It’s often remarked that talent is found uniformly across all demographics but that the opportunity to engage, develop, and use that talent is not. Education, similarly, is described as the great equalizer and yet the opportunity to even access education is not available to all.
Goals are repeatedly set to increase the percentage of our population that has a degree, but our structures and policies are often configured to keep out those who would gain the most from that very degree. The ability of higher ed to enhance the socio-economic well being of the individual and through them that of their families and the communities in which they live is often described as one of the biggest advantages of gaining degrees. Yet a huge and growing number of degree holders are saddled with crippling debt, and a large percentage of these have degrees that may not ever enable them to gain the successes that they were promised. Higher education is indeed at a crux with issues that have simmered for decades coming to the fore-front catalyzed by the pandemic which has not only exacerbated existing pressures but also highlighted critical aspects related to equity.
A number of these issues and their negative connotations, if not all, can be traced to the purpose of higher education set centuries ago focused on exclusivity and access to only the chosen few. While the scope and purpose of higher education may have evolved and the demographics of those seeking the opportunities of higher education have changed dramatically, the structures and mechanisms in place for access, progression, and success, have by and large not kept up. While it is not feasible to restart the entire system with a blank sheet of paper there are times, such as the one facing us today, where a true re-envisioning of structure, mechanisms, and purpose might well be possible. This in no way suggests that the entire system be disrupted and changed but rather that new options be added to address current and changing realities for the benefit of students, and society at large. In that vein, here are a few aspects for consideration as we look towards the development of higher ed for a post-COVID 21st century world.
1. Access: Irrespective of the historical aspects related to exclusivity, in the recent past access may well have been limited by space with the cost of opening new universities and sustaining them through economic changes being too high to substantially increase the number of students admitted to institutions of higher education. In addition, the need for geographical and physical co-location of the student, the faculty, and the institution created constraints on who could, and would, attend and teach. In turn these constraints led to metrics such as wealth, test scores, and others as a means of de-selecting from a large number of applicants, justifying this on the basis of “excellence” and “preparation,” creating artificial barriers for all others. However, the increasing sophistication, and successful use, of digital modalities of learning have significantly enhanced our ability to both reach, and teach, a much larger number of students. Through the use of a range of modalities from face-to-face (the traditional mode) to fully online immersive, and synchronous and asynchronous access, to the use of hybrid, hyflex, flipped, and other modalities, learning is now possible for a much larger number of students unconstrained by the physical infrastructure and footprint of a university/college. While there is undoubtedly great value to the social interaction that is made possible through the traditional 4-year residential mode, this was already not possible for an increasing population for reasons ranging from cost and location to family and work responsibilities. If we were, today, to design with a fresh sheet of paper, we might best posit it as a case of how the opportunity of higher education could effectively be brought to the student rather than the other way around. Thus, students would have a palette of options ranging from the traditional mode to that of fully immersed online learning with hybrids and combinations in between, including that of facilitated learning with the actual instruction being online with support being in a face-to-face mode at local centers in a manner that has been successfully demonstrated for years in S. America for rural populations. Multiple modes would exponentially increase the number of opportunities for higher education making access a question of desire and commitment on the part of the student rather than of the chances of birth, geography, or high school. The provision of multiple modes would provide greater equity for those who are unable to sync work and class schedules, have family obligations such as children or elderly parents, or have to travel as part of their work/career.
2. Progression Across Bounds of Governance: By and large our educational system from primary upwards was designed, inadvertently we hope, to create barriers for students wanting to progress forward. From the complexities of applications to the intricacies and vagaries of financial aid, the current structures and policies do more to obstruct students than to encourage them to continue. Even among institutions of higher education whether it be between a 2-year college and a 4-year college transfer of credit is still a largely unsolved issue. Rather than creating barriers shouldn’t progression from K-16, or even beyond, be automatic and seamless for those that demonstrate ability and competence? If we were, today, to design with a fresh sheet of paper, we might best posit it as an integrated system (at least the part visible to students) with multiple on and off-ramps, with their record of achievement – the transcript, belonging to them rather than being held (often for ransom) by institutions. A system whereby a student who meets a threshold is seamlessly provided options for continuing further, and even of taking a break, as might be required for family or economic purposes, would be much better than the current system. Further, as part of the integrated system pathways could be developed enabling both exploration and potential choice of career/discipline through the development of tracks and meta-majors with equivalencies and points of cross-over.
