Dear Higher Education,
We stand at the precipice of significant transformation in higher education as we weather an unprecedented collision of crises that have laid bare many of our systemic issues and unearthed new challenges. We must choose between boldly resetting the definition of quality and lifelong learner success through collective leadership, intentional community action, and transparent, data-enabled sensemaking; or retreating to the familiarity of what is and hope that “everything will be fine.” For the sake of learners across the globe, I pray you’ll join me in choosing the former.
Recently, I read a collection of essays that positioned the pandemic as the accelerant to change in higher education. Filled with imagi-nation and a critical assessment of the post-pandemic college, some of the leading thinkers in our sector identified how the pandemic might pressure leaders in higher education to address our systemic structural issues.
If this collection of essays suggests anything, it’s that the present higher education construct is at odds with the future. For decades we’ve competently navigated around a growing set of pressures and challenges and held on to normalcy in reverence to the “college experience.” Today’s college experience is less nostalgia and more sorting, with laser-focused on a select group of 18 to 22-year-olds. From admissions, to matriculation and majors, to graduation and donation, everything is a sorting process. This process is still doing the job it is designed to do; it just isn’t necessarily the job to be done.
“Ever the optimist, I believe we can build from our factor endowments and reshape a regenerative, equitable, learner-oriented university.”
Let’s imagine for a moment that we’ve genuinely centered equity in our system. Doing so would require a distinct shift from our existing college-as-a-process approach towards the idea of college-as-a-platform. A modernized higher education platform demands we prepare for a present where the left-to-right nature of a degree must be less linear and learner engagement is perpetual. This line of thinking opens possibilities that lead to a level of institutional agility necessary to address sovereign identity, learner mobility, and evolving workforce demands. In my view, this requires the intentional integration of knowledge (curricular, co-curricular, and experiential), placing a high value on 21st-century human skills and moments of distinction for all learners.
Imagine a university without a series of stage gates and entry barriers. Admissions is immediate and designed around intent to learn and a matched assessment of potentials: learner potential in life and institutional potential to unlock it, regardless of age or pedigree. This is enrollment by design, its default proactive, and it sets the stage for intentional and continuous engagement in perpetuity. What is it we need to know to get here?
Imagine a university that recognizes learning where learning occurs. Matriculation becomes periods of anchoring, where we earn learner commitment and become “educator of choice” throughout a lifetime. Built on a platform of agency around distinctive learning experiences, this university offers digitally verifiable and stackable credentials for human skills gained from all experiences. It demands proficiency in creating comprehensive, mission-driven partnerships across university, business, government, and community in order to personalize and credit experiential learning that occurs outside the classroom. It furthers its position of first choice by empowering faculty to create flexible, digitally enabled, market aligned, competency rich pathways. How might we intentionally curate these robust learner-centric experiences? What data might we need to disrupt or modularize the concept of the major? How might we aggressively promote equitable opportunity for all learners, faculty, staff, and those in our community?
Imagine a university where the college experience is a lifelong experience. Success is a constant engagement, marked by proactive outreach at career pivots when there may be a renewed intention to learn rather than a primarily philanthropic outreach. It’s the place that continues to offer the complete collegiate experience without regard to where your pillow is or your stage of life. How might we shape a trusted and meaningful brand that is empowered by the talent we certify?
That’s the university I imagine, and to be honest, I don’t think we need more crises to get there – we need creativity and commitment, something a university has in spades. So, let’s evolve it together.
Cameron J. McCoy, Ph.D., is Vice President and Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives at Lehigh University. He leads enterprise-wide external engagements, aligning careers and economic development, and institutional change. Dr. McCoy is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma (M.A., Ph.D.) and Washington State University (B.A., B.A., B.S). His research interests combine economics and educational administration in evaluating university organizational approaches. McCoy served as a fellow of the Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership in 2016 and the American Council on Education in 2018.