New Models of Higher Education

A differentiated approach.

October 15, 2014

In recent years, a succession of new educational models have been held up as the future of higher education.

The next-generation university, we are told, will be built around flipped classrooms.  Or competency-based education. Or, perhaps, clicks will replace bricks, with instruction moving online.

Team-based learning, mentored research, collaborative education emphasizing peer-to-peer instruction, or problem-based learning – these, too, have been called the future of a post-secondary education.

Too often, a single model is deemed the solution to higher education’s challenges: high costs, deficient student engagement, or unsatisfactory graduation rates.

Instead of embracing a single solution, institutions might consider implementing differentiated paths to a degree.  Students, then, might choose the path that best reflects their needs and aspirations.

One might object: Doesn’t higher education already have a highly differentiated model?

It is certainly true:  Drexel and Northeastern feature cooperative education, offering extensive on-the-job experience. Colorado College and Cornell College have embraced a one-course-at-a-time model.  Western Governors University emphasizes competency-based education. Florida’s  community colleges offer meta-majors, broad, career-oriented content areas that share common courses to keep students on track to a degree.

Yet even though higher educational institutions differ markedly in their missions, resources, and student profiles -- and in faculty teaching loads and average class size -- this variation obscures an underlying commonality.  A single educational model predominates, one that is term-based and credit-hours-based.  The education that our institutions offer, especially at the lower division, is largely lecture-based and organized around mid-terms and final exams.

This is a model that works well for a subset of students, but not for all.

Any mention of a differentiated approach to higher education raises the specter of “illiberal” education:  Of streamlined, vocationally-oriented degrees that eliminate electives, minimize student choice, and track students into narrow niches.

But given the diversity in student circumstances, goals, and motivation, a differentiated approach makes sense.  Personalization is the watchword of the contemporary consumer economy, and this principle might be applied to postsecondary education as well.

The University of Texas System is poised to launch a bold experiment with career-aligned, competency-based, personalized adaptive programs, which we believe will be highly attractive to those students – including many working adults and degree completers -- who are eager a for an optimized path to a degree and who seek a clear value proposition from their education.  To be delivered in a hybrid modality, these programs contain competencies defined by cross-institutional teams of faculty, leading professional associations, and industry advisory boards.

Not a replacement for our existing curriculum, these programs will represent an option for students whose goals are to enter fields with strong employment demand but also with high attrition rates, especially among those groups who have historically not fared well in existing programs.

Students within these programs will receive two transcripts: A traditional transcript, including grades, and a competency-based transcript that clearly identifies the skills and knowledge students have mastered and the ways that these are linked to clearly defined proficiencies.

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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