What a difference five years makes

Just five years ago, higher education as we knew it appeared headed toward a precipice.

MOOCs from Stanford, MIT, and Harvard held out the prospect of a handful of institutions providing “the best courses from the top professors” to students across the world for free. Meanwhile, for-profit universities – with little competition from existing brick and mortar institutions – were tapping the most rapidly growing segments of the student population: the working adults, family caregivers, and low-income students who were seeking marketable skills.

Radical innovation was in the air, as transformational educational models – like Minerva’s or the University of the People’s or the University of North Texas Dallas’s (with a non-tenured, non-research-oriented faculty offering a narrow range of career-aligned majors) – sprang up.

Five years later, MOOCs continue to grow and, for the first time, generate a significant amount of revenue. 58 million students registered for MOOCs in 2016, 23 million for the first time, and, thanks to revenue resulting from pay walls, course and platform fees, and paid access to certificates, instructors, and student support, earned an estimated $100 million. At the same time, for-profit institutions enrolled nearly 3 million of the more than 19 million college students in the United States.

Nevertheless, higher education’s existential crisis was over. The most radical forces for disruption had faded. MOOCs and various transformational models failed to attract substantial numbers of undergraduates. For-profits’ enrollment rapidly fell under pressure from government regulators. Use of interactive courseware, like OLI’s, and even OER seemingly stalled. Free and low-cost options, like ASU’s Global Freshman Academy, failed to find a substantial audience.

Still, the higher education ecosystem had undergone a sea change. At the broad access institutions that serve the overwhelming majority of students, an unprecedented focus on student success, both in terms of academic and post-graduation outcomes, educational equity, and affordability arose, along with an unparalleled willingness to rethink existing ways of doing business.

Institutions began to test new curricular pathways that were simpler and more transparent, coherent, and intentionally designed; novel pedagogies informed by the science of learning; innovative delivery modes that emphasized flexibility; and state-of-the-art student services that were robust, proactive, and data-driven. Ferment and a willingness to think outside of traditional boxes were in the air, as institutions and foundations explored fresh approaches to assessment, credentialing, and transcripting.

A series of forces – demographic, behavioral, financial, and political – had combined to drive these transformations. Many more non-traditional students, often the graduates of underperforming high schools, enrolled in colleges and universities, and too few ever earned a degree. Many more students acquired credits from multiple institutions, including high schools, threatening lower division enrollment and existing business models. As per student, inflation-adjusted public funding stagnated or even declined, institutions suddenly realized that their financial sustainability now hinged upon their retention and graduation rates, prompting many to turn to vendors – like EAB or Civitas Learning – that promised to help out.

Perhaps most importantly, the political context had shifted. In the wake of the Great Recession, concern about student debt, attainment gaps, graduation rates, and learning and employment outcomes greatly intensified.

Although the threat of radical disruption abated, there was no reason to think that higher education has achieved a new steady state. Costs – for instruction, financial aid, technology, support services, compliance with federal and state laws and regulations, and facilities – continue to rise above the inflation rate and neither public investment, revenue from continuing education, nor philanthropy or grants and contracts are able to make up the difference. Enrollment trends, too, pose severe challenges, as the proportion of students requiring financial aid, remediation, and wrap-around supports increases and as institutions in areas with declining numbers of high school graduates compete aggressively for students.

Public policy – including performance-based funding, demands that institutions make credit transfer more seamless, and mandates that programs identify the marketable skills their students acquire – presents additional challenges. So, too, does competition from a new breed of alternate providers, including coding boot camps and low-cost competency-based programs like Western Governors University.

In the meantime, standards for a high-quality education continue to rise. There is a widespread sense that student access to experiential learning and high impact pedagogies – including mentored research, internships, service learning opportunities, and study abroad – should increase. A quality education, many believe, needs to be immersive, activity-focused, well-supported, and technology-enhanced, featuring advanced simulations, maker spaces, and expanded interactions with faculty.

Providing such a rich educational experience at a time when institutions are under extreme financial pressure will not be easy. What is clear is that business as usual is not an option.

The “artisanal” approach to course development, in which individual faculty members create all their courses wholly on their own, without any assistance from instructional designers, technologists, and assessment experts, will decline. So, too, will traditional lecture courses. Fewer faculty, I suspect, will be able to decide, largely on their own, what and when to teach. Faculty members, especially those in the humanities, are likely to be tasked with placing much more emphasis on developing their students’ “21st century literacies” and soft skills.

Yet at the same time faculty will have expanded opportunities to architect much more meaningful learning experiences, work collaboratively with colleagues from other departments to design learning pathways, engage in rigorous research on student learning, and devote their time and energies to student mentoring.

Historical change always involves trade-offs. If higher education is to serve as society’s primary vehicle for social mobility, if our broad access institutions are going to successfully address society’s class divide, we need to view this brave new world not as a declension from a mythical golden age, but as an exciting opportunity for innovation and transformation.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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