Elevating Higher Education: Imperatives for Relevance and Excellence
Over the past few years, there has been increasing scrutiny of and discussion about the role of institutions of higher education play in shaping the future, their responsibilities, the impact they can have on furthering the confluence of talent and opportunity, and the perception of decreased relevance and value. From aspects related to how applicants are selected (or rejected) and degree affordability, to its value and potential replacement by credentials including those companies offer directly, and in arguments about knowledge for its own sake vs. as an enabler of success in the workforce, almost every aspect of higher education is facing increasing scrutiny and justifiably so.
The generic models in place today were developed centuries ago to educate the elite and are largely outdated in terms of content, focus and engagement, as well as in terms of appropriate incorporation of technology and state-of-the-art practices.
Higher ed is at a critical juncture and must make significant, long-lasting and tremendously impactful decisions—ones that could just further the status quo or completely transform it to be much more relevant in meeting current and future needs, decreasing the disparity between expectations and reality and ensuring that it is truly the pathway for activating talent to opportunity and ensuring socioeconomic mobility. I am drawn to the importance of As–imperatives as we look to the future, not just in terms of excellence but more fundamentally of relevance.
Our system needs to be inclusive rather than exclusive, giving all who desire knowledge access, ensuring changes in delivery and structure for students to acquire knowledge rather than building barriers they must overcome. Access should be unconstrained by time, location or finances.
The opportunity to gain from knowledge and skills must be available to every person who desires it, irrespective of their socioeconomic status or position in life and career. Realizing this vision will necessitate greater attention to give equitable access to working adults, returning learners, students with family and career responsibilities and those underserved to date, rather than just focusing on the traditional student who progresses directly from high school to a degree.
Access must be on their terms scheduling flexibility, availability of a range of modalities (including face-to-face, completely online and hybrid modes) and requires both physical and digital expansion through physical campuses, local facilitation centers and larger time frames of engagement allowing for knowledge on demand 24/7, 365. The critical emphasis must be placed on convenience for learners rather than for the institution.
If we believe that talent is inherent to everyone, we must actively affirm each learner’s ability to not only access knowledge but to succeed irrespective of background or position in life. This affirmation requires changing the narrative and actions not just at the point of recruitment but much earlier at the K-6 levels and in the community.
Programs such as Bound for Success initiated at the University of Texas at Arlington not only bolster college-going culture but purposefully take steps to decrease the drop in continuation after the 10th grade of those academically qualified. And the University Crossroads program developed to expand access to and success in higher education for first- and second-generation students from low- to moderate-income households through partnerships and early engagement that involve families and the community. These are just examples of mechanisms that must be enhanced.
Higher ed must provide hope and assurance that every learner is capable if they put their mind to it. Ensuring preparation for success thus becomes the responsibility of all involved across bounds of governance, necessitating a focus on the learner and ensuring that their progression from K to credential or degree is only dependent on the effort they put into mastering knowledge rather than that to reach—and keep open—the door of opportunity.
Learners bring diverse backgrounds and levels of preparation. Our scaffolds must be appropriate to the success of each, not just the best, personalizing our modes of engagement, delivery and education to every learner’s individual needs. Institutional success is not demonstrated by admitting the highest-achieving students and moving them through to a degree but through opening our doors to all who desire knowledge and supporting them after they have entered the halls of higher education to help them to shine and use their inherent talents, achieving and exceeding their dreams.
Incorporating appropriate technologies including those for digital or online delivery, AI/ML use, not just to reach learners with resources when, where and how they need them but also for analytics to provide the appropriate level of intervention and adaptive learning modalities when needed will be critical in transforming higher education from a system designed to point out weaknesses to one that builds on strengths.
Personalized asset-based support rather than the current generic deficit-based focus can be made possible with tools like adaptive learning, AI and personalized interventions. And AI-enabled XR/AR/VR can further engagement and critical analysis. The higher ed community needs to embrace these advances to appropriately adapt and implement them. Important aspects of needs insecurities, digital deserts and lack of access to technology including Wi-Fi and bandwidth that have only recently gained attention must also be addressed comprehensively for every learner.
