5 Thought Experiments to Challenge Our Vision of Higher Education

How can we cut the cost of college and/or address the problem of debt from college loans? How can we increase access to and opportunity through college for more people? What is the value of a liberal arts higher education? To what extent should colleges and universities focus on workforce development? These are pressing questions today, but I suspect that asking a very different set of questions will better equip us to tackle such problems in a more substantive way. Depending upon how you look at it, these questions are driving us to new innovations or these questions are giving innovators new opportunity to amplify existing innovations. One such innovation is competency-based education. CBE is a model that focuses upon students reaching levels and types of competence that align with what is needed to thrive in a 21st century workplace and world. Amid our efforts to answer questions like affordability, debt, access and opportunity; it is wise to be mindful of what is gained and lost with various CBE models, not to mention the many other higher education experiments underway. As I’ve followed and participated in these conversation so far, I see dozens of important considerations that I’d like to point out by posing a series of five extreme thought experiments. Each of the following questions gives us opportunity to consider the “essence” of college. They are intentionally provocative, not to be off-putting, but because exploring such questions can be a powerful way to help us clarify our values, identify gaps and opportunities, and consider a blended of new and traditional steps forward.

What if we shut down federal financial aid for college students?

This question challenges us to consider whether the current model for funding student education is essential for a thriving higher education model in the United States. We are likely to find many perspectives and answers to such a question, each representing anything from horror to delight, but if we push through the extremes, such a question invites us to consider what is and is not working with the current system. Along the way, grappling with a question like this challenge us to consider new ways of addressing the college debt problem. Some have written essays suggesting that shutting down federal financial aid and reallocating those government resources to public colleges could be adequate to cover the tuition of most current students enrolled in community colleges and other public schools. Also, since many federal regulations on higher education institutions is tied to federal aid, shutting it off might just unleash higher educations to innovate more quickly, and in ways that are prevented by a complex and confusing hairball of policies. Others argue that doing this would be the demise of modern public (and many private) higher education institutions. Why not use this question as a thought experiment and see where it takes us?

What if college did not have professors?

Would it be college? Some competency-based models in higher education redefine the role of professor so much that it hardly resembles what we historically considered a professor, or it unbundles the role of a single professor into two or more distinct roles. Is that good, bad, or a mix of the two? What is gained and what is lost when we begin to envision professor-less higher education institutions? What possible models emerge? What valued aspects of higher education diminish?

What if college professors only taught students and there was no room or expectation for professors to conduct research? 

In other words, what if we just turned college into a higher and more specialized form of high school? Professors could potentially teach more students, but what would happen to the valued research that takes place by professors in many of our Universities? Right now, this research is used to make progress in everything from entrepreneurship to healthcare, public policy to poverty. If the University were not the place where that research took place, would other institutions emerge as havens for researchers and scholars to ask big questions and pursue important answers? To what extent do we value the role of the University as a place for important research and to nurture the next generation of researchers?

What if colleges did not issue credentials? Would they still have widespread public value? 

I’ve read articles claiming that having a college diploma has promise to increase salaries, increase happiness, reduce the likelihood of ending up in prison, and much more. Having a credential is easy to measure, leading to such studies, but is it really the diploma that makes the difference? Yes, man jobs require a diploma or specific University credential to apply, so not having one decreases opportunity. However, how much does it matter what you’ve actually learned in college? A question like this challenges us to think about the value of higher education beyond credentialing. It challenges us to think about the critical role of learning and the extent to which we truly value learning and progress toward excellence in one or more domains.

What if colleges were simply centers that verified knowledge/skill/competence and then issued a relevant credential, certifying readiness for life and/or work?

This is the flip side of the last question. It takes the modern movement in CBE to an extreme level to help clarify our goals and values for higher education. If we scan higher education on a global scale, we see examples of degrees by publication, which could be argued as a form of this. We also have a longstanding practice of giving credit for prior experience or testing out of requirements or specific courses. Such practices emphasize the role of colleges as places of verification or certifying agencies. If this is all that a college does, we see ample opportunity for cost-cutting and savings. It costs far less money to verify and certify than it does to provide the full gamut of educational services or to support a robust higher education learning community. At the same time, by playing with a question like this, it challenges us to consider the benefits and limitations of unbundling the many aspects of what historically resided with a single entity, the college or University. What would it look like for multiple tracks to a degree, including one that allows people to make progress however they wish, as long as they pass some battery of core assessments to earn the credential?

I don’t propose these questions because I think they are good or bad ideas. I ask them because they invite us into a series of thought experiments. Along the way, we are likely to surface new possibilities, clarify our values and priorities, and then return to questions like college debt or increased access with greater depth and new perspectives, especially if we explore such questions with a diverse group of other people.