Higher education is in crisis. Companies aren’t getting the employees they expect, and are discovering that graduates aren’t fully prepared for roles once they are in place. At the same time, students have different expectations of what they want from their learning providers. Generation Z are no longer passive learners. A combination of seeing themselves as customers, alongside an expectation of personalisation and instant feedback from their experiences as digital natives, creates a very different landscape for education providers.
Compounding this is a crisis in funding. Student fees are multiplying, and for many higher education students, fees are reaching a tipping point – the debt can become higher than their projected income expectations, making them question going to university at all. Those from less well-off households are hit particularly hard as a result. The global recession has fractured higher education, as described by David E. Shi, a former president of Furman University in South Carolina. This has led a situation ‘fragmented between haves and have-nots,’ he says in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
This perfect storm of company discontent, student expectations and financial considerations makes it pressing that traditional models evolve. The rise of MOOCs, boot camps and distance learning is quietly, but pervasively, pressing on the prestige and ubiquity of traditional universities. Things are changing, and with employers less focused on traditional degrees and more interested in what potential employees can bring to the business, this shift away from traditional pedagogical approaches is only going to continue.
A powerful way forward is to offer hybrid models – revolutionising the classroom-only model and augmenting it with online modules, in-work internships and guest lecturing from business leaders, directors and managers, as well as academics. A hybrid model can be visualised in the following way – a rich balance of the best of classical models, but incorporating disruptive innovation and advances in technology too.
Hybrid models can offer advantages for students over traditional universities in five key ways, as this article will explore.
Bridging the gaps
First is the ability to better match graduates with employers. Hybrids have the potential to be the bridge between the academic and the corporate worlds. By having options that include – for example – formal working relationships with corporate affiliates, in-work placements and a focus on guest lectures from business leaders, directors and managers, hybrid models give the graduate a better understanding of the workplace and can identify where they need to fill gaps in experience, in addition to their academic training.
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, says that ‘what we’ve been historically good at for a very long time is telling the world exactly how long someone has sat at a desk. But we’ve been much less precise in saying what people have actually learned.’ LeBlanc asserts that in the past, a college degree was ‘a proxy for certain things: the ability to think critically, the ability to write well, the ability to present well.’ Today, however, LeBlanc argues that ‘when I meet with employers, I will sometimes ask them, “Have you hired someone with a college degree who doesn’t write well? Have you hired somebody with a college degree that you wouldn’t put in front of a group of customers to make a presentation, who can’t understand a balance sheet?” And it’s like touching a nerve.’
Ryan Craig, Managing Director at University Ventures and a former McKinsey consultant, takes up this point. ‘The national skills gap is well documented in the mainstream media and a top priority for policymakers and CEOs alike.’ And yet, ‘our system of higher education produces only one STEM graduate for every 2.5 job openings.’ The numbers are even worse for women, ‘who earn just 18% of computer science degrees.’ And although there are in excess of five million STEM job postings annually, ‘fewer engineering degrees are awarded today than in the early 1980s.’
For Craig, too many students graduate without the right skills to match what employers want. His argument is that ‘talented students from many institutions need to be trained for and matched to many employers.’ This is a role that coding bootcamps and staffing companies like eIntern can fulfil. They will ‘come to campus and provide a clear pathway to a career’ and will also ‘provide valuable no-risk training to specifically prepare students for the high-risk problems employers are trying to solve.’
There will always be a time-lag between what can be taught on courses, and what companies need and want their new employees to be able to do – especially in, but not limited to, the tech field. Teachers can only teach what they know, and syllabuses have to be agreed and approved well in advance of students being taught. Yet this only proves the need for some kind of shift in education, towards courses that are more closely aligned with, and actively influenced by, real-time organisations. In response, Southern New Hampshire has developed ‘College for America’ to address some of these gaps between what universities are offering and what businesses want to see. ‘That’s why I think it has had such a great response from large-scale employers,’ Paul LeBlanc says. Namechecking other early starters in this area – Excelsior College, Western Governors University, Charter Oak State College in Connecticut for example –he argues that College for America is ‘the first that has been fully untethered from the traditional course.’
