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Overhauling Education

The pandemic magnified the growing challenges in higher education—and the need for change.
By Glenn Cook


Statements you have probably heard about higher education: The cost is too high. The rules are too rigid. Students, if they graduate, finish with astronomical debt and without the skills they need for today’s global workforce. 

All of those statements were made before COVID-19 and the global reckoning over issues of racial justice and systemic racism. What does that mean for the future of higher education? And how will it affect PhD and postgraduate programs?

“PhD programs that continue to pump out graduates ready for traditional faculty jobs do so at their peril—and that of their students,” says David Soo, PhD, chief of staff for JFF (Jobs for the Future). “If there is to be a fundamental shift in education and training, the nature and shape of the roles of educators will drastically change.” JFF is a national nonprofit that drives change in the American workforce and education systems to achieve economic advancement for all.

Understanding what those changes will look like, and how long they will take to implement, is very much up for debate. The pandemic has accelerated the shift to online classes and distance learning, but moving to a true multi-channel form of course delivery will be required, say those who support changing the current system. Higher education also needs to take a hard look at the changing demographics of students, many of whom are leaving school or taking longer to graduate in part due to the skyrocketing cost of college.

“Educators of the future should consider how they might shift more routinely from the sage on the stage to curator of vast troves of educational content.”

David Soo, PhD

“Our current higher education system was designed for a very different world and a very different student population,” says Shawn Hulsizer, vice president of advancement and impact for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). “It was designed with the idea that a college student enrolls early in life, right after high school, and studies full time until completing a degree and then going on to 40 or more years in the working world. That’s not the reality of today’s student.”

Finding Flexibility in Higher Education 

One word used frequently when discussing an overhaul of higher education is “flexible.” Case in point: While three-fourths of PhD and postdoctorate recipients are age 26 to 35, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Hulsizer notes that nearly 40% of undergraduates today are over the age of 25. That’s a chief reason she says higher education should move into a “more learner-centric operational model” that meets students “where they are in their life and career.” 

“We should build this new system with the assumption that workers will be cycling back and forth between learning and work,” Hulsizer says. 

Ernest Ezeugo, policy analyst with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, says the current credit hour system and lack of diverse and flexible transfer pathways contribute to a “completion epidemic” that higher education must address.

“The credit hour system as designed is rigid and problematic, especially for returning and adult students with considerable professional experience that doesn’t always translate to faster completion,” Ezeugo says. “And credits that students have already earned and paid for often get lost in the transfer process because of accreditation, small differences in learning objectives and course requirements, and other disconnects between institutions.”

Hulsizer points to new CAEL research that shows adult students “are significantly more likely” to finish college or a postsecondary credential when they can earn credit for job, military or other life experiences. 

“Another great way forward is to rethink the degrees and other credentials being offered and how they could be more closely aligned with skills and credentials that employers are looking for,” she says. “This doesn’t mean scrapping the bachelor’s degree, but rather making sure that all graduates are building competencies that will help them succeed in the labor market, both in the short term and the long term.”

Like Hulsizer, Soo says students need “a foundational experience” in which they learn “key skills, context and the habit of learning.” That would be complemented by layers of additional learning throughout an individual’s life.

“If we are overhauling the system, we need to think about the purposes of education—skills, ability to learn, networks, maturation, socialization, etc.—and then think about the optimal ways to deliver them,” Soo says. “Sure, a four-year degree is a great way for some individuals to get these things, but it’s not—and never has been—the only way to get there. We must develop a new system with flexible pathways that lead to successful learning, careers and lives.”

Providing the Education Students Need

For PhD candidates, universities can change by doing a better job of promoting all types of different careers instead of solely focusing on research, says Patricia Halpin, PhD, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester and chair of the APS Teaching of Physiology Section.

“Too often, they are only trained for one track, to be a bench researcher at an R1 institution, and are unaware there are a diversity of career opportunities,” Halpin says. (Read about business careers in physiology in “Entrepreneurial Endeavors,” in the November 2019 issue of The Physiologist Magazine at http://bit.ly/EntrepreneurialEndeavorsTPM.)

Halpin says universities also should look to provide more diversity in undergraduate degrees because it will lead students to seek master’s and PhDs in those fields. She notes that undergraduate physiology programs are growing with the goal of filling that pipeline. (Read “The Undergraduate Physiology Boom,” in the May 2020 issue of The Physiologist Magazine at http://bit.ly/UndergradPhysiologyBoom.)

“Doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows should be pleased with this growth as it provides them with research assistance as well as mentoring experience,” Halpin says. “By providing an opportunity to mentor an undergraduate or MS student, they gain assistance in their own research and develop their mentoring skills. These skills are important for their own professional development for when they are independent researchers with their own labs or in other professional positions.” 

Soo says universities also need to be more flexible and allow faculty members to “design innovative approaches and models for the next century of learning.”

“It is imperative that, in order to remove this economic and geographic divide and provide equal access to higher education for all Americans, a new inclusive infrastructure for all students is established and maintained.”

