By Doug Ward

Despite declining enrollments (see below) and changes in student demographics, most colleges and universities have continued to divert resources into traditional areas related to rankings rather than to innovations that would help them reach and serve new audiences.

That’s the argument Michael R. Weise, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, argues in an article in Educause.

Colleges and universities have pumped money into such things as technology, physical classrooms, faculty research, and dorms and dining facilities – what Weise calls “sustaining innovations.” That has increased the cost of education while ignoring the price sensitivity of what he calls “nonconsumers of higher education” and the increasing focus that most students have on careers. It also ignores the growing percentage of students age 25 and older and the declining confidence that many employers have in higher education.

cover of comic book on public domain issues from Duke University
Can a comic book help students and professionals deal with an onslaught of ignorance about copyright and public domain? The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke hopes to find out. (See below.)

Weise suggests that higher education create more online courses and emphasize competencies rather than credit hours. That means breaking apart traditional courses into modules that help students gain specific skills and that can be arranged into clusters of competencies that best fit individual students.

This approach isn’t easy either for institutions or students, Weise says, and must emphasize the rigor of learning. It also requires frequent assessment and use of data to monitor student performance and progress. He writes:

For students, this educational model is hard. They are not able to get away with a merely average understanding of the material; they must demonstrate mastery—and therefore dedicated work toward gaining mastery—in any competency.

Weise’s organization has been one of the biggest advocates for competency-based education over the last few years. Others, according to the education writer Audrey Watters, include the Gates Foundation, the Lumia Foundation and Western Governors University.

She also urges educators, administrators, legislators and students to take a closer look at programs labeled “competency-based,” largely because the term has become a buzzword used to suggest a forward-looking curriculum that may prove empty at its core. She suggests asking two critical questions: Who profits from this approach, and how? (In many cases, that has been commercial organizations like Pearson.) Watters writes:

“In theory, competency-based education changes the focus from how much time students spend in a class to what they have learned. But it does not really resolve the question of what it is we expect college students to learn or what’s the best way for them to demonstrate this.”

She’s right on all accounts, and competency-based education alone won’t solve the many challenges of higher education. It can help drive conversations about change, though.

A hybrid approach of traditional courses (ones that promote critical thinking, creativity and a broad understanding of the world) combined with competency modules (ones that provide specific, individualized skills) might allow us to pull along some of the naysayers while putting the emphasis where it belongs: on student learning.

Another drop in college enrollment nationwide

Kansas was one of only a handful of states to show an increase in enrollment at colleges and universities this fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Total enrollment at the state’s colleges and universities rose 3.5 percent over the total in Fall 2013, the center reports. That follows two years of declines (1.4 percent from 2012 to 2013, and 0.3 percent from 2011 to 2012). Enrollment at KU grew less than 1 percent.

All other Midwestern states reported declines in enrollment. Among surrounding states, that ranged from 5.4 percent in Iowa to 1.7 percent in Colorado. The totals include both public and private, two-year and four-year institutions.

Overall, the number of students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities fell by 1 percent this fall, according to The Hechinger Report. That was the sixth consecutive semester in which enrollment has dropped.

Two-year colleges had the largest declines, while enrollment at public four-year colleges and universities rose by 2.2 percent. Students over age 24 showed the largest decline in numbers.

Between 2011 and 2013, college enrollment fell by 930,000 students, or 2.3 percent, the education website Evolllution reports, although many of those drops have occurred at for-profit institutions. Declining enrollments have led to budget problems at some institutions and speculation of an “enrollment bubble.”

Elizabeth Yohn, a consultant at Hanover Research, writes:

“If it is not one big bubble, what we see in the market is a reflection of the honing of individual choices by both students and institutions―students running from risky for-profits or middle-grade professional programs, and colleges and universities acknowledging that growth is not a constant or perfect metric of success and ability.

Briefly …

3-D printing has enormous potential in the sciences and arts, Innovation Excellence writes, predicting that it will enhance curricula, creativity and research. … The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke has released a comic book (see the cover above) that explores copyright, fair use, Creative Commons and related issues. Appropriately, digital copies are available under a Creative Commons license.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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