Hillary Hill is one of the faces of the modern American college student. In her first two years at Sonoma State University, the sophomore communications major has already taken an online class and a hybrid class in addition to a typical slate of face-to-face courses.
By picking from a menu of delivery options, she has been able to remain on track for her degree. The online course, which Hill took from a local community college, was the only way to get the prerequisite she needed to transfer into her major because the face-to-face class at Sonoma State was full.
"Online and hybrid offer options because there's not enough room in classes for everyone who needs them," Hill said recently, repeating a common complaint among the 2.3 million students in California's public higher-education systems.
In California and elsewhere, state colleges and universities are clogged with frustrated students unable to complete degrees, transfer to four-year colleges, or register for enough courses to remain qualified for financial aid. While faculty members and college leaders bemoan the dire financial straits in which state lawmakers have placed their public colleges, students like Hill are stuck navigating a system that was built for earlier generations, when tuition prices were much lower and a one-size-fits-all model worked for most students.
Carving a pathway to a degree shouldn't be this difficult—for Hill or anybody else. Potential solutions exist. After all, academic leaders gather on what seems like a weekly basis to talk about how to build a higher-education system within a new financial model that takes advantage of emerging technologies, maintains quality, and serves the changing needs of today's students.
Hill spoke at such an event last month at the University of California at Los Angeles, one of the few conferences on the subject that succeeded in getting all the key voices into the room—innovators, faculty unions, academic senates, and actual live students. Still, that symposium, like many such events, featured plenty of discussion but little action.
So, enough with the talk. Higher education needs to build consensus between administrators and faculty members around a reconfigured system that is flexible and responsive to a generation of learners for whom one mode of teaching no longer fits all, and where face-to-face, hybrid, and online-only education can peacefully coexist.
A few weeks after the California conference, a dozen educators released a student "bill of rights" for learning in the digital age. It was immediately criticized as having been put together by a group that didn't include students. But it was at least an attempt to protect the interests of students, rather than just talking about the idea.
Faculty members and administrators across the country should follow that lead and devise similar pacts committing to test and put in place many of the ideas that have the potential to restructure higher education. Such agreements could take shape at the campus level, across a federation of universities, or through an entire state.
They could be tailored to a specific issue (graduate education, for example) or a broad agenda (reducing costs by a specific amount), and could include clauses that allowed participants to back out if certain goals were not achieved. Not that the U.S. Congress is any model for how to run an organization, but think of those pacts as like the budget blueprint lawmakers are now trying to hammer out.
What areas might the agreements encompass?
One urgent need is to scale back expensive graduate programs that are not placing graduates in jobs or not graduating them at all. To avoid the ax, academic departments might be required to justify their existence by keeping better track of their Ph.D. graduates. The same goes for research backed by university funds. Faculty members would have a specified time period to generate outside grants or lose their access to tuition dollars.
Colleges also need to determine the broad effectiveness of online learning, and a good way to do it would be to encourage all faculty members and students to experiment with hybrid courses. Administrators could commit to giving professors time to remake one of their courses as a hybrid or online class, and then requiring students to use one of the alternative delivery methods before they graduate (a modern-day swimming-test requirement).
Colleges could then measure how much the students learned, how fast they learned it, and how satisfied they were with the format. If the alternative formats didn't work, then the pact could allow the professor to return to the face-to-face version.
Higher education must dedicate more research and resources to assessing online education and creating quality standards. Rather than just say online education is of low quality, professors and administrators should make explicit agreements to create teams with expertise in learning, knowledge transfer, evaluation of effective teaching methods, and grading. Then those groups could figure out what works and what doesn't, and disseminate that knowledge through a central clearinghouse.
Administrators and faculty members also need to come to an agreement on what will define quality teaching in the future, when students come to campuses with different expectations about how they will learn. Pacts could be crafted to reward professors, through the tenure-and-promotion process, when they take the time to develop new teaching practices using technology or redesign first-year courses to improve retention.
Finally, a contract should exist between college leaders and their faculty members to reduce costs. If professors test hybrid courses that serve more students with fewer class sections, then presidents should pledge to reduce the rolls of administrative positions or administrators' salaries.
One commitment should be the foundation for any of those pacts: to better serve the needs of students. No student should have to face the challenges Hillary Hill has faced, being denied entry to the classes she needs to stay in college or graduate on time through no fault of her own. Now the question is who or what group will stop talking about the future of higher education and start forging agreements that will make it a reality.
Jeffrey Selingo is editor at large of The Chronicle and author of the forthcoming book College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).