Is the higher education system in the United States meeting the economic and societal needs of the country in the 21st century? The panelists at New America’s event “The Most Innovative People in Higher Education,” held last week in Washington, would probably say no.
It was generally agreed that the higher education system is not producing enough graduates. Those that do graduate might not be able to secure a job that enables them to pay down the debt that they have been left with. And they might not graduate with the skills they are going to need to be successful.
And there are more issues, according to this group, like:
- There’s a lot of bad administration
- First generation students, minority students and students from low-income families don’t get the help they need.
- The funding model is unsustainable.
- Most colleges operate according to tradition and are resistant to change.
One of the panelists, Bridget Burns of University Innovation Alliance, commented “Any ranking (of colleges) that is focusing on exclusivity is focusing on something that is the opposite of what America needs in the future.”
Georgia Tech professor Charles Isbell addressed the issue of exclusivity vs. accessibility in describing his school’s Online Masters in Computer Science degree program. The courses cost $6,600 for the full degree program, compared to about $42,000 for the on campus equivalent. 12,000 have applied for the program since 2013 and 55% have been accepted. The on campus acceptance rate, according to Isbell, is 10%. That’s not because only 10% are qualified but because of the limits of the on-campus capacity.
By contrast Stanford accepted only 4% of its applicants. Isbell commented that the goal of the Georgia Tech program is to “accept anyone who can succeed.” The program also addresses the need for flexible mid-career training. The average age of the students is 35, 11 years older than the average age for the on-campus equivalent.
Amy Laitinen of New America discussed competency based education, schools that award degrees based upon what you know rather than how many credit hours you’ve accumulated. While the traditional approach of colleges is to treat students as if they all know the same thing, the competency based approach credits the student for what he or she already knows. Often done in conjunction with an employer, competency based programs are more flexible and more affordable, according to Laitinen. She cited Southern New Hampshire University as a good example of an institution offering this type of approach.
Burns is part of a group of colleges that have taken a collaborative approach to achieving their educational goals. The ten participating colleges includes Arizona State University, which she described as the most innovative school in the country, and others like Georgia State, Texas, Ohio State and Kansas. As a group they set a goal over the next ten years of awarding 68,000 more degrees than had been expected and of having half of those additional degrees awarded to students from low-income backgrounds. According the Burns, the Alliance is at this point exceeding those goals.
These examples, according to this group, provide evidence while it may have been a long time in coming, innovation is beginning to take hold in the world of higher education. But there is some catching up to do.
New America is a Washington based think tank focusing on public policy and technology. The innovation in higher education discussion can be viewed online here.