The Degree Vertical

A new pathway to student success.

May 1, 2014

The number one challenge facing public higher education is to exponentially improve rates of student engagement, persistence, and graduation, especially among those demographics, such as commuter, working, and part-time students, with historically low retention and completion rates.

The standard explanations for student failure focus on high schools (and their supposed failure to provide students with the preparation and study skills necessary for post-secondary success), college professors (who allegedly prioritize scholarship over teaching and mentoring), and the students themselves (who purportedly privilege work and campus life rather than their studies).

If a handful of students were failing, we might conclude that it is their fault or K-12 education’s responsibility. But when upwards of forty percent of students fail to earn a bachelor’s degree, it is higher education’s problem.

In fact, for many students, the chief barriers to success involve flaws in curricular and program design, inflexible course delivery models, and inadequate advising and support services. Among the challenges are reducing the number of wasted credit hours, embedding remediation within instruction, accelerating time to degree, expanding delivery modes, and, above all, giving students a clear value proposition aligned with career outcomes.

One answer: The degree vertical, an industry-aligned, competency-based, personalized-adaptive pathway. Defining characteristics of the vertical include:

  • An outcomes-focus
    An emphasis on skills and knowledge proficiencies and career outcomes rather than seat time.
  • Industry-alignment
    An industry advisory board to identify the competencies that are in demand.
  • Modular design
    A flexible “lego” approach that unbundles courses into their key component parts and allows student learning trajectories to be customized and ingested according to learners’ schedule.
  • Curricular optimization
    A thematically coherent curriculum with aligned readings, activities, assignments, and assessments, rather than a smorgasbord of disconnected courses.
  • Differentiated pathways
    Personalized educational routes that provide just-in-time remediation and enrichment.
  • Competency-based assessment
    To allow students to move more efficiently through the curriculum by permitting them to demonstrate mastery at their own pace.
  • New models of student support
    To provide students with the kinds of scaffolding needed to ensure that they remain successfully on track, the vertical will be reinforced with coaches or peer mentors, data-rich dashboards and e-advising, and holistic, wrap-around support services available online.

Like a “meta-major,” the vertical provides a clearly defined pathway designed to optimize time to degree. But it differs from a meta-major in several important respects.  It is designed to begin in high school. Its endpoint is a career or admission into graduate school.  It is competency- and outcomes-based by design.

Any mention of streamlined, career-oriented degree pathways arouses alarm from those who fear that this approach is at odds with a traditional liberal arts education or with a more open-ended exploration involving electives.

Such fears of narrow vocationalism, however, are overblown. In Texas, degree verticals will include a core curriculum, whether involving distribution requirements or competencies (such as cultural understanding, quantitative reasoning, scientific literacy, and social analysis) or thematically integrated interdisciplinary course clusters (focused on a broad subject such as “The Border” or health, involving the medical humanities, health informatics, and human development).

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

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