Envisioning the Higher Ed We’ve Always Needed and How the COVID-19 Pandemic Catalyzed ItVistasp Karbhari | Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, The University of Texas at Arlington
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher ed was already facing multiple criticisms regarding affordability and debt levels, lack of true accessibility for the very constituents it is supposed to support, and the less than desirable change of pace in preparing students for the 21st century workforce, especially in light of the continued rapid convergence of technology and information. The COVID-19 pandemic brought additional challenges but also further exposed weaknesses and opportunities. Higher ed is currently well-positioned to re-envision its structure and to reinvigorate how it meets educational needs and the knowledge enterprise for the 21st century.
There is no doubt that the pandemic and its aftermath will cause change. Certain barriers have been lowered because of the pandemic, and some changes that were rolled out at a very slow pace over the past decade have now been accelerated. The big questions are whether academia will focus on change that is needed, whether it will use that change to rebuild the socio-economic environment and strengthen its position as a leader, or whether it largely will slip back into a mode of self-preservation, forcing change to be impressed upon it through outside forces.
Through its history, American higher education has proven itself to be resilient, addressing the challenges of the moment and re-building itself stronger after experiencing significant events. The Morrill Act of 1862 passed during the Civil War served as the catalyst for making public higher education widely available for the first time across the nation. The GI Bill transformed campuses, democratizing and expanding the opportunities for higher education to help rebuild the nation after World War II. The launch of Sputnik resulted in the passing of the National Defense Education Act in 1958, emphasizing the nation’s need for scientific and technical education through increased funding for universities and the provision of low-interest loans for college students.
The tremendous economic challenges of the 1970s led to the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, fundamentally changing universities’ role in innovation and technology transfer. This act lead to a boost in university research and licensing, forever changing the relationship between academia and corporate America. Each phase of challenge has been met with critical innovations that often upend previous wisdom and always enable higher ed to respond to the need of the hour, showing resilience and flexibility. This pandemic provides yet another opportunity for education to reinvent itself, and in doing so, sharpen its mission of serving the nation.
There are many ways that academia might modify operations or change its structure, and each will have its proponents and distractors. Here are eight concepts–none entirely new–a number of which have been implemented only in limited measure, or at a few select institutions, with greater acceptance and use being constrained either due to concern of upsetting the status quo or to the measure being considered too radical a change. Each of these could significantly elevate higher ed, ensuring greater access, more equity, a higher focus on the consumer (the student), greater emphasis on cost-effectiveness through partnerships and synergy, and a renewed role of academic leadership in developing the future of the workforce rather than just playing a secondary role in educating the workforce of the future.
Increase collaboration and sharing resources between institutions
Academia has largely focused on building in isolation, believing that every institution must necessarily offer its own courses and programs, duplicating resources and offerings, even when the demand is low. In part, this move was justified by the need for faculty to be geographically co-located with students under the traditional mode of classroom instruction. The transition to remote instruction as a result of the pandemic, with all its frailties and disadvantages, has shown that we can indeed share resources. It should thus be possible to leverage teaching resources and expertise across groups of institutions (and indeed globally) without the necessity of duplicating every academic subdiscipline and area through individual faculty at each university. The very best individuals across a university system, region, or consortium could be assembled to teach courses within a program.
Imagine the power of being able to learn from the very best talent from Arlington, TX., one day, New Delhi, India the next, and Sydney, Australia on the third—all while sitting together in a classroom, or individually at a desk, or on a couch in another city thousands of miles away. In like vein, we could have access to talent pools for specific non-instructional functions without having to relocate personnel, thereby sharing expertise and specialized talent across groups of institutions. It should be emphasized that this should not be used as a means for minimizing the excellence at each institution but rather as a means of using synergy to build pillars of excellence across the nation through synergy and partnerships, dissuading the continuation of an arms race for talent that has most often left the student by the wayside.
