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Yes, Higher Education Has Changed More Than We Think

At the recent annual meeting of the American Council on Education, I was asked to moderate a panel on the future of higher education. In preparing for the session, I read a myriad of reports and news articles about how slow higher education is to change at a time when the world around us is rapidly shifting.

The truth is that if you step back from the headlines, it becomes obvious that much more has changed in the last five years than we realize.

It’s important to remember that we are living in an evolutionary moment, not a revolutionary moment, in the development of American higher education. Change, by its nature, is incremental. Big advances in a given year are few and far between.

Nevertheless, as I looked back at the recent history of higher education, I noted three key changes that have accumulated over this time:

1.) MOOCs focused the discussion on campuses about new ways of teaching students.

Massive Open Online Courses may no longer grab front-page headlines the way they did a few years ago, but they haven’t totally disappeared. What’s more important to this discussion about the future of higher education is that their impact has been far different than originally thought. MOOCs haven’t siphoned away students from traditional colleges, nor have they disrupted the adult education market. Instead, MOOCs have shifted the conversation on campuses about teaching, pedagogical practices, and how to better assess student learning.

2.) The public and policymakers demand better information on higher education’s return on investment.

In 2013, in his State of the Union address, President Obama announced that the U.S. Education Department would build a new data tool so that the public could better calculate the return on investment (ROI) of a college degree. This new College Scorecard, the president said, would allow students and parents “to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”

It would take two years before the College Scorecard finally debuted, but in the meantime, the president’s focus on ROI unleashed a bevy of new college rankings as well as state efforts to compare colleges based on outcomes.

In the past three years, The Economist, Money magazine, and LinkedIn all released their own set of college rankings based on the earnings and job placement rates of graduates. Seven states—Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington—now match statewide salary data from unemployment insurance records with graduates from colleges and universities within the state, allowing consumers to compare the ROI of both institutions and majors.

3.) Lifelong education has arrived with stackable credentials. 

Since 2011, the total number of undergraduate degrees has remained relatively constant, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. However, the share of those graduates who had earned prior credentials has grown by 12 percent.

Students are “stacking” their credentials, mixing multiple bachelor’s degrees with associate’s degrees and professional certificates to create a mosaic of experiences that they hope will set them apart in the job market. In the years ahead, the variety of credentials and the players in the market who offer those credentials—from traditional colleges to boot camps with short-term classes—will only proliferate.

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There are likely many other trends that took hold in the last five years than the three listed here. Add your thoughts to the comments section or tell us what you think is to come in the next five years.

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