Is higher ed broken?

The industry 'must evolve and adapt to truly meet the needs of today's students'

Julia Haskins, staff writerJulia Haskins, staff writer

At The Atlantic's recent forum, "The Changing Face of Higher Education," associate editor Alia Wong posed a group of panelists a question: Is the traditional concept of higher education broken? Not exactly, the panelists said—the model hasn't completely fallen apart, but it does need to be reassessed. 

"The reality is that postsecondary education must change," said Danette Howard, chief strategy officer and senior vice president of the Lumina Foundation, setting the tone for the event.  "It must evolve and adapt to truly meet the needs of today's students."

Educators, administrators, policymakers, and other experts signaled a pivotal shift in higher education toward better accommodating and students and recognizing their barriers to success. Here are some of the ways that higher education leaders are promoting student-centered change:

Bringing career opportunities to campus

Employment is a necessity for many students in college who need to finance their education and are also looking to gain valuable job skills before they graduate. According to a 2015 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, more than 70% of college students have worked while enrolled for the past 25 years.

But any time spent working diverts attention from studies and can impede progress toward graduation. Paul Quinn College (PQC) recognized the need to accommodate its many working students, and integrated employment into the academic experience.

"The traditional notion of college being a bastion of middle class values and being designed for middle class families is no longer realistic," said PQC President Michael Sorrell. "What we have to do now is design models that incorporate the reality of the students' lives that we're currently serving."

How to transform student employment into meaningful career development

Last year, PQC adopted its New Urban College Model, which allows students to attend the institution at a low cost and work 10-20 hours per week while enrolled, without sacrificing their academics. Students graduate with four years of real-world work experience they may not have otherwise been able to juggle alongside classes. For a college where more than 80% of students are Pell Grant-eligible, the flexibility to work and learn concurrently is a huge boon to successful completion.

Making college more physically accessible

Finances are a major factor in accessing higher education, and it's not just rising tuition rates putting students in a bind. However, many students, especially those from underserved communities, still face a number of challenges unrelated to money.

"Cost is a primary issue… but a lot of people don't take into account other [barriers preventing students from] going to college," said Faith Kamei, 2017 student council president at the Universities of Shady Grove (USG).

Kamei wanted to attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, but the two-hour commute would have forced Kamei to upend her life just to make it to class. At USG, Kamei can still get the degree from the college of her choice, attending classes at one all-encompassing campus close to home. The consortium brings together professors from nine of Maryland's 12 public colleges, and students' degrees only name the institution where they are enrolled.

"What USG is doing is very unique in the sense that we're bringing the colleges to the students," Kamei said. 

Students can't graduate if they can't get to class

USG's board of advisors—composed of community business and academic leaders—also works to develop a talent pipeline connecting USG students to opportunities in local industries.

"We're very focused on working closely with them to understand what [we need in the curriculum] so that these students are academically prepared, but more importantly, experientially and work-ready," said USG Executive Director Stewart Edelstein.

Demystifying financial aid

According to a recent survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed in partnership with Gallup, just 19% of admissions directors believe that the application process is easy for students and their families to understand. And many families would likely agree with that sentiment.

It's a problem that Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has sought to address in his legislative efforts to simplify the FAFSA. 

Students don't speak "financial aid"

"There is nobody in America who has ever looked at FAFSA and said, 'Well, this is pretty cool. I think I'll knock this out over breakfast,'" Kline said. "We need to simplify the whole student aid system."

Rethinking rankings

College rankings have come under fire recently as students, administrators, and other stakeholders in higher education have scrutinized measures that weigh prestige over student outcomes. 

Here's a twist: College rankings are far less important university leaders than other measures of success

"We have a de facto national system of accountability for higher education that is called the [U.S. News & World Report] rankings," said James Kvaal, policymaker in residence at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and surrogate for the Hillary for America campaign.

He took issue with the exclusivity of the rankings, which, he said, "reward colleges for turning away students when really we need many more students enrolling in college and graduating." 

Kvaal is a proponent of the College Scorecard, which he views as a useful tool for families to make more informed decisions when evaluating colleges.

"We all have an urgent need to get more information out there about how colleges are performing [and] how they're serving students from all backgrounds," he said. 

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