Published on 2015/12/11

Navigating the CBE Frontier: At the Educational Crossroads

The EvoLLLution | Navigating the CBE Frontier: At the Educational Crossroads
Given the size of today’s non-traditional student demographic, institutions and regulatory bodies need to find ways to ensure postsecondary programming can be packaged and delivered in such a way that meets their unique needs, rather than trying to push these students into the traditional model.

We are at a crossroads in American higher education.

We need more people who have postsecondary education, yet our institutions of higher ed are not organized to meet that need. The American Council of Education finds that only 15 percent of those seeking higher education are traditional students, and the majority are adults who are already fully engaged in their professional and personal lives outside of an institution of higher education.[1] And yet most models of higher education, and the regulatory structures that support them, haven’t changed in centuries and continue to assume that students live and learn like traditional 18- to 24-year-old full-time students. Our misconceptions about who we’re serving are so pervasive that even with colleagues who are interested in new educational models and methods, it’s all too easy to fall back on a picture of traditional-age, full-time college student as the primary “customer” for higher ed.

In this post, I want to share a few data points to help move this conversation forward. We are at a crossroads in terms of what the nation truly needs versus what higher education is providing in terms of accessible, high-quality, affordable educational programs to a more diverse population of students with vastly different needs. CBE stands at that crossroads as a model that can respond to the changing needs of the population seeking high-quality higher education. And at the same time, CBE needs to be designed correctly in order to better meet the needs of the country and its citizens for quality higher education.

First, the need for citizens with postsecondary education could not be higher. From the White House to the Lumina Foundation, national calls are for 60 percent of the U.S. population to have a postsecondary degree by the year 2025. Currently, just 41 percent of the population has such a degree. This means we need to increase the number of graduates by about 20 percent, or almost 64 million more U.S. citizens, in the next ten years. Given that about 18 million people in the entire U.S. are seeking any kind of post-secondary education now,and the average graduation rate is less than 50 percent in six years, we simply can’t “get there” for the U.S. population to reach 60 percent with college degrees in ten years if we don’t attract more students and expand the variety of educational models that we offer people.[2]

Second, most students seeking higher education, by far, are “non-traditional” “degree completers:” adults 25 years and older, with some college and no degree, working part or full time, often with family.[3] In my state of Wisconsin, recent census data indicate that 21 percent of our state (or over 800,000 adults) fits this description. Contrast that with the fact that Wisconsin only has about 60,000 college students who are “traditional” (18 to 24, attending full time, and living in or around a university).[4]

And third, models of higher education have remained stable for centuries. This picture of a 13th-century University of Bologna classroom is immediately recognizable, from the professor lecturing at the front of a densely packed hall, to the students goofing off in the back.

The regulatory environment that supports higher education, too, continues to assume a traditional-age student who attends traditional institutions of higher education. Think about how the federal government (through IPEDS) rewards institutions when their students all attend full time and enroll continuously until graduation. This is despite decades-old evidence showing that most students mix and match educational institutions, stopping out and restarting in order to fit education around their personal and professional lives.[5] As another example, consider that Title IV federal financial aid regulations require that all students are treated the same, whether that student is an 18-year-old living on campus or a 38-year-old single parent working full time. The assumption is that all students, if given enough aid and support, will want to attend an institution full time until they graduate with their degree. Neither IPEDS or Title IV provide regulatory allowances for age, life circumstances, educational aspirations, or educational pathways.[6] In addition to developing different, and more flexible, educational programs for non-traditional students, doesn’t it make sense to create a new regulatory environment to support these different educational programs on their own terms, thereby supporting non-traditional students on their own terms?

I can give one last example, a personal one, illustrating how easy it is to fall back on the assumption that education for all students can be implicitly based on what’s best for traditional-aged, residential students. One of the hallmarks of quality higher education is ample opportunity for collaborative problem solving, particularly with others different from oneself.[7] I spent most of my scholarly and practitioner life studying and developing learning communities—immersive and integrated living and learning environments that bring together students and faculty for collaborative learning, growth, and development.[8] I’m a true believer in the power of learning communities to transform lives, and I’ve spent considerable time and energy working with colleges and universities to figure out how to apply them to all their students.

Yet learning communities, per se, are only the vehicle for collaborative learning and collaborative problem solving. As transformative as they are, they work when the student is traditional in age (or at least in that developmental stage). The learning community model assumes that students can be immersed in an educational environment that challenges and supports them, and wants to be surrounded by faculty and peers who are pursuing similar educational pursuits. And yet, as transformative as learning communities are, I’m no longer sure that this educational model is right for the majority of students who are seeking higher education.

