As ‘Higher Ed Gamma’ Approaches its 10th Anniversary


Since its launch in 2013, this blog’s mission has been to reimagine every facet of higher education.

  • How to make college more accessible and affordable.
  • How to bring more students to success, especially in the most demanding fields of study, and better prepare graduates for postcollege life.
  • How to improve our pedagogies and modes of assessment.

This blog has explored innovative ways of redesigning the curriculum and reimagining the student experience and looked at alternatives to the credit hour, the 15-week semester, gen ed and distribution requirements, and the standard lecture, seminar and laboratory courses.

We’ve also examined higher education’s demographic, financial and political challenges and its flashpoints—academic freedom, free speech on campus, Greek life, intercollegiate athletics and student activism—from the perspective of history.

No topic, no matter how controversial, has been out of bounds, whether this involves disparities in college preparation, the outsize success of Asian American students, college affordability, critical race theory, social-emotional and culturally responsive education, the future of tenure, reparations or higher education’s highly stratified landscape.

Not surprisingly, “Higher Ed Gamma” has paid particular attention to my own areas of research: the tangled transition to adulthood, gender gaps, history education and the humanities’ prospects.

As a historian, I am particularly interested in how and why American higher education differs from its foreign counterparts, how and why it has changed over time, and what lessons we can draw from this history, whether about technology’s impact or the dynamics of institutional change.

As a former director of a teaching center (at Columbia) and of educational innovation for a university system (the University of Texas system), I’ve been especially interested in how to draw upon the learning sciences to improve course and instructional design, and how to use new educational technologies, including interactive courseware and apps and personalized, adaptive tools, to enhance learning and build student skills.

I’ve been especially interested in evaluating the potential of new educational models: skills and outcomes-driven competency-based models, earn-learn and co-op models, guided pathways, integrated degree verticals, military crosswalks and stackable credentials, among others.

In addition, this blog has made a special commitment to reviewing landmark academic books and reporting on the innovative practices at various colleges and universities that haven’t received a fraction of the attention they deserve.

If any single theme can be said to run through this blog’s disparate posts, it’s my belief that colleges need to innovate if these institutions are to successfully meet the needs of the new student majority of commuters, working adults, family caregivers, first-gen students from lower-income backgrounds and English language learners, and address today’s challenges of access, affordability, credit transfer, degree attainment, engagement, equity and financial sustainability.

At a moment when disrupters propose faster, cheaper routes into the workforce, call for alternatives to traditional college degrees and try to implement new educational models that involve new delivery modalities and staffing models, I believe that we need to reaffirm a commitment to a richer, more robust, well-rounded college education supplemented by a wealth of co-curricular and extracurricular activities. This is an education that:

  • Is developmental, transformational and equitable.
  • Is interactive, actively engaging, experiential, skills-focused and project-based.
  • Emphasizes regular, substantive feedback from practicing scholars.
  • Seeks to educate the whole student, not just cognitively, but that promotes maturation across multiple dimensions: emotional, ethical, interpersonal and social.
  • Provides wraparound supports that are financial and psychological as well as academic and seeks to make college truly a community of inquiry and a community of care.
  • Embeds career preparation across the undergraduate experience and does much more to develop the communication, analytic and data skills and cultural competencies that a 21st-century education ought to provide.

Such a vision may seem like a fool’s errand in today’s financially strained, highly politicized and intensely polarized environment. It’s far more expensive than the apprenticeships, boot camps and skills academies that are held up as an alternative. Those stand-ins for a traditional college education may well be more appropriate for students who have neither the time nor the interest to pursue a college degree. But we need to ensure that no one is denied such an education due to cost; we also need to ensure that any alternative can stack into a degree.

College as it exists right now represents a political and financial compromise that serves multiple interests:

  • Tenured and tenure-track faculty succeeded, over time, in reducing their teaching loads, shedding many advising responsibilities and acquiring more opportunities to teach what they wish and devote more time to research and graduate education.
  • Undergraduates got a college education that offers a great deal of flexibility and a great many options, affords them a great deal of personal freedom, isn’t, in most cases, overly demanding and provides a host of guardrails and supports.
  • Institutions devised curricula that maximize student and faculty choice, protect the interests of otherwise threatened departments, and are relatively easy to administer.

But this compromise was always wobbly and criticisms are widespread:

  • That completion rates were too low, time to degree too long and student costs and parental debt too high, and student learning outcomes too uncertain.
  • That colleges failed to do enough to prepare students for careers, leading all too many graduates to flail and flounder for years before falling into a job that may or may not reflect their training.
  • That inequities pervaded higher education: in access to highly selective institutions, institutional resources, access to high-demand majors, grades, graduation rates and debt loads.
  • That colleges and universities devoted too many resources to superfluous nonessentials outside the academic core and too few resources to the academic experience itself.

