• Rethinking Higher Education

    Peter Smith's take on opportunity and access in higher education, the unmet challenges that remain, and the future that lies ahead for those willing to tackle it.

The New World of Opportunity

A closer look at the students who have been historically underserved by postsecondary education.

February 12, 2020

It has been said that the era we are now entering in higher education is as fundamental, if not a greater, break with past practice as were the Morrill Act and the GI Bill.

This is not to say that research universities will vanish and colleges will necessarily wither and die. It is to say, however, that technological enhancements and the new data analytics and capacity they bring will fundamentally change the context within which we operate. They will improve what we know about learners and their learning, which practices work, and with whom, and which do not, and what are the causes of both positive and negative effects?

In coming blog posts, I will look at issues of quality assurance, the changing balance between the options for the learner and the prerogatives historically reserved for the institution, and the emerging marketplace in lifelong postsecondary education with details and examples. I want to begin, however, with what we are currently learning about those who have previously been underserved. Much of this would have been impossible to calculate in the past.

We know that the open door has been, in too many instances, a revolving door. Once inside the institution, the actual process, the day-to-day reality, was anything but a level playing field for previously marginalized and underserved learners. The dominant model, made for full-time and campus-based students and controlled by faculty assumptions and definitions of what the curriculum would be and what success looked like, left many learners on the outside looking in.

At the same time, the growing numbers of learners who persisted (literally) and benefited was such a huge increase between 1950 and 2000 that their collective success overshadowed the others’ “failure to thrive.” And it has been only as birth rates have declined and costs have skyrocketed that the higher education community, feeling the pinch of enrollment declines and performance criticism, has turned its gaze to these previously ignored “failures,” people for whom the level playing field of the ’70s and ’80s has, in fact, been anything but that.

Let me use just two examples to suggest the reasons why people who have been, quoting Tony Carnevale, “born to win and schooled to lose,” have failed to thrive in our schools “the way they were.” And how our deeper understanding and the disruptive solutions available today prove that this disruption will be a value add for learners if we seize the moment.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, is developing new research data on the insecurities in learners’ lives. Her findings speak volumes to why a level playing field, defined in traditional terms, is anything but that for many learners.

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the toll that nonacademic issues take on many of today’s learners, causing them to leave college before completing their course of work. Goldrick-Rab has identified economic insecurities in food, housing, income and transportation as major contributors to “failure” in college among many learners. Although there will be debate about the extent of each insecurity, Goldrick-Rab correctly asserts that clarifying and addressing these insecurities, beyond being humanly necessary, will also benefit the learner, the college and the country.

Beyond recognizing and addressing these issues of insecurity, the value add to opportunity brought by disruption includes the possibility of superb customer service, support and information. We are on the threshold of having information that links learning outcomes to job requirements in a way that no career services office could ever do before. The work that groups like Credential Engine, Emsi and Burning Glass are doing in this field will change the education-employment landscape forever, making it friendlier and more accessible to learners.

And it is a short hop from that kind of career information linked to curricula to a radical rethinking of the ways we can assess learning done elsewhere, including noninstitutional learning, for inclusion in career development and certificate and degree pathways. Supporting “new,” previously marginalized and older learners will include treating their cultural and experiential learning as well as their learning on the job and elsewhere with respect.

In my next posts, we’ll take a step back, focus on learning and look at the emerging marketplace for learning in a disrupted world.



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