Do We Really Need New University Models?

Another day, another fresh proposal for the future of postsecondary education.

The latest comes from five MIT professors, who imagine: a new institution that delivers high quality, affordable bachelor’s-level education in fields such as computer science and business, and, eventually, in engineering.” They call for:

  • A teaching focused faculty.
  • A flipped classroom and a team-teaching pedagogical model that combines online and in-person delivery.
  • A business and computer science-focused curriculum that integrates instruction in the humanities and social sciences.
  • A degree consisting of stackable microcredentials rather than a major and a minor.
  • A requirement that students spend at least 4 trimesters in co-ops in companies, museums, labs, NGOs, government agencies, or universities.
  • Extracurricular offerings to promote wellness and professional development.

Nor is this the first innovation proposal from MIT. Perhaps you recall Christine Ortiz’s plan for a university without traditional classes and academic departments. Station 1 currently consists of a ten-week summer fellowship program ten-week summer experience for first-generation and underpresented undergraduates from low-income backgrounds that involves socially-directed science and technology education, research, and innovation.

I don’t mean to sound flippant or dismissive in my discussion of these proposed innovations. The figures behind the New Educational Institution and Station 1 have been responsible for some of the most interesting ideas to come out of the academy in recent years, including Open Courseware and MOOCs and flipped classrooms.

Still, I’m wary. Why not change one’s own institution, rather than proposing something new? After all, institutions outside the academy have undergone radical shifts. IBM evolved from a hardware to a service company. The auto industry is rapidly electrifying. In other words, there’s no inherent reason why our colleges and universities can’t undergo similarly far-reaching transformations.

Many of the proposed innovations are already out there. They’re just not well integrated into institutions’ modes of operation.

Yet with the exception of the mega-online non-profit providers, Western Governors, Southern New Hampshire, and Arizona State Online, the record of the new model universities is not especially encouraging. Some, like the University of Austin, apparently remain mired in the planning stage; Others, like Minerva, remain quite small, offering a boutique experience rather than serving as an alternative higher ed model. Then there are those like Hampshire College and Quest University, that have encountered severe financial difficulties; While still others, like UC-Santa Cruz and the University of North Texas at Dallas, gravitated away from their radical founding vision and now offer a more conventional education.

The most notable exception is Olin College, with its project-based engineering curriculum, which has benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from a private foundation but which has also experienced significant financial ups-and-downs.

The most successful alternatives to business as usual are actually quite long standing institutions: those offering co-op programs, like Drexel, Northeastern, and the Universities of Cincinnati and Waterloo; the work universities, like Alice Lloyd, Berea, and, more recently, Paul Quinn, that include an integrated work-learning component; the one-course-at-a-time colleges, Colorado and Cornell Colleges; and the community colleges that have adopted a highly structured curriculum and holistic, wrap-around student supports, like CUNY’s ASAP programs at Borough of Manhattan, Bronx, Hostos, Kingsborough, LaGuardia, and Queensborough Community Colleges; College of Staten Island, Medgar Evers College; and New York City College of Technology.

Every day seems to bring novel (or not so novel) schemes to address the problems with this nation’s existing system of post-high school education and training. Skills boot camps. Apprenticeships. On-the-job training. School-industry partnerships. Stackable job-aligned credentials and certifications.

In evaluating these proposals, I urge you to ask the following questions.

1. What are the problems that the innovation to solve?
Affordability? Retention and completion? Time to degree? Career alignment? The quality of the academic experience? Or something else? If the answer isn’t self-evident, if it isn’t markedly different from what other institutions currently offer, then perhaps the proposed model isn’t needed.

2. What is the target audience?
Working adults? Family caregivers? Those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds? Those who received an uneven high school education? Ask yourself: What is it about the proposed institution that will serve these students better than existing institutions? If the answer is unclear, then funds would probably be better spent on those existing programs, like the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s highly successful Meyerhoff Scholars Program.

3. Are the proposed innovations a thought experiment, a design exercise, or evidence-based, realistic, and scalable?
Higher ed can benefit from brainstorming and outside-the-box thinking. To take one example: Competency-based education has only been truly implemented at a handful of institutions. But its emphasis on demonstrated, verified learning outcomes (as opposed to seat time) has led many institutions to focus more on skills outcomes than simply the accumulation of credit hours.

4. Will the innovation truly solve the problems that higher ed most urgently needs to address?
MOOCs, which initially promised to provide classes from the world’s leading scholars for free, turned out to only work for a certain kind of student: autodidacts. By failing to provide sufficient interaction with an instructor and or sufficient constructive feedback, and by refusing to disaggregate their content, activities, or assessments, these massive online courses could not address the bigger challenges that higher education faces, especially the need to bring unevenly prepared students to success in high demand fields of study.

