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4 Reforms That Could Remake Higher Education
4 Reforms That Could Remake Higher Education

Colleges and universities are testing bold programs to improve the value of a degree

By Reginald Stuart

Pete McArthur

Is a college degree worth the cost? While politicians, pundits, and price-sensitive parents and pupils debate the issues, some institutions are responding with a range of reforms. These include efforts to guarantee that a degree holds value, such as tying public funding to alumni employment outcomes, as well as efforts to ease the financial burden, including programs to push students across the finish line quicker.

"In the innovation world, [the reformers] are called the early adopters," says Louis Soares, vice president of the Center for Policy Research and Strategy at the American Council on Education. "It's good that some people are experimenting, saying ‘let's see how this works,' before everybody tries it out."

Some reforms are bolder than others. Most are in their early stages, so the real impact won't be known for years. Each of these four ideas is an out-of-the-box attempt to transform higher education.

Idea 1: Competency-based education

Why should students waste time studying subjects they've already mastered? That's the theory behind competency-based education programs that award students credit for work experience or demonstrated mastery of a subject.

Students prove what they know through their portfolio of work or assessment tests. Deficiencies identified through assessments help CBE programs create customized plans of study that focus on only what the student needs.

"The basic concept of CBE is to flip the relationship between time and mastery," says Sally Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at the CBE-based Western Governors University. Having students attend classes for four years to attain a degree, she notes, is no longer the goal.

"There's nothing magic about four years," she says. "If we are talking about adult learners, they don't want to sit through standard stuff. They want to move on."
CBE programs sound like an affordable fast lane through college toward a better-paying job in targeted fields, such as business, nursing, and information technology. In reality, though, they are far from a one-size-fits-all path.

Advocates say CBE programs work best for focused, self-motivated nontraditional students who know what they need to learn to move ahead professionally. That's important since most CBE programs are online and lack traditional classrooms.

CBE pricing is as appealing to working adults as the flexible class scheduling. Most institutions tout tuition prices that are lower than traditional credit-hour programs. A flat-rate pricing system, informally referred to as "all you can eat," allows students to enroll in as many classes as they feel they can pass during the study period. WGU, for example, charges a flat rate of $3,000 per six-month term. The rates for other institutions range from $1,250 to $4,000.

More than 30 U.S. institutions, from Southern New Hampshire University's College for America to the University of Maryland University College, award CBE degrees. Backed with financial support from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, WGU is introducing the concept to community colleges in Florida and Washington state.

Comprehensive data to assess the value of these programs is scarce, says Robert Kelchen, Seton Hall University assistant professor of higher education and author of a January 2015 paper on CBE programs published by the American Enterprise Institute.

"Many questions about CBE remain to be answered before its wide adoption, including which students and degree programs are best suited for CBE, overall cost of CBE compared to the more traditional programs, and how to lower out-of-pocket costs for students," Kelchen writes.


  • "All you can eat" pricing is an incentive.
  • Fewer campus buildings considerably reduce fixed costs.


  • No consensus exists on how to measure competency.
  • Few institutions expect CBE alumni to be as involved as graduates of traditional programs.
  • Federal financial aid is not available to students attending many programs.
Idea 2: Three-year bachelor's degrees

One idea that's slowly spreading across the United States: Have students complete their degree requirements in three years instead of four.

Ohio law mandates that 13 of the state's 14 University System of Ohio institutions offer three-year degrees. The state's highly touted effort is largely informational, while institutions like American and Wesleyan universities offer structured, stand-alone three-year programs.

Ohio colleges are giving more detailed guidance to the state's high schools about what courses, like Advanced Placement classes, students can take in high school to earn college credit, thus making it possible to graduate in three years.

"It definitely has the potential to save students money," says Stephanie Davidson, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the Ohio system. "You could get a year's credit while you are still in high school." She acknowledges, however, that a three-year track might limit the amount of time a student would have for activities—study abroad, athletic participation, and part-time employment—beyond those required to earn the degree. "The question is out on whether the state saves money."

At American University in Washington, D.C., prospective freshmen interested in an accelerated program must apply to both the three-year and four-year track. Upon acceptance to the three-year program, they must stick to the rigid course requirements, including summer studies, to obtain their degree. Any deviation from the schedule could get them bumped from the accelerated program.

"We're not trying to save money—these [programs] are for students who want to sprint," says Dylan Craig, co-director of the Global Scholars Program, one of AU's three-year bachelor's programs.

Three-year programs appeal to a small section of highly motivated traditional college students who know coming out of high school what they want to do professionally. AU's three-year programs—Public Health, Global Scholars, and Politics, Policy and Law—have fewer than 100 students combined. Wesleyan University in Connecticut has even fewer in its programs.


  • These fast-track programs give students a head start on a career.
  • There's potential to save money, but the savings are unclear.