3. Structural Flexibility: While fixed, and single, start dates and terms of single length might have served a purpose in a largely residential mode for selects sets of the population in the past they are barriers to a more egalitarian mode of access to higher education. The flexibility afforded by multiple start dates enables students to meld their schedule of work and other responsibilities with academics rather than being constrained by a “miss one and you have wait an entire year to start” scenario. Similarly, traditional length semesters are also a barrier to progression and completion for some, and it is advantageous to implement shorter terms with multiple starts through the year (rather than just the traditional fall and spring), enabling working students to balance their needs and responsibilities, and decrease the “drop-out” phenomenon that is due more to the unpredictability of life than poor academic performance. Rather than impose artificial rigidity, a re-envisioned system might focus on the flexibility required by students, in place of the inflexibility which makes running student information systems and like back-office platforms easier. We must remember that the desire to have students undertake a “traditional” full-time curriculum competes with the realities of their lives—employment, family responsibilities and more, that cannot be placed on hold while the student completes a degree. The use of a carousel concept with shorter terms that would allow students to “jump on and off” their education as needed would enable them to take courses when possible, stop for a short period(s), and return. This model could allow students to balance work and life responsibilities with those of study and could also be advantageous for working professionals. Among other factors, this could help address shift changes which cause extreme difficulty in completing courses within a semester but can be accommodated with shorter terms that match the period of the work shift.
4. Competency Based Education: Our current educational system is largely predicated on credit being given only for aspects completed within the rigid confines of the institution rather than based on mastery of the topic at hand. Previous work experience, or knowledge gained elsewhere, is rarely accounted for in the progression towards a degree resulting in the inconceivable situation of a more experienced, but not degreed, individual having to sit in class to account for “time in seat” to get credit for a topic that they might actually have greater experience in, and competence, than the instructor. Rather than follow a rigid “time in seat” based academic model, a re-envisioned system of higher education might include greater use of competency-based evaluation for credit and use of national norms and standards for the equivalence of courses through career experiences. This would not only enable adults in the workforce returning to complete their education (or gain advanced degrees) to get credit for experience thereby increasing progression and degree completion but would also create greater opportunities for collaboration/partnership between corporate entities and higher education in sharing the instruction of students ensuring the appropriate combination of academic knowledge with skills mastered through “doing.” At one level this could even provide for greater levels of support for students through working side-by-side with attendance at an institution of higher education.
5. Degrees and credentials: While degrees have largely been the presumed sine qua non of opportunity and upward social mobility for decades, recent years have shown a dramatic incongruity in reports that recent graduates are unable to find jobs and that employers in turn cannot find people with the skills they needed even for entry-level jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree. Rapid changes in the workforce accelerated by automation and artificial intelligence potentially necessitating the reskilling and upskilling of substantial segments of the workforce, as well as the critical and growing need for specific skill sets, have created the need for alternate shorter-term credentials. To date, institutions of higher education have largely considered non-credit and non-degree offerings as distinct aspects of their function. However, the future lies in dissemination of knowledge over a continuum, through a range of offerings from single modules that can be earned separately, through certificates and credentials that are stand-alone and can be stacked, to the traditional degree. This also raises the issue of the length of a degree in terms of whether the duration is based on the time needed to acquire and master relevant knowledge and skills or if the current structure is based on an arbitrary, or age-old, consequence of “time in seat.” In a re-envisioned higher education structure offerings would not be restricted to degrees but rather learners would be able to avail of knowledge on demand getting as much or as little (within reasonable bounds) in a personalized model with modules, credentials and degrees being afforded the same level of accord having been designed based on the mastery of a topic or set of topics rather than an arbitrary period of time. In addition to increasing access and enabling true life-long learning this could potentially also decrease the cost of gaining adequate knowledge and skills for a specific purpose ensuring that education was more affordable.