5. Would you be willing to let your own child pursue this novel pathway?
If your answer is “no,” if the proposal is only suitable for “other people’s children,” then you need to think long and hard about whether it offers a direction we should pursue.

Many of the highly touted higher educational experiments of the 1960s – which sought to replace grades with detailed evaluations, eliminate rigid graduation requirements and departments, and offer a more interdisciplinary education – spoke to very different issues than higher ed must now tackle.

We must figure out how to address an extremely serious completion problem. We must do more to eliminate achievement gaps. We must address the worsening stratification of higher education which provides a far less personalized and supportive education to the students who need that most. We must better prepare students preparation for the job market and increase the return on their investment.

If the proposed innovations fail to explicitly address these challenges, look elsewhere.

In a recent posting, Ryan Craig, who I consider among postsecondary education’s most thoughtful and insightful future-facing thinkers, argues that our institutions need to take several steps to improve students’ post-graduation outcomes:

1. Ensure that students graduate with at least one industry-recognized credential.
This is especially necessary if a student is enrolled in a major with lower employer. And such a credential should be embedded near the very start of their education, which will not only contribute to the student’s academic momentum, but ensure that they have a job qualification if their college journey fails to work out.

2. Make sure that undergraduates acquire some relevant work experience.
Ideally, this would mean an internship or an apprenticeship. But I can think of other paths forward, including embedding into existing courses collaborative projects that tackle an organization’s real-world problem. That organization might be a government agency, an NGO, a non-profit, a museum, or a business.

There’s something else we need to do. We need to provide all undergraduates, not just our most obviously talented, with those high-impact, educationally-purposeful practices that George Kuh has identified. The purpose, however, is not simply to enrich their academic experience, but to help them grow across every dimension, cognitively, but also socially, ethically, and intrapersonally.

I’ve had the great pleasure of watching a young man grow up, attend Morehouse College, and go on to a highly successful legal and political career. I envy his Morehouse experience, and wish that many more undergraduates could receive something similar.

Morehouse, of course, has a fraction of the resources of the most highly selective, predominantly white research universities and liberal arts colleges. But it has something else: A well-defined mission. A faculty and staff dedicated to that mission. Students and parents who buy into that mission. Devoted alumni who give back to their alma mater not just with donations, but time, mentoring, and networking.

Many more universities should look at the Morehouse example and ask what that institution is doing that they’re not. Then they should dig deeper and ask what kind of graduates they wish to produce, what kind of future workers they wish to train, and what steps they need to take to make that happen.

I know: Most institutions don’t have Morehouse’s tradition or mission. They don’t have a mission-driven faculty who consider themselves, first and foremost, teachers and mentors whose primary job is not research, publication, or professional advancement but to bring all students to success. Like the very best K-12 teachers, whether at public or charter or private schools, teaching isn’t a job or even a career or a profession. It’s a calling, one whose responsibilities do not end when the bell rings.

Morehouse does not consider itself simply a conveyor belt to the job market, even though it is a remarkable engine of upward mobility. The college is fundamentally about personal development, transformation, growth, and maturation.

I didn’t have the privilege of attending Morehouse, but I did spend time at Fisk and at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, where I saw firsthand a similar dedication to mission and the profound consequences that carries.

Most institutions, even those that have religious roots, are secular and liberal in those words’ worst sense: They lack a guiding vision and a commitment to produce a certain kind of graduate.

Our institutions have many faculty members who are mission-driven and who regard teaching as a special calling. The challenge is to harness that dedication and energy, and give these faculty and staff members opportunities to direct their talents and commitments in ways that extend outside of their individual classrooms or offices to the benefit of the institution as a whole.

Empower those faculty and staff members. Place them in leadership positions in learning communities, cohort programs, and undergraduate research initiatives. Perhaps your institution can’t become Morehouse, but it does have the potential to become more learning and learner-centered, more devoted to students’ well-rounded development, and more self-aware about the kinds of graduates it seeks to nurse.

Our colleges and universities may be impersonal and bureaucratic in the Weberian sense – with their rigid division of labor, clearly established hierarchies, functional specialization, and comprehensive sets of formal rules and regulations. But it’s essential that their faculty and staff struggle against bureaucratic rationality, and infuse our institutions with creativity, empathy, caring, and a sense of mission that goes well beyond bringing students to a degree.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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