No single idea will cut it. More is the key: more flexibility, more schools, more pricing models, more degrees, more openness to innovation. In private conversations, even current university presidents often desire more programmatic flexibility and innovation, but believe they can’t make many first moves alone. Here is a partial list of steps we can take together to empower them—and other as-yet-unknown innovators.
End the tyranny of four-year degrees. Just one in four college-goers is a dependent, full-time student, working fewer than 16 paid hours a week. Different institutions serve different constituencies, so different schools should be competing for different students with different goals. That so many schools are designed on a single model while serving students who have very different needs and desires is a big part of why so many colleges are financially shipwrecked, and why the students who attend them too often end up the same.
Ditch the credit hour. Education is measured in credit hours, a relic of the industrial economy of the early 20th century. Credit hours tell us little about what students have learned or how much they’ve grown, only how long butts have been in classroom seats. That might have been moderately adequate for the early and mid-1900s, but the model is not well suited to an age filled with the promise of individually tailored instruction. As a history professor, I saw more life change in 15-person seminars than in 200-person lecture classes, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that intimacy beats scale in every discipline. In much math pedagogy, neither 15:1 nor 200:1 student classes are ideal; rather, an infinity-to-one online delivery system augmented by 1:1 and 3:1 breakout tutorials might propel more learners forward faster.
Rethink metrics for teaching and learning. Technology allows individualized programs to guide students, focusing high-touch professor time on yet-to-be-mastered complex material. Students can move at a pace that isn’t available in a traditional, exclusively synchronous classroom. And teachers can gain greater flexibility and adaptability, paired with more rigorous and more transparent accountability.