The Disruptions Higher Education Needs

These aren’t the disruptions Silicon Valley touts.

September 17, 2020

A decade ago, higher education seemed poised for disruption.

Concerns over affordability, disparities in access and quality, and a lack of relevance to a shifting job market led to a proliferation of alternatives to the existing system. However, none of the challengers -- not the for-profits nor the MOOC providers nor the various skills academies and boot camps -- succeeded in disrupting traditional higher education.

Highly touted innovations, including personalized adaptive courseware and competency-based education, failed to gain much traction.

The value of a face-to-face education and the appeal of a traditional college experience overrode any desire to cut costs or accelerate time to degree. The appeal of the alternatives was largely to those unserved by the existing system -- working adults and family caregivers and military veterans -- or to those who already possessed a bachelor’s degree.

At the same time, colleges and universities succeeded in significantly slowing the growth of net price. These institutions found new sources of revenue -- international students, professional master’s and certificate programs, funded research, philanthropic donations and grants, and ancillary and auxiliary enterprises -- and cut or stabilized costs through increased reliance of contingent faculty, outsourcing and various vendor partnerships.

Now the pandemic threatens to accomplish what the disrupters failed to do.

Many institutions -- small religious institutions, private liberal arts colleges and nonselective, underresourced regional comprehensives -- face a financial reckoning and a culling of their numbers.

Once again, calls for quicker, cheaper paths into the job market grow louder. The education press overflows with radical proposals: to create alternatives to the college degree, for example, or break associate’s and bachelor’s degrees into microcredentials.

The real threat to brick-and-mortar institutions comes not from those ideas, but elsewhere:

  1. Students who have decided to forgo or delay college.
  2. International students who choose to attend Australian, British, Canadian and Western European universities rather than their U.S. counterparts.
  3. A greater willingness of traditional-aged undergraduates to pursue associate’s and bachelor’s degrees from mega-online providers like Southern New Hampshire or Western Governors University.
  4. Free and low-cost training from companies like Google.
  5. Firms hiring white-collar employees on a basis other than traditional degrees.

We often hear that “there here has never been a crisis in American higher education like the one we are facing today.” Of course, that’s only partly true. The Great Depression and the economic stagnation and inflation of the 1970s also posed serious challenges that higher education eventually surmounted.

Nevertheless, today’s challenges are extremely severe, as more student postpone college or drop out, international enrollment tumble, ancillary revenue dries up and costs soar. In today’s fraught context, it’s not surprising that panaceas thrive. Kevin Carey, for example, proposes a direct annual subsidy of $10,000 per full-time-equivalent student to any college, public or private nonprofit, that agrees to adopt uniform pricing (based on student income), meets certain baseline standards for quality and success, and participates in a network of institutions.

When, then, are disruptions that higher ed truly needs? Here are a few:

Far greater transparency

Accreditors and government should require standardized financial award letters that distinguish between grants and loans, spell out the actual cost of a degree, and specify how long funding is guaranteed.

Much more cross-institutional reciprocity

Accreditors and government should make credit transfer simpler, smoother and more seamless. Accreditors might insist that coverage, feedback and rigor be appropriate to the title and level of a particular course that learning is validated and verified in suitable ways, and that institutions not block credit transfer unreasonably.

A laser-like focus on equity and outcomes

As Alexandra Logue, CUNY’s former executive vice chancellor, observed, “It's amazing what a positive difference a little access to accurate data can provide.” There’s no need to analyze 800 variables to rethink curricular pathways, improve class scheduling or identify students at risk: we simply need to look at unmet student demand for particular classes, DFW rates by section and subgroup, early indicators of student disengagement and first-semester freshman grades -- and use those data points to optimize class schedules, target interventions and reduce the equity and achievement gaps that permeate the curriculum.

A stronger emphasis on career preparedness

Embedding career preparation into the curriculum isn’t rocket science. All it takes is introducing students early in their academic training to career options and establishing certificate programs, offering industry-recognized credentials, expanding internship and work experiences, and increasing project-based learning opportunities to allow students to produce portfolios.

A hot-off-the-press book, The Innovation Delusion, argues that a preoccupation with innovation runs the risk of mistaking novelty for progress. The argument that “change for change’s sake” too often results in empty promises and costly disappointments certainly expresses a kind of truth.

As a result of the pandemic, the higher education landscape will experience massive disruption. We face a choice, as we say in Texas: to play offense, defense or stand on the sidelines. One of our principal tasks is to ensure that disruption advances our primary purpose: student learning. We must make sure that our innovations are purposeful, targeted and mission-aligned.

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

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