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The rim of Upheaval Dome, a crater, in Canyonlands National Park. Scrubby trees can be seen against the red rock background.

Upheaval Dome, in Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Farragutful, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In fall 2021, two of us (Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt) published a book entitled The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future (Johns Hopkins Press), in which we reported that higher education in the U.S. is undergoing a transformation caused by profound demographic, economic and technological changes as the country shifts from a national, analog industrial economy to a global, digital knowledge economy. This shift presents five new realities for higher education, which we discussed in a previous Inside Higher Ed essay:

  • The dramatic growth of noncollegiate providers of postsecondary education and an explosion of their enrollments;
  • A corresponding shift in the balance of power from institutions to learners;
  • Increasing demand from learners for anytime, anyplace, unbundled, low-cost, individualized instruction that fits their circumstances;
  • Emphasis on outcomes-based, learner-centered education over time-fixed, teacher-centric education; and
  • A rise in market-aligned, shorter-term learning experiences that provide just-in-time badges, certificates and microcredentials.

For the past year and a half, joined by Denny Meadows, we have been studying how the nation’s colleges and universities are responding to these changes. We have traveled to 18 states and provinces from coast to coast and talked with administrators, faculty, students and trustees across nontraditional providers, two- and four-year colleges, professional schools, state systems of higher education, accreditors, associations, foundations, and businesses. Here’s what we learned.

First, we found an increased appetite for change.

In contrast to previous interviews with presidents during the pandemic, when COVID was predominantly viewed as a short-term interruption, more recently the overwhelming majority of presidents we’ve spoken with believe COVID has fundamentally altered the world of higher education, accelerating changes that would have otherwise occurred more slowly such as growth in online instruction, the rise of noncollegiate providers, and the demand for certificate programs. Enrollment declines were driving the need to change on the majority of campuses we visited.

Second, we heard about a common set of obstacles to change.

  • Administrators, faculty, staff and students we spoke with were exhausted by the pandemic, so the need for institutional change—while generally recognized—is viewed as an additional burden at an already challenging time.
  • Trustees tended to believe that change is necessary, but they were uncertain about how to respond to the new realities.
  • Faculty were generally less informed about the challenges facing their institutions other than enrollment declines; they frequently said that the solution was better marketing or reducing administrative costs.
  • We repeatedly heard that accreditation is viewed as an obstacle to change rather than an enabler.

Third, we observed that leaders of institutions, believing change was essential, were unclear about what was necessary.

  • At most campuses we visited, leaders were uncertain what changes would be most effective and were prone to adopting a number of innovations simultaneously rather than focusing on strategic solutions.
  • When seeking new directions, institutions tended to turn inward rather than looking outside. Several of our interlocutors asked us what new programs they should adopt rather than talking with potential students and employers; only a small number were engaged in market research.
  • Though few if any institutions have forsaken online learning, the volume of online courses has declined since the pandemic.
  • However, partnerships between higher education and industry are on the rise, as is dual enrollment.

The most common question that arose in our cross-country discussions was not about the case for change but rather how to respond. Several institutions we visited provide a useful guide.

One such institution is Amarillo College, a two-year college in the Texas Panhandle. Amarillo has reoriented its focus around the needs of the college’s prototypical student, whom they refer to as Maria: a 27-year-old Latina mother who works two jobs and attends college part-time. With students like Maria in mind, the college plans programing, calendars, staffing, services and costs around her needs. Attending the fall faculty and staff convocation, we heard the president, staff, professors and students talk about what they had accomplished for Maria in the past year and what they are planning for the years ahead.

The 5 C’s: It All Starts With Maria

We discovered that the colleges that are most successful in responding to today’s new realities do what Amarillo and other institutions have done. In short, they strategically focus on how the institution can best serve its students. They are engaged in what might be called the Five C’s of Learner-Centered Education.

The first C makes the learner the center of the institution’s focus. The other four Cs are the things learners told us they cared about most.

  1. Customer: Using the term “customer” to refer to learners can be a bit uncomfortable, but it does have the virtue of beginning with a C, unlike “student.” Our point is that every institution needs first to define whom it wishes to educate. For Amarillo, Maria represented the local community’s best hope for economic advancement, consistent with the college’s student- and community-oriented mission.

