Colleges Must Fix All of Society’s Ills – Or Else! (Part 3)

Either we change, or a number of universities will not be with us five years from now

Two weeks ago, I presented a list of 10 expectations, predictions and suggestions relating to higher education that have received extensive media coverage in recent months. A week ago, in Part 2 of this topic, I selected three related topics from that list, and offered an opinion about what higher education can do to address them, and what is beyond our capabilities.

This week, I’d like to select another three items from my original list of 10 for more detailed analysis and comment. These include items number 3, 4 and 6. They are, respectively:

  • Higher education is hidebound;
  • Higher education is going broke; and
  • Large numbers of colleges will go out of business – unless…

Well, is higher education hidebound? Are we hopelessly mired in the past, unwilling to examine, let alone adopt, new ways of thinking about teaching and learning?

As with many things, the answer to these questions is somewhere in the fuzzy middle. On the one hand, over the past 20 years, colleges and universities have accepted the need to find new ways of validating student learning beyond merely certifying that the students have received passing grades in a series of individual courses. Defining and verifying “learning outcomes” has slowly but steadily become standard operating procedure on most campuses (84 percent of colleges now have common learning goals for their students, up 10 percent over the past four years, according to survey results published in Inside Higher Ed on January 21). This is a very significant (and positive) change.

Moreover, during those same two decades, higher education has slowly embraced technology. “Blended courses” (courses with both face-to-face and online components) have become commonplace, and whole programs of study are now available entirely online.

But politicians are seeking change at a far more aggressive rate (“U.S. Seeks Experiments on New Models of Higher Ed,” Inside Higher Ed, Dec. 5, 2013; “White House Science Council Recommends U.S., Accreditors Support MOOCs,” Inside Higher Ed, Dec. 19, 2013). Almost overnight, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) became the darlings of the “change everything” movement. They were inexpensive, dynamic, clearly the wave of the future – except they really don’t work very well for traditional-age students. Education leaders in California have backed away from them very explicitly, after a failed experiment at San Jose State University (“California University Leaders Now Skeptical on Online Solutions,” Inside Higher Ed, Dec. 16, 2013).

The “I-told-you-so” chorus has been in full voice ever since.

On the other hand, the notion of competency-based education, wherein college credit would be granted when a student demonstrates that she has mastered a defined set of skills and capabilities, is gaining traction as a logical outgrowth of the development of learning outcomes. Why should college credit be based on seat time, which is at best a surrogate measure of learning, when it could be based on a demonstration of actual learning?

This idea is a game-changer. To be sure, it would seem to pose a threat to those who are true believers in the inherent value of the traditional lecture. In the competency-based model, faculty would oversee the learning process, and would authenticate that learning had occurred, but would no longer be the primary source of information for the students.

However, whether or not everyone in the academy accepts it, competency-based education is almost surely coming (“Two Democrats Plan Legislation to Promote Competency-Based Ed and Rate Colleges,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 22, 2013; “Lumina-Funded Group Seeks to Lead Conversation on Competency-Based Education,” Inside Higher Ed, Dec. 12, 2013).

And in my view, this is a good thing – especially for adult learners, many of whom could immediately demonstrate a variety of learning competencies, be given college credit as a consequence, and find that receiving a degree would require significantly less time than would be true under the traditional seat-time model.

There’s another benefit as well. There is a huge potential market for higher education in furthering the education of working adults. In my state of Rhode Island, there are an estimated 80,000 adults (that’s eight percent of the entire population of the state) with some college credits, but less than a baccalaureate. Many of these people would love to have the letters “B.A.” or “B.S.” after their name – but how can they find the time (not to say the money) to go back to college? Competency-based education would be ideal for many of them – and it would open up an almost entirely new market for colleges and universities at a time when the traditional market of high school graduates is shrinking.

Many colleges are finding balancing their budgets to be a growing challenge (“Ivy League Budget Deficits Prompt Harvard, Yale to Seek Cuts,” Bloomberg, Dec. 12, 2013; “Survey Suggests Colleges Aren’t Ready for New Higher-Education Landscape,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 6, 2013). A new market might be just the ticket to a balanced operating budget – and there’s nothing like a budget shortfall to engender a willingness to experiment with new educational models.

But are colleges and universities really in danger of closing if they fail to adopt a new business model? Many people inside and outside of higher education think so. One commentator likens traditional bricks-and-mortar higher education to Blockbuster, Tower Records, Circuit City and Borders – retailers that are either closed or fading rapidly (“Colleges Can Still Save Themselves. Here’s How,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 6, 2013).

Another recent article provides a series of examples of colleges that are in serious financial trouble, primarily because of declining enrollments (“Private Colleges Remain Under the Weather,” Inside Higher Ed, Dec. 9, 2013). The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 11, 2013) quotes a senior official at a private university as saying, “I think it’s fair to say 30 percent of these private schools won’t exist in a decade.” The same article noted that Moody’s Investors Service found that the number of private colleges and universities at which revenue was not keeping pace with inflation had tripled, to 35 percent, in just three years.

So where are we? Will higher education as we know it in this country undergo very significant change?

I think either that we change – by working to become more affordable with more clearly defined learning outcomes; by integrating technology more completely into our teaching and learning process; by opening up new markets through the use of competency-based education – or a significant number of colleges and universities, many with long and distinguished histories, will not be with us five years from now. Economic forces caused dozens of colleges to close in the years before the Civil War, and again at the beginning of the 20th century. It can happen once more, if we are overly resistant to change.

Next week: Part 4.