Matching capabilities to work
The second element is that hybrid programmes lend themselves better to a competency-based approach. In Education Dive Keith Button writes, ‘advocates say competency-based education puts the focus on students’ capabilities rather than how many hours per week they spend in the classroom.’ In the US, at least 200 institutions have competency-based education programmes – and yet ‘the U.S. Department of Education has been slow to process the applications of colleges and universities seeking approval to receive federal financial aid’ for these programmes. This is an issue that is being addressed, but by no means resolved – perhaps because of the prestige factor associated with traditional university models. Button continues, ‘the benefit for employers,’ [advocates] say, ‘is that prospective employees can be judged more easily, based on their demonstrated competencies rather than guessing how their grades will translate to real-world work.’ LeBlanc adds, ‘You’re going to see more competency-based programs coming and I think they’re game changers.’
It is true to say that employers are changing their approach to what they expect from their graduates, and it’s even possible to question whether traditional university models are still fit for purpose. Witness Penguin Books, the global publishing empire run by Pearson, which recently announced it was lifting its requirement for employees to have a traditional degree. A self-aware and ambitious student can recognise that the tide is changing in the corporate world, and increasingly choose the university course that best suits them; rather than feeling that the name of the university is the most important thing.
Rethinking the campus
Third is customisation. Students get a more personalised experience, and this has notable positive effects on achievement. The ‘hands-on’ element of hybrid models is analogous to an apprenticeship model – internships or similar work experience inside real-life organisations give students a much better grasp of what employers expect. ‘Many of today’s rewarding and well-paying jobs do not require a university degree, but do require some form of post-secondary training,’ says Nicholas Wyman, CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation. Arguing that ‘vocational education is smarter than you think,’ Wyman says that ‘the focus on college preparation often fails to make one important connection: the connection between school to the world of work.’ Wyman here is talking about work that does not require an academic qualification, yet benefits from in-work experience and along the way gives workers the social skills they need to thrive in a work environment. But the principle can be applied squarely to hybrid models at universities. If we want our students to succeed in the workplace, they need to know how that workplace operates – it is not simply a case of transferring academic knowledge, but adapting it.
The fourth key advantage is an enhanced experience. Hybrid models can stimulate students’ learning by being modular: one-on-one sessions one day, maths on another, visiting lectures on a third. The approach might be a linear stream, rather than a series of courses. Or consider TEx, an initiative by Texas University. The ‘Total Education Experience’ enables students to learn ‘through simulations, team-based projects and clinical experiences.’ Ensuring that the content can be delivered by mobile phone – ‘to meet students where they are, with the technology that they are used to,’ according to Marni Baker Stein, chief innovation officer of the Institute of Transformational Learning, ‘a student’s path through a course is automatically personalized to his or her needs and learning style.’
TEx is the kind of innovation that makes the delivery of hybrid models a reality. ‘Beyond fully online courses, TEx is designed to support a wide range of innovative teaching methods in classrooms, laboratories and in the field that ultimately will provide richer and more accessible content for students while preserving the quality of a UT degree.’ In other words, personalisation enabled by technology – a compelling proposition for today’s graduates.
Thinking too far outside the box?
It’s not too much of a leap from seeing the benefits of hybrid models to ask – do we need universities at all? Campus models are based on the principle of scarcity, as Peter Smith explores in his book Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning. In an age where reams of information are available at our fingertips online – ‘abundant information,’ as Smith defines it – is there a need for students to attend classes at all? ‘Abundant information – in its many, divergent forms and uses,’ Smith writes recently in Educause Review, creates ‘a new ecology’ that consists of ‘three big changes, unleashed by technology and the global economy, which affect education. They eliminate scarcity as we have experienced it.’ Two of those changes are ‘unlimited content and unlimited access.’
