Navigating the Perfect Storm

How higher education can adapt to today’s volatile environment

October 23, 2016

Higher education faces a perfect storm.

The product of low graduation rates, increases in tuition, mounting student debt, and employer dissatisfaction, this storm is placing institutions under enormous pressure to make college more affordable to middle-class families, cut time to degree, and ensure that graduates have real-world marketable skills.

Also contributing to the coming storm are disruptive changes in the educational landscape. Increasingly, students are acquiring education in ways that undercut university’s current business models. A growing number are earning credits in high school or community college, or from various online providers. Meanwhile, master’s programs, a traditional cash cow, are losing ground not only to lower cost online programs, but to alternate purveyors of credentials, including industry-branded certificate programs and non-profit providers of technical skills.

This perfect storm is deeply disruptive, but it also brings opportunity. Already, universities are using digital modes of communication to make higher education far more accessible than ever before.  Data analytics will allow faculty to personalize the learning experience in ways never before possible, diagnose and remediate areas of confusion, and target interventions in near real time.

The biggest opportunity is to radically rethink our educational models in order to bring more students to a bright future while containing costs.

Our current university model melds together a student life component, an academic component, a credentialing component, and a research component. These four functions co-exist uneasily, with many students prioritizing coming-of-age experiences and many institutions incentivizing faculty research above teaching. As many complain: Students’ academic engagement, demonstrated learning, and acquisition of real-world competencies are neither measured nor given precedence.

Within the University of Texas System, we are thinking long and hard about new models that will optimize time to degree, better prepare students for a rapidly shifting workforce, and ensure that students graduate with the skills, knowledge, and problem-solving abilities expected of a college graduate. Underlying our thinking are four models.

Model 1: Seamless Pathways and Crosswalks
In recent years, a new educational lexicon has emerged, featuring such terms as “exploratory majors,” “guided pathways,” “verticals,” “meta-majors,” and “crosswalks.”

Linking these terms together is the notion that many students would benefit from a more coherent, intentional, integrated curricula, with synergies across courses, and from much more seamless transfer of credits.

Certainly, the guided pathway approach would offer fewer electives; and certainly such pathways need multiple on- and off-ramps. But for those students who choose to pursue such paths, the route to a degree would be more direct, transparent, and quicker.

At the same time, crosswalks – between military training programs and the academy or between high school, community college, and four-year institutions – would ease one of the big impediments to graduation: The loss of credit hours when students transfer from one institution to another.

Model 2: Integrating the Curricular and the Co-Curricular
For many students, the most meaningful, transformative educational experiences occur outside the standard curriculum: in mentored research, internships and externships, study abroad, or service learning.  Yet for the most part, those experiences count little toward graduation.

To be sure, students need to acquire core knowledge and facility in critical listening, reading, and writing – precisely the kinds of education found in lecture halls, discussion sections, and seminars.

Yet if those fundamentals could be taught more cost-effectively and efficiently , then many faculty members would be free to participate in high impact learning experiences, which could then become integral parts of degree paths.

Model 3: Stackable Credentials
A bachelor’s degree generally requires four (or more) years to vest, and too many full-time, first-time-in-college students never reach the finish line.  Many of those students would benefit from stackable credentials – professional or academic certificates, badges, specializations, micro-masters, and the like – but only if these have real value in the marketplace.

Model 4: Co-Location
A new model of education is gradually taking shape: A campus that includes multiple educational institutions, research institutes, start-ups, and established industry.
Medical centers have long pursued this model. Multiple hospitals, medical schools, laboratories, and synergistic industries serve as research hubs, education centers, and incubators for new inventions, industries, and technologies, training workers, driving knowledge creation, and developing applied innovation.

Global cities such as New York and Paris understand that such a model is critical to ensuring their future prosperity and successfully competing in the global economy.

New York City has invested more than $500 million in the applied science and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island, while Paris is bringing 19 universities, polytechnics, and institutes together in order to compete with Silicon Valley.

UC-Berkeley had similar ambitions for a global campus in Richmond, which was supposed to bring together an international coalition of leading academic institutions and private sector partners.

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