Changing Higher Education Means Changing the Dialogue


Too much of the debate over higher education has devolved into whether “college is worth it.”  That conversation misses a key fact: higher learning is no longer bound by quads and ivy and the traditions of the past. The landscape for learning and opportunity beyond high school is vast and growing, with millions of students working hard to attain their individual dreams and earning postsecondary credentials through traditional and new pathways alike. And, the students themselves are changing. Today’s students are no longer co-eds playing frisbee in the quad; they are adults, they are working, and they are parents themselves.  

To get where the country needs to go and to increase student success, we need a more robust discourse on higher education policy that meets the demands of wide open future of learning, not a narrowing past. And that can be achieved by learning from the states, institutions of higher education, advocates, employers, and other providers of postsecondary education that are moving beyond the conventional wisdom around college access and success to serve the needs today’s students. Consider a few examples:

  • The Conventional Wisdom: Data on employment and salaries can’t be used to strengthen the pipeline from college to career pipeline. The Florida Chamber Foundation’s Florida Jobs 2030 initiative, which aims to create 2 million net new jobs by 2030. As economic disruption changes Florida’s economic growth trajectory, the foundation is working to analyze labor market data to anticipate the jobs of tomorrow and pinpoint the skills and credentials students will need to transition to the workforce.
  • The Conventional Wisdom: Once a student drops out, their college career is over.  Under Commissioner Teresa Lubbers’ leadership, the state of Indiana launched pioneering efforts to re-engage the 750,000+ working Indiana adults with some college, but no degree and close the state’s achievement gap once and for all. Their “You Can. Go Back.” statewide campaign directly connects adult learners with colleges specifically focused on serving returning adults and in return students receive a completion grant.
  • The Conventional Wisdom: The status quo is too much of an obstacle for institutions who need to make hard choices to serve their students better. Paul Quinn College took the unorthodox step of converting the school’s football field into a working farm-to-table operation. This was one of many courageous decisions made by President Michael Sorrell’s team as they redefined a struggling HBCU into a now-thriving urban work college.

What about students themselves, who are more often than not showing us the path forward? Students are the ultimate consumer of higher learning, and they are who federal policy should be written to serve. Higher Learning Advocates recently launched a campaign, Voices of Today’s Students, to rally support for the students we need to serve today. And, in the first issue of this new online publication Insights & Outlooks, we featured a column by an adult learner who offers a compelling look at the challenges of balancing work, family and academics—along with some salient points about how policymakers can help today’s student succeed.  Those are beginning steps to ensuring students also have a voice in policy-making, and we are not alone in efforts to empower students to take part in the national discourse.

Students, leaders, reformers, and others who are shifting the discourse, and these are only a few examples of success stories in our own backyards. Opening up the conversation to include those voices can cut through the inertia and conventional wisdom. Our nation’s system of higher education is at an inflection point. Instead of nibbling at the margins of policy, we need a bold national strategy for talent and learning—one be-fit for the challenges we face.