Higher education has some issues. Its cost keeps rising and even if we ever get one time student loan forgiveness, new student loans will just build up again and again. Finding a way out of this cycle is the key.

Because this ever increasing cost leads to a lot of other consequences. Working your way through school has become functionally impossible. 40 years ago it was possible to pay for a 4-year degree while working part time, but with expensive tuition, sometimes unpaid internships, and skyrocketing rent, going through school without taking on heavy loans is less and less likely. The students who attend one of the tuition free colleges are lucky, but they are also incredibly few and far between. The huge increase in homeless college students is just one sign of this. A UCLA study found that one in five California community college students, one in 10 California State University students and one in 20 University of California students are homeless.

In part because of this, many students, especially low income and minority students, are not able to finish the full four years of schooling. Both money and family issues play a part. In spring 2022, 17% of US college students said they were planning to drop out and a further 19% said they didn’t know if they would return to college.

With the increasing cost and the decreasing enrollment (since 2020), colleges may be looking at the same slow death spiral that movie theaters have been staring down for a decade.

To address these problems, there have been a number of studies researching alternatives to our present system.  Abdul Latif Jameel at the World Education Lab released a white paper, Ideas for Designing An Affordable New Educational Institution with a number of interesting alternatives to our present system. Mckinsey and Company also took a look at ways to change colleges. And Cambridge University’s Stefan Collini took a look at previous efforts to remake higher education.

Here are some ideas taken from those sources and others.

  1. Turn a bachelor’s degree into a series of microcredentials: Millions of students complete some college but never finish a degree. Ensuring that students who get through only part of the material come out with something to show what they did learn could be an effective way to meet students where they are. According to Abdul Latif Jameel at the World Education Lab  “In effect, this turns the degree transcripts into an amalgamation of minors and majors. … A student who does not complete a degree may still have several micro-credentials under their belt.”
  2. Shift spending on student services toward instruction: Today the name of the game is attracting more students with more amenities. The problem is that things like climbing walls and coffee bars are attractive to 18 year olds but don’t help to educate them. Since at least the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, meant to combat the great recession, there has been a lot of Federal money for building projects on campuses. From a popularity perspective, it makes sense because it is money towards education that also supports blue collar workers in the area, but the result is a lot of overbuilt campuses and not a lot of learning. Instead, more and more, teaching is being done by junior or adjunct faculty for as low a cost as possible.

  1. Embrace the “co-op” model and provide internships with employers for credit: Colleges and employers could work together to create internships that also fit into the curriculum. Some colleges already do this, and engineering is a subject area that often fits well into industry, but the practice takes considerable effort to coordinate. So while it may have caught on in certain departments, it has not caught on widely at traditional universities. Figuring out how a student in the psychology department might be useful in a corporation is a little more difficult, but it could give the students more exposure to what it would look like to work with the degrees they are earning.
  2. Partner with libraries, historical institutions and trade schools to expand educational opportunities. There are many learning opportunities that don’t take place on college campuses. It is almost a given that the most exciting EdTech experience will not be at a university but will be something like the immersive Anne Frank exhibit currently showing at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance or at the Design Lab at the New York Science Museum. Figuring out how to integrate these experiences into credit or courses is not easy, but doing that work could really expand what a smaller institution could offer.
  3. Encourage team teaching for courses across concentrations:  Professors should be proactive in creating teams of faculty members from different disciplines. All colleges require classes across different disciplines for graduation but there are still very little cross-discipline classes that happen at the undergraduate level. Departments guard their domains jealously and it is rare for there to be true cross-concentration courses, even in areas that make sense to have them.
  4. Boot Camps: For people interested in breaking into coding without a traditional four-year degree, coding boot camps have been an opportunity to learn targeted skills with a high degree of employability. This could be extended to other skills that can be learned online, like 3D modeling or even Microsoft Excel. We interviewed Mike Roberts, who worked for years in bootcamps alone before transforming his organization into an apprenticeship program. 
  5. Reward professors for focusing teaching instead of on research. Many research institutions focus on acquiring “big name” researchers in certain fields in order to attract students interested in those fields (and to move higher in the all-important US News and World Reports Rankings). But few undergraduate students spend much time with superstar professors unless they are lucky enough to be hired in a lab. Without a tenure path that focuses on teaching, it will always play second fiddle to research at some of the largest universities in the country.

A more open and flexible university system is vital, but there are a lot of factors working against it. One of the biggest is of course the US News and World Reports Rankings, which continue to reward the top tier universities with high rankings (although some cracks are starting to show there). Change at universities can be just as difficult as change at K-12 but it starts with incremental steps, at least until everything snowballs.

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