A Current Look at Higher Education

Hot Topics in Higher Ed
The number of issues, innovations and trends in higher education increases every year. Technology, the economy and society constantly change, so higher education must constantly evaluate and innovate to keep up. For 2016, the complete list of hot topics is too long to cover adequately, so this list only summarizes the top ten as determined by an informal Internet search in July of 2016.

Student Debt: Without a doubt, student debt is the hottest topic in higher education today, and it appears to be the underlying motivation for many, if not all, of the other hot topics. According to the Federal Reserve, student loan debt in the United States has tripled over the last decade. Today more than 43.3 million Americans hold student loan debt for a staggering total of $1.35 trillion. For the class of 2016 the average loan debt per student will be $37,172.80, according to StudentDebtCrisis.org. The crippling cost of higher education has most colleges and universities looking for ways to make education more efficient and affordable. Among these alternatives are this year’s other hot topics, including: Return On Investment, Prior Learning Assessment, Gamification, Competency-Based Education, Alternative Credentialing, Predictive Analytics, Career and Technical Education, Flipped Classrooms, and MOOCs.

Return On Investment: One way students are responding to student loan debt is through a greater focus on ROI when choosing a college. In a 2015 survey of online college students by Learning House, 45% of college students reported that they chose the most inexpensive college or university. Other results showed that cost (defined by both time and money) was weighed almost as heavily as the perceived reputation and quality of the institution. To determine their true ROI, students are increasingly aware of the relevant stats regarding costs, such as tuition, fees, room and board, and time to graduation. At the same time, they research completion rates and expected salaries. Resources such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides free information online regarding annual average wages and salaries by industry, state and metropolitan area.  Other resources, such as PayScale, provide salary information by college, program and career field.

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA): With PLA a student with college-level learning acquired outside the classroom—through work, military or volunteer experience—can earn credit for that knowledge through a variety of assessments. The process has been around since veterans returned from World War II and earned credits for military training, and many colleges have been quietly awarding PLA credits for years. But many experts believe prior learning assessment will be the next disruptive force in education, as the growth in adult education continues and schools face increasing pressure to lower costs, and improve degree completion rates. Several national businesses, like Starbucks, are now teaming up with colleges and universities to help their employees earn college credit for on-the-job training.

Gamification: A viable way to improve the efficacy of higher education could be fun and games. Conventional wisdom says we only remember 50% of what we see demonstrated, but we retain 90% of what we do ourselves—even if it’s just a simulation or a game. Today, according to Pew Research, 97% of American teens play computer, web, portable, or console games. Numerous studies have shown that playing those games can improve student achievement, especially in the subjects of science, math, engineering and technology. In fact, according to a recent SRI study, digital games can raise cognitive learning outcomes by 12 percent. In a survey of e-learners by TalentLMS, almost 80% said they would be more productive if the learning was game-like. Another 89% said they would be more engaged if the learning application included a point system. For these reasons, among others, many colleges and universities are now exploring the addition of game-based learning to their curriculum.

Competency-Based Education (CBE): To lower the cost of higher education and shorten the time-to-graduation, many colleges are starting to award credits through competency-based education. With competency-based learning, students move through the course materials based on their exam scores, rather than how many hours they spent in the classroom. If they can master the material, through any means, at a faster rate, they can complete the course sooner. Some colleges claim that their competency-based learning can cut time-to-graduation in half.

Alternative Credentialing: To help students learn new skills and improve their career options, without the time and expense of earning a full degree, many schools are offering alternative credentialing. With alternative credentialing, schools assess and recognize student learning in a course or program, rather than a full degree. In the last few years, digital badges—which are icons that can be posted to various online platforms and websites—have gained momentum as credentials in online learning. In many cases, the badges also serve as links to information about education that was achieved. Other examples of alternative credentialing include Nanodegrees from Udacity, Specializations from Coursera, and MicroMasters from MIT.

Predictive Analytics: Many experts believe predictive analytics will be “the next big thing” in higher education. Predictive analytics are the use of data and statistics to predict behavior and events. Colleges and universities are now applying predictive analytics to determine which students are most at risk for attrition so they can implement retention strategies and academic interventions to improve degree completion rates. Predictive analytics can also be applied to student recruitment, including helping schools recruit those students who are more likely to persist in their program.

Career and Technical Education (CTE): CTE is career-specific education in areas such as skilled trades, health sciences, applied sciences, and modern technologies, among others. Across many industries, there is a shortage of workers with specialized technical skills. As a result, students with specialized technical skills have an easier time finding jobs, even in today’s difficult labor market. CTE is also usually a more cost-effective way for students to earn their degree, as it is typically completed in less time than a traditional college degree.

Flipped Classrooms: More and more colleges are offering flipped classrooms. With this format, students listen to or watch prerecorded lectures before coming to class. In this way, the actual class time can be spent on group projects and interaction with the professor. The learning and testing takes place outside of the classroom, and the lecture hall or lab is used for reflection, discussion, and hands on learning. Most of the research has shown that the flipped classroom has improved outcomes. Last year, a University of Washington "meta-analysis" of 225 studies compared student performance in STEM courses under traditional lecturing versus active learning. The results showed an average improvement in exam scores of 6 percent with active learning. Also students in traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail.

MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are online courses with the option of free and open registration, a publicly shared curriculum, and open-ended outcome. They integrate social networking, accessible online resources, and are facilitated by leading practitioners in the field of study. According to Class Central, the number of students participating in at least one MOOC last year (worldwide) crossed 35 million in 2015, up from 16 million the year before. Another trend that gained momentum last year was an increased focus on fee-based credentials, including those leading to academic credit or full degrees.

Learning Better Ways to Teach
While the number of challenges for higher education are numerous, so are the opportunities. College tuition has tripled over the last 50 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and cost is one of the most significant obstacles for today’s college students. But consider this. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that today’s college graduates will earn almost a million dollars more than high school graduates. Which means the value of higher education, in dollar terms alone, is still quite substantial. What’s more, the education industry is proactively working to develop more efficient and cost effective teaching models and methods to improve that value. In other words, higher education is continuing to learn better ways to teach.