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The Bittersweet Convergence of Policy, Higher Ed and Tech

This panel of analysts examined the issues currently faced by post-secondary education and how tech and regulation can and will influence the outcomes.

Even as technology continually promises to deliver a more effective education to a more engaged audience of learners, it hardly ever measures up in the classroom let alone institutionally. Could it be that current policies constrain schools from being able to innovate in deep and important ways? During Blackboard's recent user conference, BbWorld, a group of leading analysts in education met to discuss the post-secondary landscape and how government policy and the use of tech can influence the outcomes.

Defining the Challenges

The most pressing issue higher ed faces right now, according to Leah Matthews, executive director for the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, is "access and affordability — being able to reach populations of learners who don't have colleges and universities and institutions in their communities and where distance education might be the only access point they have."

Amy Laitinen, director of higher ed for think tank New America, added that while those aspects are important, there needs to be an emphasis on "quality access — access to something meaningful."

Mark Schneider, vice president at American Institutes for Research, agreed, though from the perspective of asking whether college is really the optimal pathway to a career. "The traditional equation is higher education equals a bachelor's degree equals a good job. And students, as we know from most of our surveys, want good careers and high wages. [But] we have to make sure that that linkage to a good career and high wages is what we're about. There are many routes to that outcome besides through a traditional four-year — which is really a six-year — education."

The Role of Technology

Technology may play a role in addressing some of the problems higher ed faces, but the panelists don't consider its use a "silver bullet," said Doug Lederman, co-founder and editor of Inside Higher Ed and moderator of the panel.

"Our basic philosophy is that it's not about the technology, but it's about student learning," explained Sharon Leu, senior policy adviser for higher ed innovation in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. "To the extent that there are new ways of teaching that are not related to technology but just focused on making sure that students have a learning experience that really engages them, that catches their interest, that helps them acquire the skills and the knowledge, then that's the kind of thing we really want to invest in."

She pointed out that technology can also play a role in "elevating the profession of teaching as well," enabling instructors to learn new and different ways of engaging with students.

In particular, noted Matthews, too often the technology incorporated into distance education is promoted to recruitment prospects as easy for people "who are already using technology for social media." The reality is that "institutions have a responsibility to evaluate students coming into their programs [for] attitude and aptitude: I'm a self-starter; I'm motivated; I can get myself through teaching and learning in a remote setting; and I have internet access that's consistent to be able to engage in the teaching and learning program."

Unfortunately what often happens, added Laitinen, is that innovations arrive on the scene promising to help marginal populations — "working adults, returning veterans, [people] who haven't been well served." Those are followed by "a rush of bad actors coming in and providing subpar, poor-quality, crappy education, used by schools that are seeing this as a cheaper way to get folks through."

Frequently, the tech that's most desired by educators isn't going to be the most advanced, Schneider observed. He recalled a time when he chaired a political science department at Stonybrook University and he polled the faculty regarding their technology needs. What bubbled up was the simple stuff. As a well-known scholar told him, "What I really want — on our overhead projector, I want a roll of plastic, not individual screens."

At the same time Lederman reminded the audience not to oversimplify their thinking about tech usage in their institutions. "Really, a lot of our conversations about technology ought to be about which kind of technology, which kind of innovation, and for what population. Any less sophisticated analysis than that, and it is likely to fail."

Colleges in Transition

Oftentimes, discussions about the outlook of higher ed get bogged down in questions about funding and how serious the higher ed fiscal crisis is. It's real, said Schneider, who studies the wage outcomes of graduates in his work at AIRS. In particular, he expects a shakeout of a certain type of institution: the private, not-for-profits. There are private universities "with low endowments that are tuition-driven — that charge $50,000-$60,000 and where the average wage for the first five or 10 years after graduation is very low," he said. "I don't see how those schools could possibly survive. It's a bad business model. They're offering a service at a cost that I just don't think is sustainable."

The college segment has already seen 5 percent of institutions close "within the last few years," most of those being private, not-for-profits, he asserted. As the pipeline of "traditional age students" begins to dry up and the population of students ages 25 to 40 increases, he expects to "witness more of that." Public institutions are moving into that population "much more aggressively," he noted, while a lot of not-for-profits "are not well positioned to make that pivot."

