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The headline of an editorial in the Lowell (Massachusetts) Sun contains a disconcerting but certainly accurate message: that the state’s system of postsecondary education is on a “Collision course of unsustainable higher-ed costs.”

Inflation, the emergence of new fields of study and ever-rising standards of care, not to mention increases in the cost of salaries, benefits, financial aid, maintenance and technology, mean that most colleges and universities are on an untenable financial trajectory—unless their expenses are offset by new revenue sources or sustained increases in government aid.

The economist Herbert Simon had it right: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Trends that can’t continue won’t.

As I ponder the future of higher education as a whole, our options are these. We can have:

  • Higher quality.
  • Lower cost.
  • Increased equity.
  • Greater convenience and flexibility.
  • More of a career focus.

Choose one.

Sure, institutions with extensive resources can select “all of the above.” But a growing number of regional and urban colleges and universities will have to make tough choices.

Ours is a wealthy society and, in theory, we can evade many difficult decisions. I don’t think that’s the world most colleges and universities inhabit.

Instead, the institutions that serve the bulk of the nation’s undergraduates reside in highly complex, competitive, highly political environments and must muddle through a jumble of conflicting priorities and demands from multiple stakeholders.

None of us should envy the challenges that leadership faces or the tough trade-offs that campuses must make.

Chancellors, presidents, provosts and deans must expand access, achieve much greater equity, increase affordability, raise completion rates and improve postgraduation employment and earnings outcomes simultaneously in a context of limited resources and stubborn resistance to change.

Are there any levers that we can and should pull? Here are a few.

1. Leverage systemness. A new compendium of essays, Higher Education Systems Redesigned, edited by Jonathan S. Gagliardi and Jason E. Lane (to which I contributed), argues that public university systems are well positioned to facilitate sustainable change. Multicampus systems can create fiscal efficiencies, leverage data and analytics, scale best practices, reduce purchasing and contracting costs, drive student success initiatives, lobby and advocate politically, and introduce new educational models.

Systems’ record for driving innovation and improvement is, as you know, mixed. I can point to instances in which systems have failed to live up to expectations (e.g., Calbright and my own Institute for Transformational Learning) but also examples of systems producing meaningful and significant changes.

The City University of New York has demonstrated what’s possible. Its Pathways initiative has made cross-institution credit transfer much more seamless. Its ASAP program has become a national model for dramatically improving community college completion rates. Its new CUNY Online initiative holds out the prospect of addressing a host of long-standing problems: expanding access to closed courses, splitting revenue when students take courses away from their home college, coordinating online course offerings, creating a common marketing platform and combating the high costs of OPM services.

2. Expedite degree pathways. If our goal is simply to cut costs, we can do this in many ways. Send more high school graduates to community colleges. Institute asynchronous courses that use lower-cost graders. Replace full-time faculty with lower-paid adjunct faculty.

But the simplest way to trim costs is to reduce time to degree. There are several ways to do that:

  • Expand early-college and Advanced Placement programs.
  • Award credit for prior learning.
  • Ensure course availability by increasing synchronous and asynchronous online options.
  • Make sure transfer credits apply to gen ed and degree requirements.
  • Reduce the number and complexity of degree requirements.
  • Expand access to personalized majors.

None of these are a panacea, but together they can accelerate completion.

3. Institute earn-learn and work-integrated learning options. Work colleges (like Berea and Paul Quinn) and co-op programs (like those offered by Drexel and Northeastern) integrate work into the college learning experience. Such programs take a variety of forms.

  • Some emphasize campus jobs.
  • Others combine academic coursework with paid apprenticeships or internships, skills training, mentoring and networking opportunities, and wraparound academic and career guidance and support.

The challenge, of course, is how to provide learning and labor opportunities at scale, which helps explain why few colleges and universities have instituted such programs. A substitute is to offer virtual internships and online experiential learning opportunities for groups of students. Firms like Riipen serve as intermediaries between colleges and for-profits and nonprofits that have business challenges that need to be solved.

