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Higher education is being remade from within.

Federal policy is getting all the attention of late, with the U.S. Department of Education considering significant changes to the rules that shape higher education across the country and Congress simultaneously working to update the Higher Education Act for the first time in more than a decade. And both certainly stand to have a far-reaching impact on the landscape of colleges and universities.

But the real revolution in higher education isn’t being led by policy makers. It’s being driven by individual learners and employers who are demanding that learning become cheaper, better and faster. This is the learner revolution.

And we’ve learned some critical lessons about how to harness its potential over the past five years through the Education Design Lab’s work with over 100 forward-thinking colleges and universities.

Like all revolutions, this one is inescapable. Student demographics and expectations are shifting rapidly and employers are beginning to translate their needs more specifically, at the same time as new technologies create fresh opportunities for education delivery.

Students with at least one nontraditional characteristic -- first-generation, low-income or minority background -- now make up three-quarters of college students. For this new majority, higher education has been in need of serious redesign for at least two decades. These students are less likely to graduate than so-called traditional students, and they are more likely to take on debt to get an education.

At the same time, technological innovation has opened up new vehicles to deliver higher education -- from blended online and in-person classes to apps that bring gamified professors to students’ smartphones -- that meet the needs of modern learners. Technology also is changing how we are able to measure and certify learning, enabling the deconstruction of the degree as we know it.

Employers, particularly large ones like IBM, Amazon and Google, are helping to drive this shift to a focus on teaching and assessing specific competencies. In a new nationally representative survey of employers, a majority of employers said they have a formal effort under way, or are actively exploring one, to de-emphasize degrees and prioritize skills in hiring. In a recent survey of 20 of the Education Design Lab’s employer partners, all of them said they need new hiring tools that recognize credentials other than, or in addition to, the degree.

While policy changes will play a role in meeting the evolving needs of students, institutions have already started to look inward and heed the call to transform the traditional delivery model. We are already moving to a future where the marketplace for learners is far more fluid and competencies hold more currency than degrees.

We see five promising models for institutions looking to harness the learner revolution. These models -- highlighted in our new report, "The Learner Revolution: How Colleges Can Thrive in a New Skills and Competencies Marketplace" -- are informed by more than five years of experience using human-centered design to help institutions transform the learner experience.

The Platform Facilitator: A few institutions will be able to fashion themselves into Netflix-style distribution curators, while others will be content providers for those platforms, licensing courses, experiences, certificates and other services. Unlike Netflix or Uber, the difference in our industry is that, for now, institutions maintain a lock on degree-granting power and access to the federal financial aid. A few dominant platforms could emerge in this space, or we could see a more distributed future in which many institutions develop open degree pathways and providers can break their learning outcomes into portable, stackable competencies and compete for slots in those pathways.

The Experiential Curator: These institutions are doubling down on their role as the curators of expansive learning experiences. Advances in assessment, the maturation of online and hybrid education, and the increasingly connected and global nature of work have made opportunities in this market niche all the richer. A number of programs and institutions have embraced the potential of highly interdisciplinary education, project-based learning and guided reflection. They have made it their primary value proposition. Lab partner Oakwood University, a historically black university in Huntsville, Ala., saw an opportunity to align with the needs of employers in the “Southern Silicon Valley.” They are developing a unique work-study program to credential their STEM students in hard-to-assess skills like critical thinking to help them stand out in Huntsville’s high-tech job market.

The Learning Certifier: These institutions are recognizing learning across a wide range of contexts, in particular helping students codify, even gamify, their out-of-classroom learning experiences and translate them into a coherent whole that makes sense to employers and themselves. Increasingly popular microcredentialing tools offer one way to capture informal skill building, development plans and assessments. For example, the lab has worked with 20 universities to help them pilot a digital credentialing process that helps students develop and codify 21st-century skills like creative problem solving, initiative and empathy. It’s shown that student demand for this type of certification is strong. Central New Mexico Community College has partnered with local construction and plumbing/utility employers to assess and badge students with crucial skills, specifically empathy and oral communication.

The Work-Force Integrator: These institutions are building deep connections with employers, ensuring tight connections between the competencies learners acquire through their programs and the competencies needed for employment in specific fields or jobs. Two factors are pushing institutions in this direction: the vast majority of students (86 percent) now say their main reason for coming to college is to get a good job, and institutions are paying closer attention to equity issues for students who have to work their way through college. As a result, more institutions are building in-demand work-force competencies into both their curricula and their on-campus employment programs.

The Specializer: These institutions are taking a niche specialization or characteristic, such as religious affiliation, and reimagining it. Such colleges tend to be small and may be facing serious challenges around sustainability. They are thinking creatively in order to turn their niche appeal into an asset. Those with their backs against the wall are most willing to innovate and take risks.

These five approaches are among the most promising we see for traditional colleges to navigate the learner revolution. Online colleges and universities, especially competency-based models, can move quickly to offer flexible interdisciplinary and subdegrees. Colleges and universities should carefully consider which approach -- or combination of them -- aligns with their core missions while allowing them to evolve to meet the demands of the new majority learners. For example, Lab partner Catholic University’s Busch School of Business took what could be perceived as being a niche focus through its religious-affiliated mission and turned it into a strength by designing a curriculum infused with the virtues of service to the common good.

Doing so requires an honest assessment of an institution’s mind-set and readiness -- and especially, a deep understanding of its students. And it, of course, requires leadership.

The winners in a revolution are always those who are willing to step out before the way forward is entirely clear. Many institutions will survive if they are responsive to the future -- but the winners will be those who design it.

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