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Higher Education Experts Discuss Need for Innovation

The call for reform in higher education is getting louder.

With tuition rising, learning being questioned, and a challenging youth job market, a panel of experts gathered in Washington Wednesday discussed innovations that colleges need to consider to remain relevant and accessible to students.

"We have a romanticized vision of what college is today," said Jeff Selingo, senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. "If what we are doing is so great, why don't we have better learning gains and why are so many dropping out?"

Add to the mix a drastic decrease in public funding for higher education, and colleges face the need for major change, the panelists said. Yet many colleges operate the way they have for decades.

"There are some unsustainable economic trends," said Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. "They will have to be confronted by colleges or someone else will for them."

At the Press Club event, Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, expressed concern that college students are spending less time reading and writing. And with so many students getting credits from different institutions, colleges are at risk if academics can't agree on a coherent program that constitutes a degree.

About one-third transfer to another institution before getting a degree.

Using technology to track and improve learning holds promise, but Broad said improvement in productivity is just beginning to be realized in education. Ironically, data mining and advanced networking were developed in colleges and are being used in industry. "But we have not applied that to our own processes. We are just in the early stages," she said.

Arizona State University (sponsor of the panel) has used technology to teach freshman math in more effective ways and enhance the productivity of faculty, said ASU President Michael Crow Wednesday. But some see it as giving up on teaching. "Introduction of technology into college is seen as a cultural affront," he said.

Still, Crow is convinced that ASU can create a "super-faculty member" who can teach in many ways, on various platforms, and the new model can be effective.

The panelists discussed the potential in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to help education reach millions of people. Broad suggested MOOCs can be effective when combined with in-person teaching in a blended model to deepen the curriculum. But the speakers also acknowledged the limitations of the model, such as not being able to evaluate all students, especially in humanities courses where essays may be a better way to assess understanding than a multiple-choice test.

(Today, ACE announced a large research and evaluation project to assess the academic potential of MOOCs.)

While making higher education more inclusive is a goal most would agree is admirable, the reality is there are not adequate incentives for colleges. It takes more resources to educate at-risk students, and schools are increasingly strapped, so it's easier not to enroll them, said Carey. Plus, colleges are rewarded for their prestige, which is measured by their exclusivity, rather than their diversity.

One way to leverage technology to make schools more inclusive would be to allow a student to take a free MOOC as an alternative admissions route to help prove his or her ability, added Selingo.

Crow said ASU has been intentional about admitting all students who qualify, changing teaching methods to be more effective, and re-engineering programs to attract more students to high-demand fields, such as math and science.

Much of what will drive reform in higher education is the changing demographics of students.

Just about 27 percent of college students today are recent high school grads, attending full time and living on campus. The "nontraditional student" is the new normal, and the panelists agreed that schools need to respond to better serve this population that wants more flexibility as they often juggle work, family, and school.

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