The promise of higher education must be within everyone’s reach and not artificially restricted to only those with the means or those willing to take on crippling debt. Dramatic changes in financial structures, the ability to rethink the delivery model and increased linkages allowing students to gain knowledge and earn money simultaneously are critical, as is the need to dramatically control costs and even lower them.
Changes in institutional, state and federal policies regarding financial aid and scholarships are critical to support a fast-changing demographic that is currently not served by policies that primarily reward only a segment of enrollees—those who progress to college directly from high school.
In addition, institutions of higher education must be held to a much higher level of accountability for how resources are spent and, as importantly, for how they are used to ensure progression, not just to a credential or degree but to higher socioeconomic mobility through better jobs and career advancement at each stage of progression.
Affordability thus needs to be considered, not just in terms of actual cost but also in terms of the return on investment with appropriate metrics. The factored-graduate-return metric Western Governors University uses is one example that cuts across demographics and stage in career.
While knowledge for its own sake (or toward the development of a learned citizen) is an admirable goal. In today’s world, it is critical that the learner attain credentials that clearly demonstrate competencies, providing learners with the ability to better their socioeconomic position.
Rapid changes in the workplace due to automation, AI and the increasing convergence of advances in information and technology have resulted in a dramatic incongruity: Recent graduates are unable to find jobs while employers in turn cannot find people with the skills they need even for entry-level jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree.
It is no longer enough to only have academic knowledge at the end of a degree, counting on the first months or year to acquire on-the-job training. Rather, what is needed is for knowledge to intersect with relevant job skills, ensuring competencies attained align with employer-identified needs for the workforce.
Simultaneously, there is a need for much better integration of technology awareness and competency with the precepts of a traditional liberal education across curricula, integrating a balance between knowledge and skills and highlighting interpersonal capabilities, complex systems thinking, problem solving skills and disciplinary or professional competency.
In the 21st century, the focus must be on effectively integrating skills development into academic curricula. While emphasis has been placed on the need for universities to enable access to education at an affordable cost, it now needs to expand this approach to ensure employment readiness is an explicit part of our mission. Knowledge for its own sake will always be valued, but knowledge combined with career-ready skills will be the driver that ensures we meet the mission the Morrill Act of 1862 envisioned: enabling a practical education alongside a general one.
Unlike the traditional student of yesteryear, a significant number of current students balance academics with other life responsibilities. It must be kept in mind that even full scholarships will not cover the financial realities of being the breadwinner or primary caregiver.
Stackable credential pathways purposefully built to stand alone as rungs in a career (and economic) ladder while also leading to degrees can be essential for a significant and growing population of students as can the ability to staple new competencies onto existing ones, enabling reskilling and upskilling as a continuum. These structures also allow students to hop on and off the academic carousel as needed with the assurance that if predetermined steps (the stacks) are completed, each exit point will result in career progression along with the consequent financial gain.
States, two- and four-year institutions, and the corporate sector must consider better ways to align and integrate such aspects through substantive, well-thought-out pathways that meet student needs and those of a rapidly changing workforce.
While institutions of higher education have introduced tens of thousands of new certificates, one could posit that the majority do little more than further complicate the environment for the learner and lead to little in terms of actual advancement. For the most part, they are largely developed without input and, more importantly, without agreement of use as a factor in hiring.
For credentials to truly be of value, hiring managers must not only recognize them but they must serve as advantages in the career advancement process. This approach to credentialing has already been implemented to a large extent in fields like healthcare, which has very clearly defined and largely articulated pathways between certifications and degrees and must be expanded and adapted across other fields to further connect the demonstration of knowledge and competency to career progression.
While academia has historically equated excellence with the attainment of As, it must be recognized that true relevance, value and excellence are not derived from grades or degrees but from outcomes, especially those that provide clarity in pathways, not just for the dissemination and development of knowledge but for students’ socioeconomic mobility and the community’s socioeconomic development.
