Rethinking the Discourses of Higher Education Innovation

Anyone who reads the vast, rapidly expanding literature on innovation in higher education will be struck by the pervasiveness of certain discourses and tropes.  Three stand out.

October 1, 2016

Anyone who reads the vast, rapidly expanding literature on innovation in higher education will be struck by the pervasiveness of certain discourses and tropes.  Three stand out.

The Discourse of Crisis
This gloom and doom viewpoint regards the current system of higher education as broken and warns that many existing institutions are at risk due to escalating costs that have resulted from administrative bloat, country club amenities, easy access to government-funded financial aid, and a single-minded focus on institutional prestige, as well as declining per student funding by state legislatures and stagnating federal research expenditures.

The Discourse of Disruption
This is the Clayton Christiansen-inspired perspective that higher education is ripe for radical transformation, as traditional colleges and universities, for the first time, face serious competition not just from for-profits, which are under siege, but from rapidly expanding dual degree programs, low-cost online programs (like Arizona State’s Global Freshman Academy), and Alt-Ed providers like General Assembly that are gradually displacing existing Master’s programs. In Christiansen’s view, acceptable but lower-cost models – even those that offer inferior quality – gradually acquire a growing market share, undermining incumbent institutions.

The Discourse of Techno-Transformation
This is the techo booster claim that a revolution in technology – especially the rise of personalized, adaptive courseware -- will radically transform education, offering better ways to deliver learning at lower cost with no diminution in quality.

The proponents of innovation are certainly right on one point:  Higher education faces challenges that are real and inescapable.  These include:

  • A cost challenge – that middle-income families, in particular, are finding it more difficult to pay for college;
  • A completion challenge – that too many students fail to graduate and many of those who do take too long;
  • A student engagement challenge – that too much time dedicated to work or extracurricular activities has reduced time devoted to study;
  • An equity challenge – that funding for broad-access institutions, which serve the country’s most needy students, is substantially lower than at more selective institutions.
  • A business model challenge – as a result of declining per student public support, rising costs, and the erosion of the cross-subsidies that helped fund smaller upper division courses.   

But many of the points that the critics make are certainly overblown.  As Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman have persuasively shown, higher education’s financial challenges are rooted not in wasteful spending on prestige competition, luxury amenities, or bloated staffing, but in factors not susceptible to easy fixes, such as the costs of expert faculty, advanced technology, financial aid, and expanded student support services.

Even as institutions have sought to trim administrative expenses, improve financial management, and make procurement more efficient, costs inexorably rise.  This is due, largely to the increasing costs of plant maintenance and operations, health and retirement benefits, technology, and especially the non-faculty professionals who provide student services (including disabilities services, psychological services, career services, and advising) and who monitor compliance with various governmental mandates.

In addition, there is a sharp increase in spending on the research, grants, and contracting infrastructure, as institutions seek new sources of revenue from contract research, patents, grants, philanthropy, investment income, and auxiliary services.

In fact, many of the steps that hold out the greatest promise for improving graduation rates and time-to-degree will further increase costs, at least in the short run.  These include instituting:

  • Exploratory majors or meta majors to allow students to test their aptitude in certain broad fields of study without wasting credit hours.
  • e-Advising systems to help students select courses and majors, plan their schedule, and monitor their progress.
  • An enhanced data infrastructure to allow administrators to check, in near real time, on course availability and scheduling, curricular bottlenecks, courses with high failure rates, instructor variance in grading, and student profiles at risk of failure.
  • Expanding course availability through accelerated vacation courses, increased online options, and alternate approaches to course delivery, such as emporium models.
  • Financial incentives for timely graduation.
  • Block scheduling options for first year or working students.
  • Coaching models that provide students with a single points of contact for academic and non-academic support.
  • Care coordinators to help students navigate difficult transitions, such as transferring credits from other institutions or shifting majors.

What, then, can be done to address the innovation challenges and cost pressures that institutions face?

One proposed solution is a differentiated system of higher education, with distinct student profiles receiving an education better tailored to their needs, life circumstances, and aspirations.  In many respects, this trend is already taking place.  Better funded, more selective institutions are devoting more resources to experiential-, project-, and challenge-based learning, while less well-funded, broader access institutions, in particular, expend funds on remediation, competency-based models, and online instruction. The danger, of course, is a higher educational system that is even more stratified than it is today.

Another proposed solution: Increased funding for institutions that serve larger number of low-income students.  Government might provide financial incentives for those institutions that enroll and graduate large numbers of Pell Grant recipients, much as Title I of the Elementary and Secondary School Act provides funding to local school districts to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students.

A third approach, which might be particularly well-suited for broad-access institutions, is to devise more optimized, coherent curricula, with a greater emphasis on skills development (including a greater emphasis on writing skills and numeracy) and better alignment with workforce needs.  Such a learning model might also incorporate a more modular curriculum, making it easier for students to receive credit for prior learning, accelerating time to degree.

A fourth option focuses on better serving untapped markets.  In recent years, many institutions, in a bid to increase revenue, have aggressively pursued out-of-state and international students and have rapidly expanded master’s degree offerings.  But other potential markets remain largely underserved: These include adults with some college but no degree, working professionals who need want to enhance their skills or retool, and those who seek professional certifications but not a degree.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.


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