Recognizing prior experiences for degree progression
Non-traditional students, especially those returning to universities for their first degrees, bring a wealth of experience and are especially frustrated at having to take courses in areas wherein they already demonstrated extensive mastery of material through work experiences. The use of prior learning assessments and acceptance of competency-based education are not only effective at enabling greater progression towards degrees in areas of high need without reducing standards but are also essential to reduce the frustration of highly experienced students at having to waste time going over materials they already grasp, especially when courses are largely taught by inexperienced faculty or teaching assistants.
In any event, it is high time that the antiquated concept of “time in seat” as a unit of competency assessment is rejected by academia. We need to remember that the credit hour was not developed as a means of assessing quality or extent of knowledge gained but to rather implement a pension plan for underpaid professors. It is an anachronism whose disconnect from actual results as related to learning was debated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement for Teaching in 1906, soon after it was introduced.
Combining academic knowledge with skills development
In today’s global economy, the intersection of knowledge and skills, the balance between the development of a “learned citizen” and the development of skill that ensures that a student is career- and workforce-ready in a highly competitive and evolving job market are critical. Higher ed cannot simply draw a line at the development of “vocational skills” and consider the concept of preparation for the workforce as being nonacademic.
There is a need for substantially greater articulation and alignment between the teaching of academic knowledge and the focus on attaining qualifications, credentials and training that prepares graduates for the workforce and/or to be entrepreneurs creating new economic wealth and sustainability. Simultaneously, there is a greater need than ever before for a much better integration of technology awareness and competence with the precepts of a traditional liberal education across the curriculum. As Peter McPherson remarked, “The debate over broad education vs employment readiness offers a false choice.” These aspects need not be in conflict, and today, we need to ensure that we weave them into each other. 
Rather than separate the aspects–disciplinary skills, a liberal educational core and talent development, as isolated parts of an college experience, these need to be integrated, woven together into our fabric, ensuring that every student is not only prepared academically but also prepared to join (or develop, as in the case of entrepreneurs) the workforce as an immediately productive member. In a world driven by convergence, there is greater need than ever for each student to be grounded in the arts, humanities and social sciences. We owe it to our students to break down the barriers to make this happen.
Enabling multiple modes of accessing knowledge and enabling learning
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a sea-change for a majority of academia, moving from traditional classroom-bound face-to-face instruction to “remote learning.” While the transition and ensuing results were far from perfect–and in a large number of cases represent a mode of “remote delivery” rather than true “online learning,” which includes precepts of adaptive and individualized learning–the transition almost overnight broke down the previous psychological and at times, visceral, objections to online instruction.
While this in no way should be construed as decreasing the value of face-to-face learning and the advantages of traditional group-based interaction, the transition does provide mechanisms for academia to enable greater access to knowledge by opening up different modalities of instruction that address populations from a diverse range of backgrounds and learning styles. Ranging from full immersion both in the traditional mode and through digital means, these would include (a) the traditional mode of face-to-face instruction, (b) synchronous instruction enabling those unable to attend the in-class lecture to attend remotely while taking part in the discussion and being an integral part of the cohort, (c) an asynchronous mode that is augmented by virtual chat rooms and interactions, (d) a true online digital-based mode that ensures adaptive learning supplemented by interaction with the instructor, (e) a blended mode that combines the best of face-to-face and online instruction in the realm of “flipped” classrooms and executive education, and (f) modifications and combinations of the aforementioned. These points would ensure that all those who desire knowledge and the benefits of higher ed instruction could receive them without being restricted by the constraints of time, space and location.
Expansion in this way–in a post-COVID-19 environment–would greatly increase access (perhaps at lower overhead cost) decrease the inequity and barriers to access inherent the traditional mode, address the needs of various learning styles more effectively, ensure greater focus on public universities’ mission towards the communities they serve, enable better integration of effort across the pathways students take to gain a degree and/or the knowledge they need to move ahead on their chosen paths, and enable those unable to attend university in the traditional form to have the opportunity to gain from the promise of higher education. If it commits to this goal, academia would unprecedentedly fulfill its role for traditional and non-traditional students alike. Increasingly, the term “non-traditional” is misleading since a significant and growing population of students now belong to that category.
