Debunking six continuing fallacies of higher education

Every single piece of steel in the Eiffel Tower has now been replaced at least once since its construction in Paris in 1889. Colleges and universities have bricks and mortar, but their most durable structures are the assumptions and traditions that have led higher education to a crisis.

The pandemic has been disruptive but has also given us an opportunity to see clearly that colleges and universities must transform what they offer, how they are organised and the ways they operate to remake higher education for the better.

This can only happen if we question the assumptions under which higher education has been operating. We call these assumptions the six fallacies of higher education:

• There is a ‘traditional student’.
• Learning happens Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, in autumn and spring.
• The campus is for classes.
• We measure student success solely academically.
• Costs can increase faster than quality.
• Accreditation ensures excellence.

As we face a public health crisis, a financial crisis, a racial justice crisis and a climate crisis, colleges and universities must creatively adapt rather than go back to the way things were.

Now is the time to reimagine our institutions. The place to start is by transforming these six fallacies into six principles for redesigning higher education and, to paraphrase the author William Gibson, learn from the future that’s already here but isn’t very evenly distributed.

Design for today’s student

First, our institutions were designed for 18- to 21-year-old, middle-class students, financially dependent on their parents, attending full time, at one institution for four years, and living and learning on or near campus. Now, we need to redesign academic programmes, student services, facilities and technology to meet more diverse student needs.

Instead of begrudgingly accepting transfer students (students who transfer from another institution mid-course), for example, Portland State University embraced them and created student services and tools to support them.

Enable learning anytime, anywhere

Instead of Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, in autumn and spring, expand the hours and means of access. Nights, weekends and summers are just as important and provide opportunities for new programmes, greater flexibility and better use of the campus. The summer of 2020 saw record summer enrolments at many institutions as students sought ways to accelerate their learning at lower costs.

Reimagine the campus for community and creativity

Rather than assuming that the college experience is the 15 hours a week spent in the classroom, it’s time to accept that the other 153 spent in dorms, quads, libraries, cafes and more are how community and belonging happen – with increased focus on hands-on activities that are hard to replicate online.

Having moved all courses online due to the pandemic, Southern New Hampshire University announced at the end of 2020 that it is moving to a new reimagined campus with two different pathways - one - $15k programmes - offering the traditional face to face experience and the other - $10k programmes - offering a mix of remote learning and face to face learning based on experiential learning, including project work and internships. The aim is to expand access to higher education.

Support and measure student success holistically

Instead of using the National Survey of Student Engagement as the core measure of student experience, we need to move beyond the time spent on ‘educationally purposeful activities’ to assess and improve the full range of their student experiences.

The recently created ‘Student Experience Snapshot’ is one model: It considers academic programmes, student services, technology, facilities, community, culture and personal growth along with overall satisfaction.

Create affordable excellence

While the cost of higher education is twice as high for private institutions and three times higher for public institutions than it was 30 years ago, it’s not two to three times as good. Using online learning at scale, eliminating redundant student services and more effectively using facilities are some of ways to get cost commensurate with quality.

Minneapolis College of Art and Design, for example, is proud to have been the first art and design school to offer an online MFA (masters in fine arts), which embraces accessibility and allows for people to be an intrinsic part of the college community without needing to be on campus.

Rethink accreditation

While assessment and accountability are crucial for colleges and universities, accreditation is often a barrier to the very innovations we so desperately need. It’s time to stop worshipping at the altar of ‘best practices’ and create new practices.

When Carnegie Mellon University’s schools of art and design decided to leave NASAD, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, they debunked the notion that excellence was determined by a single accrediting body and instead embraced a culture of innovation.

To confront these and other fallacies and truly be able to transform, colleges and universities need creative solutions. Creativity is the connective tissue for understanding the cultural context of this work, for empathising with diverse stakeholders, for embracing and learning from failure, for communicating and storytelling in compelling ways and for thriving in the uncertain and asymmetrical world we live in.

As we confront unprecedented and compounding crises, let’s not go back to what was broken anyway. Let’s not recreate a lecture from 131 years ago or replace an old blackboard with a new one.

It’s time to creatively redesign who education is for, what’s provided, how it’s provided and who is accountable so that colleges and universities can better fulfil their mission – and their promise.

Sanjit Sethi is president of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the United States and has two decades of experience as an artist and cultural academic leader. For the past three years, Sethi has served as the first director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at the George Washington University, where he oversaw the re-establishment of the historic art and design college as it integrated with the university. Elliot Felix joined Buro Happold as partner and as founder of brightspot strategy, now a Buro Happold company, which work to help institutions improve the experience for students, faculty, researchers, employees, travellers, fans and visitors alike. An expanded version of this article is available by request here.