3 Big Questions with Paul Fain

Three Big Questions with Paul Fain

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In this episode of 3 Big Questions we visit with Inside Higher Education’s reporter Paul Fain.

Question 1

Competency-based education has been offered for 15 years. Why are we seeing this explosion of offerings in 2014, and what can we expect to see as more and more colleges universities enter into competency-based education programs? Forms of competency-based education go back even longer than 15 years. Alverno College has been doing it for 40 years. Even so, interest in this delivery method of higher education is hot — more than 200 institutions are seeking to add new competency-based degrees. And that number is likely to increase. There are several factors behind the growth. Demand among working adults for degrees and certificates is chief among them, I think. More than 30 million Americans hold some college credits but lack a degree. A college credential is more valuable than ever, and more adult students are returning to higher education. At the same time, employers want to be able to hire college graduates who have “competencies” that apply to jobs. And policy makers are pushing higher education to do more to demonstrate what students are learning and can do. These workforce and accountability pressures are helping encourage the spread of competency-based credentials, which supporters say are directly linked to learning outcomes, at least ideally. Until recently, competency-based education failed to get much attention. Adult-serving programs are like that — The New York Times doesn’t write much about continuing education. But bipartisan support for experimentation with competency-based degrees is helping to change that. We’re seeing more well-known brands move in this space, including the University of Wisconsin System, among others. I’d expect the interest to continue spreading, unless a major backlash starts. The work by the Association of American Colleges and Universities on competency-based education is worth watching. The group, which is the premier liberal education association, is wrestling with questions of academic rigor and standardization in this field, among others.

Question 2

Let’s talk about the challenge of the rhetoric around “disruption.” Is disruption, or even the concept of disruption, really good for higher education? This one depends on who you ask. For many faculty members, the term “disruption” seems like a provocation — a term thrown around by ed-tech executives who want to eliminate professors’ jobs. But that’s clearly not what Clayton Christensen meant by disruption. Christensen, who probably more than anyone introduced the term to higher education, writes about how industries do and don’t cope with change. Some, like the news media, struggled to respond to Internet-driven disruption. Whether higher ed will as well seems like more of an open question. As I understand it, one way Christensen and others say colleges can best respond to disruption is by thinking outside of the box. That might mean creating new entities and subsidiaries — which are free from the constraints of the main institution — to experiment with new approaches. That’s happening quite a bit. One example is College for America, which offers competency-based degrees that do not rely on the credit-hour standard. The new college is a subsidiary of Southern New Hampshire University. Another is the new online master’s program in computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Georgia Tech worked with Udacity to create the relatively low-priced degrees. Widespread anxiety about rising tuition prices and student debt isn’t going away anytime soon. As a result, colleges will continue to be pushed to try new things — including online degree offerings. I’m skeptical that higher education is about to be gutted by a wave of closures and other disruptions. But there is quite a bit of change afoot, and that might not be a bad thing. One key question, I think, is whether the business models of emerging forms of higher education can include a strong, meaningful role for faculty members — and one that pays a fair wage. And that’s a question I’m happy to duck for today.

Question 3

You’ve been reporting on some significant accreditation issues. What are we seeing and what should we be watching for moving forward? City College of San Francisco (CCSF) has been one of the biggest stories in higher education during the last two years. The college, which enrolls 80,000 students and is one of California’s largest, has faced the possibility of losing its accreditation and being shut down. It’s an enormously complex and controversial situation. And I’m going to keep away from weighing in on mistakes made by the college or its accreditor, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. (I’m a reporter, not a pundit.) But the crisis touches on several of higher education’s pressure points. For example, lots of folks in Washington, D.C., want to see changes in the accreditation process. The CCSF case has moved to the courts, where a decision is expected in December. The outcome could affect the authority of the ACCJC in California. That would have ramifications for regional accreditation more broadly. Likewise, the ongoing dispute raises questions about the possible limits of regulating colleges through the outsourced gatekeepers of federal financial aid — aka accreditors. Whether or not CCSF deserved to have its accrediation yanked, the resulting outcry was heavily politicized. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and others got involved. It’s hard to sanction a college, particularly a huge one with powerful supporters. City College hasn’t been the only large institution facing possible closure this year. Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit chain, is in the process of selling and shutting down its 107 campuses, which enroll 72,000 students. The two crises were unprecedented in higher education. Both have been exceptionally messy and time-consuming for federal and state regulators. If higher education is facing a big disruption, and more big colleges teeter or shut down, it won’t be pretty.  

Paul Fain

Paul Fain is a senior reporter with Inside Higher Ed, where he covers adult students and emerging models of higher education. From 2004 to 2011, Fain was a senior reporter with The Chronicle of Higher Education, where he wrote broadly about college leaders and higher-ed finance. Fain has contributed chapters to two edited volumes on higher education, and his writing has won numerous awards, including the 2008 Dick Schaap Excellence in Sports Journalism Award.