The rise of MOOCs bears witness to this shift in thinking. Many – but by no means all – of the courses described as competency-based are purely online offerings. But here it’s time to sound some warning notes. Yes, MOOCs can offer outstanding learning opportunities for those unable to attend university courses – whether for reasons of finance, location, disability, family circumstance or other reasons. But the evidence consistently indicates that without an element of classroom-based learning, students will not reach their full potential. We could make a similar point about coding bootcamps. They work best as a top-up; not a replacement.
Perhaps the most obvious argument against Smith’s ‘abundant information’ model is that someone needs to curate that information, make sense of it and teach it – in ways that are absolutely no more or less central to student success than they were before the internet developed. Yes, students can access huge amounts of information and universities no longer have the monopoly on scarcity. In fact, there’s no such thing as scarcity any more. The problem now is that there is too much information, and the academic institution’s role is that of shaper and guider.
Institutions that can offer a mixed portfolio of lecture, seminar, online add-ons and in-work placements are best placed to meet the needs of both students and companies – needs which fluctuate depending on the individual student and individual organisation. For tech companies in particular, there is the added complication that there will inevitably be a time-lag between what is taught on a university course, and what businesses need their graduates to know when they start work – simply because of how quickly technology changes.
Make sure the student gets the job
The answer to the deliberately provocative question ‘do we still need universities’ is to challenge the disconnect between the university experience and the job offer at the end of the process. Ryan Craig quotes Mike Fishbein, a marketing guru who has discussed what such ‘full-stack’ education companies might look like. ‘Fishbein’s view is that the goal for the end-user is not a quality educational experience, but rather a job: “Jobs are the top of the education stack.” According to Fishbein, “a full-stack education company might not look like a school at all. It could look like an employer, a lender, a school, and/or a recruiter all rolled into one” – because the point is to provide all services required to get the student a (better) job.’
In other words, for Craig, ‘if you’re going to go to the trouble of creating a product to improve higher education, and if you’re going to devote your life to a company to advance that product, you might as well make sure the student gets a job at the end of the day.’ Otherwise, the experience of university is all the student is finally being rewarded with – and in an age of increasing fees and commoditisation, that’s where many universities are, it could be argued, heading in the wrong direction, exposing themselves to attack from vocational courses and MOOCs as a result.
For Craig, writing in a separate article in Forbes, the key is to link performance to the job offer. ‘Expect to see some colleges offer a performance-based value proposition: pay tuition only once you achieve the desired outcome. For most students, that means a job – either a new job or a promotion, but definitely higher remuneration than the status quo.’ This kind of performance-based college will be, for Craig, ‘a full-stack higher education enterprise, in that it will take a strong interest in what you study, and in making sure you get the job.’
On the money
There’s one more key benefit that hybrid models bring. As fees rise, higher education ‘is increasingly being commodified, and its access restricted’ writes Ethan Miller in the Huffington Post. Many students begin to feel priced out of the market, and higher fees can in some cases prevent highly able and gifted students from participating in the higher education that they deserve. Miller quotes stark figures – ‘in the last ten years, tuition and fees increased 66 percent beyond inflation at public four-year institutions and 26 percent beyond inflation at private not-for-profit institutions’ (figures based on US institutions). ‘Nationwide, total student debt has surpassed one trillion dollars and the average student with debt owes about $26,600.’
Hybrid models can disrupt these ballooning figures, as they can be more economically viable by running on a lower cost base than traditional, exclusively campus models. The model at College for America envisages education as an ‘on-ramp’ – ‘to more stable work, an on-ramp to further study.’ Identifying that one of the key barriers for their target audience is cost, LeBlanc aims to make it ‘ultra-affordable, which is why our program is out in the market at $2,500 a year.’ College for America focuses on working adults, who according to LeBlanc are ‘the majority of today’s college students’ but who are ‘often least well-served by the traditional higher ed industry.’
Students have changing expectations from their learning providers – and businesses want changes too. Traditional universities need to wake up to this change – and there are key opportunities for hybrid models to steal a march in the new competitive age by giving learners, and organisations, offerings that are more attuned to their needs.
Hybrid models – the key benefits
- Better match graduates with employers
- Competency-based approach
- Enhanced experience
- Ensure there is a job at the end of the process
- Economically viable