As I write this Illinois is one of a handful of states still trying to work out its budget for this fiscal year. While the debate drags out the costs mount. In higher education, low income students dependent on the state’s need based MAP grant program are seeing college opportunity put at risk, talented new faculty are taking offers to work elsewhere, successful faculty with millions of dollars in grants who produce our nation–leading number of patents and actually run small businesses themselves are looking elsewhere, and layoffs are mounting. Hopefully we will restore some certainly to our budget situation soon. I have written previously about the need for Illinois to turn around its billion dollar slide in higher education funding over the last decade.
However, it is also necessary to talk about what higher education can do to most productively use its resources to maximize its service to students and the state. The remodeling is even more urgent in the face of continued revenue concerns for this year and the foreseeable future. In most states pensions and healthcare costs are gobbling up resources like a giant Pac Man ravaging the landscape. Our case for new revenues and support can only be enhanced if we can show we are doing everything we can to ensure the dollars we do have or may be given are being used well. In Illinois we will soon launch a “higher education efficiency and effectiveness initiative” in partnership with the National Governors Association and the Governor’s office to support such work.
I use the term “remodel” here very intentionally. Most of us have been involved in a remodeling project. The first thing we know is that it always takes longer and costs more than expected. It is also targeted. Some rooms in our higher education house are in fairly good shape. For example, research in our best institutions continues to provide massive returns to the economy around patents, products, and innovations. Other rooms are reminiscent of kitchens with lime green appliances or poorly plumbed bathrooms whose appearance discourages use. In speaking around the country I have found partnerships for change with higher education colleagues harder to build using terms like “disruptive innovation” or with what one magazine recently termed “creative destruction” in higher education. Remodeling on the other hand allows a conversation targeting areas of higher education most badly in need of change to meet the needs of 21st century students while preserving those parts that continue to offer value.
The return on investment for a college credential in the current economy is clear. However, much must be done to remodel higher education to maximize that return for the individual and society. This is especially true if we are to meet the needs of low income, adult, and students of color that are most in need of the credential and yet currently are least likely to succeed in obtaining one even when admitted to college. Here are some out of date rooms in our higher education house that definitely need a remodel.
Remodel Academic Delivery Models
Twenty-one percent of the adult population falls into the category of “some college no degree” (Lumina Foundation, 2014). That figure is 22 percent for the Illinois workforce. We have a college stop-out problem that rivals our high school drop-out problem. The college stop-out problem is particularly severe for low income and students of color. There is little or no return on investment for students who attend but do not complete. Their salaries are barely more than a high school graduate and many are burdened with college debt. The solutions to this problem are becoming increasingly clear as leader colleges around the country implement remodels showing positive results. Implementing those solutions to remodel our system, it turns out, is largely a matter of political and institutional will. (For examples across the nation where colleges are exhibiting the will to implement the solutions outlined here go to http://www.completecollege.org/ ). Included among our remodeling targets should be the following.
Implement Guided Pathway Systems (GPS)
The maze of options and courses that currently fill college course catalogs must be restructured to create transparent pathways to career aligned degrees that can be obtained without the excess credits that raise costs and invite failure. Once these pathways are created institutions must commit to offering the right courses at the right times. They must be offered with adequate capacity to ensure all students on a pathway can take the course they need when they need it so they can graduate in four years for a four-year degree and in two years for a two-year degree (or in one year for a one-year workforce valuable credential). While this seems logical to most, it requires a major institutional culture shift focused on offering courses when students need them rather than when it is convenient for the institution or faculty to teach them.
Once these pathways are in place student data capacity must be ramped up to allow just in time tracking of student progress and the implementation of “intrusive advising” strategies to ensure that (a) students are properly advised so that they can choose a pathway aligned with their passions and abilities as early as possible (being an “undecided major” in your second year is a recipe for failure) and (b) students stay on their path through graduation or at least make judicious decisions about changing paths that minimize costs and delays in graduation. Changing majors to follow your passion is fine unless it means you run out of money and are forced to drop out in your junior and senior year (as almost half of students at four-year institutions do).