4. Share courses cross-institutionally. The Big Ten Academic Alliance’s CourseShare initiative, which has made some 700 specialized language and area studies courses available to students across the consortium of 14 research universities, might serve as a model that other institutions might emulate. So, too, might Harvard CS50 and Yale’s CPSC 100, which has allowed Yale undergraduates to livestream or watch archived videos of Harvard professor David Malan’s classes and Harvard students access to Yale computer science professor Brian Scassellati’s and later Benedict Brown’s courses.

Now that online learning has become a more accepted practice, the single biggest barrier to course sharing has fallen. Of course, it’s essential that course sharing be used to expand access to specialized courses and not be used simply to cut programs, trim faculty and reduce costs.

5. Adopt various innovative approaches to teaching and learning. When I was at the University of Houston, a group of us taught an integrated first-year experience that included U.S. history, American literature, American art, rhetoric and composition, and educational technology. Participating faculty included, alongside instructors in literature and history, the education director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and a specialist in learning, instructional design and visualization.

This integrated approach, which allowed students to meet multiple gen ed requirements either on two weekdays or a full-day Saturday, made it much easier for commuting students to juggle work, family and academic responsibilities. In addition to writing standard papers, each student also created digital projects, such as a video story, and contributed entries to a virtual encyclopedia and a collaborative website.

But like all too many initiatives by highly motivated faculty members, this approach was never institutionalized or scaled or well funded, and it eventually faded away. Lesson learned: it’s not enough to rely on individual innovators, who, inevitably move, retire or shift interests.

The alternative is to make new educational models integral parts of the institution’s curriculum. Models to emulate already exist.

  • Learning communities, meta majors and other team-taught and cluster courses. Learning communities, meta majors and cluster courses share certain common elements. They are interdisciplinary and thematically or career-focused and are organized around cohorts of students. Typically, these approach a subject from synergistic and integrated perspectives. At their best, these units do more than provide instruction. They also offer advising, mentoring, supplemental instruction, co-curricular learning opportunities and a sense of membership in a supportive community.
  • Communities of inquiry. How about creating communities that collaboratively engage in reflection and critical discourse around timely issues, such as the pandemic or systemic forms of inequality? A useful model is the cMOOC, which, unlike the better-known xMOOC, focuses on inquiry, exploration and knowledge generation, rather than on knowledge transmission. A community of inquiry leverages a campus’s distributed expertise and transforms all participants into researchers and investigators.
  • Scalable courses. Barnard professor Mark C. Carnes’s Reacting to the Past features immersive, active-learning, role-playing games that rest upon classic texts in the history of ideas, politics and science. The course offers one example of how to take student learning to scale. Since sessions are run by students, with the instructor serving as adviser and facilitator, such classes can be much larger than a standard small lecture course.
    Synchronous online introductory psychology classes at 2 UTs, Toronto and Texas, show that it is possible to deliver a high-quality educational experience to 2,000 or more students at a time. Combining daily quizzing, chat groups, debates, pods facilitated by former students and guest lecturers, the UT Austin version reduced achievement gaps, improved academic performance and increased student satisfaction compared to the standard large in-person lecture format.
  • Experiential learning requirements. Not all learning needs to take place in traditional classroom or lecture hall formats. Maker spaces, studio courses, field- and community-based learning experiences, and, of course, for-credit mentored research and supervised internships offer approaches that many undergraduates find highly appealing and engaging and do not necessarily need to be limited in size.

Higher education’s future will ultimately hinge on public policy choices, above all, how much the state and federal governments will provide to students in terms of financial aid and to institutions through direct support and, indirectly, through grants and contracts. In the meantime, however, individual campuses can take steps that will, at once, improve the student learning experience, cut time to degree and contribute to a stronger sense of community.

This will require institutions to think outside the box, to envision forms of education that do not conform exclusively to the lecture, seminar, laboratory paradigm.

Take my word: we can do it if we try.

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

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