The Secret to Making Creative Higher Education Work

As the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, we can be sure of one thing: the cost of a college education will be a primary topic. More and more politicians, as well as business leaders, are hopping into the conversation, suggesting that education is migrating toward ”free.” Every kid deserves a chance at higher education without amassing huge debt.

It’s an issue I hear about almost everywhere I travel. Free content seems to be everywhere—why not schools? I meet students who want to attend college but fear what’s happened to their brother or sister upon graduation. Just to paint a picture for you of how costs have skyrocketed: a college student in 1979 only had to work 182 hours per year to pay for tuition, but the average 2013 student had to work 991 hours. This is the difference between my university years and my children’s.

Perhaps Howard Horton, president of New England College of Business, said it best: “Free higher education may seem like an obvious solution at a time when business leaders decry the ‘skills gap’ and as four-year colleges often seem the playground of the elite. But in our zeal to service new learners, we must be equally mindful that we don’t unintentionally shortchange students in the process.”

No one disagrees—so let’s check on the progress of two big attempts at offering free education to college age people.

  1. Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Years ago, when Harvard and MIT coordinated efforts to offer some marvelous Ivy League level courses (“EdX”) online to the average person, it seemed too good to be true. MOOC’s, as we’ve come to call them, seemed to democratize college education, enabling anyone to attend a Harvard class. Sadly, the lack of teacher and peer interaction in MOOCs diminished their value to students who require such dialogue to win in school. As a result, MOOCs have typically low completion rates and have not yet been widely adopted in the nation’s colleges and universities.

  1. Competency Based Education (CBE)

CBE is another model that’s gained attention in higher education today, enabling students to master skills without needing to actually take a class. In CBEs, students read instructional material with minimal support from teachers and without much discussion with peers. So far, so good. Many educators agree, however, that while these programs can successfully impart a “hard skill” such as the ability to solve a math equation, they don’t help students develop “soft skills” necessary for employment, such as the ability to work in teams, communicate well or negotiate a sale. Such “soft skills” usually require modeling and mentoring from someone.

So, we’re going to have to get creative.

What’s Missing?

Did you notice what the two attempts above were missing? It’s the most fundamental and timeless ingredient for effectively educating kids. It’s also one we find it hard to offer in our day. Call me the master of the obvious, but we’ve got to find a way to restore this ingredient to education.

I am talking about relationship.

A relationship between an instructor or mentor and the student. A social connection that undergirds the transmission of information. A hundred years ago, America still experienced one-room schoolhouses, where teachers and students of various ages knew each other well and learning happened not merely as the teacher lectured but as life happened between the children. Early colleges were launched in the basements of churches, where a vicar or minister met with a small cadre of young men and invested in them. While they didn’t benefit from video, power point slides or Internet connection, they had something we often don’t. They experienced relationships in the midst of community.

  • I believe there is no life change without life exchange.
  • I believe circles of students are superior to rows.
  • I believe students want to belong before they believe.
  • I believe trust is the bridge that enables information to travel well.

So, the next time you’re wondering what’s missing in your instruction (or what could make your work with students more effective), try working at cultivating a relationship with your end user.

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The Secret to Making Creative Higher Education Work