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March 30, 2023

Future of Higher Education

Convention Over Progress: Why is Higher Ed Clinging to the Status Quo?

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Forbes in March 2023.

by Scott Pulsipher
WGU President

Recently I had the privilege of speaking to the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce about the challenges facing higher education and what I see as our best path forward.

My testimony centered primarily around Congress’s role in creating a context to both enable innovation and increase accountability among educational institutions to deliver tangible value to all learners, and society by extension. In a time of great divisiveness, it was encouraging to see that renewing the promise of education continues to garner bi-partisan support.

Unfortunately, it is increasingly evident that pathways to opportunity are not yet open to and traversable by all. While completion for those from the top income quartile has increased over the last 50 years from 40% to 62%, for their peers from the bottom income quartile, it has barely risen from 6% to just 13%. Equally troubling, our most vulnerable students are disproportionately likely to leave college with considerable debt, and post-college earnings for low-income students are generally lower than those of their wealthier peers. We are leaving too much talent on the table and paying dearly for it—both in skyrocketing costs and in a persisting skills gap that costs the U.S. economy an estimated $13B monthly.

While updating the regulatory system is an essential piece of the puzzle, many of the challenges facing colleges and universities are of their own making. It is therefore incumbent upon higher ed institutions to carefully consider how elements of their design reinforce the status quo and hinder their ability to meet the needs of America’s diversity of learners. As a jumping-off point, I invite earnest and honest exploration of the following questions:

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Are we trying to do too much?

Surveys show that most learners pursue higher education for financial reasons, but many institutions have lost sight of what should be higher ed’s primary purpose in a misguided attempt to replicate the Ivies. More often than not, bundling research and teaching into the same business model results in misalignments that hurt students, since economic models and incentive structures can either be oriented toward, or detract from, student learning and success.

One way this manifests is when faculty are disincentivized to focus their attention on teaching, instead earning promotions for publishing award-winning research or attracting grant money. An individual can only accomplish so much in a day, so you will find professors reducing their office hours and passing the responsibility of grading papers onto teaching assistants who are less qualified and experienced.

Are we clinging tightly to antiquated notions of how best to serve students?

The way previous generations thought about education and careers doesn’t fit today’s realities, let alone the dynamics of the future of work. A growing share of today’s undergraduates are actually “non-traditional”—over the age of 25, from low-income backgrounds, who work at least part-time, have children, and pay for school independently.

Higher education’s typical coming-of-age experience will undoubtedly continue to attract a privileged few, but as demographics shift and technologies advance, the larger opportunity points to serving a more diverse set of student needs. This new majority cares more about acquiring the skills and competencies that will help them get ahead in life, and they want to do so at a cost commensurate to the economic return.

Unfortunately, many institutions have remained attached to the notion that all students learn best in the classroom and require students to move through curriculum at a singular pace, e.g., the “four-year” degree. These conventions are particularly harmful to working learners for whom more flexible education pathways can be particularly transformative, but all students stand to benefit from increased flexibility. A study conducted by Benjamin Bloom, for instance, showed that 80% of students in a self-paced classroom were able to achieve mastery, in comparison to just 20% of students in a traditional time-structured classroom.

Are we leaving learners and families in the dark regarding cost and outcomes?

Colleges and universities shouldn’t wait for policymakers to develop industry-standard accountability metrics; even without a government mandate, we share a responsibility to our students and prospective students to be transparent.

Across the sector, transparency is lacking in two key domains: cost, and return on investment. A recent GAO report found that colleges present cost and financial aid information differently, making it difficult for students and parents to compare offers and college affordability; and information about the substantial amount of variation among programs and institutions in terms of their expected financial return is largely unavailable.

Without full transparency students and families are left in the dark, unable to make informed choices. The consequences of these choices can be significant and follow individuals for life in the form of overwhelming debt and poor employment outcomes.

Higher ed is full of misalignments that hurt students, but many of these dynamics are of our own making. Unfortunately, these pose real challenges to change—traditional models and mindsets, established incentive and budget mechanisms, and contending priorities are deeply embedded into the system’s very makeup. And, this is to say nothing of the cultural mindset in America about what college is and should be, which is regularly reinforced in entertainment media and stadiums in the Fall.

Still, it’s paramount our institutions accept responsibility for those elements that are not serving students well and are within our control to change. Thankfully, shared principles of access, affordability, relevancy, equity, and value have long provided a foundation for higher education and its vital importance to the advancement of individuals and society. But, when the conventional structure is misaligned with future, even current realities, reinvention only comes by tearing down the buttresses of the status quo, thereby enabling innovation to reinvigorate education’s promise as the surest path to opportunity for everyone—not just for the privileged.

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