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Spotlight on the Affordability Crisis - What to Do About IT? Blog II of II

The first blog on this topic described the dimensions of the affordability crisis and briefly discussed five steps to achieve a systemic solution to the problem. This blog explores these five steps in greater depth, which include:

College and University Leaders Should:

1) Make affordability and student success top priority;

2) Transform their institutions to serve as providers, curators, and concierges of learning over 60-year work/learning careers, reducing the costs at all stages;

3) Use competence mapping wherever possible to inform curriculum development, shortening pathways to employment and mastery;

4) Incorporate certifications of competence from non-traditional sources into their curriculum and co-curriculum, encouraging employers to accept those experiences;

Federal, State, and Institutional Leaders Should:

5) Work diligently to strengthen financial aid practices and lender offerings to reduce the current unreasonable

burdens they entail.

1. Institutional Leaders Should Make Affordability and Student Success Their Top Priority

Many higher education leaders were slow to catch on to the true scope of the affordability crisis. No longer. The experience of navigating Covid and the difficulties of the working and middle class have piqued leaders’ attention to the challenges facing working learners and the cruel reality of student debt hangover.

Moreover, many leaders have also been slow to pick up on emerging best practices in analytics-based student success, but that is changing rapidly. The leadership at Minnesota State University Mankato has invested heavily in student success analytics, embedded in institution-wide teams, and planning and strategy efforts and led by a Vice President for Student Success, Analytics, and Integrated Planning. These efforts are reflected in a Strategic Initiatives case study, currently in draft. In addition, Florida Atlantic University was featured in June 10, 2022, issue of The Chronicle (“Student Success for All”) describing results of its team-based analytics initiative in doubling graduation rates and eliminating equity gaps.

Current financial models are unsustainable for institutions and learners. Moreover, college and university leaders must reinvent their institutions’ business models to achieve the affordability necessary to be competitive in the emerging work/learning ecosystem that will feature learning/work experiences spanning 60-years.

Institutions can start this process immediately by collaborating with K-12 education to expand advanced placement, offering bridging programs, facilitating transfer from community colleges and four-year institutions, and providing accelerated degree completion opportunities. In addition, stacked credentials and shortened pathways to employment should be part of this equation. These measures will reduce costs to existing learners and accelerate the completion of learning and the attainment of successful employment. But the larger challenge for institutions is to transform systemically, realizing a vision for affordably serving learners over 60-year work and learning careers.

2. Leaders Should Transform Their Institutions to Serve as Providers, Curators, and Concierges for their Learners over 60-Year Work and Learning Careers

Institutions will need to learn how to integrate their visioning and strategizing for traditional offerings and the 60-year curriculum experience for adult learners. In the short run, institutions should learn from their experience with continuing education offerings and insights gained from the migration to online and hybrid learning as part of their response to Covid. They should also accelerate developmental efforts in microcredentials, badges, boot camps, and other mechanisms, building capacity and know how.

Put simply, institutional leaders must engage wide cross-sections of their communities in coalitions to define a new institutional model to serve learners over 60-year spans, and to reflect the differences between adult learners and traditional high school graduates. Moreover, this new breed of learning enterprise will serve not just as provider and certifier. Through partnerships with other institutions and new workforce knowledge facilitators, it will serve as a curator and concierge. As shown in the figure below, the engaged, open learning enterprise will aso: 1) digitally transform all processes and practices, 2) achieve new, open curricula, 3) leverage many channels of engagement, and 4) deploy multiple modes of learning.

3. Leaders Should Use Competence Mapping Wherever Possible to Inform Curriculum Development

Between today and 2030, the use of competency-based education will dramatically accelerate. Also, proven best practices and AI-enabled tools in mapping competences to jobs will be available to institutions and learners, through partnerships and networks. For example, Western Governors University (WGU) has taken competency-based education (CBE) and its Open Skills Library to the next level as they map competences to work skills. Established in 2020, the Open Skills Network (OSN) is a coalition of more than 40 employers and 800 educational, military, and technology providers dedicated to accelerating a shift to skills-based education and hiring by establishing a network of open skills libraries and skills data. Skills-based education and hiring are widely lauded as a more objective, equitable, and efficient way to connect today’s students with available job opportunities through a shared skills language. In a recent interview with Goldie Blumenstyk, Scott Pulsipher, CEO of WGU, revealed that WGU is working with the Open Skills Network to advance a “talent pipeline” movement to make hiring more efficient and surface potential employment opportunities for students before the finish their degrees and certificates ( The Chronicle of Higher Education) May 25, 2022.

Such networks, tools, and pipelines will streamline and reduce the cost of acquiring competences. They will also accelerate job placements. All these factors will improve affordability. They will also provide AI-enabled insight on the performance of learning providers and certifiers and greater accountability. AI-based personal productivity tools will be provided by leading online universities like WGU and SNHU, employers, and by vendor providers. These will enable learners seamlessly to use embed augmented intelligence in their learning and work activities. Massive retraining, at an affordable cost, will be required to prepare the workforce to use embedded augmented intelligence to develop skills and carry out their jobs.

4. Leaders Should Incorporate Certifications of Competence from Non-traditional Sources into their Curriculum and Co-curriculum, Encouraging Employers to Accept Those Experiences

In the 60-year work/learning world, much learning will be free, embedded in one’s job, or available through networks/communities of practice. While serious learning and upskilling will be continuous, it will need to be less costly. In many cases the learning will be free and while certification will cost. Moreover, employers have been more willing to accept certifications from trusted companies (IBM, Cisco, Microsoft) in specific fields (e.g. C++, cybersecurity). But so far progress has lagged in broader acceptance of competence certifications over degrees. This was cited by a number of participants at a recent ShapingEDU event (May 2022). Non-traditional certifications will be helped along as significant online providers are able to scale competence-based learning and granular certification so they are both high quality and affordable.

5. Federal, State and Institutional Leaders Should Work Diligently to Strengthen Financial Aid Practices and Lender Offerings to Reduce the Current Unreasonable Burdens They Entail

Even if learning is made substantially more affordable, suboptimal financial aid systems have created persistent debt quagmires. Financial aid offerings are ripe for reform at the federal, state, and institutional levels. At the Federal levels, variations on income-based repayment programs (Australia, Canada, Germany) should be explored. Honest comparisons of why some of these systems in other countries seem to work better than ours should be undertaken. Institutional practices in packaging aid should also be scrutinized and reformed at the institutional levels and new best practices emulated.

Given the polarized nature of decision making in Washington, some of the most promising practices may come from innovative institutions like WGU and SNHU. In his recent interview for The Edge, CEO Scott Pulsipher asserted the “You never want to use debt to finance an uncertain outcome” which runs counter to current practice in higher education. WGU is considering means to align the needs of the learner and institution better, perhaps including some element of risk sharing. SNHU and WGU both utilize pricing methodologies that help students to keep price down as long as thy maintain progress. Such innovators may be able to produce more favorable financial aid offerings that can scale to reach large cohorts of learners.


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