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Cathy Sandeen Headshot

A Year of Higher Education Aha Moments

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It has been a year since I arrived at the American Council on Education (ACE) in Washington, D.C., a 22-year veteran of the University of California and most recently the dean of UCLA Extension, charged with tackling the task of helping define and craft a national agenda for helping more Americans gain college degrees, certificates or other higher education credentials.

It's a natural time to reflect on lessons learned about postsecondary attainment, the role innovation might play in boosting attainment rates for nontraditional students and how to help the broader higher education community understand the major issues holding us back from achieving great strides.

My work at ACE also involves exploring, identifying and disseminating information about how technology and other innovations that aim to boost attainment rates might aid the pressing need to renew our national commitment to social and economic mobility -- and therefore economic strength -- by creating more pathways into and through American postsecondary education. This is a big, audacious, inspiring job, and it's led to some major "aha moments" about some of the steps that could get us closer to achieving an permeable, interconnected higher education system.

It's a given that we need to do more to acknowledge and embrace the true nature of today's college students. Of the roughly 20 million college students, just a quarter are traditional first-time, full-time students arriving on a residential campus fresh from high school. Our students are nontraditional with a variety of needs. Due to a number of factors, many of our students come to us needing further preparation to succeed in the postsecondary environment and we need to adopt new methods of helping them access higher education and succeed once they are enrolled.

Emerging from all the research, reading, writing, conversations, conferences, and academic convenings in which I was immersed this past year, I can point to three big picture issues that for me are important keys to unlocking and unblocking our efforts: the need for greater academic credit mobility; the higher education business model; and the trend toward "vocationalization."

Credit mobility

Nontraditional students have different needs and preferences: they are mobile, they attend more than one institution, they have family and other obligations, they start and stop their education for a variety of reasons, and they have participated in formal education outside of the college and university setting. We know that more than 34 million Americans have attended some college, but no degree.

These students too often are discouraged -- even defeated -- by being required to repeat and pay for classes as they continue their education at new institution. For instance, if credit for a basic English composition course at one college is not accepted at another institution, gaining acceptance of credit recommendations for education completed during military service may seem like a pipe dream. We need to figure out ways to grant these students credit for prior learning experiences and provide them with more flexibility.

I fully embrace the role of faculty in academic decisions such as the applicability of transfer credit. We cannot and should not take faculty out of the equation, and granting prior learning credit must be left to the discretion of individual institutions. But I would hope that faculty and institutions nationwide can agree that it is important to work on ways to encourage the broader acceptance of credible transfer credit.

We see many nontraditional student-serving institutions that are tackling the credit mobility problem in innovative ways. The expansion of competency-based programs is another positive trend. But we can do more. How might we liberalize credit mobility for students within the context of our high academic standards? At many institutions this question is simply not being addressed.

Business model

Institutional business models often rest on a foundation of high enrollment, lower division courses subsidizing other parts of the academic enterprise. Questions have emerged about whether the traditional model can continue. There is talk of major disruption from low cost providers outside the traditional academy. Should the low cost general education disruption take hold, this does not bode well for the financial health of many institutions.

For example, the rapid rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in the summer of 2012 had many of us in the higher education community asking whether this represented a way to scale up postsecondary education with positive learning outcomes while also drastically increasing access and reducing costs for degree seeking students. Some envisioned an option for students in completing many, or most, lower division general education requirements via MOOCs, earning credit that might be transferred and doing so at little or no cost. Could this help more students?

Now 18 months later, we know the answer: this is not likely to occur with MOOCs, per se. Concerns about student engagement, learning outcomes and other issues with MOOCs have been studied and discussed at length over the past year or so. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania highlighted the low 4 percent completion rate for that institution's MOOCs. We also know most students enrolling in MOOCs have already earned one or more degrees and are not degree seekers. Clearly, standard MOOCs as originally conceived are not a cure-all for making major attainment leaps among nontraditional learners.

However, many other higher education innovations are emerging that could play a role in reducing costs for students, and the lower division general education curriculum is the logical place where this might occur. A large number of institutions are looking for ways to reduce costs, and providers that do not have formal educational accreditation, some MOOC variants and direct assessment programs are places where cost reductions are occurring. Cost and affordability issues are driving this change, and that pressure isn't going away.

Disruption does not always occur predictably, but there is enough evidence about what is going on in these areas to suggest that many colleges and universities should be giving more serious thought to potential business model alternatives. Many higher education institutions believe that adopting a different business model is an untouchable, "third rail" issue. But it is time to consider possible options for doing business in a different manner.


I have written previously about the importance of maintaining our liberal arts traditions and continuing to foster deeper, non-cognitive and creative skills in our students. Yes, higher education in the United States plays a critical role in social and economic mobility and this occurs by helping people prepare for well-paying careers. But too strong a focus on preparing students for a single type of job or industry straight out of school, "vocationalization," is short-sighted.

I applaud the new work in competency-based, direct assessment programs, but we also should maintain a healthy skepticism. Assessing and then mapping a student's existing competencies to a specific job, and providing a credential, may help that person gain initial employment, but will this sustain a person throughout a lifetime in a world where the economy and job market is constantly evolving? The question is, are we credentialing students or are we educating them? Sometimes I feel we may be leaning toward the former.

Interesting work is taking place in embedding deeper learning, critical-thinking liberal arts skills and competencies into more vocationally oriented degree programs as a means to accomplish both goals. Experiments with open digital badges for this purpose also show some early promise as a technical means for doing so. How might we view the vocational/liberal arts dichotomy as less of an either/or and more of a both/and?

Next steps?

Another major thing I have learned in my year at ACE is that much of the power and strength of the American higher education system rests in its diversity -- the many different types of institutions we have, with disparate academic missions, serving different regions and diverse types of students.

Looking at my three big ahas, I know there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and we all worry about the unanticipated negative consequences of mass standardization. But now is the time for each institution and all systems of higher education nationwide to begin to tackle some of these hard questions. My biggest aha moment? Realizing that this is the course needed to maintain what is great about our current higher education system, even as changes are made that will allow it to accelerate into the future.