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In the pandemic’s wake, many colleges and universities are reconsidering every facet of their operations—from their mission to their branding and marketing, admissions strategies, academic calendar and course scheduling, academic offerings and campus experience—in a bid to increase their appeal, control costs, raise retention and completion rates, and improve postgraduation employment outcomes.

However, much of the discussion about higher education’s future fails to address the elephants in the room: uncertain and uneven skills, learning and postgraduation employment outcomes; incoherent curricula; arbitrary degree requirements; inequitable access to high-demand majors; and an academic experience that consists of disconnected classes without enough sufficient substantive, constructive feedback or personalized advising and mentoring.

Let’s engage in a thought experiment and consider some possible alternate but realistic paths forward. This strikes me as good a time as any to think outside the box and imagine practical, pragmatic alternatives to business as usual.

As institutions weigh the road ahead, let me suggest seven models to consider, each with its special strengths.

1. A guided pathways approach

Modeled on innovations that are taking place in hundreds of community colleges, the guided or structured pathways approach involves total curricular and service redesign. Elements include:

  • Intentionally sequenced, integrated and synergistic courses that lead to a degree, typically in a high-employment-demand field.
  • Substitution of corequisite remediation for development or remedial education.
  • Integrated career counseling and academic advising.
  • Articulation of transfer pathways to prevent credit loss.
  • Wraparound academic, financial and psychological supports.
  • Use of data to identify and prompt interventions when students are off track.
  • Block scheduling to allow students to better balance their studies with work and caregiving responsibilities.

Degree verticals do reduce student options but in exchange provide the most expeditious route to a degree and embed students within a community of learners who share similar interests.

2. An open curriculum

This approach, which emphasizes student choice, is found largely at highly selective liberal arts colleges and a handful of universities like Brown. It allows undergraduates, with guidance from a faculty mentor, to devise an individualized course of study free from the most general education and major requirements.

For this approach to work well, students need a degree of advising and mentoring that most institutions do not currently offer. Otherwise, students are likely to complete a random assortment of classes that lack any intellectual coherence.

3. A high-impact-practices approach

This model seeks to ensure that as many students as possible encounter the kinds of educationally purposeful practices that contribute to their social, psychological, moral and emotional development as well as to their cognitive growth. These include:

  • A common intellectual experience, which might include a dedicated first-year experience, such as participation in a seminar, a learning community or a meta-major organized around a theme or cutting-edge issue in public policy or scholarship and which emphasizes critical inquiry, academic skills building and interest, skills, major and career identification.
  • Pedagogy that includes active learning, collaborative assignments, maker projects and intensive writing.
  • Participation in an internship; research, service or community-based learning; or another form of experiential learning.
  • A capstone experience.

In addition to the high-impact practices identified by George Kuh, this approach might include some other practices that have a high impact on student learning:

  • Placing as many students as possible in a multiyear cohort program organized around a theme, a major or a student interest.
  • Exposing undergraduates to alternate course formats, including expanded access to practicums, studio courses, research classes, course clusters and field- and community-based learning.
  • Introducing more big questions courses that tackle a major societal or global problem from multiple perspectives.
  • Implementing classes that are design to result in a policy proposal, a public service, a real-world project, a performance, a collaboratively produced website, an application or a public presentation.

4. A 21st-century literacies approach

An alternative to a comprehensive, all-encompassing redesign of the curriculum and the academic experience is to rethink degree requirements and rebuild them around the skills and competencies that every 21st-century undergraduate ought to acquire. These include intercultural awareness, information and media literacy, collaboration and project management skills, numerical and data fluency and financial literacy, contextual thinking and multimodal communication. The goal is to ensure that graduates are able to work successfully in diverse groupings, be able to communicate effectively cross-culturally, conduct research rigorously and make effective use of digital tools to engage in inquiry, problem solve, collaborate and present information.

