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Is Higher Ed Failing Individuals & the Economy?

Aug 10, 2023

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

by Scott Pulsipher
WGU President

This is the first in a three-part series that explores how to build a new learning and employment ecosystem that enables America’s diversity of learners to experience economic and social mobility.

Is higher education delivering on its promise? It's complicated.

I like to think of education simply as the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and ability. But in order for individuals to thrive, they must also be able to apply what they’ve learned to a relevant opportunity. While our nation’s higher education system accomplishes myriad objectives for learners and society more broadly, the promise or belief taxpayers are underwriting is that of social and economic mobility. And surveys show that’s what students expect too: 79% of Americans highlighted the ability to support themselves and their families as very or extremely important in their decision to pursue their highest level of education, according to a Strada-Gallup survey.

To that end, research shows our education system is delivering better outcomes, on average, for those who earn a credential, with college degree holders earning on average 84% more per year than those without. While statistics like these are encouraging, they regrettably do not tell the entire story.

Data on postsecondary outcomes show 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. All in all, a smaller portion of today’s graduates are experiencing the economic and social mobility enjoyed by previous generations. In fact, nearly 1/3 of all institutions leave their students with zero economic return after accounting for the cost of attendance, according to the Postsecondary Value Commission.

There's no doubt that the challenges contributing to these poor and uneven outcomes are many and complex. But we must recognize that the existing system is doing exactly what it has been designed to do. Reinvigorating education’s promise, then, requires that we fundamentally reconsider the very architecture of our current system. Because good design starts with the desired outcome and works backward, institutions must first align around what I believe should be the primary purpose of higher ed: activating talent to opportunity.

Working backward to move forward

How might higher ed be designed if every institution held this objective in mind? Put differently, what would need to be true to turn that vision into a reality?

To start, institutional quality and reputation would be grounded in the extent to which institutions deliver on this promise as opposed to the tendency to conflate division standings in athletics and research prominence with instructional quality. Because organizations are incentivized to prioritize activities that enhance their reputations, the impact of this shift in thinking would be profound.

Colleges and universities would “design at the margins,” such that those who are situated farthest from opportunity are included in every important decision, from how to approach recruiting and enrollment, to the kinds of supports that are available before, during, and after a student engages with a program. Critically, efforts like these would lead to equity in both access and attainment—outcomes that sadly elude many institutions.

To increase the odds that every learner succeeds—including emerging adults, working adult learners, individuals with some college but no degree, and those living in rural areas—learning and delivery models would be flexible. Rather than continue to design around the credit hour, institutions would design around competencies, enabling individuals to progress through content at their own speed, as soon as they demonstrate mastery. As discussed in a recent Revisionist History podcast, removing the barrier of time would be transformative for slower learners who are just as capable of mastering material. Similarly, more post-secondary programs would embrace tech-enabled learning, eliminating barriers for millions of students; and institutions would offer a diversity of pathways to opportunity, including short-duration, earn-while-you-learn, on-the-job, and apprenticeship programs that can be expanded rapidly and stack into future opportunities.

Institutions would do everything within their power to control costs and reduce organizational complexity. Tradeoffs would need to be made, with institutions, and indeed society, questioning the value of anything that doesn’t contribute directly to student success.

Perhaps most obvious of all, programs would be designed to prepare learners for the future of work, not only by offering those particularly suited to the most in-demand fields, but by leveraging data and technology to ensure learning outcomes align with employer needs. As with the other design considerations I’ve mentioned, we as an industry have significant room for improvement here: today’s employers reportedly do not believe most graduates have the skills needed to succeed in the workforce, according to a 2021 study conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Oddly, this simple idea—that higher education should primarily serve as a means for helping individuals access opportunities that will lead to a better life for themselves and for their families—is regularly dismissed by those within academia as ignorant of the “higher” virtues of education, such as the creation of good citizenry. But I’m not suggesting that we do away with liberal arts degrees of discounting the importance of developing good citizens; it’s a “both, and”. Liberal arts degrees, for example, can arm learners with the enduring and professional skills they need to succeed in the workforce. What matters is that they’re designed with that objective in mind.

Unfortunately, many programs are not. Instead, many are designed as if they are an end in and of themselves. And though acquiring ever greater knowledge and understanding is inherently worthwhile, when packaged as a “product” that an individual pays for, shouldn’t one expect to receive tangible, measurable value? (And no, the answer can’t be that it’s priceless.)

Still, amid our crisis of value and unmet needs, new advances in technology (including AI) show promise to significantly expand access and lower the cost of education, while also enabling greater personalization and workforce alignment. Demographic changes and shifting enrollment preferences are also compelling change, such that learning is being redefined to enable learners to upskill and reskill throughout their lives.

Together, disruptive forces like these may prove to be the catalyst we need to realign around the true purpose of higher education. With renewed clarity of purpose and greater collaboration between academia and industry, we’ll be one step closer to designing a more effective and inclusive system that makes opportunity work for everyone.

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