Transforming the Higher Education Model to Better Serve Non-Traditional Students

Transforming the Higher Education Model to Better Serve Non-Traditional Students
The institutional higher education model is overburdened by bureaucracy, making postsecondary education expensive and cumbersome for adult students.
Universities and colleges do not educate; they facilitate a relationship that is formed when academics who do educate are united with students who seek the service. This academic/student relationship is the essence of higher education. Thus, to speak of access to higher education and its improvement is to refer to the ability of individuals to form this fundamental relationship, whether facilitated within or without the familiar institutional tradition.

In this tradition, accredited institutions are identified as principal actors charged with providing recognized education to students through the formal employ of academics and the facilitation of their service. By contrast, this convention prescribes a notion of improved access to higher education that forges a relationship between individuals (students and academics) and institutions (universities and colleges).

Under this model, individuals are subordinate and must apply to institutions for access, with acceptance limited by the dwindling resources available for everything from office and lecture space to communication and computation service. In this way, universities and colleges form a bottleneck in access to higher education.

As a consequence, in California alone, hundreds of thousands of students are now denied access while the largest college in the state, City College of San Francisco (CCSF), had its credit revoked. CCSF services some of the most vulnerable students in the system, including minority, adult and other non-traditional groups.

In total, some 2,600 faculty employees and 90,000 students of CCSF will be on the streets of San Francisco with no official means to facilitate their mutually beneficial education relationship independent of the college.

This institutional model offers inadequate access to higher education and cannot be sustained in affluent or developing regions of the world.

I suggest an alternative model that promises to significantly increase access and lower public costs, while not only retaining but improving the traditional face-to-face education relationship. I maintain that the professional model routinely used for medical, engineering, legal, accounting and other valued services can be tooled to better facilitate the academic/student relationship. Doing so would remove the institutional bottleneck, improving the access academics and students have to one another.

Briefly, professions have a private practice tradition of service, with professional societies to offer oversight through licensure, development, support and discipline. In concert with family physicians and attorneys that service individuals throughout their lives, a profession of academics could provide structure for a more intimate lifelong-learning relationship between teacher and student.

Independent of institutional employ, professional academics can proliferate in private practice, improving access by increasing the absolute number of academics available to students. More academics in circulation would encourage competition, innovation and specialization in practices that more finely tune service to individual needs.

I educate in the area of philosophy. I am confident that with revenue from tuition alone — that is, no public allocations for operations or capital expansion — I can operate a professional practice that offers my expertise to the public and manages to generate a respectable income. I am confident this is true of many other subjects in not only the humanities but also law, business and the STEM subjects. The result would be a 50 to 75-percent reduction in the total cost to provide such higher education, in comparison with universities and colleges currently burdened by administrative and capital costs.

Universities and colleges are not required. The wider community offers all the facilitation provided by these institutions, though chronic underutilization of campus resources such as classroom facilitates presents an opportunity for professional academics to rent or lease these institutional resources in the operation of their practice.

By contrast, to overcome institutional bottleneck, universities and colleges increase at least the quantity (if not the quality) of access through platforms such as the Massive Open Online Course. The result is greater access for students to courses offered by fewer and fewer academics in a virtual education relationship that does not meet the expectations or requirements of (CCSF and other) students.

Both the institutional and professional models are examples of social contracts, whereby the state relieves itself of some of the responsibility for oversight, finance and provision of services. The alternate model I am suggesting does not necessitate cancellation of the institutional social contract. In fact, the two can form symbiotic relationships, though in competition, the institutional model cannot effectively respond to the professional.

To learn more about this proposed model, please read “A New Tender for the Higher Education Social Contact.”

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Readers Comments

Ursula V.F. 2013/10/23 at 12:46 pm

We have this, it’s called Udacity. And as far as I can tell, it hasn’t replaced the institution just yet.

As much as an individual professor can deliver a course in their chosen field for a lower cost than a university (I’ll grant you that bureaucratic red tape is a massive problem), individual professors do not carry with them the reputational weight of an institution.

    Shawn Warren 2013/10/23 at 2:05 pm

    Thank you for the comment.

