Blog Post

Six (Truly)Radical Ideas for Reinventing College

Before we can radically reinvent college, we need to add at least two more structural, material changes to the four in this month's Wired magazine article by writer Martha Rhodes, "4 Radical Ideas for Reinventing College, Drawn From Stanford Research."   The four changes advocated in Wired come from the famous design school, the, at Stanford and one of its leading lights, Professor Sarah Stein Greenberg.  I like these a lot--and readers of the Cat in the Stack posts at will recognize all of them from many of my past posts. 

BUT, in some ways, they are rearranging the deck chairs.  If we want this ship called Higher Education to sail safely and happily into the future, we need to, yes, rearrange these four chairs, but we also need to be looking out for those treacherous icebers.   So, below, the four derived from Professor Stein Greenberg's research and then the REAL, radical ideas that could change higher ed in the U.S.

The four advocated in Wired  are: 
1.  Lose the 4-year degree    I agree.  Some times college might be two years, three years, six years, or a returning and recycling fifth year (suggested here) that is life long.  I personally think every college graduation certificate needs to come with a passport to a year's more free courses over a lifetime, online or face to face.  Returning students make education better for everyone and remind us all, lifelong, of how supporting public education is a life long and society-wide social investment.
2.  Lose the High School to College Model  I agree.  The ideas for this are murky in the Wired article but I agree that college should not simply mirror the freshman, sophomore, junior, senior divisions of high school.  I also think gap years and other time spent in other occupations (travel or work or anything) before entering college should be rewarded not penalized.  
3.  Lose the Transcript  Professor Stein Greenberg advocates competencies and skills rather than a transcript and an individualized skills portfolio.   YES!   Needless to say, we've been advocating badging and ePortfolios as a real workable system to augment the bogus metrics of standardized testing, the quantitative measures for what should be qualitative skills (that are crucial in every and any field but rarely quantifiable by current algorithms), and a far wider array of skills and competencies than a "final grade in a class" ever documents or that the letter of recommendation (another outmoded form) ever really touches upon.
4.  Lose the College Major   Stein Greenberg advocates "mission not major" and, needless to say, that is what HASTAC has advocated for over a decade.  Currently to be "interdisciplinary" requires moving across bureaucratic and intellectual obstacles that never quite go away.   Mission-driven, problem-based, project driven learning creates new pathways and better motivations to creativity, on the one hand, and to mastery on another.   I agree.
But 1-4 will all be changes at the elite end and will not change real thinking or the whole systemic institutional and social structures that undergird higher education in the U.S. until you also address the material conditions of being a student and being a professor in 2014.  So I'd add these two true game changers, that also get us past the insulting "really excellent sheep" mantra of bestselling author William Deresiewicz.  If you really want to improve  the sheep, you need to change what is growing in the pasture ---and the shepherd tending the flock.
And now the TRULY RADICAL game changers for the future of higher ed:
5.  Lose the Tuition.  Germany did it.  The U.S. could too, for public higher education, if it wanted to.   And many of the big private universities could use their endowments on open tuition and still be richer than most national economies worldwide.  (I've heard it said that if Harvard were a nation, it would rank 18 in the world in GDP).   If you truly had an educational system based on excellence not on cost, you would be rethinking everything from SAT's to the central place of football and fraternities on a college campus. 
6.  Pay the Profs.   If you were serious about education reform, you wouldn't be concentrating so much on an existing faculty and existing students, but how to create the best possible future professors.   In a situation where adjunct and contingent labor is the fate of most professors--except the most elite at the most elite universities--then you are not rewarding and incentivizing (to use language) visionary professors, the most creative and committee teachers and researchers, but those who make it through the system unscathed. Big, big question:  Why isn't Deresiewicz focusing on elite professors as "really excellent sheep?"    
If we are going to be visionary about reinventing college, let's start with the socio-economic conditions of higher education that support the status quo, not only of pedagogy and institutional structures but of the society for which those are training grounds.   Until we alter the material conditions, we will replicate the present, not reinvision a better future.


Part of what I found very enriching as a CUNY undergraduate student was that many of my fellow students were not on a 4-year degree or on a high school-to-college track. This provided many different perspectives within my courses, from people of all ages with various life experiences.

CUNY also offers tuition-free courses to senior citizens (though there are some admin fees), a program which supports the view of education as a lifelong process and commitment. My language classes in particular benefitted from senior students who were learning their third, fourth, or fifth languages, enabling me to think of learning as building over time. (Here is the link for the Hunter College Senior Citizen Program.)



Thank you for this concrete outline.  The Deresiewitz book has legs and so many people have it in their mind as a reference point, but it does not push to open up a new kind of vision for Highered.  It is so important to start speaking of what can be done to turn the proverbial boat of highered around.  Thank you for opening up this crucial conversation in so many ways.





Good summary of how higher education might reinvent itself, but not without some difficulty to overcome the inertia of the current model.  While change can come from within as a response to opportunity, change most often comes in response to an external threat.  Please allow me to place the six ideas within a framework of Alt Higher Ed where 14 open, course-building platforms now enable independent instructors to develop and deliver courses outside the walls of traditional colleges.  These platforms are largely also outside the view of higher ed, but have the potential to be truly disruptive, especially as incremental innovations are made to their current model.   


1.      Lose the 4-year degree – Udacity and AT&T have announced the creation of a nano-degree as a job-specific set of competencies.  While some argue that a nano-degree or micro-degree is not competitive with the current degree structure, they overlook what these new degree structure truly are – stackable competencies that parallel career progression or enable shifts to new job pathways.  As such, these degrees formalize lifelong learning and tie together continuing education, certificates, Corporate Universities, subsequent degrees, etc.

2.      Lose the high school to college model – from what I read this model is already trending downward with an increasing shift toward non-traditional, working adults either going back to complete a degree or seeking additional credentials for career progression.  At the other side of the age range, there is an increasing push for dual-enrollment of high school students taking college courses for dual credit.  In both cases, recognition of learning is critical, but ACE, CAEL, and others are building pathways to credit that unbundle delivery of student learning and assessment of that learning.  Increasing numbers of professional certificates also fit here.

3.      Lose the transcript – already underway with ePortfolios, especially in competency-based programs where the portfolio captures the demonstration of learning as a complement to the summary in the transcript.  If this trend continues and employers start to use them more, ePortfolios and micro-degrees could easily evolve to a market force in higher education.

4.      Lose the college major – disciplinary momentum will make this difficult, but micro-degrees break the silo through capturing all competencies required for a job-category, regardless of where that academic expertise might exist within a school’s organization chart.  However, this bleeds over to an issue of accreditation since micro-degrees can be envisioned as more adaptable than the current accreditation process for degrees.  At the same time, some assurance of academic quality is needed, but that need might be addressed at the course level (and not at the institutional level) through peer-based reviews that place personal reputations at stake.  It will also be interesting to watch how the DQP and Degree Tuning movement impacts degree flexibility. 


5.      Lose the tuition – “if it wanted to” becomes the operative phrase.  I do not see anyone pushing this agenda in a serious way.  Instead, the political winds seem to be blowing the other way with reduced public funding and worries about growing student debt.  Some have also argued that free flowing student loans have enabled schools to raise tuition to support their current business model.  If tuition were to be offset in some manner, there will also be a need to establish countervailing pressure for cost control as well.  Further, there is a growing conflict between Open Education Resources (sustainable funding?) and publishers pushing into adaptive learning for learning effectiveness (harnessing big data).  In both instances, there is some cost-shifting. 

6.      Pay the profs – agree!!  I started my career in academia as an adjunct instructor and will shortly move back in that direction as I go into semi-retirement.  As everyone here knows, higher education is largely supported with a faculty cost-shifting business model that is supported with growth in the administrative ranks for specialized services.  Lacking movement on the 5th item above, this change involves a shift of funding from somewhere else.  The new course-building platforms now provide an interesting funding contrast with higher education through the elimination of some functions common to all colleges and universities.  However, as higher education is unbundled and re-bundled there is a possibility of crowdsourcing some of these functions with less cost than current administrative support.  These new course platforms also lack a cohesive curriculum, but that deficiency could be addressed with faculty collaboration though more informal and dynamic.  


Thanks for starting the discussion – many interesting changes on the horizon.    



I'm very interested in five and six from a policy perspective, but we'll have to think big if we want to accomplish these goals.  Here are some quick ideas:

1.  Get rid of student loans and loan-related programs like loan forgiveness and income-based repayment.

I know this one sounds pretty crazy, but I've been convinced by Bob Samuels that we'd save enough money through the elimination of these programs to make public higher education completely free.  The elimination of student loans might also provide a means for re-investing in public higher education insofar as a large portion of loan money ends up in the hands of private schools.  

2.  Get rid of the accreditation cabal.  

Accreditors like SACSCOC are composed of an elite group of representatives from member institutions.  This group doesn’t include members of the new faculty majority, and it really only serves to empower those who already have power.  The accreditation process is far from transparent, and disciplinary actions are almost exclusively reserved for institutions with limited resources (see City College of San Francisco).  If you’re going to get rid of the four-year degree… if you’re going to get rid of majors… or reform general education requirements… or eliminate grades… or push through any serious higher education reform, you’ve got to get rid of the accreditors first.

3.  Establish a new national university system.

Let me just get this out there… I don’t think federalism makes any sense in the 21st century.  

Public universities are subject to state legislatures in ways that constrain their revenue streams.  In a time when the state level public revenue picture is especially bleak, universities have been forced to get creative in order to keep spending money like they’re used to spending.  CUNY is the only university I’m familiar with that has over 50% of its budget funded by public revenue sources (46% from the state and 10% from the city).  

I think the problem is fairly straightforward.  States usually rely on property and sales tax revenue to fund public education.  But these revenue streams are fairly static over time, and they’re tied strongly to economic and demographic factors outside the control of the state.  Education costs on the other hand have not remained static.  They’ve risen dramatically on a per capita basis.  Not only are states funding the education of more people than they used to, but that education is a lot more expensive than it used to be.  

So let’s start a public university that doesn’t have the revenue problems of state universities.  Let’s start a national university system that relies entirely on federal tax revenue.  Make tuition free for all students.  Fund the universities with all the money saved from the elimination of federal loan programs and subsidies to private institutions that don’t need them.  Operate outside the control of regional accrediting bodies.  And produce new innovative approaches to higher education that meet the needs of complex individuals trying to navigate life in the 21st century.  It can be done.  We can do it.  What do you think?