Academic Innovation Has Failed to Tackle Higher Education’s Biggest Challenge

Bringing community college and working adults to a bachelor’s degree.

August 26, 2020

The past decade was the golden age of academic innovation.

Just think of all the innovations we witnessed:

  • New credentials: Community colleges awarded applied bachelor’s degrees and expanded certificates and industry certifications.
  • New delivery modes: Boot camps, coding academies, emporiums, flipped and hybrid, low-residency programs, MOOCs, online plus (like PeletonU, which supplement online education with in-person tutoring and coaching)
  • New educational models: Accelerated, competency-based, corequisite remediation, credit for prior learning, earn-learn, military crosswalks, structured pathways, stackable
  • New technologies: Khan Academy-like instructional videos, personalized adaptive courseware, student response systems, virtual tutors
  • New sources of information: Credential Engine, postgraduation employment and earnings dashboards
  • New ways to access instructional materials: Inclusive access to readings, open educational resources
  • New ways to document learning: Badges, competency transcripts, e-portfolios, lifelong transcripts
  • New ways to support students: Behavioral nudges, early alerts, learning analytics

Higher education is as susceptible to fads and fashions as its K-12 counterpart. Buzzwords and catchphrases abound.

Vendors, third-party providers and venture capitalists promote and pounce on these vogues with all the stealth and subtlety of Fourth of July fireworks.

Many of the innovations of the past decade made a genuine difference in student outcomes. Some, as yet, have had limited impact but hold out promise. Still others proved to be marketing hype, overpromising and underdelivering.

True innovations:

  • Address a pressing and persistent problem. The most obvious challenges that these innovations sought to address involved affordability, equity, academic engagement, mastery of skills and knowledge, student retention and persistence, completion, time to degree, and career preparedness.
  • Replace an existing practice with a more efficient and effective alternative. Here, we might think of course redesign, which allows an institution to deliver instruction more cost-efficiently without loss of quality or rigor or reduction in outcomes.
  • Add real value. An obvious example is analytics, which provide actionable data to guide decision making (over admissions, financial aid allocation, course scheduling and the like), expose problems (such as equity gaps and uneven grading across course sections) and prompt interventions when students are off-track and at risk of failure. What we did not see, this past decade, are Clayton Christensen-like disruptive innovations that radically undermine incumbent institutions, upset existing business models, and dramatically alter the way higher education meets the needs of underserved markets. We have not yet significantly increased the number of community college students who receive bachelor’s degrees nor meaningfully increased the number of adults (including college stopouts or adults with some college but no degree) with a marketable credential. The growth in alternate pathways to a career -- like boot camps and credential academies -- seemed to have stalled even before the pandemic. While the number of students enrolled in nonprofit fully online programs dramatically increased, the number in for-profit online programs fell commensurately.

Nor have we made great strides toward achieving President Obama's attainment agenda.

Why haven’t these innovative educational approaches made more of a difference -- at least so far?

The reasons are obvious:

  • Hiring decisions still rely on traditional degrees.
  • Existing campus policies and practices still make it difficult for community college students to transfer.
  • Lower-income students face substantial unmet financial costs.
  • Degree complexity, course availability, inadequate advising and work and family conflicts -- all impede timely graduation.
  • Many and perhaps most bachelor’s degree programs aren’t well aligned with the jobs that their graduates actually pursue and acquire.
  • Four-year institutions have demonstrated limited interest in enrollment markets that include large numbers of lower-income or unevenly prepared students who (unlike out-of-state and international students) aren’t a potentially large source of revenue.

Meanwhile, reliable information about employment needs, skills gaps and program effectiveness remains very difficult to access.

If we hope is to bring many more Americans to a meaningful degree and a stable, decently paying career, we need to do the hard work of tackling the college transfer problem, better integrating academic and career development, and demonstrating a heightened commitment to nontraditional students’ success.

No technology quick fix will solve these problems, which lie primarily in the realm of campus policies and practices, advising, information flows, academic and nonacademic support, and pedagogy.

Perhaps the pandemic will prompt us to tackle the inequities and inadequacies that are baked into the existing system. We can only hope so.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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