ED's Leu views the emergence of the non-traditional or "new normal" college student as a "tremendous opportunity." What schools need to do to thrive is uncover the "systematic changes" needed to serve those students, whether it's the use of "more distance education," a change-up in scheduling "to allow students to take courses after work and on the weekends" or "delivering support services in a different way."

Lederman takes the long view. Higher education has always shown a lot more adaptation than it tends to get credit for, he said. "We see whole new sectors emerge out of whole cloth" — community colleges "50 or 60 years ago," for-profits "30 to 40 years ago," and distance-only institutions more recently, he suggested. His prediction: "We'll see more institutions adapt and survive than die."

The Role of the Feds in Higher Ed

Each panelist offered an opinion about what the federal government under a Trump administration can do to address the challenges faced by higher ed. For Laitinen, the biggest area of focus should be on outcomes. "If you are going to try to remove regulatory barriers around innovation," she suggested, "the idea of just sort of throwing out all of that process stuff is a danger if you don't have any outcomes on the other end." Her advice: "Be tighter on what the outcomes are" to loosen up "how we get there and who is delivering."

Schneider observed that the federal government is in a "unique position" to get and distribute "good data." He pointed to the beleaguered College Scorecard as an example. Yes, the effort may have been "flawed in many ways," he said, "but the fact of the matter is that they made that data available to everybody, and they said, 'Have at it.'" His advice: "Get the process better, the measurements better, but take the data, put a reasonably good federal interface on it, but then say, 'Have at it.'"

Matthews would like to see the feds examine the issue of state authorization for distance education programs. Her accredited institutions too often face a morass of barriers set up by federal practices related to financial aid mixed into state regulations regarding licensure requirements or state authorization rules. The result is that distance education providers face the daunting prospect of "getting on board with the state authorization reciprocity agreement or entering into authorization processes with every single state."

The federal representative offered several roles undertaken by the feds: funding, collaborative sessions and shining a light. Leu referred to a number of grant programs run by the U.S. Department of Education, including the "First in the World" program," the "Small Business Innovation Research" program and the "EDSIM Challenge." Likewise, ED frequently "convenes unlikely stakeholders and partners to come up with collaborative solutions." This summer, for example, the department participated in many ed tech "meet-ups" to explore innovation in higher ed and the role of technology to promote access for all students. Finally, Leu added, the department can share case studies and "lift up examples of promising practices to embolden others to take a step."

The Myth of Federal Intervention

The post-secondary market is shifting to reflect a greater emphasis on sub-baccalaureate certificates ("the fastest growing higher ed credential in the nation," according to Schneider). According to him, that migration is a result of encouragement by state political leaders who view it as an efficient way to produce a "high-skills, competitive workforce." And, in fact, that state influence was a big driver for producing the state-level "Launch My Career" websites that AIR has introduced in Colorado, Tennessee and Texas, among other states. These sites show the potential return on investment for higher education choices — to help students identify which certifications are "high value."

At the same time, however, there ought to be more attention paid to renovating the "50-year-old financial aid model" that powers public education, said Matthews. "Until we find a way to make changes to the financial aid packaging model, which is very program-centric, we're going to keep having the same conversations and concerns about access and costs," she said. "It's time to look at the financial aid packaging model as a mechanism to have better access to these different emerging marketplaces."

While it may be easy to blame federal regulations for stifling innovation, Leu responded, that's a "myth." With experimental sites, she noted, the department has the flexibility to waive some of the regulatory requirements. That's happened, for example, among a lot of competency-based education programs and with EQUIP, an experiment to allow low-income students to access federal financial aid in order to enroll in non-traditional training providers, such as coding bootcamps.

"The question is, has there been just this burst of innovation because we have lifted a couple of these regulations?" asked Leu. The answer is yes and no. "What we're finding in all of these conversations is really quite complex. It's not just a federal regulation. It's the state authorization. It's the accreditation. It's institutional policy about when courses are listed in a catalog or when the bookstore is open. It's so many complicated things, we have to say, maybe all of it needs to be re-evaluated."

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