Higher Education: Losing Faith?


Practitioners and policymakers in higher education have seen the results of the accelerant (Covid-19) poured onto the conflagration of the defunct business model that has sustained it for so long. With so many families and students making choices that have resulted in declining enrollment and concomitant cuts at institutions of higher education, one would think the sector incapable of innovating in order to be more relevant, irrespective of any pandemic pressures.

 The future of higher education looks remarkably different from the past. Articles such as “For-Profit Colleges, Long Troubled, See Surge Amid Pandemic” (The New York Times, June 17, 2020) exhibit myopia of the highest degree when over-focusing on the distinctions between for-profit and not-for-profit colleges. The future demands innovation, affordability, and choice within the framework that we call ‘higher education,’ but too many institutions – including the notable, not-for-profit names—seem to lack imagination when it comes to envisioning the future. If for-profit colleges have gained in enrollment because their business design principles have positioned them to do so, consider it an early-stage insight into the importance of how we design higher education, and the (positive) consequences of that design.

Jane Oates, President of WorkingNation,  who served in education and labor roles in federal and state government, writes, “It’s not surprising that many people have lost faith in the power of every degree to provide a reliable path to career growth.” She adds, echoing the reality of so many would-be students and working professionals, “For too long, degrees have been the sole measure of a person’s ability to learn. We know now that people learn in a variety of ways, including on the job.” This perspective finds cogent articulation in the Learners First Framework from The President’s Forum for Innovation, which ought to be required reading for all in higher education and policymaking. The framework’s ten guiding principles provide clear direction for a sector that has been weakening for decades, accelerated further by the pandemic, captured poignantly in the ninth principle “End the broken economics of learning.”

It is high time for higher education to move past the rhetoric of innovation and affordability, and consider relevance as being worthy and noble. Higher education must adapt to offer diverse pathways to credentialing and recognition, whether those pathways result in a degree (as we have known it) or credentials that offer industry recognition and portability. What if industry were to partner in (or, inventively, become a provider of) credentialing and recognition, the geographical, social, and system-related boundaries of higher education would become a thing of the past, vastly increasing innovation, affordability, and choice.

“What if…?” indeed.

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