by Sanjay E. Sarma*
Higher education finds itself trapped in a distressing quandary. On the one hand, employers have voiced increasing concerns about the disconnect between education and employability. On the other, the cost of higher education is growing rapidly. In the US, for example, tuition fees have outpaced inflation significantly, and total debt has surpassed $1.75 trillion.
It should come as no surprise that public opinion of higher education in the US has plummeted in recent years and academic institutions find themselves embroiled in an increasingly polarized debate. And for all that, the health of many academic institutions in the US is precarious – indicating that the structural issues are deep-rooted.
The problems are global too: many nations subsidize higher education significantly, and government expenditures are high as 2.5% of GDP, while the employability gap is often even more pronounced than in the US.
Employers are beginning to react in two ways. First, they are relying less on a college education: the number of jobs requiring an undergraduate degree dropped by 45% in the US in the first year of the pandemic. Second, major companies are trying alternate educational pathways to employment.
Most industries would have declared an emergency under such circumstances, and academia should. Classical higher education has many attributes that should be preserved: a well-rounded education, preparation for life, and social and emotional development.
But academic leadership must come up with answers to existential questions before less palatable solutions are foisted upon them.
New educational institution as model for the future
In September 2022, my colleagues and I published a white paper that describes an alternative model for baccalaureate education in fields such as computer science and business. We propose several structural, pedagogical and curricular changes for a conceptual new educational institution (NEI).
The NEI is intended to be primarily residential, but teaching will be based on a so-called “flipped classroom” model, almost exclusively. In flipped classrooms, lecture material is presented digitally, and actual class time is dedicated to discussions, hands-on problem solving, labs and coaching.
Online content can be drawn from many existing sources, and the NEI can partner with other similar institutions and a “mothership” institution to shape this content. The quality of teaching will be a predominant concern in an NEI, and faculty will be judged primarily on that front.
Co-ops – curated industry experiences in which student growth is the key objective – are central in the new educational institution. To accommodate co-ops, the NEI model proposes a trimester calendar consisting of equal-length autumn, spring, and summer “semesters” with sufficient gaps to ensure that students also enjoy healthy breaks.
A four-year curriculum will consist of 11 trimesters, of which four will be in co-ops. Organizations – of which we take a broad view to include companies, labs, museums, other universities, and international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations – will be encouraged to partner closely with NEIs in developing these co-ops.
The partnerships will have several dimensions: qualified employees of the companies will be invited to spend sabbaticals at NEI, and NEI faculty will be encouraged to take sabbaticals at these institutions.
This robust partnership is expected to produce several benefits, particularly in ensuring context, relevance, and preparedness of all aspects of the NEI. Importantly, students will be paid during co-ops, which changes the cashflow equation for them, and companies can use co-ops to ensure a pipeline of job-prepared candidates.
An alternative to traditional course structure
The NEI also proposes an alternative to a “freeform” menu of courses; the courses are organized into several credential-bearing sequences, which can be seen as a generalization of majors and minors.
A degree is comprised of five to six credential-bearing sequences, and each credential carries independent value within the degree. We believe that humanities courses are essential in the modern world, and we integrate them into these sequences.
For example, a sequence on artificial intelligence may have courses on linear algebra, computation, machine learning, ethics and social sciences “baked” in. Sequences will be team-taught by multi-disciplinary groups of instructors, using online material instead of lectures, and focusing in-person time on true learning, on contextualization and on relevance in the real world.
Micro-credentials have two other benefits. First, dropout rates are a serious problem in higher education today, and the more granular record of accomplishments within the degree provides students who do not complete degrees with marketable accomplishments that are still valuable.
Second, we do not believe that education ends with graduation in the 20th century; we believe that students will continue to accumulate knowledge and skills throughout their lives by enrolling for credentials online while they are working.
Moving on from a one-size-fits-all model of education
Our proposal presents new levers to help higher education escape some of the unyielding constraints that it seems trapped in.
Much, including the business model, will depend on implementation decisions related to such “mundane” details as real estate strategy, medical care, salaries, staffing and location.
However, we believe that the current one-size-fits-all model of education is limiting, and we hope to begin a conversation that explores unconventional alternatives.
*Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
**first published in: Weforum.org