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Eight Strategies to Make Higher Education More Accessible

I’ve been focusing on higher education in my career for almost 20 years, and the themes of increasing access and affordability are omnipresent. Until recently, higher education has not really needed to focus on access. The population of postsecondary students kept growing, the government provided ready and easy access to student loans, and people were willing to pay higher tuition rates because the promise of a degree was so strong. The belief was that having a college degree was a golden ticket to a good job, a steady income and living the American dream.

Today, we know that trend is no longer necessarily the case. Enrollments have been steadily declining, mostly due to demographic shifts and perhaps a countercyclical nature of higher education. One of the biggest means to combat this decline has been to offer tuition discounts, but that mainly benefits the top quartile in socioeconomic status.

Increasing access and student success as well as affordability, I would argue, are the keys to survival for the higher education industry. But how can that access be increased? At Learning House, we encourage our partners to implement eight strategies to make education more affordable and accessible to all. I shared these strategies at a panel at ASU+GSV, and now I want to share them with you. A big part of my thinking around this list was considering how institutions of higher education should be providing the best student-centric experience possible. A logical outcome of that approach is creating a system that produces greater access and a more affordable solution for its student customers.

Use Innovation to Increase Speed to Degree

There are several exciting innovations in higher education, both inside and outside the existing system. One innovation that is nearly 20 years old, but still feels novel, is competency-based education (CBE), with Western Governors’ success demonstrating the potential of these kinds of programs. CBE programs take into account students’ existing skill set and experience to help move them through a program at the pace that works for them, giving more flexibility.

There’s a reason for that success — new forms of education programs that break from the traditional four-year degree mold can decrease the time it takes to earn a degree and take into account the rich experience students may bring with them. Students don’t necessarily have the time or money for a full program, which is why they are turning to pathways, such as certificates that can be stacked toward a degree, badges or MOOCs. Other exciting options include the coding bootcamp movement and the nano/micro-degree movement brought to you companies like Udacity, Coursera and EdX.

These credentials not only benefit students, but they also benefit our economy as a whole. As jobs become increasingly knowledge-driven and as technology evolves ever more rapidly, education needs also are increasing. Offering smaller, more skills-driven credentials to keep up with new technology can help develop a more educated, skilled workforce at a fraction of the cost of traditional programs.  Whether these innovations are inside the system, like a CBE program where a student still receives a degree, or outside the system like a nanodegree, the end result should be the same — increased access, more affordable educational pathways and more options for individuals in the job market.

Both Simplify and Get Creative About Tuition

First, let’s talk about simplification. We simply need more transparency in the system. There’s a car dealership that promises a “no haggle” buying option — the sticker price is the price you pay, and any fees are clearly detailed. Tuition could be the same way. Offer a one tuition price model, be upfront about the cost and offer discounts only to need-based students. In this system, only very few merit scholarships would be offered, because these types of scholarships typically provide discounts to people in higher socioeconomic classes who can already fund their education. We have several partner universities that have gone to the one price point model. This level of simplification increased demand and ultimately enrollments for their institutions because potential students and their parents found it easy to understand what the cost of education would be. They could more easily plan for the future.

Alternatively, offer help within the existing system. More than 1.7 million students a year do not fill out a FAFSA, because they can’t understand the paperwork. Offering assistance with filling out the FAFSA could go a long way toward helping students understand their financing options. At the same time, helping students with tuition planning also can make college more affordable. If students know what they’ll be paying and when it is due, they can more accurately plan, and there will be fewer students dropping out due to a shortage of funds. Adopting a year-round calendar also can let students spread out their courses, so they are paying less at one time.

Finally, reimagine what loans look like. I recently wrote about Income Share Agreements, and that’s just one option for alternative financing. Let’s think outside the student loan box and offer options to students who need it.