Remodel Developmental Education
Despite strong efforts to improve college preparation for students (e.g., the implementation of the Common Core Standards and Assessments across states), significant numbers of students enter college in need of developmental or remedial education. We can expect more demand if we begin to enroll more adult students. Higher education addresses this challenge traditionally through offering zero credit developmental (or remedial) education courses that are supposed to move students into credit bearing work and on to degrees. That system is completely broken: students spend limited resources for courses that offer no academic credit toward a degree. Most never complete the developmental courses much less the credit bearing course in math or English for which they are being prepared. This system must be remodeled to minimize time in zero credit courses and accelerate progress to degree. One strategy showing great promise is “co-requisite” remediation. In this remodeling effort students are enrolled in the entry credit bearing course and provided just-in-time supplemental support targeting specific areas of weakness. Other remodeling efforts focus on summer preparatory courses, boot camps, and catch-up programs offered in high schools. Research is needed showing which approaches are best for students at different levels of college preparation. However, any effort to repair this broken system should be welcomed and assessed.
A major determinate of college ROI for students is the quality of the credential they earn. Quality should be defined in two ways. First is the identification and assessment of clear learning outcomes for the degree to ensure every degree carries an institutional warranty that the graduate possesses expected skills and abilities.
What should a student know and be able to do who obtains the degree? That definitional process should be led by faculty but informed by the input of employers who receive graduates with those degrees, alumni, and students themselves.
Clear learning outcome definitions are a part of the growing attention to competency-based degrees and efforts by higher education partners to advance the conversation on quality and learning outcomes in college (e.g., the LEAP work of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Degree Qualifications Profile initiative supported by the Lumina Foundation). However, we have a long way to go before the system abandons classroom seat time as a proxy for learning. This is despite the fact that most would agree that if you are focused on class room seat time as a proxy for learning, you are focused on the wrong end of the student.
The second dimension of quality is defined by the post-graduation economic and civic outcomes of the degree. Many states are putting considerable resources into longitudinal data systems that tie college data to workforce data. It should be common practice to issue regular reports showing employment outcomes by institution and program. Longitudinal systems also could allow us to look at civic outcomes for graduates as well (e.g., voting behavior). Surely the quality of a degree should be questioned if the majority of graduates cannot find employment in their career after a reasonable time and evidence no positive civic outcomes attributable to their education.
Serve the Adult Learner
No group would benefit more immediately from a college credential, enrich the quality of education for all students, and help solve revenue problems for institutions than the tens of millions of adults already in the workforce who lack any college credential, especially the college stop-outs who have some college but no degree. The adult learner “market” for higher education dwarfs the high school graduate market in most states. Twenty-two percent of the Illinois workforce falls into this category. To maximize access, completion and improved quality of life for these learners the system must rethink its academic models and implement strategies including but not limited to:
· expanded prior learning assessment at scale to give adults credit for knowledge they bring from prior education and work/life experience, accelerate progress to degree, and reduce costs;
· strong partnerships with those who currently employ these undereducated adults to strategically manage costs, time, travel, and child care demands that are the primary barriers to adult college completion; and
· delivery of learning through on-line, blended, project based and other strategies that increase relevance and accessibility for adult learners.
In general colleges must remodel systems to bring college to adults rather than making them come to college. How to do this is not a mystery. For a detailed analysis of what is required to promote adult college completion see the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning’s analysis (http://www.cael.org/alfi.htm).
The framework for the strategic remodeling of academic delivery systems has been defined in the literature and is being implemented by a minority of early adopters (see examples at http://completecollege.org/the-game-changers/ and http://www.cael.org ). We must find the will to make these changes pervasive.
These four remodeling projects, implementing GPS, developing co-requisite developmental education courses, ensuring quality of the degree, both academically and vocationally, and developing academic programs that serve adults best are strategies that will increase the affordability and return on investment for college degrees. Next month’s Blog will discuss administrative and financial aid remodeling projects that are needed to update our system so that it is a proper home for 21st century students.