strengthen their professional skillset, the department is also announcing today that it will collaborate with the Department of Labor to develop a $25 million grant competition for an Online Skills Academy to support the development of a platform to enable high-quality, free or low-cost pathways to degrees, certificates or other employer-recognized credentials.

So here’s my question: might the Online Skills Academy be a first step to creating a new alternative pathway to a degree, one that actually creates a new higher education ecosystem that can sit beside and maybe improve our existing system? I know some people believe we should simply support existing public models to return them to a state of almost-free to students. But that cost would be enormous. And the current system is deeply flawed. Its success rate is not that great, the end product is increasingly suspect, and it renders some layers in the incumbent system winners, while others lose funding support.

I am instead thinking about a nationally offered, extremely low-cost, competency-based model degree program that includes stackable, industry-embraced credentials. One that is endlessly tailored to the student, whether an 18-year-old at a residential college or a 40-year-old single mother in an online program. A system that pays only for success, that creates a whole new ecosystem of providers and supports, and that puts students in control of what they need in order to master competencies and achieve their overarching learning goals.

This is an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while. In fact, at the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, I last year sketched out a concept for providing free or close-to-free higher education to anyone who wants it. The invitation to brainstorm was irresistible, the challenges to actually deliver such a thing are nearly insurmountable, and what I eventually produced raises more questions than answers. But to my question, “Can I write this as if I were Ruler-for-the-Day?” the answer was yes. And who can say “no” to that opportunity?

What follows below is a slightly modified version of what I provided.


You said I could think big and without constraint, so here goes. 
The goal I‘d set out would be to create a “free to all” path to two- and four-year college degrees for anyone who wants one. A college education would be reframed as a fundamental civil right for all Americans seeking a better life in this fast-changing, interconnected global economy.   
The challenge would make available to everyone and to every interested organization the core degree experience. By making a high-quality, industry-endorsed degree program virtually free and leveraging just a portion of federal aid dollars, we could create a new learning ecosystem for higher education that sits alongside the incumbent providers (and also allows many of them to reinvent and/or improve themselves) while also creating a springboard for a host of new innovative learning pathways.   
I am not suggesting we create a national curriculum for all of higher education, but that we create a national alternative for those who don’t want or can’t afford a traditional option. We could have a debt-free option for all those who want it.   
Far from creating a larger role for government, the initiative would invite a wide range of existing providers, entrepreneurs, community-based organizations and others to get into the business of education, while ensuring that the outcome is of high quality and trustworthy and that the government only pays for actual success. For those who want to ensure high-quality education as a right, this model expands access at lower cost. 
For those who want to protect the private sector (and inversely keep a small role for government), this model invites entrepreneurial initiatives and approaches. 
In my model, which I’m calling “The National College Degree” (NCD) for the moment (I know – there are better brand people than me out there), the core educational experience would be competency-based and cost nothing to the student. NCD would have these components: 

  • An associate degree and bachelor’s degree option.  Each would have a mix of core competencies and field-specific competencies (the latter being akin to a major).
  • The associate degree path would have three mileposts (each equivalent to one third of the way to completion) and the bachelor’s would have six such mileposts.
  • Mileposts would be credentialed and stackable.
  • The competencies would have to have the endorsement of major employers or their associations.
  • It would have to be direct-assessment-based: time is irrelevant and mastery non-negotiable.
  • The delivery of content would be online and use OER resources.
  • The assessments would be project-based, using intelligent simulations.
  • Peer-to-peer learning capabilities would be built in.
  • Intelligent-learning systems would be available for students needing/wanting them.
  • Automated assessments and machine grading would be built into the platform.
  • A high level of rigor and quality would be demanded.
  • All graduating students would take a national exam (like the Collegiate Learning Assessment) and the degree would only be awarded when the student mastered the competencies in the degree program and had a satisfactory score on the exam.
  • The system would have to include a secure integrity component  we have to know the student getting the degree did the work and the assessments.
  • The system would have a career-pathways component utilizing cutting-edge labor-market analytics to map competencies to the range of jobs to which students might aspire.

The eventual program would also have to define a system for competency-unit size (an alternative to the credit hour) that all NCD providers would have to accept. This way we create the new competency-based “exchange rate” and we do not replicate the transfer-credit inefficiencies and irrationality of the credit-hour system, one that results in enormous waste today.

All of the necessary components are out there in some phase of development. The NCD pathway needs to establish the aspirational standard for higher-ed quality, not the floor. It won’t be easy to get a degree because the quality is not compromised; there’s no sliding by. 
Imagine posing this as a challenge grant. The challenge grant would be to the consortium that could create what is outlined above so that it meets those broad goals, and creates a system for which there is almost zero cost to deliver. I’d set a goal: cost of delivery to be no more than $200 annually per student for the two-year degree and $400 annually for the four-year degree. 
As a result, the developers would have to think about an open-source platform like the one developed by edX, and open-source learning resources like those created by Khan Academy. They would likely need game-design and immersive-learning partners to create the project-based simulations for assessment. There would need to be corporate partners who would collaborate in the creation of competencies and who would then declare they will endorse the NCD and accept it in hiring. More on this near the end. 
The US government would make the NCD free to all, covering the $100 per-student annual price of delivery through government subsidy.

