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Can Students and Higher Education Strike a Grand Bargain?

The EvoLLLution | Can Students and Higher Education Strike a Grand Bargain?
The current higher education model was established in the industrial age and has, for the most part, remained unchanged. A new model—one that benefits students and institutions equally—must be imagined and developed.
Transforming Higher Education Will Require a Grand Bargain

The National Laboratory for Education Transformation is dedicated to modernizing critical processes in higher education for the benefit of both institutions and learners. For this, new assumptions about higher education operations are needed.

But is transformation of higher ed actually possible? 

A new form of transformation will require restructuring of administration functions, new orientations on higher education teaching, different approaches to technology, and a much deeper understanding of diversity, inclusion and culture formation. Businesses, service companies, and even government agencies have all changed radically. These transformations required fundamental restructuring, which for some unknown reasons, appears to be off the table in mainline institutions.

What is present in other social, consumer, financial and cultural transformations is a new type of bargain where end-users (customers, communicators) are on equal footing with the new service itself and all other participants. It is a liberalization of the role of customers and their interactions and standing, which greatly benefits the company or agency in terms of depth of contact and cost of operations. It is easier, and more information flows out of these operations to all the stakeholders. This in turn makes service better, and presumably will result in more revenue or less costly operations, or both.

In higher education, a fundamental readjustment would be necessary to establish two-way commitments, compacts or contracts—either directly or as guiding principles between institutions and their learners. These agreements are needed to fortify, modernize and codify this relationship in order to build new cultures of engagement and interaction. In effect, creating organizational transformation aimed at higher levels of success for each party.

Corporations, start-ups, and impact funds organize around need, efficiency and satisfaction. Higher education institutions of every variety, on the other hand, would find it difficult to reorganize, restructure or reorient their costly traditional operations and organization by separate offices, departments, programs and out-of-date technology. Instead, institutions tend to reassign personnel, hire consultants, build grant-funded teams, and rearrange functions within the known structure. This method appears to persist regardless of retention rates.

Until the traditional structure, with its various orientations, programs, culture, and operations, is allowed to be on the table for overall conversations, it will be difficult to orient teaching to keep the new range of students on campus, evolve a new culture of inclusion that is both virtual and physical, and make learning implicit to finding work and participating in society.

Clear Deficiencies Compared to General Culture

The traditional methods of operation on campuses do not address what many see as core deficiencies in the higher education organizational structure. To successfully operate in today’s general culture within the higher education context, the deficiencies need to be called out, examined, and then used as the fodder for transforming the old system.

As an exercise, each of the following proposed core deficiencies rests on the assumption that currently there is an unequal bargain struck between the campus and their students. The institution and the students pay a heavy price for this: for students, a lack of preparation and persistence, and for institutions, difficulty in attracting and keeping students enrolled.

Instead of a dichotomy, we need a symbiosis between learner and institution.

What Students Might Need

  1. Contact: A single point of contact with a campus, physically or digitally, that is constantly present.
  2. Interaction: An app to manage the multiple threads of campus activity, including social and off campus activities, to connect students and provide constant interactions.
  3. Planning: Integrated tools that routinely link learning to career potential and outside opportunities.

What Campuses Might Need

  1. Strategy: Retention, completion and engagement re-thought as integrated “services,” not fix-it solutions or reactive programs.
  2. Training: Constant faculty development to develop adaptive teaching aimed at teaching as a craft along with inclusivity and diversity training.
  3. Outcomes: Economic consequences of programs standardized into the fabric of academic choices.

No Bargain at Present 

The current bargain, or contract, is unequal in the sense that each student is required to understand the complex structure of a traditional, higher education institution. Regardless of the student’s background, he/she must adapt to those diverse, traditional systems efficiently, regardless of how well organized the campus and its technology are.

For many students today, campus life is an alien, expensive, confusing and largely socially disconnected experience that is not focused on employment outcomes.

Campuses are not required to provide a high level of adaptation to today’s students, who are far more diverse than in the past. Institutions are admitting more diverse student bodies, but failing to retain them, a detriment to both student and institution. Failure to adapt to today’s students is an expensive proposition and one that merits a much higher degree of attention, planning and action. Hand-wringing, technology solutions and retention efforts are not the answer.

Numerous consultancies, education technologies, and foundation-funded personalization, persistence and retention programs are in place through grants or contracts that faculty and leadership have championed. The options are varied and tactical. They are not strategic, student involved, or measurable across multiple technologies.

Students, in the programmatic or technology solution change process, are generally treated as recipients of programs, policies, and technology purchases. They are not given adequate say or experimentation that would establish the necessary steps to reach shared end goals for both student and institution, and create the evidence to support the decision to proceed.

