In my last blog, I started a conversation about our future by identifying what parts of the past we want to reclaim and re-imagining a future we want to shape together. In this blog, I share my thoughts about a specific aspect of that future—how we might leverage and meet the needs of the fast-changing, hybrid world around us.
Society is transforming before our eyes. While most changes have been underway for quite some time, the rate of change seems to be accelerating. Whereas our own interpretations of these shifts may vary, most of us can agree that we are witnessing some of the fastest and most disruptive changes in our lifetime. Further, these developments have a profound impact on us in educational institutions—thrusting new problems before us and accentuating the need for creative solutions.
We should strive for a future in which we are not merely to survive, but to thrive. Before jumping into new solutions, however, we should be more deliberate about identifying the problem we’re trying to solve. Let me propose that our rapidly changing world and the “problem” we are trying to solve stem from two main sources, which started out separately but have since converged and now pose significant challenges to every aspect of higher education: (1) the value proposition of a college education, and (2) the way we interact, work, and learn.
Is a College Degree Worth the Cost?
The value proposition of a college education is in question today more than ever before. It was challenged for years prior to the emergence of the pandemic, but has become more pointed for many academic institutions both during and, in all likelihood, after the current crisis subsides. A recent survey by Strada Education Network found that the percent of people who think higher education is worth the cost decreased from 77 percent in 2016 to 59 percent in 2020.
Over the past 100 years, a “typical” college education in the U.S. has been conceived as a “bundled service”—an education combined with a socially maturating, residential campus experience. Many see their college years as a passage to adulthood—a safe and nurturing environment that helped them decide who to become in life. A college education also frequently meant frontloading a lifetime’s worth of formal education into four years—with many students going into debt to attain that education, expecting that their investment would provide a lifetime return.
An inconvenient truth is that this model no longer works for a majority of our population, especially communities of color, immigrants, and students from low-income families. The upfront cost is simply too high and the risks and obstacles are far too great for many average American families to afford. Prior to the pandemic, we were already starting to see two major trends: unbundling—separating residential campus experience and academic learning, and micro-credentialing—the idea that it is possible to achieve college-level credentials closely aligned with professional demands that are incrementally updated over time.
In earlier blogs, I touched on the historic and socioeconomic contexts of higher education and suggested that the lack of change and innovation in higher education can be understood through the lens of institutional isomorphism—the gravitational pull of conformity toward status quo and stagnation. I argued that this particular form of bundling and frontloading is yet another outcome of isomorphism. And since that’s what most institutions tend to do, we rarely question if that’s the best we can do.
Not only is the value proposition of higher education in question for individuals, it is in question for society at large. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of the Fiscal Service, in 2018 higher education institutions received more than $1 trillion from federal and nonfederal funding sources—educating roughly 20 million Americans. At the same time, higher education has increasingly become a closed circle: family affluence virtually ensures access to a college degree, which in turn enables economic opportunity and promises continued affluence for a relatively small fraction of the next generation to repeat the cycle. This model privileges the few and shuts out the many.
Is the World Really Turning Hybrid?
The way we interact, work, and learn is undergoing drastic changes, and like it or not, external pressure from society and the workplace will force us to deliver education differently in the future. According to a recent report, more than 40 percent of the American workforce has worked remotely since the pandemic began. Furthermore, about 20 million workers have moved residentially—many of them out of major cities—or are planning to do so. Many predict that, when “knowledge workers” return to the office after a year or more of working from home, they will want to maintain some degree of their newfound flexibility. These profound shifts in mindset and normality are motivating many organizations to rethink the balance of personal presence, proximity, and modalities of interaction in the workplace.
Less than two decades ago, many of us could not have imagined the way we use our phones today to access information and to interact. Before the pandemic, it would be just as difficult for us to imagine a future where we interact, learn, and work in a digitally-physically entangled hybrid world—a world where we collaborate in a virtually-connected workplace with some colleagues physically in the office, others working remotely, and some seamlessly combining the two.
To be sure, not everyone has the privilege of working from home, and no matter what the future holds, a majority of workers will continue to function in public, physical workplaces. Nonetheless, the profound shift into a hybrid environment will have a very real and direct impact on institutions of higher education. For instance, we used to assume that students who worked full-time would attend evening classes or interlace their work hours with class time. Will these students who now work from home three days a week make a special trip to take a class on campus? Previously, we assumed students would come to campus and go to five different offices to complete their class selection, financial aid, and registration. This is no longer the environment to which they are accustomed, and we will need to meet them where they are. To serve our students in this new, hybrid world, we need to leverage technology and innovation to create flexibility, mass customization, and personal engagement, while at the same time maintaining the quality and rigor of the education we provide. But that conversation is for another blog.
Dream It and Do It
What if there were an institution that had figured out how to offer a high-quality, 21st-century education that any middle- or low-income family could afford? An institution where the passage to adulthood was not merely done in a protected, ivory tower campus environment but also through service in the community? Where a faculty member would not only be “sage on the stage” but also “guide on the side,” providing hands-on learning where students could positively impact their field of study by learning through personal experience? What if professionals from the field mentored, assisted, and collaborated with students, helping them to understand the layers of knowledge needed to thrive in the workplace? What if professors taught every other semester in traditional formats and in off semesters conducted their instruction in community-based settings? What if students alternated between learning and working, curating part of their education based on their own intellectual and professional growth?
In many ways, Baruch is already on this path. Endowed with the richness of New York, the City is our laboratory, our classroom, and our campus. Many of our faculty have been taking students to see their future profession in action, to engage them in field work, or to immerse them in community-based actions. What if that became an integral part of a hybrid curriculum—where professors give some lectures online while spending the rest of the semester taking students into functioning businesses, facilitating community-based work, or curating opportunities for students to secure internships or field work?
Hundreds of volunteer-professionals—many of them Baruch alumni—are mentoring our students, providing them with priceless personal and professional guidance. What if that became a signature of a Baruch education—where every student benefitted from a mentor who helped them understand the layers of knowledge they will need to succeed in their chosen professions?
What if we offer our students their passage to adulthood—not in a cocooned campus environment, but through partnerships with world-class talents, organizations, and the cultural institutions surrounding us? What if we provide our students with every ingredient of a high-caliber education most “elite” institutions try to cultivate—but doing so without the substantial premium? What if we afford our students the confidence—and the knowhow—to create their own business, their own social action, and their own agenda for the future?
Dream it and do it. But we must dream it first. Emerging from the crises of 2020, our society is ready for change. As an institution that offers a strong and differentiating value proposition, we have an opportunity to emerge even stronger—as we embrace new ideas and technology to double down and increase the value of our education. It is time for us to stand up, to make a difference, and to create a new model of higher education.