Published in October 2021.
In Students firstPaul LeBlanc maintains that higher education fulfills two fundamental missions:
- create new knowledge, fundamental research and breakthroughs that deepen our understanding of the world and fuel human progress
- unlock opportunity and social mobility to enable people to better their lives and those of their families and communities
I like this definition of what we do in academia.
Students first is all about the second of these intertwined missions. LeBlanc, president of the SNHU, has written a book that we have all invested in the idea that a college education is an engine of opportunity creation should read.
(Disclosure: Paul LeBlanc has been a generous, steadfast and lifelong supporter of my academic career over the years – and is a beloved colleague to many of us in the post-secondary ecosystem).
The central argument running through Students first is that the underlying credit-hour system in which higher education is structured, funded and operated is ill-designed to meet the needs of most learners. In higher education, we keep time constant (a semester or term ends when it ends) while allowing learning to be variable.
A time-based accreditation system, with a typical undergraduate degree requiring 120 credit hours earned by successfully completing approximately forty 3-credit courses, may work well for some traditional residential learners. The undergraduate experience for an 18-22 year old is as much about the experiential aspects of living in a community away from home as it is about learning.
However, this traditional residential experience only applies to 13% of all undergraduate students. In a world where more than 80% of students commute or learn online and 43% of full-time students work, a time-based higher education system makes little sense.
Students first provides a concise and clear explanation of how the American higher education system has been designed and funded over time, with the credit hour as the building block in which the system has evolved.
LeBlanc also provides perhaps the simplest explanation I’ve read of how American higher education is funded and regulated at the federal and state levels, the role of accreditors, and the outcomes of this system as measured by levels. student attrition and debt. Students firsthowever, does more than diagnose the many shortcomings and failings of our post-secondary system.
If the disease of higher education is that we have built a system that relies on time, the remedy is to change the design to put learning at the center.
How could we move to a system where learning is kept constant and time variable? The answer, LeBlanc argues, is to prioritize skills over other metrics like time spent and grades.
Competency-based training (CBE), as LeBlanc permits, is not a new idea. But it may be an old idea whose time has finally come. Learning sciences and educational technologies have matured to the point where it is now possible to design learning environments and assessments capable of developing and measuring skills across academic disciplines.
One of the great things about Students first is that LeBlanc does not present theoretical arguments for an imaginary future. Instead, he draws deeply from his own institution’s competency-based degree design experiences through SNHU. College for America. The book also has excellent descriptions of other universities designed around the CBE, such as Western Governors University (WGU).
While LeBlanc sees a way forward in rethinking the rules around federal loans, Pell grants, and increasing skills instead of credit hours, he’s clear-headed about the complexities of changing such a large and expansive system. regulated than American higher education.
Instead of advocating for a radical change in the way universities are funded and run, LeBlanc is asking for space for experimentation. The evolution of our post-secondary teaching, learning and funding system will require a commitment to innovation and iteration.
For LeBlanc, the need to at least begin to shift higher education from the credit hour to a competency-based system is as clear as our eventual need to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.
In the long term, a higher education system that only graduates 62% of students from public institutions and 68% from private, nonprofit institutions while leaving the average student more than $30,000 in debt is neither sustainable nor desirable.
Students first provides every college and university with a roadmap for beginning small-scale experiments in competency-based education while providing a framework for the large-scale policy, funding, and accreditation changes that should occur to scale this reform.
Paul LeBlanc has written a book from which all of us in higher education, including those of us in traditional research-intensive residential institutions, will benefit immeasurably.
What are you reading?