President Barack Obama has challenged U.S. colleges to graduate 8 million more students by 2020. But colleges cannot reach that goal without drastic changes in how they educate students.
Over the past 20 years, more than 31 million people have taken some college classes without a degree to show for it, according to a July 2014 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. These are students like Jessica, who finished her first two years of college on scholarships, but couldn't afford to continue taking classes full time after the scholarships ran out. She started taking classes part time before ultimately dropping out to take care of her ill parents.
"The university system in higher education as it's currently conceived has failed these students," said Philip Regier, dean and executive vice provost of Arizona State University Online.
Regier proposed an alternative way to reach nontraditional students in an Oct. 2 session at the EDUCAUSE annual conference in Orlando, Fla. The current residential model of education is not scalable, so the answers lie in online education, he argued.
Arizona State University has been investing heavily in online education over the last five to six years and seen some success as a result. Universities need to tackle four foundational needs in order to make online education work: Great faculty training, condensed format classes, a tremendous student portal, and student coaching and advising.
Shorter classes of seven to eight weeks allow students to balance school with life and give them more opportunities to take classes. And coaching and advising at scale allows counselors to use different techniques than the ones they use in person.
Arizona State University is figuring out a way to make business processes and technology changes to better handle transfer students. In particular, students can now go to a public Web portal to ask how a particular course would transfer, and all the lower-division course decisions on these inquiries have been centralized.
At the lower-division level, freshmen can take adaptive math classes that allow them to go at their own pace and treat them differently than other students. This method resulted in withdrawal rates that dropped by 56 percent, and 45 percent of students finished early.
"There are not two students that are going through this course in the same way, and that's the power of personalization and adaptivity," Regier said.
Another way the university is trying to help students complete their studies is through a partnership announced in June with Starbucks. Any U.S. Starbucks employees who work at least 20 hours a week can take classes at ASU Online to finish the final two years of their degree program, and Starbucks reimburses them for tuition.
This year, more than 1,000 students have enrolled through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, and the university expects that number to grow to 10,000 in the next 18 months. With this partnership, Starbucks is helping its employees get an education, ASU Online gets huge media attention to attract students in a competitive online market, and students get to finish their college education when they might not have been able to otherwise. Out of the company's 130,000 employees, about 70 percent of them don't have a degree.
By looking at alternative ways to reach nontraditional students, ASU Online helped Jessica graduate in her late 30s. And this is an experiment that other colleges will be watching closely, said Ronald L. Larsen, dean and professor of the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Clearly it appears to be an impressive partnership between Starbucks and ASU," Larsen said in an interview. "It's also kind of disappointing that these types of relationships need to be established given the falling public support for higher education."
Universities have been trying to figure out a way to make online education work, Larsen said. While online education has been reasonably successful in helping graduate students earn their degrees, it will be interesting to see whether ASU's efforts will scale to undergraduate students.
This story was originally published by the Center for Digital Education.