It’s a truism that every institution must identify the learners it can reasonably recruit and successfully serve. However, we visited several institutions that planned to expand enrollments by focusing on populations they were unlikely to successfully recruit, or for which they lacked the resources to serve, such as rural colleges focusing on distant, population-rich urban areas. Often such institutions neglected to ask questions as basic as whether the population of learners they targeted could be expected to shrink or grow in market size, which competitors were also pursuing these learners and how the institution’s current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats would affect their ability to attract and serve these learners.

  1. Cost: We all know the cost of higher education is a barrier to college attendance and that student debt has ballooned. Whether defined as the unsustainable cost of delivery for the institution, the high price of attendance for learners, or perceptions of an unreliable return on learners’ investment of time and money, cost has become an issue of national concern. The cost of attending Amarillo was a barrier for Maria, so the college raised money for financial aid, emergencies and everyday costs like transportation. The college also improved its time to degree through an accelerated eight-week learning model and master class schedule optimized to support faster completion without lowering academic expectations. For every college, the challenge and opportunity is to seek creative solutions to ensure that education is affordable for its target students, with minimum debt and maximum value creation in conjunction with the remaining three C’s.
  2. Convenience: Today, college students are spending less time on campus, using fewer college services (with the exception of mental health services), and attending fewer college activities. A growing percentage have work and other life responsibilities, and all have far more choice about where they obtain postsecondary education. Options abound that provide anytime, anyplace education that is unbundled, cheaper, faster and, in some cases, from brand-name institutions with greater prestige than their local college.

As college students told Levine and Diane R. Dean as part of their research for Generation on a Tightrope (Wiley, 2012), convenience is essential in this competitive context when it comes to everything from parking and scheduling to the efficacy and efficiency of financial aid and registrars’ offices.

Consider Maria. She needs classes scheduled around her work hours, childcare assistance, easy-to-access registration, financial aid, parking, advising and career counseling. Otherwise, it is likely that Maria will drop out or not matriculate at all. Because all current and future college students have their own version of Maria’s requirements, a thorough assessment of target learners’ needs and expectations can and ought to be a powerful source of inspiration and innovation for colleges and universities that seek to be learner-centered.

  1. Content: Relevant content refers to the how and what of learning, as well as the degree to which the two are directly connected to learners’ goals. During our visits, we heard three issues raised regarding the content of an educational experience.
    • First, what is the right post-pandemic balance between online and in-person instruction? The answer depends on what students want, what they will realize the most benefit from, the suitability of a given program to various modes and the quality of an institution’s delivery modes. (Maria, by the way, wanted a hybrid program.)
    • Second, to what extent should institutions offer short-term, certificate-granting, just-in-time education? Fueled by the rise of automation and the shrinking half-life of knowledge in our information economy, we can anticipate burgeoning demand for education to upskill and reskill throughout the life span of many, if not most, college students; whether vocational or foundational, Maria and the rest of us are going to need it. If traditional institutions choose not to fill these pragmatic needs, other providers will gladly scoop up lifelong learners in an increasingly competitive environment.
    • Third, should institutions adopt competency-based education? In our conversations, interest in this question typically came from academic leaders and technical, vocational and professional schools. Bottom line: the most important content question to ask is what a relevant education means for target learners, geared to their life goals and the world they are preparing to enter.
  2. Connections: Higher education serves learners best when it has one foot in the library (the accumulated knowledge of humanity) and one foot in the street (the real world of careers, families and communities). In times of dramatic change like the present, higher ed tends to lose traction with the street. Yet Maria and most other students seek education that will prepare them for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs in their local and global communities. These real-world connections start on campus with effective advising relationships, faculty advocates and other student success supports that link learners’ educational investments with their life goals. In terms of career connections, students need professional contacts, introductions and engagement opportunities like mentoring, internships and apprenticeships in organizations with the capacity to hire them; they need top-notch career counseling, because students like Maria are not simply looking for a job but also for substantial social mobility. Finally, students value education that is connected to the people, projects, and potential of their various communities.

In Sum

The successful institutions we visited embraced the five C’s. Whether they accidentally or deliberately employed them, each exhibited at least four of them.

In varying degree, every college and university is facing the same challenges. All will be forced to change in response to today’s new realities. Focusing on the five C’s is a tool for beginning the process.

Arthur Levine is Distinguished Scholar of Higher Education at New York University and president emeritus of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and Teachers College, Columbia University. Scott Van Pelt is associate director of the communications program at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Levine and Van Pelt are the authors of The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Denny Meadows is a higher education strategy facilitator and principal at SilverFern Advisory with prior private sector experience in customer innovation.

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