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Thinking Outside Higher Ed’s Iron Triangle

Solving the iron triangle issue doesn’t need to be a two-dimensional problem; by approaching barriers to access and affordability with creativity, higher education institutions can forge new pathways to serve more learners.
Solving the iron triangle issue doesn’t need to be a two-dimensional problem; by approaching barriers to access and affordability with creativity, higher education institutions can forge new pathways to serve more learners.

In the world of postsecondary education and training, quality, affordability, and access make up a so-called iron triangle.

It’s conventional wisdom that it’s rare, perhaps nearly impossible, for an education program to be high-quality, low-cost, and inclusive of all interested and committed learners all at once.

Unfortunately, would-be innovators have learned this lesson time and again. Think of the early days of online learning, when many programs that promised to break the iron triangle ended up going back on their word. They either grew too quickly to maintain quality or chose margin over mission to generate more revenue and take advantage of shifts in the higher education market. These early attempts to change have led to (often justified) skepticism that the iron triangle can be broken at all. Perhaps, the argument goes, the only way to maintain quality in higher education is to restrict access or increase cost.

But the pandemic has accelerated a seismic shift across the landscape of higher education. As a result, the tectonic plates of quality, affordability and access are all moving at once. Selective institutions are beginning to embrace online programs that expand access, even for high school students. Two years of remote and hybrid learning have sparked new conversations about what quality means in online education and how to achieve it. And a growing number of employers are embracing next-gen apprenticeship pathways that reduce—or altogether eliminate—the cost of training for learners themselves.

As a growing number of emerging programs challenge the status quo, are the three sides of the iron triangle becoming more attainable to achieve all at once? The answer, it turns out, is that we’ve always needed to think beyond the traditional idea of what the iron triangle means in the first place. 

In their original formulation, we had the ideas of quality, affordability, and access all wrong. When we thought about quality, we were measuring against the standard of “sage on the stage” lectures, not the sort of hands-on, practitioner-led learning we know translates to more engaged educational experiences and concrete job outcomes. When we thought about affordability, we always imagined the student (or the government) as the payor, rather than recognizing the role that employers could, and should, play as facilitators of training. When we thought about access, we were only at the beginning of the digital revolution and now we’ve come to understand just how powerful high-speed internet access and the ubiquity of mobile devices can be for the future of education.

To put it simply, the very idea of the iron triangle is based on assumptions that may no longer be true, and it’s time to reimagine solving for the iron triangle in ways that previously weren’t possible.

If we try thinking in more than two dimensions, how might that enable us to re-envision the future of higher education?

When we think about quality, we should begin with the end in mind. What are the specific skills that employers need to fill the specific jobs they have open? How can we provide training in those skills to ensure that as soon as they graduate, learners have a pathway to career opportunity?

When we think about affordability, we should be thinking about who pays, not just how much they pay. How can we shift the burden—and risk—of financing education away from learners and onto the providers and employers incentivized to build stronger and more diverse talent pipelines? 

When we think about access, we should recognize that today’s online learning is a lot more sophisticated than that of a decade ago. The rise of instructional designers and ongoing advances in technology (not to mention the impact of the pandemic) have helped us to begin building an online environment where engaging, effective learning becomes the norm. Can we overcome persistent skepticism to realize the promise of online learning as an engine of access?

Rethinking the iron triangle matters because we have historically disenfranchised large populations from opportunities to advance in both their education and their career. This focus has been particularly disadvantageous for middle-skill workers, whose jobs don’t require a four-year degree but make up the majority of the U.S. labor market. Our historic emphasis on the old definitions of quality, affordability and access has often led higher education leaders to prioritize traditional educational models, even when those models aren’t the best for the learners and workers we’re hoping to serve. Breaking the iron triangle means leaving those outdated ideas behind to make an impact for the millions of working learners who stand to gain the most from the promise of postsecondary education.

In the months to come, higher education and workforce training leaders will face the choice we all knew was coming: returning to the pre-pandemic normal or embracing the possibility of new models and approaches. If we take nothing else from the past two years, we must remember that breaking the iron triangle is more possible today than it’s ever been—and that doing so is the only way to fulfill the potential of these new models.

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