Leapfrogging in higher ed

In the late 1980s, China’s growing economy demanded connectivity as it struggled to reach the United States’ 90 percent household telephone penetration rate. As it turned out, wiring China was a physical and economic impossibility: social and technological realities stood in stark opposition to large-scale needs.

And yet, in just a few short years, China’s telecommunications progress came to define what we now describe as “leapfrogging” — pioneering the application of new technologies to bypass the older framework in place to unlock their 1.5 billion citizens’ economic potential.

Today, higher education faces a similar dilemma. Against a backdrop of upcredentialing, the imperative for degree completion has never been greater. And yet, former President Obama’s call for the United States to lead the world in college completion by 2020 remains a distant possibility.

No public or private entities in the world have the money to build the campuses — let alone develop the quality faculty — needed to produce the billions of college graduates our global economy demands. MOOCs have failed to live up to their democratic promise of access, completion or meaningful learning outcomes. And even if higher education as we know it could scale over time, consumer preferences are evolving even faster. In an uncertain economy, many students are increasingly skeptical that degrees are a worthwhile investment of time and money.

Should we throw in the towel? Or, is higher education poised for a revolution on par with the telecom explosion of the past two decades?

Here’s what we know: The degree is still the coin of the realm in our information economy, but there is unprecedented demand for — and recognition of — non-degree credentials. Indeed, 41 million adults currently hold some form of non-degree credential, and there is growing acknowledgment that tomorrow’s students, dubbed “the new normal” by former U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, will demand a mix of non-traditional programs and partnerships providing learning opportunities across a work life that is likely to span 60 years or more.

Traditional higher ed can’t scale to meet human capital demands, and technology can’t replace faculty.

As it turns out, a 100-year-old startup that’s part of the Harvard University community may serve as a model for higher education’s new paradigm. Since 1910, Harvard Extension School has evolved from a series of $5 evening courses into an array of 1,200 open access courses, of which 500 are online. Extension programs like Harvard’s are able to offer courses, professional certificates and degrees to adult learners at typical in-state tuition costs with no endowment support. In many cases, they even create a surplus for their universities. This model may provide the seeds of a paradigm shift for institutional leaders and policymakers re-imagining the role of higher education in the face of a daunting, global challenge.

Here’s why: Traditional higher ed can’t scale to meet human capital demands, and technology can’t replace faculty. But while faculty will remain at the center, extended through the internet and technology-enabled teaching, coaches and mentors will play an increased role in ensuring that students have the support they need to achieve learning outcomes.

“New normal” students need a different type of support as they pursue continuous education across a work life that is likely to include 30 or more distinct jobs and three distinct careers. Different points in that learning life demand different credentials. A BA has huge value at the start of a career, while later one might determine that a graduate certificate could help propel their career more efficiently than a lengthier, costlier master’s degree.

It may seem like a surprising statement coming from the ivy walls of Harvard, but the unbundling of higher education need not be a threat to the traditional university. Certificates in particular often serve as a stepping stone toward a degree: 20 percent of undergraduate certificate holders go on to obtain two-year degrees, and an additional 13 percent go on to earn bachelor’s degrees.

For more than 100 years higher education has largely resisted change — and functioned reasonably well without an intense focus on the complex life needs of adult and part-time learners. But like the disruption in the telecom industry, higher ed is poised for its leapfrogging moment. Without this change, how will we reach the 30 million Americans and the billions of global citizens counting on the promise of higher education to advance themselves, their communities and their countries in our complex world?