For most non-elite students, the higher education system in the United States is fundamentally broken. Tuition and enrollment costs continue to soar. Many aren’t learning relevant skills to be successful in the workforce and are struggling to find long-term, full-time employment after graduation. There is an ever-widening socioeconomic gap as upward mobility is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.
At the GovLab’s most recent Ideas Lunch, Alan Kantrow, an education and economic consultant and the GovLab’s new Chief Learning and Communications Officer, gave an in-depth presentation on the global implications of these and other shortcomings in the entrenched higher education system, along with an overview of key solutions he and others in the field are taking on domestically and globally. Kantrow’s primary assertion was that – for most student segments in this and other countries – the current model of higher (tertiary) education, which hearkens back to the latter 19th century, is neither relevant nor sustainable.
Kantrow explained, “The current model is treated as if it came down from Sinai – as if it were eternally set in stone.” Notoriously resistant to change, institutions of higher education are “’saving the appearances’, and acting as if where we used to draw these lines still makes sense when, increasingly, it does not.” To demonstrate this fundamental disconnect, Kantrow cited a recent Gallup poll that found that 96% of U.S. chief academic officers who believe that students are being adequately prepared for real world, but only 14% of the general population and 11% of CEOs and hiring managers who agree.
Far from just a domestic problem, Kantrow noted that countries around the world, like Saudi Arabia and Russia, continue to copy our broken model, which is contributing to civil unrest and economic instability in areas where political tensions already run high. Kantrow warned that these and other societies may come under great strain if the disconnect between education and meaningful employment opportunities is not remedied.
Kantrow’s central assertion was that in order to serve the cause of student development and improve the system, four-year colleges, universities and community colleges must re-evaluate how they are preparing most segments of students for success in the modern workforce and change their approach in regard to these key areas of concern:
Cost-Effectiveness – Higher education costs have risen beyond the rate of inflation. Many students are now priced out of these institutions, which are continuously asked to do more with dwindling resources. At the same time, middle-class, white-collar jobs for those with modest tertiary educations are disappearing. Better data should be utilized and findings made more available so that students and parents can assess the true value of investing in different schools and the types of programs that would best suit their individual situations or future plans.
21st Century Skills – As it stands, there is little understanding of how schools and programs are successfully or unsuccessfully preparing students for available job opportunities. To remedy this, we must determine how employers and colleges can better collaborate to ensure that the types of skills necessary to succeed are being adequately taught in the classroom.
Inclusivity – The current education system is structured for the academically elite segment and increasingly under-serves everyone else. Most courses operate under a one-size-fits-all pedagogical model that doesn’t work for all learning styles and does not adequately prepare those who are not pursuing academic careers. Institutions should restructure college education to better accommodate various populations at different skill and interest levels. A curriculum that will serve the “brilliant academic” is not representative of the larger population of students who would be better served by learning the advanced critical thinking and communication skills that are more relevant to modern life and many potential careers. “[My argument] doesn’t apply to training smart young people to be great astrophysicists and lawyers – we’re doing this well. But we stink at every other level,” said Kantrow.
Remediation and Rigidity – In many cases, institutions are unable to devote sufficient resources to the core curriculum for different programs because a significant amount so money and resources are put toward remediation for students who come to college lacking the requisite freshman-level skills. Additionally, degree plans are often rigid and redundant. Students often move from a system of remedial learning to an overly constrained course load that offers them little freedom to pursue courses that interest them.
Changing the Current Model
The next step is action: What incremental and major changes must be made to have a lasting impact? Kantrow outlined a few new models that are currently working on a smaller scale, such as community colleges, online learning, and more in-depth on-the-job training. He concluded by charging the group, notably the GovLab and others working in government innovation, with the task of pushing the conversation of education accountability, innovation and reform forward, calling it “an economic and moral imperative for action.”