Re-envisioning terms and the school year
The idea of a single cohort in which all students start together as freshmen is as antiquated a concept as is our almost fanatical adherence to the agrarian calendar as a rationale for rigid terms. Neither meets today’s realities or needs, and we need to re-envision both, making it possible for knowledge to be provided in a continuum and meeting the consumer’s (student’s) needs. Rather than structuring a year of education into two semesters, which, at 15 weeks could well be a barrier to progression and completion for some students, it might be better to consider shorter terms (such as those already used in winter and summer sessions at most institutions) with multiple starts through the year (rather than just the traditional fall and spring), enabling working students to balance their needs and responsibilities, and perhaps decrease the “drop-out” phenomenon that is more due to the unpredictability of life more than poor academic performance.
We must remember that our 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 that would allow students to “jump on and off” their education as needed enables them to take courses over an indeterminate period of time, stop for a short period(s) and return. This model allows students to balance work and life responsibilities with those of study and has been proven to be advantageous for working professionals taking online courses. Among other factors, this helps 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.
In addition to ensuring that access would be enhanced, especially with technology and digital delivery, the expansion of choices of term length and periods of study would increase the effective use of infrastructure through the entire year rather than in select periods, as is the current case. This is no way suggests that more resources will not be needed to assure appropriate implementation and an equivalent, or even higher, level of interaction between faculty and students, nor should it be taken to suggest that face-to-face instruction should be decreased. Rather, these options should be used to address and alleviate inequities and barriers to education that exist today.
Modularizing delivery and increasing individualized curricula
The increased use of digital technology and precepts of adaptive learning/teaching could enable students to progress at their own pace (within broad guidelines) and based on the knowledge and skills they bring to each aspect of the curriculum. We need to modularize our offerings to create a flexible and personalized learning experience. All of us have heard of the mythic brilliant student who dropped out because of boredom and a too-slow learning pace as well as the student who had great difficulty progressing just because they needed a bit more attention to catch up. In today’s world, faculty no longer need to teach for the “lowest common denominator” losing many students outside that group in the process.
Instead, we need to modularize our offerings to both provide equity of opportunity and pace as well as “knowledge in a package.” This way, students get to learn at their individual levels of comprehension. Certifications and stackable degrees can no longer be dreams. They need to be embraced and implemented, building in professional certifications along the way so that students gain both academic knowledge and professional credibility. These certifications and micro-credentials could also serve as a way for students to re-enter or advance in the workforce while they learn rather than being confined to a degree’s time structure and therefore unable to manage outside responsibilities. This not only creates many more affordable educational opportunities but also ensures that students with outside responsibilities can “stop out” and gain from the credentials/certifications awarded up to that point. Students can progress in their careers and return to their education at a later date.
Increasing synergy with the “real” world through transformational experiences and a commitment to a true knowledge continuum
Internships and co-ops have proven to be invaluable for students. They gain exposure to work environments while studying. These experiences not only introduce students to the intricacies of their intended professions but also fosters a bond between them their future employers. It is essential that academia substantially increase these opportunities for their students, so they can all gain from multiple work opportunities during their education. After all, these are not just transformational experiences but also a way to defray a portion of the cost of education and, as a result, decrease debt. This goal can only be achieved through the development of special agreements and compacts between institutions of higher education and companies from the corporate and non-profit sectors, with the latter taking on partial responsibility for the education of their future employees arrangements and playing a bigger role in updating curricula.
The development of courses that integrate mini-internships into the curriculum would be an important facet as well. Just as the corporate and non-profit sectors needs to join in this new knowledge enterprise, academia needs to re-envision its compact with students and society, enabling knowledge transfer through life experience rather than degrees serving as the sole forum for re-skilling and up-skilling, even after graduation. This would require new interaction and coordination mechanisms, blending aspects of continuing and professional education with academic enterprise. Consider the power alumni not only returning to their alma mater for an advanced degree but also seamlessly (i.e. without the barriers of applications for advanced post-graduate courses) gaining from courses or modules of courses as they need throughout their careers. Obviously, this cannot be entirely at the cost of the institution, and it would require the innovative design of degree/knowledge maintenance agreements and collaborative ventures between academia, the corporate sector and the community.
