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What’s the best way to a good life? Education, of course. And while that’s certainly not as easy as it sounds, especially for minoritized groups, the promise of postsecondary education does generally hold true. People with a college degree earn more and live longer, healthier, more engaged lives. And although the public trust in higher ed is faltering, it is not as drastic as the drop in trust in some other social institutions. That is partially because, despite being unattainable and even inhospitable for many, postsecondary education is still one of the most powerful drivers of social and economic mobility that we have.

In our knowledge economy, the power to generate and share knowledge is the power to create social mobility. So great is that power that higher education is often referred to as an “engine” of social and economic mobility. It really is an apt metaphor. But in recent years, the engine has begun showing its age. The check engine light is on, but we’ve been avoiding going to the shop. We’ve got other things going on, and it’s expensive! We’re reaching the point of internal combustion. To avoid obsolescence, America’s engine needs a total rebuild.

Just as progress moved us from the carburetor to fuel injection, it’s time for another major overhaul of the way the engine gets its fuel. We’ve started tinkering with changes to the FAFSA, the college cost transparency initiative and freeing transcripts. And states are experimenting with direct admissions, although early evidence suggests a need to examine and improve conversion rates. That’s a start. But for the engine to operate efficiently, we also need to reimagine the transfer system as well as the system for assessing and awarding credit for learning that happens outside the classroom.

Furthermore, we need to recognize that our fuel sources have changed. The majority of undergraduate students attending U.S. institutions of higher education are now individuals from racially and ethnically diverse, low-socioeconomic-status, and/or nontraditional backgrounds. This includes adult learners, student parents and military learners, among others. These individuals share common financial challenges and difficulties in navigating higher education bureaucracies. As our fuel sources diversify, the mechanics of the college experience must also adapt to support new sources of energy.

In addition to these shifting intake dynamics, the external landscape has changed, too. In addition to navigating increasingly rugged terrain, the engine now also needs to be able to run underwater and not just because of climate change. The labor market is more fluid than it was in the past, and people are switching careers more often. This means that higher education needs to focus on developing students’ transferable skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving and communication. Learners require holistic, integrated models of career exploration and development like life design. This engine is going to need a snorkel!

Further, instead of traveling the traditional, linear four-year route, we now require a durable, dynamic engine capable of getting to new and multiple destinations as lifelong learning models take hold and credential options expand. In addition to two- and four-year degrees, learners are demanding new ways of bundling and proving skills and knowledge like certificates and badges. These credentials must be stackable—able to be combined over time to earn advanced degrees.

We can’t forget about technology. Self-driving technologies, such as e-portfolios, mass customization and the blockchain, can help students to better manage their education and track their progress. Like a highly advanced electronic control unit, the power of networks and relationships can be harnessed through mentoring and professional networking opportunities. And AI-enhanced supports can act as a GPS to help students to develop and follow their educational and career pathways.

Although we can work to develop the perfect engine of social and economic mobility, it is throttled without strong, well-designed infrastructure to support it. ACE’s Education Futures is working simultaneously with postsecondary institutions to overhaul the engine and with other social institutions to ensure the infrastructure is in place. So buckle up!

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