Re-imagining Higher Education to Better Serve Students

By Linda Baglia -

In March 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic upended life as we knew it. As the months passed and lockdowns dragged out, businesses began to shutter and schools went fully online. Fundamental shifts in the way we think about education and work rapidly occurred. People started to question a return to the traditional ways of doing things, including in higher education.

With the fall semester now underway, students and parents are beginning to wonder if expensive tuition and fees are really worth it, especially if students are receiving most or all of their learning online. Some are even questioning whether or not to enroll in college at all. Low-income students are dropping out of college in huge numbers. The only thing certain is the uncertainty.

Students are now facing a number of looming unanswered questions. For example, if businesses can’t safely reopen, how will working students pay for their studies? If K-12 schools can’t safely reopen how will adult students manage work and childcare? Whether we’re talking about first-time college-goers, or adults returning to college for new skills and degrees, these issues have real urgency. Not many Americans are in the position to incur mountains of student debt when unemployment is so high and the trajectory of the pandemic is so unclear.

What is clear, however, is data that show postsecondary education still matters. Those with only a high school diploma earn less than those with a college degree or other postsecondary credential, and many simply don’t have the necessary skills that employers need. Matthew J. Daniel, business consultant at Guild Education, says that “47 percent of total U.S. employment is at risk of being entirely automated, primarily among low-paid workers”, while “more than 88 million working adults need upskilling or reskilling, and 64 million of them don’t have a postsecondary degree.” We are in emergency territory.

Fortunately, employers recognize this and are working to proactively address the problem. For example, Google recently announced  “Google Career Certificates,” a new initiative that allows workers to re-skill for high demand jobs in approximately six months. Kent Walker, senior vice president of global affairs at Google, said the program specifically targets those who have not been well served by higher education, either because of the high costs or the time it takes to complete a degree — and was designed “to help America recover and rebuild.”

The fact is the business sector will adapt quickly to the changing landscape and implement initiatives that efficiently meet their goals. Compare this to the glacial pace of change in higher education — Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) and Competency-Based Education (CBE) have been around for decades and offer equitable, streamlined options for students to earn degrees quickly and at a lower cost. Unfortunately, higher education has been slow to adopt policies that ensure students earn credits for skills and learning already acquired. For example, though most higher education systems have PLA policies on the books, very few require institutions to accept the credits. As a result, policies vary wildly and students are often left guessing whether their earned credits will be applied to their degree. This practice can’t be viewed as anything other than institution-centered, rather than student-centered, and runs contrary to the goal of equitable degree completion.

One striking effect of the pandemic, however, is that it accelerated the pace at which higher education embraced online learning as a viable method of high-quality instructional delivery. Now, it’s time for a similar, coordinated strategy on degree completion. Higher education should take a page from the business world and re-imagine a model that’s more equitable, embraces the non-traditional student and recognizes all forms of learning as valid and credit-worthy. Students and employers are not going to wait for higher education to catch up. If the Google initiative proves to be successful, many similar programs will spring up fast-tracking workers into good-paying jobs. Higher education will undoubtedly feel the sting of declining enrollments and increased competition for revenue. The reality is a whole new generation of learners is coming of age. They are unafraid of technology, accustomed to the rapid pace of change and unwedded to traditional ideas of education. Higher education will have to better serve their needs to hold their business.

COVID-19 has put us at a crossroads. States and institutions need to develop innovative and equity-focused solutions now to guide students and help them prepare for a very uncertain future. They should start by rethinking what higher education can be to better serve more students. We have an opportunity at this moment to make fundamental changes to inequitable, broken systems, and to re-imagine what a 21st Century education looks like. Higher education serves our nation’s greater good and should be equitable and accessible to all. Innovative, responsive solutions that keep student needs at the center and streamline pathways to degree completion will ensure a prosperous future for all of us.

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