The Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford held a conference in December exploring access to higher education in America.  Dr. Mitchell L. Stevens and three co-authors issued a report that outlined three ideas to boost access to higher education.

Idea 1: Pay explicit attention to the organizational aspects of broad-access higher education.  The report admits that we don’t know much about the complex landscape of higher education and what types of organizations work best for what kinds of market needs and student interests.  “We cannot reasonably hope to help to improve organizational performance in broad-access schools without knowing who broad-access personnel are, how they are trained, how the most ambitious faculty and administrators plot their careers, and how broad-access schools incent improved performance.”

Idea 2: Re-imagine the relationship between college and life course.  The American post-secondary experience is growing much more diverse–in terms of the student population as well as the educational experience.  Questions about the new landscape “suggest that current idealizations of “the college experience” are discordant with the life circumstance of many—probably most—college students. They raise big ethical questions, since a great deal of social science demonstrates that finishing college at a young age brings large material returns over the life course. Who should be entitled to enjoy these benefits, on what basis, at what stage in their lives.”

Idea 3: Build research capacity and useful new knowledge through institutional partnerships. Conference attendees admitted that much of the economic research on college choices is slanted to selective rather than broad-access institutions.  “While participants agreed that families must have accurate and relevant information about college costs, degree completion rates, and labor market returns,” they couldn’t agree on what to do about it.  (Fortunately there are Learn Capital portfolio companies like Acceptly and nonprofits like Strive for College, where I’m a director, working this problem).  Conference “participants stressed the need to have strong student services support for to help students navigate paths completion.”

A complete appendix provides a list of good questions and some of the background papers written for the conference.  Dr. Stevens and his co-authors concluded that, “By rethinking the role of college in the life course and seriously attempting to understand the inner working of schools, we can improve broad-access higher education, fitting it better to accountability imperatives, labor market realities, and students’ real lives.”

I tend to believe the problems in American higher education are worse and more systemic than most of the comments of most of the conference attendees would suggest.  I’m afraid that–having crossed the $1trillion mark in student debt–the basis value equation (i.e., return on investment broadly speaking) is broken.  I support the research agenda outlined here, but also actively support disruptive strategies such as online learning, apprenticeship strategies like those offered by E[stitute], and job-linked just-in-time learning like the courses offered by





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Tom Vander Ark is author of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, The Power of Place, Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and serves on the boards of Education Board Partners, 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


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