How well do such programs put students—either programmatically or technologically, on par or at the same level as the institution that is implementing these programs? 

Are there true, grand bargains being struck between the parties to reach the same goals—graduation, job placement and career trajectory—with the right tools and programs?

While the rhetoric, web and marketing copy, and campus materials tend to put the student first, or speak of personalization, these are complex organizational and behavioral issues that require culture and infrastructure changes. These changes need to reach into all dormitories and classrooms and affect the structure and type of interactions on campus.

Many efforts fall short of their transformational objectives because they do not establish new, operational principles and procedures to govern what should be, in today’s society, a two-way compact between student and institution.

Without developing such governing principles, agreements, and fundamental cooperation, it is not clear how improvement in retention, graduation rates, personalization, satisfaction and placement will be possible. 

Social, Digital and Cultural Divides

Built-in divides persist and grow deeper on campuses as more students—and an increase in those from different socioeconomic backgrounds and first-generation college-goers—arrive from high school. Yet more college students leave without graduating, or without earning occupational certification. In addition to cost and unclear employment outcomes, many undergraduates who stay or drop out report a sense of isolation and a lack of direction.

Without a clear two-way street to address these issues, it is difficult to establish strategies that will succeed and assist the “whole person” move from academic and career exploration into the management of their time in higher education, and transition to work. Conversely, the institutions are not organized today to optimize managing students as partners, nor is there software or solutions that are commercially or openly available to do so.

A Possible Menu for Discussion 

As an exercise, consider a few new ways to think about campus issues.

A New Campus Architecture

Technology on campus used to be a matter of servers and cables. Then it became a strategic part of the campus. Now it is mostly in service of the provost’s office. Unfortunately, it is woefully behind counterparts in business, consumer, commerce and finance sectors. The CIO’s office could move from a Chief Information Officer to a Chief Innovation Officer. The new CIOs could work on the myriad problems just like start-ups work on website or business architecture, with an open mind and the idea that the tech and data solutions in the education marketplace might not be what are needed.

Data Science in Support of the Academic and Employment Mission 

Data activities are spread all over campus and are mostly looking at disconnected data from various campus programs. While data analysts and the Institutional Research office crunch these data, they are not part of an overall solution that monitors the whole campus and the students in real-time. What is needed are solutions that are focused on problems and trends before they lead to costly overruns or students leaving campus. To bring this about, students will need single apps or methods to deal with the whole campus, giving the campus valuable use-data which is not inferred but actual. It might be wise for campuses to have a chief data science officer who could circulate among all the functions on campus and with the students.

Addressing Implicit Bias through Adaptive Teaching

The provost’s office could be re-oriented to concentrate on the quality of teaching, the nature of addressing implicit bias, and developing methods and measures to adapt to students from many different backgrounds, including those who are entering that are known to already be at risk. Managing this requires new methods of training faculty, and inviting faculty to help design what could be called adaptive teaching, a counterpart of adaptive learning or personalization. While the academic program and its integrity is critical, and while many CIOs report to the provost with their array of campus solutions, somehow the quality of the interactions between principal contact point of the institution, faculty and students is not being systematically addressed.

Grand Bargain, Contracting for Success, Continual Interaction

This is the trickiest and most important, but maybe the easiest. Many schools and some colleges have worked on contracts. But none of this has been done strategically, nor has it found its way into software or apps that would consolidate the various functions, programs, and offices on campus, starting with admissions. This bargain needs to be explicit about what the campus is bringing to the table, and what insurance the campus can provide that the student gets through and into meaningful work. Students need to clearly understand their tasks and the options for help and guidance. The “grand bargain” could remake the student success offices that are springing up on campuses. In this bargain, students can share their concerns, struggles, and successes.

Continual Options, Immediate Feedback 

Isolation and concerns about finance are reported by students as reasons for their stress, or for leaving college. Students and their parents, and most people, live in a culture of constant digital contact, where they are using digital interactions to set up, monitor and react to face-to-face interactions. What is key here is that contact is continual, contextual, and in the moment. This is part of the general culture, in which all people and their appliances are part of daily life. A campus divided into program offices, academic departments, and rules and procedures do not make for app culture. Whether it is through the student contract or a student navigator, campuses, technology companies and foundations need to help figure out how to align learning and campus culture with culture in general. Maybe students should help design this solution.

Where Will Change Come From?

As always, there will be pioneers, though they are unlikely to affect the bulk of public institutions in the country where most students attend. The likely places for these discussions to happen if possible, is in the official associations in higher education. While there are plenty of programs that major foundations fund that might seem like what is discussed here, there is room for deeper re-architecting. The American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), and the League for Innovation in the Community College (League) could elevate such explorations.

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