Our Colleges and Universities Need to Innovate. Here’s How.

By Steven Mintz

If American higher education is to meet the demographic, financial, equity, and career-preparation challenges that it faces, innovation – in curricular design, pedagogy, technology, advising, and credentialing – is imperative.  This essay examines the strategies that cutting-edge institutions are implementing to control costs, strengthen teaching, raise retention and completion rates, reduce or eliminate equity gaps, and improve post-graduation employment outcomes.

American higher education is under intense pressure to innovate. As the student body and job market undergo sweeping transformations, it is imperative that what colleges teach, how they teach, and how they assess and certify learning evolve to meet shifting societal needs.

Here is a brief list of the demographic, economic, and political developments that are driving educational innovation.

• The changing student profile.

Today’s college students increasingly come from historically underserved and low-income populations.  Many of these non-traditional students are older and are much more likely to work full time and to have caregiving responsibilities.  Many received an uneven education in high school and are interested in education with a job-market payoff.  They require an education that is flexible, cheaper, and career-oriented.

Today’s college students increasingly come from historically underserved and low-income populations.  Many of these non-traditional students are older and are much more likely to work full time and to have caregiving responsibilities.

A decade-long decline in undergraduate enrollments.

A declining birth rate has resulted in a diminishing number of high school graduates, especially in the Northeast and the Midwest.  This demographic challenge not only impels many institutions to compete more aggressively for students, but is forcing them to alter their acceptance criteria, invest more heavily in financial aid, revise their curricula, and strengthen their academic support services.

Mounting student and parental debt.

Even as institutional expenses continue to rise to pay for financial aid, technology, staff benefits utilities, campus maintenance, expanded and enhanced student services, and compliance with government mandates, institutions are under intense pressure to contain costs and curb the growth of tuition.

Unacceptably low retention and completion rates.

Between 30 and 40 percent of college students fail to graduate.  Rates are even higher for community college, transfer, and part-time students.  Given higher education’s cost, the low completion rate is insupportable.

Equity gaps in access, majors, and completion.

Substantial ethnic and racial disparities exist in admissions to well-resourced, selective institutions, in entry into high demand majors, particularly in STEM fields, and in graduation rates.  Institutions are under intense pressure to reduce these gaps.

Increasing competition from lower-cost online providers.

As a growing number of students expresses an interest in faster, cheaper, more flexible paths into the job market, and turn to lower-cost online universities, broad access brick-and-mortar campuses must compete or else experience chronic financial challenges.

The shift to a knowledge and information economy.

As an industrial and service economy increasingly gives way to a knowledge economy, higher education has become a necessity.  Even jobs in construction, manufacturing, and retail sales increasingly require facility with databases, advanced technologies, and finances, as well as high level analytic, critical thinking, communication, information processing, relational, project-management, logistical, and problem-solving skills.

A widespread perception that higher education’s return on investment and student learning are too uncertain, and that graduates aren’t workforce ready.

As a growing number of voters and business leaders express doubts about the value and effectiveness of a college education, campuses are hard pressed to demonstrate their worth. In particular, institutions are under intense pressure to improve post-graduation employment and earning outcomes.

As a growing number of voters and business leaders express doubts about the value and effectiveness of a college education, campuses are hard pressed to demonstrate their worth.

Access, affordability, degree attainment, and post-graduation outcomes are the biggest challenges facing American higher education.  Given these realities, it is essential that Institutions innovate. They must contain costs, reverse slumping enrollment, tap new sources of revenue, accelerate time to degree, and bring more students to completion and post-graduation success.  And colleges and universities must do all of these things while maintaining or improving quality and rigor.

Achieving these objectives requires innovation in curriculum design, pedagogy, and support services, Let’s look at a series of areas where innovation is already beginning to make a difference.

Expanding Access

Large segments of the American population are underserved academically. These include many students from low-income backgrounds, working adults and family caregivers without a degree, degree completers (who left college before receiving a degree), and many veterans and individuals with disabilities.

