We are currently in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime moment when higher education is ripe for innovation. A host of challenges have converged to drive fundamental changes:
- A student success challenge with just 60 percent of students in four-year institutions earning a degree.
- A demographic challenge, as higher education attracts, in unprecedented numbers, student profiles that it has historically failed to serve effectively.
- An equity challenge, in which there is an inverse relationship between instructional and support spending and student needs.
- A learning outcomes challenge, with time spent studying apparently declining over time.
- A cost challenge, as the expense of providing and receiving a high quality education rise.
- A business model challenge, as more students acquire credits from multiple institutions, eliminating the cross-subsidies from large lectures that supported small seminars, and alternate educational providers proliferate, threatening revenue from master’s programs.
As higher education struggles to meet these challenges, seven principles need to guide innovation.
1. We must create a stronger student pipeline.
In Texas just 20 percent of eighth graders ever receive a post-secondary credential. In New York State, the figure is scarcely better: Just 23 percent of ninth graders earn a degree or professional certificate. We need to make the passage between high school and college more seamless and more successful.
2. We must better serve the underserved student majority.
Even at four year institutions, low-income students, commuter students, transfer students, full- and part-time workers, first-generation students, non-native English speakers, parents, and older students constitute a majority of students. We need to make it easier for these students to succeed through better articulation agreements across institutions and better curricular alignment between high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions.
3. Learning shouldn’t simply be frontloaded and focused on those between the ages of 18 and 22.
We must provide lifelong learning opportunities. The average baby boomer held more than 11 jobs between the ages of 18 and 48. As careers shift and new job opportunities open up, retraining must occur across the life span.
4. One size doesn’t fit all
Today’s highly diverse student body needs a variety of pathways to success, including guided pathways that streamline the route to a degree, cross-walk programs that award credit for prior learning, just-in-time learning opportunities, and co-op models that combine learning with work or internship experiences. Delivery modes, too, need to meet student needs, whether through block scheduling, hybrid or fully online delivery, or low-residency options.
5. We need to offer meaningful credentials that don’t require four years to vest.
Many students would benefit from stackable credentials that might add up, over time, into degrees. By offering a variety of on- and off-ramps, we can better support students who lead complicated lives. In addition, a comprehensive student record or universal transcript would provide these students with a dynamic catalog of all of their academic and non-academic accomplishments.
6. We need to blur the boundaries between the classroom and the real world and between the traditional face-to-face classroom and digital learning experiences.
Not all learning happens in a classroom, nor should it. By making work, internship, or study abroad experiences a key component of undergraduate education, we can make learning more authentic and engaging.
7. We must bring more students to a bright future.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 84 percent of 27-year-olds received some college education, but only 34 percent ever earned a bachelor’s degree. We do know how to bring more students to success, including proactive advising, sophisticated use of learning analytics, a community of care approach to student services, more coherent synergistic and developmental curricula, and, above all, faculty dedicated to student mentoring and support.
How, then, can we best realize these principles? We need to advance along multiple dimensions. One involves fostering a sense of belonging. No student should feel lost or alone. It should always be clear where students can turn for support.
Equally important is instilling a sense of direction. A degree map is insufficient if it simply consists of a laundry list of courses. An education should be more of a journey, with each step contributing to a student’s cognitive and non-cognitive development. Experiential learning and applied learning can be crucial in helping students feel a sense of growth.
It is vital, too, to convey a sense of relevance. A grab bag of courses disconnected from a student’s larger educational goals, especially at the lower-division level, is intensely demoralizing.
Finally, there is the importance of communicating a sense of progress, by creating meaningful markers of accomplishment along the road to a degree. In our brave new world, where many students move in and out of our educational institutions, we need to provide evidence of their growing proficiencies that are meaningful outside the academy.
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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