Learners Deserve More Than a Return to Normal

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This month marks a year since the first universities closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve witnessed extraordinary resilience from students, faculty, and leaders. Because no institution was exempt from the disruption, the response from entrepreneurs in the postsecondary education community was all the more remarkable, prompting dynamic solutions from the people closest to the problem. While all universities had to cope with rapid adjustment, some also recognized the critical importance of embracing innovation to benefit learners for the long-term — an incredible feat for institutions often criticized for being resistant to change.

But the challenge of COVID-19, although extraordinarily disruptive, has only highlighted the problems that have been around for a very long time. The status quo was already failing millions of students, evidenced by costs increasing up to 25% in a decade, debt hitting $1.6 trillion, and 40% of students dropping out of universities. Rather than helping to unlock human potential, far too many institutions leave students feeling disheartened and discouraged. Sixty-one percent of graduates regret their choice of major.

We must do better. And it starts with acknowledging and respecting the unique potential of every person. Education should empower individuals to discover their aptitudes, develop the knowledge and skills they need to succeed, and apply what they’ve learned to benefit themselves and others.

One potentially effective approach for philanthropy is to bring this vision to life by partnering with education entrepreneurs who bring passion, knowledge, and proximity to the problems we face. In the aftermath of the pandemic, many of my organization’s partners jumped into action with innovative solutions:

As schools began to close, the Association of College and University Educators and OpenStax provided free best-in-class resources to faculty, many of whom had never taught an online class.

As institutions raced to identify best practices, Western Governors University launched the College Innovation Network, an initiative focused on connecting leaders across postsecondary education with innovative tools to improve student outcomes. 

Arizona State University oversaw the launch of the University Design Institute, an initiative focused on not just building partnerships with other universities but also sharing and disseminating broad-based solutions to help students pursue individualized and self-defined learning objectives.

Our partners are also building entirely new models that remove barriers to lifelong learning, especially for so-called non-traditional students such as working adults or learners requiring flexibility. As many people have pointed out, these non-traditional students represent close to 74% of all undergraduates. PelotonU is building a network of hybrid colleges. Rivet School, another hybrid college, developed an accelerated, low-cost college program for working adults. The SkillUp Coalition is helping millions of displaced workers return to the workforce in high-growth industries. 

The demand for these models and more choices will only grow. A recent YouGov poll by the Charles Koch Foundation and SkillUp found that of those interested in acquiring new skills, 72% expressed a preference for an option other than a four-year college or university.

While the challenges facing students all predated the pandemic, the crisis accentuated them. Students don’t need another top-down blueprint — they need to be empowered to discover solutions that fit their unique circumstances and potential. This will require innovation by students, faculty, leaders, and entrepreneurs to create bottom-up products and programs that open up individualized opportunities for all learners.  

The pandemic has also been a reminder of the complex challenges and policy discussions facing learners across America. It’s encouraging to see a robust debate taking place on how we can remove barriers to student success. On our own, we won’t solve them, but empowered partners and learners will. The temptation to resort to quick fixes, however, is real. If we double down on well-intentioned — but short-term — solutions, we will, at best, fail to address the structural challenges so many learners encounter. At worst, we’ll only exacerbate long-term barriers.

The past year has taught us a lot. It underscored where there are gaps and persistent barriers. It reminded us of the challenges we face while showcasing the positive steps that change can bring. Amid the successes and failures, we witnessed extraordinary capacity for fresh thinking and a commitment to innovation. That’s a potentially powerful combination and a good reason to hope for more positive change to come.

We shouldn’t restore the status quo or go back to “normal” in postsecondary education. Instead, we can build a better future for all learners that far exceeds the opportunities we have today. We just need to believe in and empower learners and have the courage to work together to provide a better way.

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