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Today’s postsecondary education system is out of sync with what our nation needs -- as surveys of students, employers and others show. One reason is that it’s ossified by structures put in place a half century ago, which led many colleges and universities, even new ones, to pursue academic and business models that aligned with strictly designed categories, whether they served students or not.

In recent years a group of colleges started offering a mix of programs challenging the notion that college credentials must come in neat two-year or four-year packages.

From our respective perches, we believe that these “dual-mission” institutions offer another way forward for higher education in the post-pandemic period.

We got here in part because a group of higher ed leaders, led by former University of California president Clark Kerr, worked to create some order out of a rapidly growing and changing system. The Carnegie classification system was designed in the early 1970s, a time when higher education was booming following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, rapid expansion of community colleges and the adoption of the Higher Education Act, which launched many of the federal financial aid programs that still benefit millions of college students today.

In the decade that followed, the United States saw the launch and expansion of hundreds of colleges and universities that, to a very large degree, looked identical. Most had two 15-week semesters, offered “traditional” academic degrees and adhered to the expected standards assigned to “two-year” or “four-year” institutions. Yet college prestige was universally accepted as if it were chiseled into stone tablets.

With this backdrop, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which designed the original classification system, offered a taxonomy to differentiate colleges based not on their productivity, learning outcomes or innovation, but on their degree types, research intensity, resources and student populations. For 50 years this system has organized colleges in seemingly well-defined categories, effectively creating the expectation that colleges must fit such categories.

The problem is that today, those categories -- and the students they were meant to serve -- have gone the way of shag carpeting and the BlackBerry.

As with everything else in 2020, higher education was turned on its head. After the pandemic hit, students and faculty went home. Removed from the historical architecture and scholastic traditions that reinforced the rank-ordered classification system, students began to question whether their colleges were worth the price. Some even sued their colleges for charging full tuition for an online experience.

Once colleges and universities shifted to a universal instructional mode -- one that treats musty teaching traditions as a liability -- some students began to question their ready acceptance of higher ed hierarchy. This has added complexity and urgency to the need for new models.

And as students more openly consider a wider array of pathways, such as technical certificates and associate degrees that lead to high-demand jobs requiring specialized skills, increasingly, they ask, “What exactly are we getting for our money?”

All the while, employers complained about not finding the talent they need. Nearly three-quarters of employers told a 2019 Cengage survey that they were having trouble hiring qualified candidates.

In response, a group of colleges decided that, rather than adhere to the confines of the Carnegie classifications, they would try to serve as many students as possible without considering predetermined classifications. These class-busting, dual-mission institutions broke out of the two-year/four-year mold by factoring in prior learning, online course offerings and pathways that might range from six months to four years (or more) depending on students’ circumstances or a rapidly changing economy.

Today, an estimated 400 dual-mission colleges -- including many in Utah endorsed by state legislation, the Florida system of state colleges, a handful in Georgia, Colorado Mountain College and others -- offer technical certificates, applied programs and robust liberal arts degrees at all levels.

The timing is providential. As machines get smarter and smarter, the work of the future will be rooted in things that differentiate humans from machines: our intelligence, our drive and our values. To succeed in the future, workers will have to develop both their human traits -- including empathy, ethics and compassion -- and human capabilities such as creativity, problem solving, analysis and communication.

Teaching those skills and capabilities -- and combining them with the deep technical expertise gleaned from “traditional” higher education -- is what distinguishes dual-mission institutions.

At a recent national summit on dual-mission institutions, we were joined on a panel by a group of presidents who said that a key strength in the dual-mission approach was meeting today’s increasingly diverse students where they are. That’s especially important right now because these students -- adults, parents, workers, people of color and those from lower-income households -- rarely earn a “two-year” degree in two years or a “four-year” degree in four years -- underscoring dated nomenclature and structures designed decades ago for an entirely different student profile.

Summit participants agreed that, due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, U.S. higher education is at a pivotal moment -- and that the dual-mission approach has the nimbleness to respond.

One president shared a recent conversation with a faculty member, who said she was able to adjust to changes forced by the pandemic “because I’m used to teaching students from a variety of backgrounds who are juggling school with their lives.”

Several student speakers shared that dual-mission institutions are effective because they offer a welcoming environment and flexible experience. Those enrolling in entry-level or shorter programs can transition seamlessly into bachelor’s degree programs at the same institution, having seen their peers be supported and successful. Conversely, students pursuing bachelor’s degrees can easily pick up a specialized certificate or “reverse transfer” to earn an associate degree.

The moral of this story is that adaptation and innovation needn’t be confined to classifications determined 50 years ago. The pandemic has challenged nearly everything we once assumed true in our business, government and education systems.

Many colleges are struggling; some have failed. But others are adapting to students’ shifting needs and aspirations.

Whether we call them multimission, dual mission or just boldly nonconforming, these blended institutions may be the canary in the Carnegie system’s coal mine. They are the approach best able to reach the millions of Americans who will need more -- and different -- education for the work of the future.

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