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Just when colleges and universities began to feel that operations were returning to normal, new variants and mutations emerged to upset the apple cart.  I’m not referring to the Beta, Delta, or Omicron BA 1, BA4, and B5 COVID strains.  

I’m talking about a new forms of educational disruption that have their gun sights set on those non-traditional students who are looking for “a path to a career rather than a four-year pit stop.”

The disruptor’s strategy is double or even triple barreled.  

First come the claims that too many degree programs fail to provide a payoff.  According to one recent study, in over a quarter of degree programs in Massachusetts, graduates earn less than high school graduates and must work for 20 plus years to recoup their education’s cost.  Altogether, a fifth of all graduates fall into this category.

Then there’s the charge that oversight of academic quality and outcomes by accreditors is slipshod. Here’s one shocking example: South College in Savannah, has a 4 percent graduation rate and leaves its students with an average debt of $25,000, and yet remains accredited.  It’s not alone.  According to one analyst, the regional accreditor SACSCOC has given the greenlight to a hundred other campuses that graduate a quarter or less of their students. 

As another study reported, only a miniscule number of accreditors’ disciplinary actions were for low graduation rates, high loan default rates, poor quality academic programs, or low post-graduation earnings.  In the hyperbolic words of one critic, “accreditors work for colleges, and in doing so, predictably refrain from scrutinizing colleges’ academic results or designs and from approving new colleges that might bring change and improvement to the sector.”

Which educational providers are sanctioned for poor outcomes and low-quality programming?  Typically, proprietary institutions, like barber colleges and beauty schools, that serve very few students.

Next comes the argument that no one who was serious about developing faster, cheaper paths into “high paying, in-demand jobs, like data and software engineering,” would “create [the] university as the way to get there.”  As Michelle Donelan, the UK’s former minister for higher education put it

“Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market…. Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of – particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead, some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense.”

So what, then, are the answers?

The company that Tony Blair’s son Euan founded, Multiverse, arranges professional apprenticeships in business operations, data science, and software engineering.

Stig Leschly of College101 argues that existing colleges and  universities need “competition from new colleges started by social entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations with experience in education and workforce development.”  He envisions a higher ed equivalent of charter schools, those publicly funded K-12 schools run by teachers, parents, or community groups, which operate outside the rules that govern other public schools.

At a time when many existing institutions find it exceedingly difficult to innovate or be entrepreneurial, weighed down by incumbent technologies, an entrenched faculty, high fixed costs, and unwieldly systems of governance, risk taking, innovation, and creativity, Leschly argues, must come from outside the academy.

All this sounds quite vague.  Insofar as these ideas are practical and scalable, they resemble the models already deployed by Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University.

But keep two thoughts in mind.

1. The disruptors’ diagnosis of the weaknesses in today’s system of higher education is not wholly wrong.  

  • We do need more meaningful accountability and oversight from government agencies and accrediting agencies for quality and outcomes.
    Of course, those assessments need to be made in a nuanced and mindful way, attentive to differences in institutional mission and the composition of student bodies. 
  • We do need alternate tracks into the workforce for those whose lives make a traditional in-person, full-time college education impossible.
    But I do think we probably shouldn’t claim that those alternative paths are equivalent to a traditional college education.
  • Institutions as a whole and individual departments need to become more attentive to their graduates’ employment prospects.
    I consider it a moral responsibility to embed career identification and preparation within degree programs and better align courses with the kinds of jobs that graduates will enter.

2. A shift in control of Congress could very well result in expanded opportunities for alternate providers to access federal financial aid.

  • These might include apprenticeship and training programs, boot camps, skills academies, and other outcomes-focused pathways.
  • We may also see an acceleration in the elimination of associate and bachelor degree requirements for a growing number of jobs as a way to enhance economic mobility.

Still, there are good reasons for the US Department of Education and the accreditors’ reluctance to allow new institutions to feed at the federal financial aid trough. We shouldn’t shut our eyes to the abuses we have witnessed: fraudulent advertising, abusive recruitment strategies, misleading job placement records, high loan default rates.  The list goes on.

Early in this century, radical disruptors did try to compete directly with existing non-profits.  However, the for-profits were largely driven into the ground thanks to aggressive action by regulators that were subsequently upheld by the courts.  

Then, the for-profit sector embraced a very different strategy: serving as strategic partners, as online program managers, internship intermediaries, consultancies, and providers of data analytics, ePortfolios, marketing and student enrollment management services, skills transcripts and badges, and student success coaching.

But as the political winds shift and doubts about higher education’s value swell, a growing number of traditional higher ed’s potential competitors see an opening.  So do other institutions.  There are the major tech firms which are under pressure to tangibly demonstrate their commitment to advancing social mobility and equity, as well as non-profits such as museums and foundations that hope to seize the day, broaden their mission, and connect to their target audiences in new ways.

Existing institutions have several huge home court advantages in the competition for students: tradition; a monopoly over the most valuable credentials; an experience that the vast majority of young people covet; established brands and reputation; and, at least for now, strong backing from state legislatures, Congress, the White House, and the relevant federal agencies.

But there are signs that these plusses are more fragile than previously thought, which makes innovation imperative.  How might institutions do this?

  • Leverage Institutional partnerships:  
    Connect with local institutions -- hospitals, K-12 schools, local government, museums, and social service organizations —and offer more hybrid experiences: internships, residencies, and collaborative problem-solving projects in conjunction with these partner institutions.
  • Offer a more flexible, personalized education:
    Let students design customized, individualized majors in areas better aligned with their interests that allow them to leverage prior learning and outside-the-classroom learning experiences.  
  • Embrace the applied and the practical liberal arts:
    Why not offer liberal arts majors or certificates that offer a vocational payoff, for example, in development and philanthropy, multimodal communication, including visual and online communication, policy planning and analysis, technical writing, or translation?
  • Connect disciplines in innovative ways: 
    Transdisciplinary areas of concentration draw upon multiple fields of study to address a pressing social problem, develop new high-demand skills sets, and better prepare students for careers in emerging fields.  Examples might include child welfare, conflict resolution, digital arts, media, and design, economic, environmental, and social sustainability, equity, the law, and public policy, health economics and policy, museum experiences planning, social entrepreneurship, and urban and rural planning, design, and development.

As I gaze into my crystal ball, I see mounting competition ahead.  Don’t brush off the looming threats. Be proactive.  

  • Develop, design, and implement programs that offer tangible outcomes.
  • Expedite students’ time to degree by awarding credit for prior learning and permitting increased flexibility in how undergraduates fulfill graduation requirements.
  • Identify, establish, and take advantage of community partnerships. 
  • Cultivate a forward-looking mindset that is alert to challenge, strategic, and solution focused.

The future is not fixed, fated, or foreordained. It’s what we make it. So follow the advice of Back to the Future’s Doc Brown and “make it a good one!”

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

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