6. Cost and Financial Aid: While the attainment of a degree is widely touted as a means of social mobility, the cost of the very same degree precludes large percentages of the eligible population from attaining the milestone. Similarly, while the reasons for the dramatic increase in tuition at public universities over the past two decades can be argued, the extent of the increase and the growing gap between the level of scholarships and grants and the amount that has to be paid by the student is not debatable. The extent covered by Pell grants, despite minor increases in recent years, has also decreased and the complicated and arcane rules associated with the FAFSA make financial aid not only an increasingly small part of the actual cost of attendance for those who need it most but also more difficult to obtain. An increasing number of students have critical needs insecurities ranging from homelessness to lack of food and support for children. If we are to re-envision the future of higher ed this has to be an aspect of considerable thought not just in terms of true value of a degree but also its affordability and its worth as a ladder of social mobility for those who need it the most and at the scale that is needed. This will require much more than tweaking at the edges and the addition of new mechanisms for loans (which actually need to be discouraged), but rather the development of policies that address the demographics of today rather than those of 50 years ago, as well as the realities of an increasing number who are balancing family and work responsibilities along with their dreams of completing a degree. The ability to merge apprenticeships, internships and work into the degree plan with credit for work completed and experiences attained will need to be studied as will the issue of decreasing tuition so that the ability to afford, or the willingness to go into debt, do not become the new metrics of maintaining elitism in higher education.
7. The Connected Campus: So far institutions of higher education have largely been defined by their campuses in that the focus of community and identity has been built on the concept of physical space. This has advantages related to social engagement when the population is largely residential but is constrained by the same factors as related to size, extent of reach, and even impact. While substantial efforts have been made through the use of specialized building design, implementation of smart networks and the integration of platforms the campus is still the focus rather than the student or the faculty member. In re-envisioning higher education for the future one needs to also consider the concept of a truly connected campus – one where students and faculty rather than physical infrastructure are at the center and are linked through smart networks and platforms enabling a campus to now be defined by global connections and linkages. Student enrollment would no longer be constrained by space since all modalities of offerings including fully online could be implemented by design and even physical infrastructure would be used more efficiently through a better designed set of schedules that used the space almost 24/7/365 through multiple starts, different term lengths, and even online learning across very different global time zones. Without the requirement for physical geographical colocation of students and faculty, the faculty could also be dispersed across the globe enabling the very best to be aggregated for the purposes of a degree/credential providing both unique experiences to students as well as well as personalization of curricula leading to a credential/degree. In addition this allows for the recruitment of the very best faculty since location is no longer a constraint and links students, at scale, with faculty, globally. The use of such a model in conjunction with consortia of institutions that share resources such as courses, decreasing duplication and increasing access and extent of offerings to students could totally revolutionize higher education making it not only more egalitarian, but also lower cost, and with a higher degree of personalization.
Despite tremendous changes and disruptions in the world around it, including in the demographics of students now attending universities, higher education has largely not changed from its early 20th century model, emphasizing a one-size-fits-all approach that has led not just to an increase in the number of institutions in financial jeopardy but also increasing debate as to the value of a degree, and to some extent of the institution of traditional higher education itself, and the ability of higher education institutions to adequately prepare graduates for employment and success in a world with an increasing convergence of information and technology. The traditional system built on teaching and uniformity with the length of degrees defined effectively by “time in seat” rather than by learning, personalization, and time taken to demonstrate competency may be ill suited for the 21st century. While there are numerous efforts being made to modify higher education most are focused on minor changes and tweaks around the edges which will not in general address the growing need for great equity of access and opportunity to succeed, more flexibility in meeting the life realities of potential learners, and their needs for both greater flexibility in modalities of acquiring knowledge and in connecting through their careers based on specific knowledge needed rather than on degrees. If we are to enable a more egalitarian model of making knowledge available to all those who desire it, irrespective of their socio-economic background, and as and when they need it, higher education must obliterate the barriers of time, space, and location and truly re-envision its offerings and structure putting the learner, and the faculty, rather than infrastructure at its center. It must further integrate humanistic skills with disciplinary specialties and bring closer the liberal arts with STEM rather than separating them or considering them as distinct parts of an educational experience. This does not mean that the current higher education system is not meeting its mission. Rather it reflects a need for re-envisioning options and offerings to enhance the ability of higher ed to meet the needs of the present and the future by adding new models, institutions, and modalities with the goal of enhancing equity not just in access but also in enabling success in life through the power of education.
Vistasp M. Karbhari is a Professor in the Departments of Civil Engineering, and Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he served as President from 2013-2020. He is Fellow of Complete College America, and can be followed on Twitter at @VistaspKarbhari and on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/vistaspmkarbhari