These institutions show how leadership, technology and innovation can simplify and open up what has become a complex and expensive learning process.
Universities don't just magically change overnight or see new programs succeed immediately. It takes work. Five universities featured in a February Christensen Institute report have been putting in the gym time to train their innovation muscles so they could be prepared to better serve certain student groups.
Arizona State, Northeastern, University of Wisconsin, Simmons College and Southern New Hampshire University have tackled specific challenges that groups of students face and built on their previous experience, including failures.
For example, Simmons College in Boston tried to start an online graduate degree program after President Helen Drinan came on board in 2008. But faculty members resisted the change and worried how the courses would maintain the level of quality that their in-person courses had reached. The university also had a hard time figuring out what on-ground processes would work online.
Drinan closed down the project and led the small college into a partnership with 2U, an online program manager that provided structure with its design process and kept the project on track as faculty members designed the courses. This time, faculty members bought into the project, and it did so well that the college expanded it to seven programs including nursing. Simmons College successfully evaluated how to create better processes so they could change in a systematic way and build a culture of innovation.
That's why it's important to ask, "What are the patterns of interaction you're using to get things done?" said Alana Dunagan, the report's author. "Changing those is actually hard when it comes to innovation."
Change like this frequently comes directly from a president or, in a few cases like Northeastern and Arizona State University, from an innovation office that the president supports. At Arizona State University, President Michael M. Crow made increasing access to the university a priority. He encouraged ASU to embrace a new model with the Global Freshman Academy, where students who may not have been accepted into the university could take classes their first year to increase their skills and pay for them upon completion.
Several successful models focus on helping working adults or others who are pursuing careers in high demand, including Northeastern's Level Bootcamp, the University of Wisconsin System's UW Flex degrees and Southern New Hampshire University's College for America.
At Northeastern, Vice President for New Ventures Nick Ducoff led the creation of an autonomous Level Bootcamp with input from employers. This program was designed to help working adults learn practical coding and analytics skills in a way that worked for them and at a price point that might seem more attainable than a full-on degree program. That said, Northeastern still used the same processes that worked for its traditional university programs to start Level. If it really wants to transform the entire institution, Northeastern will need to take the lessons learned from Level and use them to change the way it operates university-wide, the report concludes.
The University of Wisconsin System has been building an online competency-based program with a team that works across its system, with pricing based on a subscription model instead of a credit hour, making it potentially less expensive for fast learners. By pulling resources throughout the system, the university has been able to get buy-in and support, as well as make revenue and cost-sharing arrangements.
The University of New Hampshire created the nation's first accredited program that was online and competency-based, meaning that students moved forward once they mastered a skill, not based on how much time they spent learning it. Like the other models, this university worked with employers and has provided a lower-cost alternative to other education options. But it's still going to take some time for employers to recognize how these types of programs compare to more traditional degrees.
At any rate, these five colleges have been taking risks, trying different tactics and learning from their initial efforts to increase college access and affordability.
"The willingness of certain institutions and certain leaders to sort of buck the traditional wisdom of what matters and go after these problems with fresh eyes and fresh approaches — that was really inspiring to me," Dunagan said.