  • Eliminating the fourth year of college removes a huge block of maturing time.
  • Three-year programs don't reduce credit hours required to graduate.
Idea 3: Funding based on alumni labor outcomes

The Texas State Technical College System has one of the most ambitious efforts afoot to demonstrate the value of its program: Most of the funding it gets from the Lone Star State is based on how many of its graduates attain well-paying jobs.

"It's like working on commission," says Michael L. Reeser, chancellor of the four-campus technical school.

Texas is among at least a half-dozen states, including Minnesota, Florida, and Louisiana, that include alumni labor market outcomes in their higher education funding formula on a limited or trial basis, according to the National Governors Association.

The so-called accountability or outcome-based funding formula isn't for all institutions, Reeser says. But TSTC was established 50 years ago to train area students for local jobs, so holding it accountable for producing job-ready graduates makes sense.

TSTC, which offers training for technology, oil industry, and manufacturing jobs, consulted with local employers to fine-tune courses and ensure each is as relevant as possible to the needs of companies. The curriculum mirrors what employers want, and the college standardized what's taught on each campus. Those changes affected nearly all programs, from nursing to diesel technology training.

Meanwhile, back-shop responsibilities were consolidated, eliminating duplication of offices and efforts in marketing, recruitment, registration, and career counseling. TSTC also reduced its course offerings from 300 to 180, by cutting the number of classes taught on more than one campus.

The funding policy is in its second year, so it's too soon to measure the long-term effects (aside from cutting operating costs).

As it stands, the state's recommendation for the institution's 2016–2017 allocation is "$37 for every $100 of incremental taxes received by the state treasurer that is attributable to former TSTC students' economic activity over a five-year period."


  • Allows institutions to justify funding based on measurable outcomes.
  • Eliminates battling over state allocations at budget time.


  • Limits the institution's ability to jockey for additional funds at budget time.
  • Leaves the institution vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of the area's employment trends.
Idea 4: Lower college costs

Starting this fall, new Tennessee high school graduates can attend one of the state's 13 community colleges, 27 technical schools, or four-year institutions offering associate degrees—for free. The Tennessee Promise, which covers students' educational expenses after federal and other aid has been applied, also supplies students with a mentor.

When Gov. Bill Haslam proposed the Tennessee Promise, he sought to supply local businesses with better-trained prospective employees. Along the way, he's inspired low-income students who thought college was out of their reach. Chicago followed with a similar program. Then, President Barack Obama proposed the same idea for the rest of the nation.

Free isn't free: The program shifts the investments in college education to the public. Tennessee Promise's costs are covered through a newly created endowment and other state resources. The program was expected to attract 12,000 students, to the tune of $34 million. More than 58,000 students applied, although one-third were not eligible because they failed to apply for federal financial aid or meet their mentor.

Chicago is waiving tuition, fees, and book costs for students who earned a high school GPA of at least 3.0 and do not need to take remedial English and math classes while attending one of City Colleges of Chicago's seven campuses. Such restrictions for the Star Scholarship program mean just a portion of new high school graduates will qualify. Financial assistance from the city kicks in after federal and state aid.

Seton Hall's Kelchen, who raised concerns about competency-based education, notes that free community college tuition doesn't cover living expenses, which are often a barrier to education.

"Being able to cover these costs is critical to being successful in college. The ‘free college' programs do not cover any of the other expenses, meaning that students must turn to loans or self-support in order to finance their education," he wrote in an essay for Inside Higher Ed last fall.

Community colleges aren't the only ones trying to lure students concerned about costs. Seton Hall in New Jersey and Concordia University, St. Paul, in Minnesota have lowered tuition. And Tennessee's Fisk University is freezing tuition and fees for the full four years for freshmen entering this fall.

"We're thinking entrepreneurial," says Fisk President H. James Williams. With tuition locked in for the full four years, Williams hopes to see a drop in finance-related student turnover. It will also be easier for the institution to forecast income and expenses.


  • Expanded access to college can boost the number of individuals prepared to take on more than manufacturing jobs.
  • Reining in costs makes college more appealing for students who think it's too expensive.


  • Four-year universities are concerned that free community college tuition programs could syphon students who would otherwise attend their institutions.
  • Costs could exceed what agencies and institutions expect.
  • Federal financial aid is not available to students attending many programs.
A rigorous defense

The future of these intriguing reforms is unclear, but colleges and universities can take other action—by pushing back at critics who argue that higher education is not worth the costs.

"We know a liberal arts education is a good grounding for virtually any kind of college education. Even people in science, technology, engineering, and math studies need to have a grounding," says Edward Ray, president of Oregon State University. An economist by training, Ray is one of liberal arts education's chief advocates as chair of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Liberal arts curriculum teaches students critical thinking and how to identify, analyze, and shape solutions and communicate effectively. Adds Ray: "These are the kinds of things employers say they are not getting enough from us."

About the Author Reginald Stuart

Reginald Stuart, a former reporter for The New York Times, is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Maryland.




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