Self-blending the College Experience

With all the recent news about MOOCs and the potential for college credit, some are missing the broader trends related to earning a college degree in the 21st century.  MOOCs are only a small part of a larger transformation. More than any time in history, the traditional 4-year college experience is declining to become one of many options for students.  It is now possible to self-blend degrees.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about self-blended learning, describing five different ways in which students blend their own learning experiences, regardless of what an individual teacher in a class decides to do.  Taking the concept to the school level, now I’m looking at the possibility of self-blending entire college degrees.  Consider the following facts:

  • The number of credits to earn a bachelor’s degree at a University in the United States is typically 120-130 credits.
  • Many Universities around the United States allow for a large number of transfer credits (70+).
  • Transfer credits from 2-year schools (with very low tuition) are sometimes limited by certain 4-year schools, but the number is usually quite large (30 to 70+).
  • Many Universities have an in-residence requirement (This varies widely depending upon the University and even the school within a given University.). Definitions for in-residence differ, but most simply mean courses granted on the transcript of the home University.
  • Some of these Universities offer dual credit courses which do not count as transfer credits, but as standard credits on the University transcript.
  • A number of states pay for some or all of the tuition for these dual credit courses (in some states, they decide this on the school district level).
  • A growing number of high schools are building partnerships that allow students to graduate from high school with an associate’s degree.
  • College credit is also possible through AP and IB coursework during high school.
  • Community colleges, 4-year institutions and dual credit programs continue to offer more online course options.

Some of this is not new, but looking at these facts together draws us to the conclusion that students today have more ability to self-blend their entire degree. With a bit of creativity, careful planning, and the skill to navigate the varying Universities policies; it may well be possible for a student to graduate from a traditional state University by only attending classes at the campus for a year or less.  There is also the choice to complete one’s entire degree online; but for the student seeking part of the traditional college experience, these new facts create a myriad of new blended possibilities.

Students can blend to:

  • decrease cost,
  • speed the time to graduation,
  • extend the time to graduation,
  • leverage the benefits of online/blended/face-to-face courses,
  • select courses across Universities based upon interest and University-specific strengths,
  • divide one’s time in college across multiple campuses while still graduating on time,
  • get a head start on a graduate degree,
  • earn a double or triple major in four years,
  • accommodate work schedules,
  • accommodate travel plans (even coordinating grand expeditions with other self-blenders),
  • accommodate family needs (e.g., caring for an ill family member),
  • or even create a customized learning experience (e.g., taking a world geography and ecology class while traveling to the tropics, taking government classes while doing an internship in state government).

There are a few otherwise traditional college students who are intentionally skipping this type of formal blend altogether, electing to go the Uncollege route.  This extreme may work for some aspiring computer programmers or entrepreneurs, but it is not without problems, especially if the student wants to work in healthcare, law, education, or another field that includes strict requirements that are currently attached to completing a college degree. Nonetheless, self-blended degrees are a reality today.

What does this mean for college students?  It means more choice, flexibility, the freedom to customize learning based upon one’s personal needs and interests, and more ways to keep college affordable. Even for the students seeking the traditional 4-year residency experience, it gives them more choices.  Students going to college to take part in athletics or the performing arts, for example, can still attend for four years, but they have a variety of options for how and where they complete coursework.  On the other hand, these new possibilities may mean that more students will miss out on the benefits of an immersive traditional 4-year residency program.

What does this mean for traditional Universities? I’m not sure, but I suspect that faculty at liberal arts colleges who teach general education courses will see the impact very soon.  With these other options, it might mean that more students will come to college having completed large portions (in some cases all) of their general education requirements.  For Universities that have a distinct mission and student outcomes, it means not having the students around as much to achieve that mission or help students meet those outcomes.  For elite Universities or schools with very large endowments and certain niche programs, it may not mean much.  They continue to have the option of not accepting many or any credits from these alternate routes.  For most Universities, it at least means that it is time to pay attention and start developing some sort of action plan.