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File this one under "Be careful what you wish for."

After years of lobbying the federal government for regulatory leeway to spur “disruptive innovation” outside the boundaries of traditional colleges and universities, even some high-profile disruptors are balking at the aggressive deregulation agenda of Betsy DeVos’s U.S. Department of Education. New America, which only six short years ago published a white paper called “Cracking the Credit Hour,” is now defending the credit-hour rule and asking the federal government not to gut it. Inside Higher Ed blogger Matt Reed similarly finds himself in the “unanticipated and uncomfortable position” of standing up for the beleaguered credit hour, of which he has been critical. New America and Reed fear that DeVos and Co. have gone too far, opening the door to fraud and abuse.

The credit hour is not the only safeguard the Education Secretary has targeted. As Politico reported in March, DeVos’s department has already paused Obama-era regulations that punish poor-performing career colleges and offer loan forgiveness to defrauded students and is eyeing changes to accreditation procedures and to the requirement that distance programs ensure “regular and substantive interaction” between students and instructors. The New York Times is now reporting that DeVos is halting her department’s investigations into fraud by for-profit colleges.

The cautions of New America and Reed notwithstanding, there is surely much licking of chops among the edupreneurial set. For years, the prophets of disruption have been pressing their case that colleges and universities hold an unfair monopoly on the higher education market. Game-changing innovation, they insist, will be unleashed only when these slow-footed institutions are unbound, unbundled, disrupted. Regulations must be slashed and federal financial aid dollars made available to noninstitutional providers.

Now, at last, their day has come. Federal support for alternative credentials, including those noninstitutional providers offer, predates the current administration. Yet deregulation and “flexibility” with financial aid restrictions are accelerating quickly under this president, who himself settled a lawsuit for $25 million with students who claimed they had been defrauded by his now defunct university, and his education secretary, who is on record saying that Americans overvalue college degrees. Meanwhile, early indications suggest that the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act may expand access to apprenticeships and other training programs as alternatives to degrees and allow Pell Grant recipients to use their aid for short-term credentialing programs.

As Tressie McMillan Cottom has shown in devastating detail in Lower Ed, diverting public funds from accredited colleges and universities to for-profit providers while removing safeguards against fraud and abuse amounts to a profoundly antidemocratic public subsidization of the exploitation of inequality. Instead of devoting public funds to increase access to reputable educational institutions and to address stubborn degree-attainment gaps for poorer students and students or color, we pay for-profit companies to capitalize on the ambitions and desperation of the most vulnerable among us, who are effectively forced into potentially predatory market relationships.

A recent study found that the “alternative credentials” marketplace teems with shady outfits operating outside any quality-assurance framework. The research also revealed racial disparities in attainment of and benefits derived from alternative credentials, undercutting claims by their champions that they promote social equality and mobility. Alternative credentialing, when pitched as a social progress program that replaces degrees, has the profoundly undemocratic potential of creating a second-class educational tier reserved mainly for the poor and people of color.

Meanwhile, degrees from reputable institutions are more valuable than ever. Even bracketing the wealth of personal and social benefits they bring to individuals, families and communities, such degrees “pay off.” The college wage premium, which had flattened in recent years, is at an all-time high and is likely to climb higher still. As Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has found, the vast majority of the millions of jobs created during the recovery from the 2008 recession have gone to degree holders, while there are millions fewer jobs for those with high school diplomas or less. Despite breathless but perhaps overstated reporting of the “skills gap,” the fact remains that employers require degrees for virtually all well-paying jobs.

Some call that degree inflation, but what we’re seeing is not that degrees are required for jobs where they were not required before or where they are not needed. It’s that jobs are changing. Artificial intelligence is automating broad swaths of the work force, and the “robot-proof” jobs that remain are requiring well-educated professionals, especially those who work at the human-technology interface.

Degrees and the institutions that offer them are not going away any time soon. Even disruptive innovators like Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda, whose company was hailed only a few years ago as a key player in the MOOC revolution that would dismantle colleges and universities as we know them, recently announced that the company is focused on partnering with those institutions. Coursera is “betting squarely on universities,” in Maggioncalda’s words, “and on the continued relevance, even dominance, of the degree as a master credential.”

If anything, the muddle of an increasingly complex alternative-credentials market may have the ironic effect of solidifying employers’ reliance on degrees from trustworthy institutions. In this context, a let-them-eat-alternative-credentials social policy is not only insufficient; it is cruel. It will make higher education even more of an engine of economic and racial inequality than it already is.

Needed: Expansion, not Replacement

We need high-quality educational and training options for those who truly don’t want degrees. But such options cannot replace degrees, and we should not use them as an excuse to ignore the social and economic inequities that make us believe that we know who the deserving are in the first place or that “desiring” a college degree is a purely personal and unfettered choice. Our goal should be to expand access to high-quality degrees and alternative credentials to as many learners as possible -- ideally in ways that promote the integration of learning across a variety of lifelong learning experiences and credentials.

All of which makes this a time of incredible opportunity for traditional colleges and universities. Even as many college leaders fret over projected regional decreases in the supply of 18-year-olds with means, the rapidly changing economic and social landscape ensures that lifelong learning is on the docket for virtually everyone. The question is, who is going to provide all this education?

Three universities have an idea. As they contemplate their futures, Northeastern University, Stanford University and Georgia Tech all envision themselves transcending their selective residential campus models to become global lifelong-learning networks. Northeastern, where I work, imagines diverse, inclusive networks that link faculty members, students, employers and alumni across several global campuses, or “intercultural hubs for lifelong learning.” Stanford fashions itself the “Open Loop University” in which students -- who apply whenever they are ready, not necessarily just out of high school -- loop in and out throughout their lives. Georgia Tech likewise projects “multiple entry and exit points” for learners who “associate with rather than enroll at” the university through a subscription model.

All three university visions feature personalized, flexible, lifelong educational experiences and services. In one sense, these future universities are “unbundled”: they involve suites of credentials and microcredentials alongside degrees. But at a deeper level, they are rebundled institutions, redesigned to integrate degree and nondegree learning experiences and credentials to help learners author their own coherent, integrated learning journeys.

Today it is uncommon for learners to enter into lifelong learning relationships with a college or university. Although nontraditional enrollments are growing rapidly, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of overall enrollments at degree-granting institutions -- and millions more learners are completing certifications, licenses, workplace trainings and the like -- most institutions focus exclusively on providing two- and four-year degrees for young adults and maybe graduate degrees for slightly less young adults.

The colleges and universities of the future will continue to offer degrees, but they will be innovative and flexible enough to offer a variety of learning experiences and credentials when learners need them in formats those learners can fit into their busy lives. They will be responsible and credible enough to offer degree and nondegree credentials, perhaps in partnership with other institutional and noninstitutional providers, that learners and employers can trust. And they will be coherent and bundled enough to enter into lifelong relationships with learners, devoting their people and their technologies to guiding them on their integrative lifelong-learning journeys.

If colleges and universities can do all this, their future is bright. Who knows -- we may even look back on this moment as the beginning of the rebound of the re-bound college. For our students’ sake, for democracy’s sake, let’s hope so.

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