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July 14, 2022

Future of Higher Education

Higher Education Must Invest In Students

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Forbes in July 2022.

by Scott Pulsipher
WGU President

Too often, the “value” of a college degree is misconstrued to be synonymous with its cost. In reality, it’s about students’ return on their investment—which opportunities did the degree unlock, and how do those translate into economic and social mobility?

As a sector, we’re falling disastrously short in this regard. Despite sky-rocketing costs that have increased 180% since 1980 (adjusted for inflation), many graduates find themselves ill-prepared for a rapidly evolving workplace. Indeed, the Post-Secondary Value Commission, supported by The Gates Foundation and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, found that nearly one third of for-profit institutions leave students with zero economic return after accounting for the cost of attendance.

Pathways to opportunities often aren’t accessible to the rising number of non-traditional students who are eager to advance their lives, and many post-secondary degrees fail to map clearly to high-quality, real-world opportunities. Despite their best intentions, too many institutions are restricted by outdated academic infrastructure, practices, regulatory prescriptions, and even antiquated notions of how to deliver education and best serve students.

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To fulfill their promise as an equalizer and engine of mobility, higher ed institutions must rethink how they measure their value. While most understand and believe that the pursuit of knowledge is inherently valuable, surveys consistently highlight that individuals pursue post-secondary education to get a great job. These are not contending goals, but part of the same aspiration to live a self-determined life. College and university leaders must hold themselves accountable to delivering on that promise—for all students. The future of our communities, economy, and nation depends on it.

University leaders, policy makers, employers, and anyone associated with or underwriting higher education, need to take stock of the value our institutions and system are providing by exploring the following questions earnestly and honestly:

Who are our customers?

As institutions, we have too often designed around our own priorities and convenience, content with maintaining a status quo that caters to “traditional,” younger students. Yet, increasingly, 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 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 for whom a beautifully manicured physical campus and robust social calendar matter just as much as their degree. But as demographics shift and technologies advance, the larger opportunity points to non-traditional students. This new majority isn’t looking for climbing walls or sorority pins. Instead, they want to acquire the skills and competencies that will help them get ahead in life, and the flexibility to learn on their schedule and progress at their own pace. And they want to do so at a cost commensurate to the economic return.

How can we align learning outcomes with work?

In order to boost students’ return on investment, higher education needs to catch up with 21st century workforce needs. The fourth industrial revolution is here; yet higher education is arguably still preparing talent for second industrial revolution jobs. More needs to be done to align learning outcomes with the requirements of the workforce. To do that, we must design education in a way that doesn’t just prepare individuals for their first or next opportunity but puts them on a pathway toward lifetime professional and career progress.

In today’s modern world, “hard” or technical skills have a shelf-life of just two and a half years. This has contributed to a skills-gap—by the time many Americans reach their early 30s, they’re finding themselves in need of up-skilling or re-skilling.

If it’s specific, certifiable skills students are after, we must ask ourselves: are we measuring learning by the number of courses students complete, or by the specific skills they master and leverage to secure high-demand jobs? Are we making our programs attractive to mid-career talent who will need new skills and credentials as their workplace adapts to technological innovation? Are we holding ourselves accountable to these questions, and committing to change if we fall short?

If we don’t look outward and align with workforce needs, students, higher ed institutions, and our economy will suffer.

Are we designing learning that is both affordable and valuable?

The crippling level of student debt in this country is the symptom of a larger problem: too many learning experiences aren’t designed to be affordable.

Since 2002, debt per undergraduate has jumped from $18,870 to more than $31,000 today. With ballooning costs, most often driven by spending unrelated to instruction, students are now mired in overwhelming debt, creating an additional barrier to getting ahead in life. It’s no wonder that just a quarter of U.S. adults believe college is affordable, and only 60% believe it’s accessible to anyone in the country who needs it. This is a real problem, and if we don’t get it under control, students will be increasingly likely to choose not to enroll and pursue options that deliver a better value proposition.

To rebuild trust in higher education, we need innovation to drive not only institutional efficiency, but also changes that reward affordability and value for students. Do the majority of our graduates experience income gains and economic mobility not only within 25 years, but within two years of graduation? Does our business model hinge on high tuition rates, or do we achieve growth by making learning affordable and accessible to the new majority? How are we leveraging technology to bend the cost curve? Are we prioritizing spend towards practices and processes that improve access and increase student persistence and completion?

As we look ahead, we have an opportunity to put students at the center of our thinking, planning, and building. It’s a chance to rethink our design principles, offerings, and measures of success; and a chance to recommit ourselves to providing value—tangible, quantifiable value. We do students and ourselves a disservice to do anything less.

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