When the filmmakers behind the animated summer blockbuster Monsters University needed inspiration for their fictional campus, they visited three of the nation's best-known colleges: Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California at Berkeley.
Such name-brand campuses, having provided the backdrop for Hollywood productions, help shape our collective vision of college as a place where you go once in your life (often at age 18) and move through in a linear fashion over four years.
But that straight pathway isn't the one taken by about half of the students enrolled in college today, an enrollment pattern that Clifford Adelman, a noted higher-education researcher, says dates back to at least the 1970s. Even so, we still call students "nontraditional" if they attend college later in life or part-time, or if they attend multiple institutions.
Today's students are swirling through higher education more than ever before. They attend multiple institutions—sometimes at the same time—extend the time to graduation by taking off time between semesters, mix learning experiences like co-op programs or internships with traditional courses, and sign up for classes from alternative providers such as Coursera or edX, which offer free massive open online courses (MOOCs), or StraighterLine, which offers cheap introductory courses online.
Emily Stover DeRocco describes the plethora of choices for students these days as an "educational buffet," with the potential to reshape how we think of postsecondary education. "There are a huge number of options now for learning," says the assistant secretary of labor for employment and training in the George W. Bush administration, "and the nature of the workplace and occupations is changing so dramatically that thinking of college as one place, one time, is quickly becoming outdated."
Indeed, one-third of students who earn degrees transferred from one college to another on the way, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and they are more likely to switch from a four-year college to a two-year college rather than the other way around.
Yet the highway through college that most undergraduates take is built for the linear student, the Hollywood version. What students are clamoring for now is easier entrance and exit ramps, for them to take breaks, transfer, or mix their classroom instruction with on-the-job training or online courses.
But what if students could travel with ease through multiple institutions and online providers, and had guides to help them navigate their journey rather than having to figure it out on their own? Imagine a system that places the student, instead of the institution, at the center. In such a scenario, students might attend a network of institutions, being accepted at one "home" college but taking courses both in person and virtually from any of a group of a dozen or so. Think of those networks like the airline networks, such as Star Alliance and oneworld, which allow carriers to cooperate on departure times and routes, share airport facilities, and offer reciprocal frequent-flier benefits.
Students could operate outside the college network as well. They could take a MOOC, study abroad, or take an apprenticeship or internship, all the while collecting the results of their learning into an electronic portfolio. Such a portfolio would function, in essence, as a personal Web site, with samples of students' work that they could show at stops along the way or to employers at the end.
With such a jagged pathway, it would be crucial for each experience to provide credit or a paycheck to support the eventual goal—a credential. That credential could still be provided by a traditional college, which might add a capstone experience to ensure that the degree is more than just a random collection of 120 credits. "When you break up certification into individual pieces, someone has to verify the entire package," says Josh Jarrett, a fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Such an à la carte approach appeals to Weezie Yancey-Siegel, who is piecing together a higher education on her own. The 21-year-old from San Francisco dropped out of Pitzer College in 2011, in the middle of her sophomore year. She had traveled to Mexico for a class the previous summer, and while there, started to doubt her motivation for going to college. "I was learning a lot of things, but not the kinds of things I'd need to get a job out of school," she says. "After being in Mexico, I felt I could learn outside of school."
At first she planned to take off only a semester. But as she made plans for her time away from Pitzer, she found resources lacking for students who wanted to design their own curriculum. So Ms. Yancey-Siegel started a blog called Eduventurist, to help students create alternative paths through higher education. It was through that effort she discovered Enstitute, a two-year program in New York City that places students in full-time apprenticeships and builds a curriculum around their work on topics including finance, history, computer programming, and sociology. She applied and was accepted.
Now she's in the second year of an apprenticeship with Sascha Lewis, one of the founders of Flavorpill, a digital-media company in New York. In addition to working her way through Enstitute's semiformal curriculum, Ms. Yancey-Siegel has sampled offerings from Coursera and edX, watched several TED talks and iTunesU lectures, and learned computer coding by taking a few Codecademy classes. "I know that I have learned a lot in the last two and half years," she says, "and it's extremely frustrating to me that I couldn't get credit for it."
She hasn't ruled out returning to college, if only to get her learning certified with a degree, which she realizes still carries tremendous weight in the job market. "I do worry that my dream job will require a degree," she says.
Not all students, of course, are as self-motivated as Ms. Yancey-Siegel in mapping their own route to a degree. Students who don't follow a linear path through college often need assistance at some point. For them, advisers play a crucial role. Mark D. Milliron, a former chancellor of Western Governors University Texas, likens them to the Sherpas who guide climbers up Mount Everest. In this case, the academic Sherpas would be either internal to an institution, helping guide students from enrollment to transfer or graduation, or external, describing various pathways to a credential.
"There are some traditional folks out there who want students to take three-fourths of their [credit] hours at their university," says Mr. Milliron, who is now chief learning officer at Civitas Learning, a data-analytics company he helped start. "But others get this idea that students need flexibility and choices, and are not held back by some protectionist ideal that ties a student to an institution."
The traditional four-year path through college that is the Hollywood norm will always have immense appeal to many young Americans and their parents. But whether the system can be configured to help other students from falling off the highway remains to be seen.
The millions of students already swirling through higher education are waiting.