Credentials awarded by colleges and universities today date to the 11th century and the birth of University of Bologna in Italy. The idea of the cap and gown, or robe, is a bit fresher, a 12th and 13th century concept reflecting the connection most graduates held at the time to the Catholic Church. We still cling to these educational traditions born nearly 1,000 years ago, when William of Normandy ruled England and Samurai served Japan. Certainly the ideal of higher education—to transmit and add to a body of knowledge—remains important. However, more and more question whether the several hundred-year-old framework of tertiary education is adequate and appropriate for 21st century students.
Gordon E. Moore surmised that the number of transistors in a circuit doubles about every two years. In shorthand, his observation, colloquially referred to as Moore’s Law, has been used to imply that products improve over time. Not so much for higher education. Where technology has transformed industries from manufacturing to food production, much of higher education has remained untouched. Today, its “one size fits all” product poses a problem.
Students from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds are asked to fit into an educational template created nearly a millennium ago, which is often at odds with their today’s needs and expectations. In fact, higher education’s product is designed for a traditional student though 71 percent of all U.S. post-secondary enrollments consist of non-traditional students. In addition, many learners shoulder a portion of the $1.2 trillion of debt in educational loans, and continue to take them because they have been persuaded that a degree is a pre-requisite for a high-paying job. But the majority of graduates will face employers who now believe that half or fewer of their applicants have “the skills and knowledge for advancement,” according to The Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Let’s instead imagine that students at any given point in their life would have the opportunity to acquire specific knowledge in a short period of time and inexpensively—not through more years of broad-based learning and mountains of debt. Student loans would evaporate. We wouldn’t need them—this targeted learning could be funded on a credit card. Students wouldn’t spend so many productive years just in classrooms, but rather could learn while pursuing a career. Education could be open to all—with people of any age dipping back to the well, when the time is right, and expertise needed. Education would revolve around innovation and the evolution of our knowledge-based economy.
Creating new educational products and expanding the number of ways students can access learning would also generate an additional revenue stream for universities, which would help them prosper. Already a certificate rather than a full degree is the fastest growing alternative credential with more than 30% of U.S. adults holding one.
This is because certificates deliver the type of targeted knowledge that leads to increased employability. Certificates help employers discern a candidate’s skillset in a clearer and more reliable way, and are a better signaling device for one’s true competencies.
Over the past two years, Academic Partnerships has worked to create new post-secondary programs that utilize the best of traditional higher education, keeping the university at the center of knowledge distribution. Their development has involved many universities at home and abroad and incorporated input from students and industry. The greater flexibility of these new educational products substantially expands access to higher education for a much broader base of 21st century consumers by aligning with their lifestyle and needs.
Many will always choose a classical, on-campus education, particularly those who can afford to come of age in a traditional campus setting. After all, people choose to handwrite with pen and ink, choose to shop in stores, and choose to read books for the feeling of pages in their hands. We write faster on a computer, order jeans more quickly online, and purchase books cheaply on a virtual screen. But we enjoy the choice.
Today’s students, however, do not have a broad range of learning options. Yet, as the digital generation enters its university years, they will demand them. They will expect learning distilled in multiple formats—not only a lecture course at a set time in a set space. They will expect to find the information they need when they want it, where they want it and in the form they’ve grown comfortable using. Universities offering shorter, cheaper and more relevant alternatives to the traditional setting will grow and flourish.
In a digital age, students should have access to 21st century credentials and all forms of delivery: instruction online and on campus, classrooms and digital schools, books and virtual libraries, bite size courses, alternative credentials and degree programs. Learning will thrive when there is greater choice, resulting in growing participation in higher education at home and around the world.
While the 900-year old model of higher education is sentimental to behold, today’s winds of change are bringing the seed of something new. As technology continues to take root, post-secondary education needs to morph through new forms of delivery and new products to continue to bring about the transformative change in peoples’ lives it has for hundreds of years.