Given the multiple demands on their lives, many of these potential students need an education that is more flexible, cheaper, faster, and more career-focused than that provided to traditional-aged undergraduates. Strategies to meet those needs include: 

• A competency- or outcomes-based education that emphasizes demonstrated skills and knowledge rather than seat time or credit hours.

Credit for prior learning acquired in the job market or the military.

Flexible start dates, shorter terms or semesters, and greater opportunities for self-paced, self-directed, and practical and applied hands-on learning.

Enhancing Affordability

As the cost of a college education has climbed faster than the cost of living and even faster than the cost of housing and healthcare, pressure to make college more affordable has intensified, prompting a variety of innovations.

States are increasingly blurring the boundaries between high school and college by expanding the ability of students to earn college credits through early college/dual degree, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate programs.

Competency based approaches allow students to accelerate time to completion by demonstrating mastery of essential knowledge and skills.

Local and state “College Promise” programs offer high school graduates scholarships that cover the cost of tuition and fees at 2-year and, in some cases, 4-year institutions. 

Alternate, non-degree credentials and certifications (some of which can be stacked into a degree) hold out the promise of accelerated, lower-cost routes into high demand fields.  

Improving Student Learning

Concern that too many degree recipients lack the knowledge and skills expected of a college graduate has spurred a variety of pedagogical innovations that are designed to increase student engagement and to transform learning into a more active process. These include:

Flipped classrooms:  A blended approach to learning in which students study content outside of class and apply and practice skills in class.

Gameful learning:  An approach to learning that borrows from game design, and typically substitutes points, levels, challenges, and competitions for traditional grades or examinations and term papers.

Technologically-enhanced learning:  Unlike earlier forms of technology-supported learning, which sought to replace instructors and automate drilling and quizzing, new technologies promote active learning, allowing students to collaboratively annotate texts and images, visualize data, map concepts, create digital stories, infographics, podcasts, and virtual exhibits, and contribute to blogs and virtual encyclopedias.

Social and emotional learning:  An approach to education designed to enhance students’ self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship skills; help them work effectively in teams; and strengthen their self-regulatory and decision-making skills.

Inquiry-, project-, case-, problem-, and team-based learning: Active learning approaches that involve students in investigation, analysis, and problem-solving, and authentic and meaningful undertakings individually or in groups.

Maker spaces:  Workspaces where students can build, create, and invent. 

Raising Retention and Graduation Rates

Currently upwards of a third of first-time, full-time students fail to graduate in six years. The figure is even higher for part-time and transfer students.  Since students who don’t graduate receive few of higher education’s financial or career benefits, colleges and universities are under intense pressure to improve retention and graduation rates.  Among the innovative approaches that pace-setting institutions have adopted are these:

Wrap-around academic, financial, and social supports:  The City University of New York’s ASAP program has demonstrated success among low-income students by covering the cost of tuition, fees, textbooks, and transportation and providing dedicated academic advising and career counseling. 

Structured degree pathways:  Clearly delineated and coherent curricular pathways that lead to post-graduation career and consist of carefully sequenced synergistic courses, which help keep students on track to a degree.

Using data to bolster student success:  Analytics drawing upon student-level data allow institutions to identify roadblocks to graduation and trigger interventions when students are disengaged, confused, or off-track.

Producing Career-Ready Graduates

For most undergraduates, the primary reason to attend college is career preparation.  Yet as many as forty percent of graduates wind up in jobs that do not require a college degree.  Even worse, 30 percent of colleges produce graduates that earn the same or less than a high school graduate.  To produce graduates better prepared for the job market, some colleges and universities have adopted the following innovations:

Embedding career preparation across the undergraduate experience:  Too often, students wait until their senior year to visit their campus’ career center and think seriously about their work life post-graduation.  As a result, many flail and flounder for years before falling into a steady job that may or may not reflect their education.  A growing number of institutions have responded by open windows into career possibilities and job requirements beginning in the freshman year.

Offering workshops, bootcamps, and institutes (sometimes in partnership with for- and non-profit organizations):  Because many practical workplace skills are not offered in traditional academic courses, institutions have created opportunities for students to acquire those competencies by offering opportunities to learn how to use databases, spreadsheets, business communication platforms, and acquire other business-related skills.