Decreasing the inefficiencies in education including those posed by institutional bounds of governance
We lose students at every level of the educational system–from kindergarten right through the doctoral level–because of extenuating factors unrelated to academic performance, like finances bureaucracy, systematic inequities that place additional barriers for non-traditional and under-represented populations who now make up a significant portion of the student pool. Complicated application processes; difficulties in collecting, providing and validating transcripts; the inability to transfer courses, or if transferred, to earn credits for them… All of these factors and more create barriers to education, real and perceived. While education is described as the “great equalizer,” higher education has over time become an obstacle to its own success through maintaining antiquated processes and procedures that exacerbate inequities and constrain the progress of the very students who need the opportunities higher education affords them the most. Rather than create a seamless transition for qualified students moving on from high school to a university, or from community college to university, or through an entirely different path, the process is often described by students as a nightmare, resulting in many dropping out, out of sheer frustration.
While the lines of governance for the three systems–high school, community college, and university–may well be very different from one another, these differences should be almost invisible to the qualified student, if we are serious about access and creating synergy between talent and opportunity. For their success, and ours, the path of progression needs to be based on achievement rather than the ability to navigate bureaucracy. Another simple example of an over-complicated procedure is that of the transcript. Designed to serve as a performance record, it unfortunately and inadvertently (for the most part) has become a discriminator rather than an enabler. At a time when e-commerce is the norm, we still require paper transcripts and take weeks to months to validate course transfers, often declining the very courses that students were told were guaranteed transfers. In an age when we “own” our credit reports, students should be able to own their own educational records and have them accessed, validated, and assessed in a matter of hours rather than days, weeks and months.
Certifications, professional licenses and other equivalents need to be used as enablers resulting in ease of access and progression for students. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to implement new processes designed to enhance admissions and ensure revenue, and higher ed would be well advised to pay as much, if not greater, attention to decreasing inefficiencies and obstacles to admission/progression in order to better serve students. If we are serious about performance being the only discriminator, then we need to ensure that we do not continue being the barriers.
None of the concepts outlined above are new. Most of them have already been implemented in very specific and/or isolated cases across the nation. Some have been demonstrated to be of great value in addressing inequities to universal access and the opportunity to gain from the promise of higher education. Yet, for one reason or another, and most often due to the lack of will to change, they have largely remained experiments or isolated implementations. The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a shock to higher education, and its economic, social and organizational effects will be felt for years to come. This is not the time to go back into our proverbial “shells” and fall prey to the very tone deafness of which we are often accused. This is the time for academia to lead, dream big and envision the future unhindered, while being guided by the past taking actions that will not only enable us to uphold our missions of serving society through discovery, creation, dissemination and innovation, but to enable a bold new tomorrow, focused on students, and, as Michael Crow has so aptly stated, “serve any learner from any socio-economic background at any stage of learning through broad accessibility to world-class knowledge production.”
 A Laitinen, Cracking the Credit Hour, New America Foundation and Education Sector, September 2012, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED540304.pdf
 P. McPherson, The False Choice Between Education and Employment Readiness, Inside Higher Ed, February 7, 2018: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/02/07/enrolling-and-graduating-more-students-isn%E2%80%99t-enough-colleges-must-prepare-them-work
 V Karbhari, Skills Development and Academic Preparation: Balancing Perceived Conflicts in Higher Education, The EvoLLLution, June 4, 2018, https://evolllution.com/attracting-students/todays_learner/skills-development-and-academic-preparation-balancing-perceived-conflicts-in-higher-education/
 V Karbhari, Access and the “Traditional Student” of the 21st Century: An Imperative for Universities, The EvoLLLution, February 24, 2017, https://evolllution.com/managing-institution/higher_ed_business/access-and-the-traditional-student-of-the-21st-century-an-imperative-for-universities/
 M.M. Crow and W.B. Dabars, The Fifth Wave, The Evolution of American Higher Education, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.
Author Perspective: Administrator