Patricia Halpin, PhD

“Educators of the future should consider how they might shift more routinely from the sage on the stage to curator of vast troves of educational content,” he says. “The ability to select and deliver learning experiences that meet the needs and are relevant to individual students is a possibility, especially with [artificial intelligence] and personalized learning paths, and educators should ensure they are steering that ship.”

That creativity is necessary because universities have come under increased scrutiny due to soaring tuition costs. According to U.S. News & World Report, in-state tuition prices among public universities have jumped 72% since 2008. A 2020 Sallie May survey, “How America Pays for College,” says financial considerations have become almost as important as current academic offerings when deciding where to go to school. 

Cost is especially critical to Ezeugo, who says that robust state-federal partnerships are needed to drive down the overall cost of college. He believes financial aid should be connected to public assistance programs “to make sure that students trying to navigate higher education while facing food, housing and other resource insecurities could get their needs met.”

“If we settle on thinking that the changes we’re seeing now [during the pandemic] are the silver lining of a bad situation versus a necessary adaptation we must scrutinize and critique, the only disruption we will be responsible for is that to the livelihood of millions of students from backgrounds that are already marginalized in higher education,” Ezeugo says.

The Campus of the Future

What will college campuses look like post-pandemic? Some undoubtedly will stay the same, but much like consumption of music, television and film is now driven by the niche and not the masses, higher education institutions will be forced to evolve toward serving a variety of audiences in different ways.

“Campuses can look radically different in the future,” Soo says. “But if learning is to happen anywhere and everywhere throughout an individual’s life, the need for a traditional campus will vary by student and by the phase of their life.”

As an example, Soo points to students in the advanced manufacturing sector. In some cases, they will learn about physics, programming and interpersonal communication through projects at the job site or via online modules and group discussions with peers who are stationed across the world.

“That same learner, additionally, might have the opportunity to take a ‘sabbatical’ from work and go to a ‘campus’ to learn,” Soo says. “But that campus may resemble more an Apple Store, where they are meeting with different groups of other learners and using augmented and virtual reality devices and other tools they would not have at home.”

Halpin believes the current infrastructure will be maintained because some students still want the residential college experience, but she says the traditional college curriculum also will be expanded with more remote and online courses. When this occurs, she says colleges “have an obligation to the remote students to ensure access to the same level of student learning resources and services,” such as tutoring, writing centers, libraries and academic advisement.

“Both robust Wi-Fi and technology are required for students to access off-campus courses, yet they are not always available in low-income, minority and rural communities,” Halpin says. “It is imperative that in order to remove this economic and geographic divide and provide equal access to higher education for all Americans a new inclusive infrastructure for all students is established and maintained.”

Ezuego says campuses must “become places where students’ needs are met and they are comfortable enough to learn.” One way to do so, he says, is to use in-person facilities to “mitigate the strain of intractable problems that complicate equity in higher education today, like food and resource insecurity, racism, mental health and more.”

The key to reopening, Ezeugo says, is context, especially in the wake of ongoing unrest over social and racial injustice. He says the decision by some colleges and universities to open in person last fall was “troubling” given the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on racial and ethnic minorities. Historically Black colleges and universities, as well as other institutions that serve large numbers of underrepresented students, opted for online classes “presumably because they realized the risks outweighed the reward.”

“It will be critical for colleges to consider what their decisions communicate through other lenses,” he says. “Colleges were committing or recommitting to fighting racial injustice on their campuses following a tumultuous summer for Black Americans while making decisions that were, quite frankly, putting their Black students at risk.

“To be sure, it’s a tough time to be a college leader doing the political calculus around these decisions,” Ezeugo says. “But I do think that colleges that take risks in the near term to protect their students will be remembered favorably.” 

The Bold New Ways Higher Education Can Adapt

If anything, the pandemic has highlighted both the promise and the inequities of distance learning in education. The shift from face-to-face instruction to online learning was difficult for students who lacked broadband access, a laptop or tablet, or a quiet place to do their work. 

“Technology can only help us solve as much as we are willing and capable of seeing,” Ezeugo says. “If you pay close attention, you can see who is being left behind, a ‘lost generation’ of learners on the have-not end of the digital divide who have been left in the lurch by a sudden and unplanned move to digital instruction.”

If access issues can be addressed, Soo believes technology allows universities to “fundamentally rethink teaching and learning over the next generation, though not in the sense of simply learning from robots or downloading information into our brains.” 

“Technology allows educators to assess the best and highest leverage ways to impact a student’s education—and to find other people or tools to deliver other components,” he says. “Technology deployed smartly can free up more educator time for interpersonal engagement and mentorship—and spark creativity and inspiration.”

Soo believes colleges and universities have the capacity to develop “bold new ways” to provide education to students at all levels. 

“Colleges and universities must question everything and be prepared to augment, if not replace, their degree programs with much more flexible, nimble, dynamic and equitable educational offerings that meet the needs of our rapidly changing economy,” he says.

“They have to do it in a way that is educationally rigorous and provides the context necessary for success in career and life. Colleges should figure out some alternatives before other organizations fill the void and cater to the enormous and growing market for learning throughout life.” 


This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue of The Physiologist Magazine

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