Like every other higher education leader, I spent most of the last 10 months reacting to the operational imperatives driven by the COVID-19 crisis. Each day presented a novel crisis, and just when we thought we’d see no more plot twists, a new one emerged. In the midst of that maelstrom and as the state’s higher education chief, I often found myself trying to find elusive time to process what these daily crises meant for our enterprise over the long term.
Having now moved to the private sector and out of the role of a public official, I have had time to reflect. I now believe one of the primary challenges for higher education that COVID has highlighted is whether we can transition away from a binary way of thinking regarding the choices we provide to students. For decades, colleges and universities have offered students a series of 0 percent or 100 percent propositions: either you complete the semester the way you started it, or you don’t stay enrolled; either you finish college and obtain a degree, or you don’t finish at all. We can do better.
In the midst of the pandemic chaos, college and university campuses have experienced a vital truth: when we need to radically alter course for the sake of student success, incredible tasks can be accomplished. We’ve implemented innovations that would have been laughed out of staff meetings a few years ago because we had no other choice. Operational shifts that would have inevitably been met with the chorus of “The data system won’t let us do that” have actually been successful, proving once and for all that data systems are not sentient beings -- they just do those things we program them to do.
Has it been ideal? No. But we’ve learned some important lessons, and those lessons should now propel us forward, moving in a new direction that leaves behind some of our previous inflexible operating principles.
First, let’s examine the toggle to online learning that occurred last March. While it was by no means easy, institutions quickly transitioned online because the imperatives of COVID-19 left no other option. During the fall semester, additional -- albeit slightly less chaotic -- transitions took place when dictated by public health conditions. Those shifts, while difficult, exhibited a degree of agility that stands in stark contrast to the traditional higher education structure in which students begin the semester and are locked into that attendance mode with no leeway for interference from life circumstances, whether mundane or tragic.
Going back in time to fall 2019, what would we have told the adult learner who experienced a work schedule change? What about the student whose parent became ill so they needed to take on a caregiver role, which made attendance impossible? We all know the unfortunate answer. Before the pandemic, the option likely given to the student was no option at all: drop out and re-enroll next semester. The most positive scenario would have been to offer them an incomplete, thwarting their educational pursuits for six to eight months.
This sort of high-stakes structure doesn’t have to be our future. In fact, much of the work faculty members have poured into online learning the past 12 months can become a catalyzing spark rather than a vestige of the pandemic we leave in the past. Colleges and universities can build on this foundation to ensure that courses, especially those in the fragile first semesters of a student’s journey toward a degree, continue to have the toggle option to go online.
This flexibility would serve as the much-needed lifeline we can throw to a student to prevent them from leaving campus when “life happens.” At a minimum, we have created asynchronous instructional materials that all students can benefit from, using complementary online materials as a supportive layer when needed. Ask any engineering student about their journey through differential equations, and they would agree that being able to access on-demand lectures would make a notoriously grueling course far more manageable.
Second, we should examine the narrow pathway to a credential that we currently offer students. COVID-19 has highlighted the fragility of our students, so many of whom are one unfortunate incident or ill-timed occurrence away from leaving college. Despite that fact, we have built a higher education system that creates two divergent and starkly different futures: you must either become a graduate or a drop out. The absence of any middle ground creates an absurdly high-stakes situation that leaves 38 percent of university students and 67 percent of community college students stranded in the “some college, no degree” category.
If we believe every course in the college journey, from liberal arts to major area classes, is significant, then we should also recognize that the accrual of courses on the way to a degree leads to important advances in a student’s capabilities. Is the student who has successfully completed a 15-hour sequence of general education not more culturally fluent and adept at writing than they were with zero credit hours? They must be, or else something is fundamentally wrong with the value of the education being delivered. Can’t we somehow capture the student at the 30-credit-hour mark and award an interim credential of value, ensuring that if they leave before graduating they have a tangible artifact that can elevate their employment prospects?
Of course, this won’t be possible in every field -- some disciplines have obvious intervals for awarding credentials, while others are more restricted in their flexibility. But we owe it to students -- and, frankly, the future of the higher education enterprise -- to create a road with multiple on- and off-ramps, especially at our community colleges.
We should quickly examine technical fields that lead to associate degrees in applied science to determine what subcredentials we can automatically offer before the 60-hour mark, giving students multiple junctures where they can enhance their earning capability. In the university sector, we should actively pursue reverse-transfer programs like those in Maryland and Tennessee that award an associate degree when the credit threshold is crossed for all eligible bachelor’s students.
Some people will say that offering this sort of opportunity to students will lead them to seek the earliest possible credential and then leave the institution. That is a fair concern, but I predict that, for many of these students, obtaining an interim credential will have the opposite effect: they will see the certificate on their wall and feel a sense of accomplishment and possibility, creating a of momentum that carries them forward to a final graduation.
After an intense and visceral year, it appears a miracle of determination and science has resulted in normalcy being at least in sight for both higher education institutions and our society more broadly. When that normalcy happens, we will excitedly welcome students to the communal activities that define college and cheer for our athletic teams in crowded stadiums. We will appreciate a world where proximity isn’t a safety issue and meetings aren’t always on Zoom.
But my hope is that, amid that new normalcy, we will maintain some of the disruptions we’ve had to embrace and use this opportunity to rebuild structures that align with the contours of what students face in their everyday life. If we do that in the post-pandemic world, we may find the lessons learned during this terrible year have led American higher education towards something new, something more equitable and, ultimately, something better.
Republished with permission. This article, Two Ways Colleges Can Build Better Paths Toward Student Success, was published in Inside Higher Ed on February 15, 2021.