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U.S. News’ college rankings contain an unlikely category that you might not expect: “A-Plus Schools for B Students.”

These are the less selective colleges and universities that serve those students with less than stellar College Board scores and nonstratospheric transcripts. These are higher ed’s workhorses, which serve the bulk of those who attend a bachelor’s degree–granting institution and include regional and urban publics and the moderately selective or broad-access privates with high acceptance rates. These are also the institutions that do the most to educate the Pell-eligible students who didn’t have the luxury of growing up in an affluent home and do the most to contribute to social mobility.

Yet, like Rodney Dangerfield, these underfunded, underappreciated institutions “don’t get no respect.”

The future of American higher education hinges on these campuses. The Ivies, the flagships, the land-grants and the extremely selective and even moderately selective private universities and liberal arts colleges will do fine. But many, and perhaps most, of the less selective campuses, in contrast, are already suffering chronic financial challenges and face a future of eroding quality and value.

What, we must ask, can we do to ensure that these institutions remain highly affordable and accessible while providing their students with a high-quality education with a true value proposition?

Is the answer, as in Georgia and Pennsylvania, systemwide consolidation and/or course sharing? Does it lie in aggressively offering relatively low-cost, workforce-relevant master’s and certificate programs in partnership with online program managers with a “bottom of the pyramid” strategy targeting lower-income working adults? Or does the solution lie elsewhere?

In a recent posting on his e-Literate blog, the ed-tech analyst and consultant Michael Feldstein published a very interesting take on the MIT proposal for an affordable new educational institution out of the that institution’s J-WEL Center (the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab). He considers this proposal as a model for how midtier institutions might thrive in today’s highly stratified, increasingly competitive higher education ecosystem.

He describes the MIT plan as a “radically conservative” alternative to the kinds of innovation embodied by competency-based, unbundled approach of Western Governors University as well as the even more disruptive visions of cheaper, faster career pathways, skills academies and boot camps, stackable certificates and expanded apprenticeships.

It’s conservative in the sense that it continues to value the physical campus, a traditional faculty and a grounding in the liberal arts, even as it seeks to make such an education more affordable and successful.

He quite rightly wants to preserve the midtier colleges’ core educational values: “that each learner deserves individual attention and encouragement and that education should nourish the entire person and not simply provide short-term skills.”

In his words: the proposed model “will take on the challenges of cost and career value without rejecting the value of liberal arts of human teachers.”

Feldstein views the MIT proposal as a way to give broad-access campuses like the Cal States a distinctive identity, valued purpose and unique mission.

Feldstein is clearly right that midtier campuses are widely regarded as lesser, second-class versions of elite research universities. Indeed, many strive to emulate their flagship and private competitors with only a fraction of their resources and a student body with greater needs and more complicated lives.

As Feldstein puts it, “Money that could be used to build better connections to employers, add more advisors, or cut tuition is instead spent on the same trappings as research universities.”

So what would be that distinguishing mission? A laser-like focus on learning, education and high-quality teaching.

How would such a vision be achieved? By de-emphasizing research. By offering more courses that showcase the practical value of the humanities. By disaggregating degrees into stackable microcredentials would enable students to get credit for progress and to move in and out of the workplace as needed. By infusing more active learning into courses. By hiring practitioners to offer practical skills training.

I applaud certain aspects of this vision, above all, its learner- and learning-centered focus and its emphasis on return on investment. Yet I wholeheartedly reject other aspects of this conception of a broad-access institutions, beginning with the suggestion that such institutions eliminate tenure and treat instructors as “professors of practice.”

One of the most strikingly positive developments of the past four decades is the democratization of the professoriate. Extraordinary scholars can now be found at institutions everywhere. My Yale classmates went to Ivies (Princeton, Penn), other elite privates (Chicago), flagships (Penn State, Wisconsin), highly selective privates (George Washington, Tufts) and elite liberal arts colleges (such as Oberlin). But most went to broad-access institutions (including George Mason, UTEP and the University of Houston) and HBCUs (such as Howard).

Why would we want to deprive undergraduates of the opportunity to work with active researchers and publishing scholars?

