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An Entrepreneurial Approach to Reforming Higher Education

Ben Wildavsky is a senior scholar in research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World and co-editor of Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation.

His previous blog posts can be found here.
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A paradox of American higher education is the disconnect between our vaunted international reputation and the severe problems we face at home. America’s top research institutions consistently dominate the global rankings sponsored by organizations like Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Times Higher Education. The U.S. model of competitive research funding, merit-based hiring and promotion of faculty, and unfettered pursuit of the truth is closely watched and often imitated. From South Korea to Saudi Arabia, countries seeking to create world-class research universities in an increasingly competitive global academic marketplace view U.S. institutions as the gold standard.

But the vast majority of American students don’t attend these universities. For most, the story of U.S. higher education is quite different.

Soaring tuition is a problem everywhere, of course, as is growing student debt. Colleges have done far too little to address dismaying dropout rates, focus more effectively on student learning and workforce success, use technology more thoughtfully in order to improve academic productivity, and take successful educational experiments to scale.

There’s ample evidence that a more entrepreneurial approach to postsecondary education is overdue. While some pioneering ventures such as edX are under way, numerous barriers continue to slow innovation and thwart experimentation, both in traditional institutions and in startup ventures that aspire to disrupt the existing marketplace.

Against this backdrop, the Kauffman Foundation convened a diverse group of leading education entrepreneurs, academics, and policy analysts to examine the challenges facing U.S. higher education. We were fortunate to bring together participants including Shai Reshef, founder of the University of the People;  founders of startups 2tor, Inc. and Straighterline; senior leaders of nontraditional universities such as Olin College and Western Governors University; the president and CEO of Kaplan, Inc.; the directors of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, theBrookings Institution, and the Center for American Progress; and professors who both study and participate in postsecondary reform initiatives.

The results of the group’s deliberations can found in College 2.0: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Reforming Higher Education, a just-released Kauffman Foundation report that offers a range of ambitious ideas for reinventing higher education. Along with short essays by individual authors, which I highly recommend, the report outlines a broad set of actions to improve college access, educational quality, and graduates’ success in the work force. These include:

-    tackling campus-level obstacles to innovation by giving more funding to institutions with better student outcomes;

-    reforming accreditation to place the fewest possible restrictions on new and existing programs;

-    improving academic productivity and dramatically driving down tuition by exploring new technology-based pedagogies that have low marginal costs;

-    filling information gaps by providing prospective students with far more information about the institutions they attend, including how graduates fare in the job market; and

-    making it easier to start “charter colleges,” akin to K-12 charter schools, that receive significant flexibility in theiroperations in exchange for improved student outcomes.

This is just a taste of what can be found in the College 2.0 report. The hope it holds out is that removing barriers to innovation, enhancing competition, and providing clear and accessible information about student outcomes, will lay the groundwork for entrepreneurs to pioneer new models and take the most successful ones to scale. If that happens,  mass-access education in the United States may one day enjoy the same successes that our most celebrated institutions do today.

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