Now the powerful part: any person, any organization, could wrap services around the NCD. So we could see intentional, residential-learning communities where the education is free (the NCD), but students pay for the coming-of-age experience, living on some form of traditional campus. We could see faith-based organizations and inner-city churches offering NCD support services in church basement programs (as happens with ESL). We could see high schools integrating the NCD. States could save enormous amounts by reorganizing community colleges around the NCD. Entrepreneurs could build NCD support companies for students who need a-la-carte support services (tutoring in math, help in writing, study groups…).  Community agencies like the Urban League could become NCD sites. Individual teachers could offer their services (think Amazon’s Mechanical Turk) with user reviews and ratings that are transparent to all. Really effective faculty would earn an ever-growing following. A whole new learning eco-system could evolve. I could see NCD+ degrees in which organizations build atop NCD. 
What I like about this idea is that it implicitly says to the incumbent providers, “Use the NCD or not, but show us how your outcomes stack up against NCDs.” To all others, it says, “Go ahead and build support infrastructure around the NCD and expand access (but know you will only be rewarded for success).” 
People would not have to enroll in an NCD program. Wealthy people could still enroll in elite institutions. Less-wealthy students could still take their traditionally delivered loans and Pell Grant dollars to traditional institutions, as they do today.

If I want the values-based curriculum and experience of a denominational school, I can select that for myself. Those wanting to root for a D-I football team can still attend that flagship university. But NCD would lift everyone’s game. Community colleges could elect to reinvent themselves around it or offer compelling new alternatives. The vast tier of middle-level institutions would have to declare what their graduates know, show how they know it and make themselves at least as good as NCD. You are not creating a national curriculum for all of higher ed. You are creating a national alternative for those who don’t want or can’t afford a traditional option. You could have a debt-free option for all those who want it. 
The money part. In that ecosystem, people who provide services around the degree pathways need to get paid. I would pay Pell-eligible students $500 each time they hit a milepost, no matter how long it takes to get there. The whole cost of the associate degree would be $1,500 plus $200 in delivery cost. The bachelor’s would be $3,000 plus $400 in delivery cost. The system would only pay for performance. The student could use the $500 to pay providers within the ecosystem or keep the money themselves.

The Education Department would have a “pay the provider” escrow system in which the qualified NCD student could enroll with an ecosystem provider, but the money would only be released to that provider when the student successfully passed the milepost. Think of it as an Educational PayPal. The provider bears the risk, but knows it will be paid if the student is successful.   
Think of the benefits: 

  • The government only pays for success (it spends billions on failure now);
  • No one is deprived a degree because of cost;
  • Quality is ensured  no grade inflation (no grades  mastery or not) and assessment is validated (using the CLA-like exam).
  • We create a whole new educational ecosystem that at least runs parallel to the current higher education system, but also helps improve it.
  • The government would save billions in Pell when NCD scaled.
  • College becomes a civil right for all Americans. 

The well-designed system would not have to be maintained by the government if you wanted to keep government out of it, but it could be a department within the Education Department or contracted out. (Take just $1 billion of the $153 billion in Pell and you’ll have money to spare with this system, while easily covering all the cost of maintaining the system.)   
This is a moon shot, but not as complicated or far away as you might think. A lot of the moving parts exist today. We have emerging competency-based delivery models, powerful new learning platforms, ever-improving adaptive learning systems, greater desire among employers and industry to be involved, and bipartisan support for new approaches.

This is not an entirely new idea. Consider, for example, the administration’s 2009 proposal for an Online Skills Laboratory. The $500-million idea was almost funded, but healthcare reform trumped it. However, note the similar thinking:

Create a New Online Skills Laboratory: Online educational software has the potential to help students learn more in less time than they would with traditional classroom instruction alone.  Interactive software can tailor instruction to individual students like human tutors do, while simulations and multimedia software offer experiential learning. Online instruction can also be a powerful tool for extending learning opportunities to rural areas or working adults who need to fit their coursework around families and jobs. New open online courses will create new routes for students to gain knowledge, skills and credentials. They will be developed by teams of experts in content knowledge, pedagogy, and technology and made available for modification, adaptation and sharing. The Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor will work together to make the courses freely available through one or more community colleges and the Defense Department’s distributed learning network, explore ways to award academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours, and rigorously evaluate the results. 

You said “Ruler-for-the-Day.” And while I have skated over the myriad challenges and ignored the political realities of trying to get something like this done, I am pretty convinced there is a way to create a new higher education ecosystem for those who cannot flourish in the one with which we live today.


I don’t have any details on the newly announced Online Skills Academy. But to the extent it could provide a prototype for new systems thinking about higher education, it stands to be as powerful as the more-discussed CBE experimental sites that are in the foreground of the press release and subsequent discussion. 

I think there is a more subtle, but critically important dimension to the concept outlined above. So much of our discussion and debates over higher education center on curriculums, content and skills  the heart of what education offers, many would argue. But those are increasingly free, easy to replicate and scalable. The messy, expensive and complicated parts of education are the human dimensions.  Conceptually, the National College Degree makes the ostensible core of the education experience close to free and devotes more funds to providing students with the human support that works best for them, paying only when that support proves itself effective. 

It is not an argument against our incumbent models, but an alternative pathway for those whom the current models don’t work very well. If the degree can be shown to be of genuinely high quality, it will challenge all of us incumbent providers to be better at what we do as well.

Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.


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