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Higher Education and the Race to find a Core Competency

Higher education has been notoriously slow to change. Even now, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced institutions to accelerate progress, they largely did so within the confines of the traditional educational system. In order to truly build out modern learning, we need to ditch the molds of the past. 

It’s a familiar story in the world of continuing and professional education. When working with our local communities to offer services from our university, structural barriers often make an exchange more difficult than it needs to be. Our academic products are bundled into courses and degrees and embedded in session dates and terms; hence unbundling the package to provide targeted skill building to a local businesses or nonprofit organizations can be a challenge. Yet, as deans of professional schools, we work hard at squaring these circles and feel that, given adequate lead time, we can create offerings that have value in our local communities. 

For me, the most difficult part of the conversation comes at the end. After articulating a compelling way for an organization to work with our college, the conversation inevitably returns to one word: credits. Therefore, all the work that I’ve done to unbundle the package becomes moot as it must be repackaged. It seems the more I try to establish new pathways to learning, the more I am forced back to the lane from which I’ve come. 

The good news is that as long as we can provide credits as validation of learning or credentialing, our colleges will survive. But it begs the question, what happens when the credit disappears? Our institutions will have only our core competencies to exist on. And it makes us wonder, what are they? 

Core competencies in an organization, or indeed an industry, might be defined as valuable, rare, or organized in a way that is difficult to imitate. I encourage you to do the following exercise; for each attribute found in higher education, ask yourself whether it is valuable, rare and difficult to imitate. Are we expert teachers, empowered researchers or stalwarts of engaged scholarship? Perhaps, in a world without the inflated value of the credit, I would argue that there is very little in modern higher education that stands the core competency test. And what is normally reported as innovation, is less related to competency than it is to scale. Is Arizona State University the innovative juggernaut it reports to be, or are its new initiatives (InStride, ASUForU) simply a supply side phenomenon, influenced primarily by its size? 

Maybe we are living a cautionary tale about an industry that has been so seduced by the arbitrage value of one single element—the credit—that over time, it has eschewed any exercise that could allow it to develop life-sustaining core competencies.

Of course, looking at higher education as a single industry is problematic. There are divisions within the sector that cannot be overlooked; privates, publics, land grants, community colleges, residential colleges, commuter schools etc. Each subcommunity will need to define the stakeholder benefits differently if the transactional value of the credit is altered. 

Perhaps a framework for this work is hidden in the everyday jargon of our colleges. After all, we are not schools or businesses, we are institutions, and an institution has only one goal: preserving the institution at all costs. So, to that end, over time, we got better at advancement, marketing and strategy, but the focus on these business processes ultimately made our institutions inelastic and vulnerable. I believe that is where we are today. 

In retrospect, I propose, that we should have spent less time on the tangible and more time on the intangible. A walk around my campus, or any engagement with a collection of learners, be it through a physical or online experience, surges with fun, beauty and subtlety. As times got tough, the first things to get cut were the quirky pieces, the seemingly trivial rituals that we all thought were fringe. Maybe what passed as idiosyncratic was the essence all along.

I type these words cautiously, anticipating feedback that may be defensive; after all, institutions don’t wane without a few shots across the bow. But for however long our industry lasts in its current iteration, I won’t focus on the inefficiencies of higher education or the ludicrous structures that we have built that now act as roadblocks to our ultimate purpose. 

Instead, I am going to focus on the how much fun the students have as they return to our campuses after COVID, how deliciously peculiar our faculty are and how an entire generation is using this moment to tear down old rhetoric and build a fairer and more just world.

If there is a secret sauce to save us after the credit goes away, we may find it in the places that we seldom think to look. Once the credit goes, classes won’t be far behind, but maybe this is precisely the catalyst that we’ve needed all along. Is it possible that young people will still come to our doors or our learning management systems? Maybe it wasn’t the classes and credits that were bringing them here at all. I wonder if those frameworks were holding us back, creating artificial barriers and power structures between nascent scholars (students) and accomplished scholars (faculty).

And in this brave new world, perhaps I won’t spend my days as I do now, exploring new ways of bundling and unbundling–and I can focus on the beauty of my community, its sole focus on human potential, its profound assets, and ultimately, how I can help.

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