Integrating job-related certificates and certifications into degree pathways:  A growing number of institutions now participate in programs developed by Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and other companies that offer online training programs in high-growth, high-demand fields such as IT support, project management, data analytics and user interface design.

Expanding coop programs and opportunities for mentored internships:  These initiatives provide practical, meaningful experience in a professional setting related to their career interests.

Much of the public conversation about educational innovation focuses on disruptive innovation – various challenges to incumbent institutions, with their fixed academic calendars, 15-week courses, costly physical plants, and rigid ways of doing business – and on technological innovation – like artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality. 

But the most important innovations lie elsewhere:  in policy, curriculum design, teaching, assessment, support services, course delivery modalities, digitally-enhanced collaboration, and the uses of data.  These innovations are already making a profound difference in students’ academic experience.

These innovations may not be as flashy as placing students in immersive virtual environments or deploying machine-learning powered digital tutors. But because these innovations draw on fundamental insights drawn from the learning sciences, they are much more likely to enhance student learning.  

In recent years, the fields of cognitive, developmental, educational psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, have taught us a great deal about how students learn and how to optimize students’ learning outcomes.  Key findings from learning science research include these:

Deep learning and conceptual understanding require students to actively process information, alone or with peers, rather than merely absorbing information passively.

Engagement is central to learning and students are more motivated to persist when they consider the content meaningful and relevant and believe that their abilities and skills can be developed through sustained effort and practice.

Students learn more when an instructor guides, models, scaffolds, and supports student learning and provides regular, substantive feedback and when students interact with one another, for example, by taking part in discussions and debates, or engaging in role playing activities, or participating in collaborative inquiry or problem solving. 

That instructors can enhance student learning by embracing certain empirically-validated pedagogical practices, including:

Frequent low-stakes quizzing:  Frequent quizzing helps students strengthen their ability to remember, retrieve, and apply information while reducing test-taking anxieties.

Interleaving:  Learning is improved when students study a variety of topics rather than focusing exclusively on a single subject.

Mental modeling:  Comprehension increases when students extract underlying patterns and principles from the instructional material and construct an explanation,  an interpretive framework, or a casual model.

Retrieval practice:  The effortful recall of facts or concepts reinforces memory and understanding.

Spaced practice:  Spreading the study of content and concepts over time strengthens cognitive understanding.

Metacognition:  To become a self-regulated learners, students must learn how to monitor and critically evaluate one’s thought processes, knowledge, and skills. 

If colleges and universities are to truly embrace the insights of the learning sciences, they must innovate in the very heart of the academic enterprise, the instruction experience.  They must:

Encourage, support, and incentivize faculty members to rethink the way they teach and devote more attention to their roles as mentors and instructional architects. 

Make inquiry- and project-based and experiential learning and educationally purposeful, high impact practices (like learning communities, undergraduate research, internships, study abroad, and service learning) a bigger part of the undergraduate experience.

Use data analytics to identify students who need advice and assistance and intervene proactively, and pinpoint and address equity gaps.

None of this will be easy.  But it is imperative if we truly are to bring many more students to a successful future.

The overwhelming majority of students prefer a more traditional college-going experience, despite its high price tag. Nevertheless, institutions must adapt to shifting realities.  They simply must find ways to constrain costs, improve teaching, strengthen advising, expand experiential learning opportunities, enhance support services, interweave career preparation throughout the curriculum, and bring a much higher proportion of undergraduates to completion.  

Innovation and experimentation are essential if colleges and universities are to meet
these challenges. 

About the Author

Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the prize-winning author and editor of 15 books, directed the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning.  He has also taught at Columbia University, where he directed the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center, Harvard’s Extension School, Pepperdine University, the University of Houston, and Universität-Siegen in Germany.  The past president of H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online and the Society for the History of Children and Youth, he has chaired the Council on Contemporary Families and been a visiting scholar at Harvard and a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.