5. An education for the future of work

One doesn’t need a crystal ball to predict many of the emerging areas of economic innovation: biotechnology, brain science, data analytics, emerging media and arts technology, logistics and international trade, machine learning and artificial intelligence, robotics and sustainability (including renewable and alternate energy sources), systems analysis, among other fields.

Although a growing number of campuses offer such programs at the graduate level, we lack the kinds of undergraduate pathways that will bring highly diverse students to success in these emerging sectors of the economy. Also, since such programs do not easily fall into existing departments, cross-disciplinary collaborations are essential.

6. A psycho-social development approach

I’ve been struck by the recent moves at a number of institutions to abolish their swimming requirement. Whereas once about a quarter of colleges had such a requirement, today the figure is less than 5 percent. Among the institutions that recently dropped the requirement were Notre Dame, the Universities of Chicago and North Carolina, and Williams, largely on the grounds that such requirements are archaic, humiliating and unfair and discriminate on economic, cultural and racial grounds.

The ability to swim may or may not be a skill associated with a well-rounded college graduate. But there are attributes of development—social, emotional, moral, interpersonal—that we do want all students to attain. This does not mean that every student should take a course in psychology, sociology or sexuality and gender studies (though I wish that were possible). But it does mean that institutions might infuse issues involving cognitive distortion, moral judgment, logical reasoning, identity, roles and interpersonal power relationship across the curriculum.

7. A blended approach

Far easier to implement than structured pathways, a high-impact practices model, an open curriculum or a 21st-century literacies focus is a blended approach that is designed to increase student options without imposing a single, unitary vision upon an institution.

Such an approach, which is less likely to raise hackles among various stakeholders, features expanded online course offerings, more experiential learning opportunities, the availability of meta majors, joint majors, skills certificates and badges.

It also includes calendar changes to allow students to expedite time to degree by taking courses during midsemester and midyear breaks, January, campus holidays, and the summer.

Typically, this approach involves incentivizing departments and individual faculty members to implement reforms in degree requirements, class scheduling, course design, pedagogy and assessment.

The kinds of disruption that higher education needs are not the ones recommended by the for-profits and their nonprofit imitators, nor by those who propose to substitute faster, cheaper nondegree certificates for a bachelor’s. Those visions may well serve the needs of those who lack the time or patience that a college education requires, but by replacing teacher-scholars with course mentors who lack subject matter expertise and interactive, face-to-face classes with a self-paced, self-directed approaches these innovations swap advanced education for training of uncertain quality.

To call into question the disrupters’ approach is not, however, to defend higher education as it is. Nor is it to suggest that the problems are concentrated largely among the less selective institutions with the lowest completion rates and postgraduation employment and earnings outcomes.

The problems are much more widespread. Here are just a few:

  • Curricula that better reflect departmental and faculty self-interest than students’ needs.
  • Complicated, convoluted degree requirements and poorly conceived course schedules that delay graduation.
  • Inadequate advising.
  • Academic and nonacademic support services that fail to reach all too many students who need help.
  • Majors in emerging fields that do not come close to reflecting the diversity of today’s student body.
  • An education that does a poor job of helping students identify a future career or chart a realistic path toward that goal.

The seven routes that I suggest seek to address those challenges, each in its own way. I think it’s fair to say that only the last approach, the blended option, strikes me as likely. But all the models might prompt institutions and individual faculty members to think creatively about how they might best innovate and what kind of education they truly want to offer.

Institutional change rarely occurs as a result of a big bang. More often, it takes place incrementally, one department or one unit or one faculty or staff member at a time. So, let all of us take inspiration from Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Certainly (most of) our institutions aren’t in any danger of perishing. But I do fear that all too many broad-access institutions will gradually, progressively deteriorate.

There’s a quotation attributed to Helen Keller: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” A college without a vision is a college without a future.

Don’t fly blind into an uncertain future. Develop and implement your vision of what a higher education ought to be. Without intentional design, an education degenerates into a haphazard mishmash without a clear purpose or well-defined outcomes.

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

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