In the Nation's Interest

Let’s Encourage – Not Punish – Innovation in Our Universities

by Monica Herk September 29, 2017

With student loan debt climbing north of $1.3 trillion and 47% of Americans saying college is not worth the cost (up from 40% in 2013), higher ed in the US cries out for innovation. Unfortunately, the federal government recently endangered this innovation, by threatening to make Western Governors University (WGU), a leading provider of competency-based education, ineligible to receive federal student loans and aid. They claim that WGU failed to comply with federal rules requiring “regular and substantive” interaction between teachers and students.

WGU – and other innovators in higher ed – focus on students’ learning outcomes and adjust how they deliver teaching to maximize those outcomes.  They use technology, online learning, and whatever it takes to achieve results.

In contrast, many of the federal government’s rules for higher ed reflect more traditional models of college instruction – lectures, seat-time, and a fixed number of years to earn a degree – that date to the needs and technologies of the 19th century. Back then the economy had a relatively limited need for college graduates.

But with over two thirds of jobs projected to require some postsecondary education by 2020, today more Americans know they need college. Almost seven in 10 of the high school class of 2016 went directly to college the next fall.

But only 55% of Americans who attempt a four-year degree will complete it within six years. Those who fail to finish stand the greatest risk of defaulting on their student loans – typically at taxpayer expense.

Today, over 40% of college students are over the age of 25. They’re not like the college students of yore, who could take four years to devote full-time to college. Rather, they’re often working full-time. They have kids. And they’re going to school nights and weekends.

We need ways to deliver postsecondary education that meets the needs of these non-traditional adult students. Education that is flexible, leads to needed skills, and doesn’t saddle its graduates with $37,172 in debt – the average balance owed by borrowers from the college class of 2016.

Today, in pockets across the country, that innovation is starting to happen. Institutions like Southern New Hampshire University and WGU are providing competency-based alternatives. Purdue University is in the process of acquiring the online college, Kaplan University. They offer schedules that are friendlier to the needs of older, working students. Lectures that can be viewed online. (Just like Ted talks – imagine!) Technology allows students and professors to meet through video conferencing. The schools work with employers so that courses teach needed skills. Most importantly, the competency-based model means that students advance based on how quickly they master the material, which may be shorter or longer than the standard semester.

A bachelor’s degree at WGU in fields such as IT, teaching, nursing, or business costs $15,000 total on average. That compares to almost $40,000 on average for four years of in-state tuition at public state universities. 95% of WGU graduates are employed, with 87% employed in their degree field (compared to 92% and 82%, respectively, for other schools). And WGU’s graduation rate exceeds the national average for comparable schools.

Schools like WGU obtain these results because they focus on the outcomes they want – mastery of key skills and knowledge that are relevant in today’s economy – by the adult students they serve. And then they design what and how they teach with an eye towards improving those outcomes.

This is exactly what we need in higher education in the US: ways to educate more Americans to higher levels of skills needed in today’s workplace, and to do so at lower cost.

Let’s be smart about regulation. When they’re written right, regulations protect people from “bad actors.” The “regular and substantive” rule was aimed against correspondence schools – those familiar features of matchbook and magazine ads from an earlier age. The rule aims to protect consumers by dictating the process of how instruction occurs.

But today is an era of new technology – technology that both allows and requires Americans to learn and be able to do more than ever before. Let’s hold our colleges and universities accountable for their students’ learning outcomes – not whether they got there using 20th century teaching models. We need more innovation in American education, not less.