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Too often, innovation in higher education goes “the way of all flesh.”

A headline in a recent issue of the Boston Globe says it all: “Experimental colleges once were the future. Now, what is their future?”  One after another, the innovators of the 1960s and 1970s are biting the dust, fading, or transforming themselves into pale shadows of their original ambitions. It’s not just Hampshire College, but Franconia, Goddard, New College, and perhaps even Evergreen State College. 

Innovation within higher education is extremely difficult to sustain. Think of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, whose faculty and students included Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. Founded in 1933, it didn’t make it to its 25th anniversary.

Higher education needs to innovate, not for innovation’s sake, but to increase student success. Except at the more well-resourced, most selective institutions, the status quo is not sustainable. But many of the innovations being instituted undercut the essence of a high-quality education. 

These innovations substitute adjuncts for full-time faculty (who then teach highly standardized courses), unbundle the professorial role, sharply reduce or even eliminate humanities programs, and deploy “self-directed, self-paced” correspondence-like courses and screen time for courses that lack rich interactions with a scholar and classmates.

Other innovations include outsourcing programs to for-profits and Online Program Managers, handing off core competencies to outside firms, and redirecting institutional energies away from undergraduates toward potential revenue producers, especially professional master’s and certificate programs.

The challenges facing American higher education are not a secret. Higher education needs to:

  • Control costs, not an easy task as new fields of knowledge emerge, standards of student services continually rise, and new technologies appear.
  • Increase completion rates, especially at the less selective institutions where 40 percent or more of students fail to graduate.
  • Address inequities in institutional resources, instructional spending and student support, and student outcomes.
  • Better serve the new student majority, non-traditional students: students who work full-time, who care for family members, who transfer, who speak English as a second language.
  • Better assist unevenly or poorly prepared students to succeed in their chosen major.
  • Better document student learning and better demonstrate the value of a degree.
  • Better prepare students for successful post-graduation outcomes.

The barriers to innovation are also clear.  These include:

  • Tradition
  • Misplaced incentives
  • Legacy infrastructure
  • Innovation fatigue coupled with skepticism about the motives and commitment of advocates of academic transformation
  • Systems of governance
  • Resource constraints

A major problem at less selective institutions is that students at-risk of failure are not a discrete minority, but, rather, a majority of undergraduates.

What can be done?

The answers to higher education’s challenges are becoming increasingly obvious:

1. Make “high impact practices” a more important part of the undergraduate experience
These include practices that emphasize experiential and inquiry-based learning and include mentored research experiences, supervised internships, field, clinical, and service learning.

2. Substitute structured pathways for stand-alone majors
Structured pathways offer a more interdisciplinary, coherent, synergistic, intentionally designed and sequenced path to a meaningful degree.

3. Place a greater focus on skills and outcomes, better aligned with students’ post-graduation goals
This approach requires faculty to identify explicit, granular learning objectives and aligning activities and assessments with those objectives.

4. Add greater flexibility by innovating in scheduling and delivery modalities
To better meet the needs of non-traditional students, flexibility is paramount. Answers include block scheduling, intersession courses, modularized courses, hybrid and low-residency courses, synchronous as well as asynchronous online courses (but only if these have a powerful social dimension).

5. Make use of data analytics
Using data on student engagement, performance, pace to identify student confusions and misunderstandings in near real-time; student profile and performance data to target students at risk of failure and target interventions; and using historical data in making decisions about admissions and financial aid allocations.

6. Adopt educational technology that supplements and enhances, rather than replaces, face-to-face education
This might include interactive courseware with embedded simulations, assessments, and feedback that can adapt to students’ learning needs and mobile tools to facilitate field-based learning.

7. Adopt active learning pedagogies that emphasize mastery and combine soft skills and hard skills
These are pedagogies that emphasize inquiry, problem-solving, and authentic project- and team-based learning and that seek to produce graduates with the full range of literacies and proficiencies necessary in the twenty-first century, including oral and written communication skills, cross-cultural competence, numeracy, critical thinking, and ethical reasoning.

8. Support greater transparency
Students, parents, and policy makers would greatly benefit from greater openness about program-level outcomes in retention and graduation rates and post-graduation outcomes.

9. Create experimental spaces, where faculty and staff can pilot and scale promising approaches
These promising approaches include modularized offerings, earn-learn models, and maker spaces, sandboxes, accelerators, and innovation catalysts where students can work on novel kinds of projects in conjunction with faculty and support staff.

10. Introduce “Plus” options
These might include joint degrees (like Stanford’s, which couple Computer Sciences with a humanities discipline) and short-term skills workshops offering micro-credentials in areas of high demand (for example, in technical writing, data analysis, and project management).

11. Institute new models of student support
These include one-stop service centers, data-driven behavioral nudges, and tiered support structures that includes bridge programs, boot camps, supplemental instruction, peer mentoring, peer-led study groups.

12. Introduce new assessment models better aligned with learning objectives
These include performance-based and project-based assessments that address authentic, real-world challenges and that are modeled on professional practice.

13. Collaborate cross-institutionally
A simple example involves course sharing in important, but low-demand and high cost, areas of study.

High-quality higher education is not cheap, and efforts to “trim the fat” too often result in eliminating the very elements that distinguish a college education from vocational training: Access to foreign language instruction, laboratories, and, of course, intimate interaction with research scholars and engaged peers.

Higher education needs to change, but we must ensure that the changes augment, not detract, from its special mission.

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the forthcoming Higher Ed Next: Advancing Access, Affordability, and Achievement.

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