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How do you know a real college when you see one?

People in the industry may have some quick answers, drawing on accreditation, reputation, or the presence or absence of (insert hobbyhorse here).  Until about 1995, that was pretty much good enough.

Since then, though, alternatives have arisen to traditional colleges.  First the for-profits exploded in scale, and now we have all manner of other providers. Most are online. Some use a combination of credit for prior learning and competency based credits to help students get through more quickly.  They don’t always look like colleges. Many don’t have campuses, for example, and many of the traditional sorts of activities around “student life” don’t exist. At DeVry, for example, there was no homecoming weekend. It simply didn’t happen.  

Evangelists for disruption are generally unbothered by such changes.  They argue, often correctly, that certain traditional trappings only make sense if you assume a traditional-aged, residential experience.  Most adult or working students don’t have time for that stuff.  They need to get what they came for and get on with life.

Yes, but…

I’m consistently struck at the resonance that some of those traditional trappings have for non-traditional students.  They may need scheduling flexibility and appreciate accelerated times to degree, but they still want to feel like they’ve attended a “real college.”  I’ve heard those words enough times that I can’t write them off as flukes anymore.

I heard them in my teaching days.  Students in my classes would pay the left-handed compliment that my class “felt like a real college class,” leaving the contrast implied.  In the years when the graduation ceremony didn’t involve academic regalia, students complained that it didn’t feel “real,” and often acted accordingly.  After one particularly unfortunate ceremony, it was moved to a local theatre, complete with academic regalia and a processional.  Instead of rebelling at the corniness of it, students loved it.  They brought families, took pictures, and celebrated in exactly the ways that students elsewhere do.

Some folks have figured this out. Southern New Hampshire University’s actual campus-based operation serves a smallish fraction of its student body, but it also serves as a sort of validation for the students who never show up in Manchester. Even if their personal experience is entirely online, the existence of a traditional campus offers a stamp of authenticity. I suspect that’s why the University of Phoenix sponsors (or did, anyway) an NFL stadium, despite not having a football team of its own.  

Innovators who want to get around some of the logistical or conceptual barriers to fuller participation in higher education need to keep in mind that while the new students may appreciate the access, they still want it to be access to a valid and recognizable thing.  That may not entail a homecoming weekend, but it may well entail graduation ceremonies, human contact with faculty and staff, and the chance to connect socially with other students.  They want signifiers that suggest to other people -- employers, yes, but also family and friends -- that they’ve achieved something real and recognizable.  Telling your parents that you’re about to complete a competency-based certification doesn’t pack the same emotional wallop as telling your parents that you’re about to graduate college.  It just doesn’t.  For many -- and especially for first-generation students, and those for whom academic capital has not been easy to come by -- that matters.  

As we attract more fully-online students, we need to start being more thoughtful about deliberately including some trappings of the traditional college experience.  Sticking through an entire program, as opposed to a course here or there, is an achievement, and one worthy of recognition that resonates.  If that means inviting folks to put on caps and gowns for a day, then that’s what it means.

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