Why Higher Education Needs to Be More Future-Focused

We still need a sense of urgency.

April 20, 2016

As the threat of MOOCs and for-profit education fades, so too does the sense of urgency that drives innovation.

Yet anyone who thinks that a decade from now higher education will look much as it does today is sadly mistaken. A host of trends are already well underway that spell the end of one era and the beginning of another:

  • Higher education starts earlier than ever as students earn more early college/dual degree and AP credits.
  • Students increasingly accumulate credits from multiple institutions.
  • Undergraduate introductory survey courses lose enrollment, and, as they do, the cross-subsidies that helped support upper division courses decline. In the humanities, the loss of introductory course enrollment contributes to a decline in the number of majors.
  • More students acquire learning experiences outside of a college or university – in the military or from a MOOC or a coding academy or a corporate training program.
  • The student body is itself changing, as the student mix includes more first generation students, more students from low income backgrounds, more students with uneven academic preparation, and more students who work full-time.
  • The demands of the job market, too, are shifting, as a volatile, uncertain economy needs more STEM graduates and employees with advanced communication skills and high levels of quantitative literacy.

These developments have profound revenue consequences, even as demands for more robust student services and mandated administrative responsibilities also increase. There are palliatives.  Institutions aggressively pursue international students. Many schools are rapidly expanding their online master’s degree offerings.

The wealthiest, most prestigious institutions are best positioned to adapt to shifting circumstances by expanding development efforts, increasing funded research, and leveraging their brand. Most institutions, in contrast, face severe challenges as they seek to tap new revenue streams.

Only a handful of institutions have embraced strategies that are making a fundamental difference in their business models.

Some – including Arizona State University, Georgia Tech, and Southern New Hampshire – have developed successful corporate partnerships, to provide training or degrees.

Meanwhile, high-tech, for-profit firms like Udacity, Udemy, and LinkedIn are poised to grab the discrete professional / quick skills market, an “in-between” market that higher education has never succeeded in reaching very effectively.

Meanwhile, the major MOOC providers – Coursera and edX – have adopted a defined, but relatively circumscribed, role: Offering open learning to ambitious high school students and recreational learners, and, as with Open Courseware, for teachers looking to educate themselves or to locate free materials.

Clearly, new educational models are needed. These models need to be:

  • More outcomes and student success focused.
  • More affordable and accessible.
  • Better aligned with the needs of the workplace and the complexities of many students’ lives.
  • More data driven.

In addition, these models should:

  • Begin in high school and even middle school and extend over a lifetime.
  • Offer a more personalized education, featuring variable pace, credit for prior learning, and just-in-time remediation.

If institutions are going to successful adapt to shifting circumstances, they will have to:

Think Outside the Box
Is it bad for students to begin their college career in high school? Not if the high school courses are tightly aligned with college expectations. Thus it is essential that colleges work hand-in-hand with schools to help design educational experiences, activities, and assessments that do align well with college standards. The time has come to bridge the century-long divide between secondary and post-secondary education.

Embrace Experimentation
Collaborative curricular design, block scheduling, success coaches, peer mentoring, curriculum optimization, credit for prior learning—rather than treating these as threats, each of these innovations might be seen as a way to promote student success. The existing model is not working well for the roughly 40 percent of college students who never graduate. When that many students fail to reach the finish line, the problem is ours, not simply theirs.

Rethink Return on Investment
Timely completion isn’t valuable only to students; it has a tangible financial benefit to the degree-conferring institution. At public institutions, upper division students  typically higher rates of formula funding. Careful calculation of costs repeatedly demonstrates that success coaches pay for themselves. Ditto for bundling instructional materials into tuition.

Recognize that Scale Isn’t a Four-Letter Word
Scaling education doesn’t have to mean a totally depersonalized educational experience – just as large lecture classes all too often fail to provide “regular and substantive interaction” between a student and an instructor. What matters, of course, is the amount and timeliness of the feedback that students receive and the level of interaction with classmates and professors, teaching assistants, and other instructional facilitators and subject-matter experts. Peer mentoring, automated feedback, breakout groups, and various collaborative activities, including team-based learning, all can help to personalize the learning experience even in very large courses.  Scaling can be particularly valuable if it increases the opportunity for students to participate in high impact activities such as mentored research.

Embrace New Audiences
It’s easy to obsess about threats to the future of higher education, but in fact the opportunities have never been greater. Higher education might seek to bridge the divide between college and high school, better serving the needs of degree completers and returning adults, reaching out globally to international audiences, and providing continuing education that is well suited to the needs and schedules of working professionals. But only those institutions that are agile, adaptable, and enterprising will succeed in seizing these opportunities.

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


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