Does it really make sense to expect, even implicitly, that a person already engaged in work and family should step out of that life in order to participate in an institution-based learning community? Instead, shouldn’t we be asking how to provide educational experiences that foster collaborative learning, supporting growth and development, to people who are already fully engaged in their lives outside of an educational institution? The question is not how to help an adult student engage in a university-designed learning community; it’s how institutions can help students incorporate quality educational experiences and opportunities into their existing lives.

Adult learners need multiple opportunities to earn degrees, including educational models that differ greatly from traditional college programs.[9] They need new models that are structured around the entire 12-month calendar, where one can start and stop without penalty, and quickly move forward when mastery over material is demonstrated. We need to make use of new technologies and the latest in the science of learning to allow students to integrate their education into existing lives and careers.

In short, to educate the population that is currently not served well by our traditional institutions of higher education, we need new models and methods that allow education to fit the interests, motivations and lives of our adult learners, not ask them to fit their lives into an educational system geared to 18- to 24-year-old full-time students.

This is the promise of CBE. It starts with the assumption that students are already engaged with their lives, and the best CBE programs, in fact, will build from there. It starts with structural elements that put student learning at the center, focusing on the type of students who now seek higher education rather than who used to. The best CBE programs will design competencies that articulate the skills and abilities needed by productive citizens, and evaluate mastery of those competencies through assessments that blend seamlessly into students work and family.

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Footnotes and References

[1] Louis Soares, “Post-traditional Learners and the Transformation of Postsecondary Education: A Manifesto for College Leaders,” American Council on Education. January 2013. Accessed at

[2] “The Condition of Education: Undergraduate Enrollment,” National Center for Education Statistics. Updated May 2015. Accessed at

[3] Soares, 2013

[4] “Educational Attainment: 2009-2013 American Community Survey Five-Year Estimates,” American FactFinder, United States Cencus Bureau. Accessed at

[5] Jeffrey Selingo, “The New, Nonlinear Path Through College,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 30, 2013. Accessed at

[6] In fact, regulations expressly forbid Title IV financial aid for students who pursue their education by “mixing and matching” their educational delivery methods. The Department of Education’s current call for experimental site applications may offer some remedy to a limited number of students and post-secondary institutions.

[7] George D. Kuh and Ken O’ Donnell. 2013. Ensuring Quality and Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale. (AAC&U: Washington, DC).

[8] Aaron M. Brower and Karen Kurotsuchi, “Living-Learning Programs: One High-Impact Educational Practice We Now Know a Lot About,” Liberal Education, Spring 2010 Issue, 96(2), 36-43. Accessible at

[9] Closing the Degree Completion Gap: Challenges and Opportunities, Eduventures, May 2014.

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Readers Comments

Joyce Nelson 2015/12/11 at 9:12 am

Those are some pretty big discrepancies in the numbers of students we’re trying to attract and the number of students currently pursuing higher education. It actually makes for one of the more convincing arguments I’ve heard for overhauling the system. There’s clearly no other way to bridge the gap between 18 million and 64 million.

    Aaron Brower 2015/12/18 at 12:40 pm

    When I worked those numbers, I too was surprised to see how large that discrepancy was. We have our work cut out for us, don’t we.

Catherine Cook 2015/12/11 at 2:21 pm

The regulatory bodies piece of this is so important, because if they don’t keep up and reflect the realities of the higher education space we’re moving into, no amount of innovation on the part of educators and administrators is going to be able to effect the kind of sweeping change we need to see.

    Aaron Brower 2015/12/18 at 12:43 pm

    Some of us were working with our federal legislators on this year’s end-of-year omnibus bill to modify language in the current HEA that would have helped make Title IV regulations a bit more flexible. They weren’t able to get that language inserted. Instead, there will be some new legislation proposed in the first part of the coming year. I will try to blog about it as I hear more.

Kyle Peck 2015/12/14 at 3:22 pm

Thanks, Dr. Brower for this great summary. My favorite statement (of many): “The question is not how to help an adult student engage in a university-designed learning community; it’s how institutions can help students incorporate quality educational experiences and opportunities into their existing lives.” Absolutely. Thanks for the pioneering work that you and UW Extension are doing.

    Aaron Brower 2015/12/18 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks for your kind words!

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