    The differences between Udacity and the model I am proposing are significant:

    1. Udacity is not a professional social contract for higher education. It is part of the institutional contract for the service. The pro soc contract is exemplified in other service areas such as law, medicine, engineering, etc. This has several implications for labour, pricing, control of work…

    2. Udacity employs academics (or purchases their work, such as courses) that if they are not now will eventually opt for union representation – the only for of academic labour representation that (modern) higher education has known. This is the institutional model and it is rife with conflicts of interest and exploitation. Alternatively the academic labour could become independent contractors (entrepreneurs), in which case they are perfectly situated to form a profession…

    3. Udacity offers (as I say above) access to higher education understood as student virtual access to online course material (and a selection of typically under-qualified TAs). It does not offer the sort of access increasing the number of “on the ground” academics could provide.

    There are other important distinctions – some of which are related to the particular education needs of non-traditional students – but I do not want to leave you with the impression I am against the emerging MOOC institutional model.

    I just do not see why the model and its technological metamorphosis is the only way we can address the HE crisis. The familiar professional model is evidence it is not the only available response and the changes we now undergo are evidence that current responses are myopically focused on preserving the institutional model.

    Reputation is a sticky matter. The reputation of a university or college is, based on the institutional model, dependent on measures well beyond the quality of education and research conducted by its (please notice this root) academic employees, such as student satisfaction with food and residence services or the sense of community. In fact institutional accreditation does not even measure for quality assurance -the professional model does.

    The professional model offers several ways to measure and develop the reputation of independent practitioners – measures that are closer to the bone of the service, education and research relationship. I encourage you to take a close look at “A New Tender.”

    At any rate reputation is something built – whether it is an institution or a private practice – and I do not see how the lack of reputation in the case of professionally licensed academics offering their services through private practice is reason not to attempt change. On the contrary, it seems to me like solid foundation for change in HE.


WA Anderson 2013/10/24 at 2:53 pm

Warren’s suggestion takes us back to the earliest higher education models, as exemplified by Plato and his great teacher Socrates. I would call this apprenticeship, for lack of a better term. These types of relationships between instructor and student are quite effective, but the issue would be how to scale it. The onus would fall on instructors to take on more students, and some might not have the capacity (or desire) to do that. Just look at the situation in some of the professions Warren describes as a model to follow (doctors, lawyers). How many live in America without a healthcare provider or coverage? How many would live without access to higher education if academics could choose which students to take on?

    Shawn Warren 2013/10/25 at 11:12 am

    Thank you for the comment.

    As a philosopher, the conception of this model was derived in part from the Greeks.

    I considered calling the alternative an apprentice or guild model, but the professional term seemed to have more cultural clout and better represents my ideas – though as you note the existing professions present well-known drawbacks as a social contract.

    As to scale I see no difficulty. Since the professional model I promote can supplement rather than replace the existing institutional model, there is no need to achieve the current institutional scale – which is anyhow grossly insufficient in every part of the world.

    As to the onus of academics to take on students I note that institutions do that now, and in a sense for the academics they employ – a middleman function which can be done through local and national application clearinghouses (that already exist). Although in detail I see this as a function of the professional society.

    It is true that some academics might not elect to become professionals. So be it. But I suspect there are many adjuncts and unemployed academics who would jump at the chance to provide their services in a circumstance where they control their work and stand to at least double the average annual adjunct income in the US (derived from tuition revenue alone).

    I do not know how many individuals lack sufficient healthcare in the US. I do know that, with the institutional model selecting students, in California alone over 700,000 students are on waiting lists for access to the institutions of higher education – not to mention the numbers that do not even apply because they are aware of this salient fact – while the lack of access world-wide is 100+ million. I am also aware that the City College of San Francisco (the largest college in the US) has had its accreditation revoked. The college will be shut down this July putting 2600 faculty and 90,000 students on the streets with no official means to conduct their mutually beneficial education relationship.

    This could not happen in the professional model.

    Additionally, by my calculations the professional model reduces the total institutional cost of higher education by at least 50%. If we could do this with healthcare then I imagine many more individuals would receive sufficient healthcare.

    In closing I think it is important to note that the sins of existing professions cannot be used to definitively challenge the proposal to form a new one for higher education. We are aware of past mistakes and can use this knowledge (in conjunction with government oversight) to form an appropriate social contract. Perfection is not required, only improvement.


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