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New Survey of Higher Ed Experts Finds Promise in Guided Pathways, Adaptive Learning

In fall 2015, Ithaka S+R invited a select group of higher education administrators and experts to join a panel of advisors. One activity of the panel, which consists of 110 members with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, is to take part in semi-annual surveys on issues of national importance in higher education. The results of these surveys will help guide Ithaka S+R’s research agenda. In addition, we will publish the results to inform the broader higher education community about the panel’s views on current debates, initiatives, and challenges.

In Higher Ed Insights: Results of the Fall 2015 Survey, Rayane Alamuddin, Daniel Rossman, and I report findings from the first panel survey, which was administered between November 16 and December 27, 2015. The survey focused on innovative initiatives and strategies aimed at improving three student-centered outcomes: degree completion rates, the quality of student learning, and affordability. It also solicited panel members’ opinions on the current state of undergraduate education in the US and obstacles to successful innovation.

The 96 panel members who responded to the survey rate the current state of higher education in the US at just above neutral, but most are hopeful that the sector will improve in the next ten years. In their view, improvements in degree completion, the quality of student learning, and affordability are important—and roughly equally important—to achieve sectoral improvement.

To improve degree completion, respondents see the most potential in guided pathways and proactive advising strategies—efforts to provide students with more structured postsecondary experiences, with more support. These results were particularly popular among respondents at public colleges and universities.

Respondents view intelligent adaptive learning technologies—instructional software that adjusts the material presented to students in real time, as students interact with the softwareas the most promising initiative for improving the quality of student learning. Systematic assessment of student learning is also viewed favorably by a majority of respondents as an intervention to improve student learning.

Asked to rank a list of efforts to make earning a college degree more affordable for students, respondents were most likely to select as their top choice unbundling college credits and services—allowing students to pay for only those courses and services they want, and to combine experiences from multiple institutions (or other providers) to earn a degree. The preference for unbundling in the affordability context presents an interesting contrast to the preference for guided pathways in the degree completion context: the former works by increasing the range of choices available to students, while the latter works by limiting student choices. This tension—between the strategies and possibly between the goals of degree completion and affordability—merits deeper scrutiny.

Universal free tuition for two years, an initiative advanced by President Obama and much discussed in the 2016 presidential primaries, drew the most varied support from our respondents. We asked about universal free tuition in the context of both degree completion and affordability, and in each case responses were distinctly varied—a sharp contrast to most of the other initiatives, about which respondents generally agreed. It seems that our expert respondents’ opinions about this issue are as diverse as those of the broader higher education community.

When asked about obstacles to successful innovation in American higher education, respondents most frequently cited barriers grounded in institutional culture and structures. Although they recognize the role played by ineffective public policy, low and declining public resources, and market inefficiencies, our survey respondents, mostly higher education insiders, see the biggest roadblocks to innovation inside the academy. These include misaligned incentives for faculty, lack of clear vision by leaders, and commitment to outdated instructional and organizational models.

Respondents from the Higher Ed Insights panel see great potential in a number of current and emerging initiatives to improve degree completion, student learning, and affordability. It is not, according to respondents, a lack of good ideas that holds the higher education sector back. Rather, to improve student prospects, leaders and faculty will have to overcome sometimes deeply entrenched cultural norms and organizational structures to put those ideas to work. That challenge is not small, but our respondents are optimistic that it will be met.

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