Partnerships require strengthening existing alliances and developing new ones between institutions of higher education themselves (sharing resources for greater cost efficiencies or courses and programs to benefit of students, for example) and with the corporate world (to give students work-related experiences, access cutting-edge technologies quicker and develop purposeful ed tech) and with state and federal agencies for policies and support that best meet current and future needs rather than those of decades past.
These partnerships will necessitate greater accountability. Education, the basis of the knowledge enterprise, must be the path to opportunity—for learners, their families, the communities in which they reside and work and those institution of higher education serves. This collaboration then must lead to accepting responsibility greater than ensuring rigor in the curricula and the awarding of degrees.
It must demonstrate constant and growing relevance, explicitly mapping beyond potential opportunities to create concrete paths to career progression, higher economic value through increased earnings and greater opportunity for entrepreneurship, the creation of new jobs and economic security.
It must lead to increases in the standard of living and wellness within the community and the university becoming an integral part of the fabric of the community, not just as its intellectual hub and largest employer but as its socioeconomic anchor, the catalyst for socioeconomic development.
The ability to meet workforce needs, to provide advanced knowledge and skills that help advance industry to open up higher-paying jobs, adding to a region’s vitality, must be the goal. Accountability then takes on a broader and more profound meaning.
Fulfilling this vision will require adaptability, agility, and accepting of institutions that historically have been slow to change. These elements are necessary, not only to address the increasing convergence of information and technology and its effect on the workforce but to meet the needs of changing demographics and address new opportunities. It’s necessary to develop or rapidly modify new curricula and structures with continuous re-envisioning and updating, making sure students are prepared not just for tomorrow but for years ahead. It is critical to stay relevant and foresee the future through close partnerships with industry, government and local or regional communities.
This level of preparation will require modifying structure and systems, recognizing the need to evolve from a fairly rigid T-shaped education currently pursued with a breadth of knowledge combined with disciplinary depth, to a more personalized P-shaped enterprise that integrates the two previous foci with critical skills in areas such as AI, data science, media and communications, and critical thinking for every learner. Higher ed must also increasingly adopt advanced technologies and be an integral part in ed tech development, opening itself not just to new modes of operation but also of interacting with learners and experts, re-envisioning modalities of aggregating knowledge and validating competencies.
For example, innovations the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated and AI’s increasing power, are enabling modes of engagement and interaction across the bounds of space and time, enhancing the impact and scale of learning.
Consider the potential advantage to students across the globe, some in classrooms and others on computers and mobile devices in their homes or at places of work, learning synchronously or asynchronously. Some are being taught by the world’s leading subject matter experts from Arlington, TX, one day, an expert from Sydney, Australia, the next and from Dubai in the UAE the third day. Or the impact of students being able to listen to a panel of industry experts in different locations all at the same time, being able to immerse themselves on the manufacturing floor or at an archeological dig, or reliving and interpreting first-hand events that we now consider historical. These experiences provide learners with the ability to not just immerse themselves from a sociopolitical context but to also think critically and reach conclusions for themselves. Advances being made in AR/VR/XR and AI use as related to student immersion in discovery-based curricula—such as what Arizona State University is pioneering—provide a glimpse of the transformational potential of such advances.
Given the increasing success in assuring relevance, value and excellence through digital modalities and the growing movement toward open skills standards, might it be also possible in the near future for the learner to completely hold their learning record rather than the institution enabling the learner to aggregate experiences and courses from a multitude of sources culminating in a credential or degree not based primarily on the offerings of a single institution but recognized by higher ed and industry? Achieving this vision would require changes in governance and relinquishing antiquated notions of control over quality as well as greater relevance of the meaning of accreditation, but it could lead to significantly greater access, affordability, attainment and advancement for learners.
While some may well believe that higher ed is on its last leg and that its relevance will decrease in the future, I am far more optimistic that innovative institutions will leave behind antiquated and often obsolete notions and policies, changing mechanisms of operation and re-envisioning the educational system to ensure its relevance and value through a learner-focused lens. We must change the paradigm to ensure every learner’s success and socioeconomic progression of every learner, irrespective of background or life situation.