Embrace All the Possibilities of Online

This is going to sound like “Captain Obvious,” but I have to point it out: Is there an industry that has not yet been disrupted by the internet that in most ways makes the cost of delivery of the product or service much cheaper, quicker and individualized than in an analog world? Many institutions have fallen into the trap of offering online education at the same price as on-ground programs. Worse, some colleges even make students pay additional fees for studying online. This is a bad business practice. Online programs are cheaper to deliver and should be less expensive for the student. Georgia Tech made big waves last year by offering a master’s in computer science for $7,000, and it attracted a huge number of students who otherwise wouldn’t have sought a degree anywhere. Other schools can, and should, follow suit. From all accounts, the program has attracted lots of students from all over the world, produced high-quality outcomes in the form of completion rates and used a nice blend of new (MOOCs) and proven (access to high-quality instructors) methods of teaching. Last year, the founder of this program spoke at Learning House’s Connect Higher Education Summit and talked about how they were experimenting with artificial intelligence through the use of a made-up teaching assistant named “Jill Watson.” Most students did not know this TA was powered by IBM’s Watson technology.

Improve Student Transfer Policies

More than 30 million people in this country have some college credit but no degree. This is a travesty, given how much was invested by these individuals with no credential to show for it. When our enrollment team members talk to prospective students, they find that many have attended two, three or even four prior institutions. These students have invested time and money in their education already, and schools should make it easy for those credits to transfer.

At Learning House, we encourage our partners to allow students to transfer up to 90 credits (for a 120-credit degree). We provide unofficial transcript collection, so students don’t have to deal with bureaucratic paperwork, and we are upfront about how many credits will transfer for a particular student. Transparency and assistance are the two biggest hurdles we try and overcome to ensure that students are getting the most out of their transfer credits.

I also think that accepting life experience or work portfolios is going to become increasingly important for transfer credits. While these might not be traditional, those schools that acknowledge the knowledge learned outside of the classroom will help students succeed.

I am not recommending that schools should automatically accept credits, but they should be very thoughtful and comprehensive on how they look at a student’s portfolio of education and career experience, and they should make the on-ramp into a degree program at their institution as smooth as possible. We encourage our partners to work very closely with community colleges to build very clear articulation agreements so students hopefully don’t lose credit when they complete an associate degree and enroll in a baccalaureate program.

Change Your Program Structure

For the non-traditional student, the traditional way of starting a program doesn’t work. The traditional calendar of going back to school in August or September and having most of the summer off simply isn’t practical for working adults, who are looking to get through programs as efficiently as possible. At Learning House, we recommend partner institutions have at least six start dates throughout the year.

General education requirements, such as courses in English, math or humanities that are not part of the major the student is taking, should be offered continually, and we strongly discourage sequential ordering of classes. Instead, we want our schools to offer as much flexibility as possible to students, so they can take classes when they’re able to. This means that in some cases, the cohort model is not ideal, since it can diminish flexibility.

Implement a Master Course Philosophy

All schools are proud of their teaching tradition, and rightly so. But a master course philosophy, where all sections of a course teach the same curriculum and use the same syllabus, increases efficiency and consistency. This means that students in higher-level courses are better prepared, and faculty time can be spent on student engagement and interaction, and less on reinventing the wheel.

Adapt to New Learning Norms

Part of accessibility is increased access to a quality classroom experience. One of the benefits of new technology is it means more learning styles can be adapted. Open Educational Resources (OERs) come in a variety of styles, from print to video to audio, so professors can offer a number of tools to help students learn. We already mentioned the work Western Governors is doing with CBE credit, which helps students study at their own pace.

Technology can help with this; Arizona State University is a pioneer in using technology to gauge how well students are learning in real time. Based on those results, professors can adapt their courses to ensure everyone is meeting learning standards.

I also passionately believe that the classroom should be used not just to teach hard skills, but also soft skills. Communication, writing and problem solving all can be taught in the classroom of course, but I think even things like having a growth mindset or persevering through tough times can be taught and will reap lifelong benefits.

Focus on Retention

A lot of time is spent on recruiting students, but it’s equally as important to ensure they are succeeding and, ultimately, graduating. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse (2014-15), the overall year over year retention rate for students over the age of 24 is 47.1 percent. At Learning House? Our retention rate for partner schools is 82.6 percent. This is in large part because we have a specific plan for how to make retention efforts successful, including personal coaches who serve as a one-stop resource and offer accountability and support to students.

I don’t want to sugarcoat it; making these kinds of changes requires imagination, courage and a commitment to serving your students. But I also know that for the U.S. education system to remain effective, we need to reimagine how we offer education to be more inclusive, accessible and affordable. And I have total faith that we can make these changes.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: