A state policy maker called and asked how a next-gen state university would work. They had spent lots of money with a brand name consultant that had given them predictable advice (create a consortium or start a new institution) and the policy maker had the sense that they weren’t pushing hard enough. Given the pressure for lower costs, better outcomes, and expanded access, there’s a new conversation about further and higher education (as they’d say in the Eurozone).

Some universities have partnered with Udacity, Coursera, or edX to expand access to learning opportunities, but that doesn’t create faster, cheaper pathways to degrees. Some states have created partnerships to expand competency-based options with Western Governors University (WGU) and that will save time and money for some. A next-gen state university will combine elements of open and accessible, competency-based, and connected and relevant.

In short next-gen universities will share three characteristics:

  1. Affordability: Cost-effective learning experiences that provide a superior ROI.
  2. Employability: Graduates leave with a high level of knowledge and skills and experience applying them in work settings.
  3. Flexibility: The ability to secure tailored supports, adapt to complex schedules/lives, and accelerate particularly for adults that have knowledge and skills and are looking for credentialing.

Affordability. The explosion of open education resources like Khan Academy and massively open online courses (MOOCs) in the last few years suggests that most learning should be free or inexpensive to access. We’ve reached a point in history where almost anyone can learn almost anything. It’s time for universities to come to grips with the new reality.

You may be able to learn for free, but if you want or need to turn it into credit for career purposes there are expanding options. University Now joined StraighterLine and in the super low cost category. Pearson powers Propero, a low-cost higher education solution that will be most often deployed by community colleges looking for ways to compete in the DIY space. Antioch is offering credit for Coursera courses. A community college is wrapping Coursera content in support services.

There is some opportunity for institutions of further and higher learning to differentiate on the quality of learning experiences. Yet, as access to quality learning expands, differentiation lies in the quality of signaling (degree and reputation) and cost, employability, flexibility, and speed. We’ve reached the beginning of the end of charging folks for enrolling and sitting in class.

Pearson is proctoring Udacity exams for $89. Learners pay about $100 for CLEP tests. This week Coursera announced that it would offer “verified certificates” based on webcam and keyboard typing samples for $100 or less. As we’re seeing with MOOCs, there will be a gradual shift to fee for service in third-tier higher ed. As low cost degree and credential alternatives expand, tiered pricing will work it’s way into second tier (e.g., land grant universities).

Employability. Some young adults have the luxury to enroll in higher education without a concern for employability, but for the majority of enrolling adults getting a job and building a career is a top concern. But most degree programs are lousy at supporting development of job-ready skills and most colleges are lousy at making job connections.

In addition to being in the right place at the right time, employability is a function of three factors:

  • Job relevant knowledge and skills: The result of back-mapping from job requirements definitions;
  • Market signaling: Degree or certificate from a reputable institution, badges that reflect recognized achievements, portfolio of quality work, and/or references based on value delivered; and
  • Connections: Building and/or plugging in to a network of people with relevant connections.

The bar is so low on the employability front that there is real opportunity for differentiation in the area of communications and relational skills. There is also interesting potential for hands-on learning, on-the-job experience in engineering and health occupations.

Flexibility. Next-gen schools will recognize knowledge and skills accumulated on the job or on the web and will offer competency-based credit. Free content prepares learners for College Board’s College Level Examination Program, widely accepted general education credits. States like Indiana and Washington are embracing the competency-based Western Governors University. Both illustrate the viability of test based credits.

Next-gen universities will offer rolling enrollment (like Florida Virtual) and accelerated learning and personalized learning (like ASU and Knewton).

An online counseling system like ASU’s eAdvisor will help students get off to the right start and stay on the right path.

For some young adult learners a high tech apprenticeship model like Enstitute with flexible wrap around learning and life supports will be the best approach.

While learning content will increasingly be free or inexpensive, learners will often pay for tutoring, assessment, support services, workplace learning, onsite and residential experience, transcript management, and extracurriculars. Tiered pricing and tailored supports will be part of a flexible post-secondary experience.

What’s Next? Thinking about how to combining these three components, it’s hard to imagine a state managed institution doing it with speed and nimbleness. It’s more productive to think about a state as an authorizer than an operator. Tapping and outside partner (like what WA and IN did with WGU) seems like the best approach for a state, but it may also be possible to grow one or more community colleges into next-gen baccalaureates.

Next-gen state universities and state partner institutions should be available full and part time, will deliver online and blended courses on a rolling schedule, and will be available for free without credit and for as little as $1,000 per year with credit and transcript management. With tutoring, guidance, and work experience, a degree should cost less than $10,000 (as suggested by Texas governor Rick Perry). Add a residential experience and no student should incur more debt than they would buying a Honda Civic (as suggested by ASU’s Michael Crow).

These new broad access learner-centered institutions will have very different staffing patterns than traditional universities.  Next-gen institutions will have fewer staff involved in content delivery and more involved in student success.  Teams will support academic success. A advisory will track progress, guide course taking, and facilitate work experiences.  Next-gen institutions won’t have a research institution (i.e., R1) but they will be all about continuous improvement and supportive of iterative development.

As the Alliance noted yesterday in their report Repairing a Broken System: Fixing Federal Student Aid, financial aid and related systems also need to be redesigned to focus on student success. States aid systems should embrace alternative and accelerated pathways.

I look forward to sharing specific examples of next-gen higher ed in the coming months.

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