Right now, the prospects for sweeping transformation or disruptive innovation in higher education seem doubtful, even as some meaningful, if less far-reaching, changes are underway. Data-informed advising is advancing by leaps and bounds. Certainly, online learning will make up a greater share of course offerings. The boundaries between high school and college will increasingly blur as access to dual-degree/early-college programs expands.

Maker spaces and entrepreneurship and digital innovation labs are on the rise. Already, colleges are expanding master’s, certificate and certification programs. Meanwhile, MOOCs chug on, with their most successful courses delivering highly advanced content to degree holders.

Perhaps most strikingly, alternate providers, ranging from tech firms to museums and foundations, are offering innovative programs, sometimes in partnership with existing colleges and universities.

But I see few signs that the higher ed will soon become less stratified, that a college degree is becoming devalued or will somehow be displaced, or that curricula or pedagogies are posed to undergo a radical transformation.

Far more likely are incremental changes occurring one classroom at a time.

The high-impact, educationally purposeful practices that the great education policy specialist George Kuh has called for—like learning communities and expanded experiential learning—are certainly having an impact. Student response systems, sophisticated simulations and interactive technologies that allow students to collaboratively annotate texts or visualize data or model causation are making their way into a growing number of classrooms. Colleges are also doing more to integrate career preparation across the curriculum.

Taken together, these gradual, piecemeal innovations may well have a cumulative impact. But I suspect we should remain skeptical until evidence of large-scale change is apparent. Changing higher ed one classroom at a time brings to mind the classic critique of instituting socialism in one country: it can be done, but whether it can be done systematically and effectively is questionable.

Were I king, the innovations that I’d most like to see involve overhauling college’s intellectual experience. Having taught in Columbia’s core curriculum, I know firsthand the value of a campuswide shared intellectual experience and the transformative impact of small seminars that engage with the big questions of aesthetic judgment, divinity, free will, morality and moral and political philosophy, and that contextualize, explicate and criticize great works of thought and creativity.

At Hunter College, I personally witnessed the life-altering power of a first-year humanities experience that combined visits to archives, museums and performance halls with signature seminars that explore the meaning and significance of the works that the students encountered.

At Barnard College, I saw how effectively Mark Carnes’s Reacting to the Past active learning, role-playing “games” enhance student engagement, stimulate learning and build students’ close reading, critical thinking and communication skills.

At the University of Houston, where colleagues from English; instructional technology; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and I created a 12-hour first-year experience that combined art history, rhetoric and composition, U.S. history, and learning design and technology-enhanced communication and met almost half of the campus’s gen ed requirements, I had a chance to experience what it means to belong to a truly supportive learning community.

At the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where the faculty and the system’s Institute for Transformational Learning created an integrated pathway into the biological sciences, I saw the power of interactive courseware, with a progress dashboard, virtual grand rounds and advanced simulations and interactives, and a synergistic degree vertical that combined courses in biology, chemistry and physics that focused on human anatomy and physiology, in the humanities that examined the experience of pain and illness, the history of medicine and public health, and representations of the body, math courses that emphasized health informatics and social science courses on health economics and the sociology of health.

At the University of Texas at Arlington I had the thrill of participating in a scaled community of inquiry or solver community, modeled on cMOOCs, connective massive open online courses, in which an interdisciplinary team collectively researched and discussed from multiple disciplinary vantage points the challenges presented by a wicked problem. Imagine if campuses established for-credit communities of inquiry to examine the complexities of intimate relationships, strategies for maintaining mental health or techniques for overcoming cognitive distortions, or a solver community to address local problems including homelessness or gun violence.

Innovation is occurring all around us, but mostly under the radar screen and only rarely at scale. As George Mehaffy, who recently retired as vice president for academic leadership and change for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, has argued, our problem isn’t a shortage of ideas. It’s implementation, to which I’d add, transplantation and delivery at scale.

At this stage in my career, perhaps the best I can do is evangelize. By spreading the word about exciting ways to improve teaching and learning and to reimagine older paradigms, I hope to convey three messages

  • One, you aren’t alone. You are part of a collective effort to shift higher education to a new paradigm that rests on active learning and a dedication to bringing every student to competence.
  • Two, genuine improvements in higher education aren’t impossible. As long as you don’t expect advances to fall from the sky, then you’ll realize that most reforms come from individual faculty members who are willing to take the lead on an initiative that they are convinced will make a big difference.
  • Three, if higher education is to live up to its democratic promise, innovation is essential. Far more diverse than their predecessors across every dimension, today’s students require new pedagogical techniques and new support structures. No longer is a sink-or-swim, let the devil take the hindmost mind-set acceptable. We can’t and shouldn’t live with a dropout rate approaching 40 percent.

I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have a perch on Inside Higher Ed from which I can preach the gospel of educational innovation. In the end, however, authentic improvements depend far more on actions rather than words and on our willingness to roll up our sleeves, create a coalition of the willing and innovate within our own institutions.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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