You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.


Change in higher education is imperative for many reasons.

Because students have changed.
The new student majority consists of non- or post-traditional students. These are students who juggle their studies with work or caregiving responsibilities, who commute, who received an uneven high school education, who are among the first in their family to attend college, and who, in growing numbers, speak English as a second language.

Because students and parents’ priorties have shifted.
The overwhelming majority of students expect a pay-off from their education. Very few students say that the reason to go to college is to develop a philosophy of life or to become a more well-rounded, cultured individual. Students and parents alike want a return on their investment – and, unfortunately, the return on investment in many majors has actually fallen.

Because expectations about graduation rates, the quality of teaching and facilities, and the range of student services have risen sharply.
Accreditors, legislators, and parents agree that graduation rates need to rise, time to degree to accelerate, achievement gaps need to be closed, and greater emphasis needs to be placed on high quality teaching and on students’ learning outcomes.

Expectations about standards of care have also climbed. College choice increasingly hinges on the quality of campus facilities, student support services, and the vibrancy of student life.

Because the higher education ecosystem has changed.
The higher education landscape has, in recent years, grown much more competitive. Even local and regional 4-year institutions face financial threats from dual degree/early college programs, community colleges, other regional campuses, and online providers.

Because our teaching is too often outmoded.
Too often, our teaching is insufficiently informed by the science of learning and assessment. It tends not to be outcomes focused. It remains largely a one-size-fits-all model, rather than personalized and adapted to various students’ learning needs.  

Because colleges and universities’ financial model is under severe stress.
Business models that assumed a 3 percent increase in revenue above the inflation rate are no longer sustainable. To thrive, institutions must become much more entrepreneurial, trimming costs wherever possible and tapping new revenue streams, from intellectual property, contract research, auxiliary enterprises, professional master’s programs, and continuing education, among other sources.

Because the economy is rapidly shifting and the skills expected by employers are changing.
Our curricula too often fail to offer windows into careers or to provide adequate career preparation. Businesses need employees with a wide range of technical and soft skills, who can work collaboratively and who can create solutions from multiple fields. No longer is it enough to have intensive training in a single field. The graduates who are most competitive in the job market are those who acquired marketable skills and an integrated, interdisciplinary education and real-world experience.

And, most important of all, because higher education’s promise – to open opportunities in the job market – proves false for too many students.
Our current approach leaves too many students behind. About a quarter of those who start at a non-profit 4-year private institution and over a third of those who start at a public 4-year institution – never earn a degree. Two-thirds leave college burdened by debt, which makes it hard to start a family, buy a home or open a business. And too many who do graduate flail and flounder in the job market, and find themselves under-employed.

Higher education needs to find more effective, efficient ways to educate students, without sacrificing rigor or the human interactions and feedback that lie at the heart of a quality education. And it needs to do this while somehow covering the escalating costs of financial aid, student services, technology, and compliance with government mandates.

It is not enough to try to protect and preserve the status quo.

Trends that are unsustainable inevitably come to an end. But that need not mean that brick-and-mortar institutions need to be replaced by universities in the cloud.  It means that these schools must adapt.  

Clayton Christensen’s distinction between sustaining versus disruptive innovations might help us understand how existing institutions can navigate today’s rough waters.  

Sustaining innovations are incremental improvements intended to preserve or improve an existing institution; disruptive innovations, in contrast, target unserved or underserved markets by offering a less expensive alternative.  

Mega online institutions, like Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University, offer examples of disruptive innovation.  These institutions tapped the large, underserved market of working adults and family caregivers with some previous college experience, who were unable to attend a traditional brick-and-mortar campus. These providers trimmed cost by delivering instruction online, eliminating faculty research, narrowing the curriculum to career-aligned majors, standardizing course offerings, and relying on coaches and graders rather than traditional faculty members.

Sustaining innovations are not as exhilarating as disruptive innovations. But if existing colleges and universities are to thrive they must institute sustaining innovations. These might include:

  • Raising persistence and completion rates. After all, it is much less expensive to retain and graduate a current student than to recruit a new student. Retention is an all-hands-on-deck challenge, involving student affairs (to foster a sense of belonging), learning services (to support and scaffold students), and faculty. So far, campuses have done a better job raising graduation rates for first-in-time students than transfer students.
  • Reaching out to new markets. For most 4-year institutions, these markets consist of adult learners – stop-outs and drop-outs, veterans, family caregivers, post-baccalaureate students, and those interested in master’s degrees and certificates.
  • Embedding career preparation into the undergraduate experience. Skills workshops, boot camps, experiential learning opportunities, and interdisciplinary certificate programs are among the most straightforward ways to ensure that students acquire marketable skills and become more competitive on the job market.
  • Scaling high impact practices. 21stcentury models of education have, so far, proven to be very costly to implement. Internships, mentored research, collaborative inquiry, study abroad, and service learning – none comes cheap.  Neither are improvements in pedagogy, course and curriculum redesign, and integration of new technologies into teaching.

What, then, can be done?  

Integrate HIPs into the academic experience.

  • Study skills and career exploration might be integrated into general education courses or Meta Majors.
  • Collaborative inquiry and problem-, project-, and team-based learning might be offered across the curriculum.
  • Majors might incorporate a capstone experience.
  • Career-focused certificates might include an experiential learning component.

Consider using students as assistants in developing online teaching resources.

Have librarians assist faculty in incorporating Open Educational Resources and instructional tools into their courses.  

Supporting student success at scale
How can we help students succeed effectively and cost-efficiently?  Here are some answers.

  1. Optimize the course schedule to make it easier for students to enroll in high demand classes – and ensure that these courses are available in multiple delivery modes, including hybrid and online, when these are effective.
  2. Institute block scheduling to make it easier for students to balance their studies with their work and family responsibilities.
  3. Support students taking classes with high DFW rates by offering summer bridge programs, online tutorials, peer tutoring, peer-led study groups, and supplemental instruction sections.
  4. Adopt data-driven advising, including early alerts and behavioral nudges.
  5. Implement technology to that can allow students to map their degree, plan their schedule, and audit their progress toward graduation.
  6. Establish learning centers to help students in areas of need, not just writing, but math, science, and foreign language instruction.

Every challenge can also become an opportunity. The challenges facing higher education offer colleges and universities the occasion to reconsider established practices, policies, and procedures. These include placing a greater priority on student learning outcomes; on pedagogies informed by the science of learning; on active, experiential, and collaborative learning; and on lifelong learning.

Steven Mintz is senior advisor to the President of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

Next Story

More from Higher Ed Gamma