Higher Education, Hope

Degrees Re-Imagined

Generally, when I write this weekly post, my ideas are inspired by some interesting development in the higher education news, a recent book on teaching and learning, or some new initiative here at WCSU. This morning, when I was reading the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, I just shook my head. The higher ed news is littered with battles over academic freedom, affirmative action, and the ongoing impact of COVID-19. There are concerns over admissions strategies that reflect our cultural obsession with big name schools, and the details have almost nothing to do with the rest of us. There are tales of demographic disaster, no longer looming, but fully here, and well, I’m already living the reality, so welcome to the club. I just wanted to go back to bed.

But I have never been one to walk away from hard things, and I have a habit of getting up and moving forward despite the gloomy news, so I spent some of this morning thinking about a real reimagining of higher education. In particular, I have been thinking a lot about two things that, when combined, make me wonder if it might be possible to rebuild the entire system (well, not those elite schools, but the rest of us) in a way that reflects the needs and interests of the students we are serving now. Those two things are the short courses of study that lead to immediate credentials (recognized by various employers as valuable) and the potential emergence of the 90-credit BA in the United States.

The short courses of study – certificates and micro-credentials – are a favorite topic of politicians suddenly interested in education. Of course, what these politicians are mostly interested in is workforce development. Economic plans are drawn up by economic policy developers of various states. These plans identify gaps is talent for fields that are either critical to support the current socio-economic infrastructure or necessary to attract a new kind of industry to the state. That gap then becomes a focus of the conversations about education and, well, four-years just seems too long to wait to fill it. Enter the certificates.

Many of us in higher education find the motives for these programs a little suspect. We see our expertise downplayed and the demands of the market/employer amplified. This is true, and sometimes it is downright insulting. We also worry that the overemphasis on employability diminishes the perceived value of the rest of what we do (holistic education, that is rooted in the liberal arts). This is also true and worrisome. Finally, many of us worry that students will be steered towards these programs in ways that replicate the structural inequities in opportunities that have long pervaded all of our systems, but higher education in particular. This is a valid concern.

Nevertheless, there is a part of this emphasis on short-term credentials that we should be paying attention to specifically because of the interests of our students. Many of us serve students who are a) in need of skills they can use right away, to support themselves and their education, and b) not convinced of the value of the four-year experience we currently offer. So, I’m wondering if we might be thoughtful in our response to this approach to education. My colleagues in community colleges are already adept at navigating these kinds of credentials. They have been serving students who need an immediate payoff for their education for years. They are also committed to opening doors, not closing them with these degrees, so they have been focusing on stackable credentials, weaving the short credential into a longer path to a two-year degree. Those degrees transfer to us. Great. Half the job is thinking about this has already been done for us.

But there is more for the four-year colleges to do. If we choose to go in the direction of micro-credentials, we need to ask ourselves a few things: 1. What are the right kinds of credentials for a four-year school? It’s not a great idea to replicate the work of the community colleges. They are expert in this, and they cost less. No contest. But surely there are things that are more appropriate for the university context, where there is a presumption that students will continue after the short credential. 2. How do we make it easy to return to campus, when some students decide to stop out and earn some money with that credential? 3. How do we communicate the value of continuing after that credential and can we do it with evidence?

The other end of this story is the potential emergence of the 3-year (90 credit) baccalaureate degree in the United States. This model has existed in Europe for many years, with many schools there labeling the four-year version as an honors degree. The four-year version tends to focus on research and independent reading in addition to the core 3-year program. It is an intriguing idea, but there are some key things that need to be considered.

The first thing is to acknowledge that the three-year degrees have fewer electives. These degrees are far more focused on the major with a few slots left for breadth. This is a loss for the breadth that we love about our traditional, four-year liberal arts degree. Still, this might be an attractive option for many of the students attending college right now. For those who are ready to declare a major in year one, this is a faster route to the engaging their area of interest, which can be motivation to stick with us. This is not a degree devoid of breadth, so students will still have some room to wander and with careful design, a change of major might not be too damaging. Certainly, we could engineer a plan that would allow degree completion within the original four-year model if students change course.

Where it the 90 credit model is wanting, is for those who are a) missing some academic foundations or b) not ready to declare a major. The work that many of us have done with embedded support in foundational math and writing might be a strategy for this. For those unsure of their interests and talents, we might strengthen our pre-major pathways (meta-majors) and include some education about careers and self-assessments to facilitate decision-making. This could work, but I’m guessing these folks will need the four years. So will the students planning to pursue advanced degrees – much like the honors courses (majors) in Europe.

These options are intriguing, and I am keen to think them through. These are fun questions, questions that involve invention and imagination and an honest look our students’ needs and the expectations of the world we hope to prepare them for. The options could actually expand opportunity by letting go of our commitment to a one-size-fits-all model. This could be the creation of multiple paths to success, instead of just offering fallback plans that are less than satisfying for everyone involved. It is even a chance to disrupt the traditional timeline for degree completion, focusing more on completion points than a single ending. That might encourage graduates to return later. Oh, now we’re talking.

This is a lot more fun than all the doom and gloom I woke to this morning. Like the lengthening of the daylight hours, I am shaking off the darkness and looking for a brighter future after all.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.