Also, precisely which aspects of the college experience would midtier institutions eliminate in order to trim costs? Intercollegiate athletics? Wellness centers? Faculty leaves? The opportunities for serious cost-cutting aren’t obvious to me.

The real problems strike me as threefold. First, we fail to give instructors at teaching-oriented institutions a teaching load that allows them to provide the level of attention and support their students need. A 3-3 or 4-4 course load is not conducive to high-quality teaching, mentoring and advising.

Second, our current approach pits teaching and research in opposition. Most of the faculty members that I know prefer to offer courses in their narrow areas of specialization and disdain teaching introductory or service courses, which, if possible, are reserved for adjuncts or graduate students. Most colleagues provide limited feedback and reserve mentoring for graduate students or the most obviously talented undergraduates. That’s precisely why I think we need to expand opportunities for faculty to treat undergraduates as research partners and as future professionals.

Third, this society funds institutions in inverse proportion to their students’ needs. Per-student expenditures on instruction and academic support services are lowest at precisely the campuses that serve our most challenged students, which, in turn, encourages these colleges and universities to rely disproportionately on part-time adjunct faculty, who often lack the time to give these students they attention that they deserve.

So what, then, are the answers, given the unfortunate reality that broad-access institutions are unlikely to receive the massive influx of funds that they need to serve their students better?

  1. Deploy faculty more strategically. Think more creatively about the faculty role. In addition to offering lecture and discussion classes, more faculty members should be incentivized to offer scaled research or service learning experiences and to create opportunities for students to participate in research labs and undertake faculty-led projects.
  2. Reimagine the staff’s role. One consequence of the depressed academic job market is that many staff members are themselves Ph.D.s with an exceptional range of skills that too few institutions tap. Consider placing some staff members in charge of first-year learning communities. Invite directors of the various teaching and learning centers to offer for-credit courses in areas related to their centers’ roles and to professionally mentor the work-study students employed in their offices.
  3. Radically reimagine the undergraduate experience. What if we were to think of our students not simply as recipients of knowledge or as incipient but novice disciplinary practitioners, but as genuine partners, who would work hand in hand with faculty as researchers, problem solvers and creators of educational resources and curricular content? This would mean getting science students into laboratories as soon as possible and putting their humanities and social science counterparts to work on meaningful research projects and other examples of professional practice.
  4. Use technology creatively. Ed tech is no substitute for the kinds of high-touch education that most students need. But technology can significantly enhance the educational experience of the commuting, part-time, working and caregiving undergraduates that broad-access institutions serve.

Here, I’m thinking of personalized, adaptive, highly interactive courseware, replete with sophisticated simulations, interactives, tutorials and rich multimedia, that can supplement in-person instruction. I’m also thinking about the student response systems that can monitor student engagement and understanding in real time. Then, there are the annotation, collaboration, presentation, text-mining and visualization tools that can make the learning process more active, participatory and inclusive. We are also beginning to see the emergence of AI and machine learning tools able to provide students with automated advice about how to strengthen their writing and feedback on their responses to math or science problems.

Ed tech is certainly not a panacea, but it can allow faculty to serve students more effectively and trigger timely interventions when students are confused or off track.

For all of higher education’s talk about equity, the fact is that American colleges and universities are among this country’s most stratified, unequally funded, prestige- and status-conscious institutions. The very institutions that could do the most to advance upward mobility and open doors are those that are the least funded and revered.

Any equity action plan worth its salt must focus squarely on the broad-access institutions that serve our most diverse students. We know what do:

  • Improve onboarding and offer a more robust new student orientation.
  • Make sure every new student a structured degree plan.
  • Strengthen academic and nonacademic advising.
  • Guarantee course availability.
  • Remove bottlenecks to graduation.
  • Make the transfer process more seamless.
  • Provide undergraduates with the mentoring, support and supplemental instruction they need.
  • Offer an educational experience that is more engaging, relevant, coherent, participatory, collaborative and experiential.
  • Give more timely, substantive, constructive feedback.
  • Deliver an education that opens windows into careers and ensures that students acquire the skills their future careers require.

We can’t achieve equity without investing more in our midtier institutions. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.

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

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