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Five years ago, Kevin Carey predicted the end of college as we know it.

He argued that colleges operate under an incentive structure and institutional logic that is unsustainable. The quest for prestige and the pressure to expand programs, services and research drive the cost of higher education ever higher, while diverting attention from the quality of teaching and learning and leaving students and their families heavily burdened with debt.

The alternative, Carey suggested, will take a variety of forms. A site-bound coming-of-age experience will persist but will be supplemented by various online offerings, including MOOCs, a wide array of certificate and certification programs, boot camps and other “last-mile” skills programs, and various alternatives to the traditional course- and credits-based model: competency-based, blended, modularized and gamified; stackable credentials; noncredit-to-credit pathways; co-op and other earn-learn models; badges and microcredentials; accelerated degree programs; structured, career-aligned pathways; work-to-learn models; prior learning assessment; and applied bachelor's, among others.

None of these models gained much traction, with the sole exception of fully online programs targeting adult learners, which often deployed the strategies pioneered by the for-profits: a career-focused curriculum; multiple start dates; standardized, self-based, self-directed courses; and success coaches.

Carey’s predictions, in short, seemed disproven. Unbundled models that dispensed with many aspects of the traditional college experience attracted little interest. Colleges and universities, despite a few well-publicized closures, muddled through. Access increased and attainment rates gradually rose.

It turned out that most students and their parents wanted the college bundle.

Sure, serious problems persisted: equity gaps, high DFW classes, low transfer-student success rates and concerns over career preparedness. But the traditional model appeared to have prevailed, despite repeated calls for an education that was more flexible, affordable, practical and efficient.

That was then. This is now.

Suddenly, a system optimized for one environment looks potentially problematic in a drastically altered context. A model that depended on housing students in large dormitories, feeding students in large dining facilities, educating a significant fraction of students in large lecture halls and entertaining students in large gyms and arenas looks less desirable in an era of social distancing.

Until there is a vaccine, really effective treatments or herd immunity, therefore, our institutions have a big problem. The end of college as we know it no longer seems like a pipe dream or a nightmare -- but a looming possibility. The vibrancy, energy, campus spirit, the dynamism of the face-to-face classroom and, yes, much of the collegiality of college life are threatened and aren’t readily replaced electronically.

In previous postings, I’ve suggested some strategies for adaptation:

  • Making vertical transfer more seamless
  • Developing more robust online student services
  • Coupling adaptive, interactive courseware with in-person or online instruction
  • Creating HyFlex classes that can be delivered in a variety of formats, in-person, online or hybrid and offered at scale, depending on student needs and circumstances.

Let me take this opportunity to offer some other ideas.

Master classes in areas of high demand.

A team of faculty, working with instructional designers, educational technologists, assessment specialists and librarians, designs a lower-division gateway class that reflects their expert sense of what a student should know and be able to do. Individual instructors might modify this course and remix its resources, but the goal is to ensure a more standardized set of outcomes.

Low-residency options.

These are courses that do not require students to be on campus every week. The goal is to give students the benefit of faculty mentorship and in-person interaction with classmates while also offering a reduction in commuting, a great deal of flexibility and an ability to better balance academics and other obligations.

Expanded off-campus project and field and community-based learning experiences.

These might involve working in a lab, engaging in an community service project or holding an internship.

Reimagining the faculty role.

If online or remote or blended learning is to be a bigger part of faculty role, then we need to figure out how to help faculty develop rich online learning experiences and to embrace the challenges of mentoring and supporting students online.

Reinventing mentored research in online environments.

As long as inventors tried to emulate birds, with flapping wings, humans could not fly. It was only after the Wright brothers rejected the bird metaphor that heavier-than-air engine-propelled controlled flight became possible. We have new opportunities to bring students into the research process by giving them access to data, observations and simulations; chances to conduct surveys and interviews; and occasions to work with us to analyze data and documents.

Rethinking curricular paths and requirements.

Is five courses a semester the right number? Is 15 weeks the right length for every course? Are there essential skills that aren’t well covered in the current curriculum (for example, involving research methods or data analysis)? This might be the time to think afresh.

Disruptions can spawn new possibilities and drive paradigm shifts. As many have learned over the past few weeks, we can’t simply resurrect what was or transfer our old practices intact to an online environment. We need to think afresh.

Higher ed now faces the biggest challenge of my professional lifetime: imagining a dynamic, vibrant college experience that can’t take place in massive groups. It will require all of our imagination and creativity to come up with a counterpart. And it will require our time, too, since we will need to find ways to communicate in individually tailored ways to our students if we are to nurture the sense of connection and belonging that has been central to the college-going experience in this country for more than three centuries.

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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