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Two changes that would make higher education more effective for today’s students

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Higher education institutions should not only focus on disciplinary depth and knowledge, but also make sure students can write and communicate, problem solve, work in teams, apply quantitative methods and technology, and be creative.

Much of the economic news today features the phrase “shortage of skilled workers.” It’s a familiar problem and traditional higher education, in its current state, isn’t designed to make the course correction needed.

Richard Senese

Here are two of the biggest shifts in practice and mindset that can help address problems in today’s traditional degree programs.

1. Formats need to work for adult students.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 8.2 million out of 12 million college students in 2014 were 25 years old and older. Overall, higher education is failing to recognize that. Many of these students are financially independent, have children and/or full- or part-time jobs — and they’re not getting the support they deserve. All too often they are set up for failure from the start. Few classes are scheduled in a manner to accommodate for full-time jobs. Administrative offices aren’t open outside of business hours. And then there’s the cost. Whether a student enrolls part time or full time can affect the amount of financial aid they receive.

On top of all this, curriculum often fails to focus on providing relevant expectations and skills that nontraditional students use to advance in their careers. We are starting to see promising new models emerge. These models can provide adult students the most direct path to learning that supports their unique situations. Some eliminate the physical classroom and are 100 percent online. Others have adopted an income-share agreement instead of tuition. And we’re also seeing self-paced degree options attractive to working adults because they allow them to move at their own speed through material, taking advantage of prior knowledge and experience. 

Even though these are heading in the right direction, there still needs to be a complete overhaul for real change to be made. No matter what the program is and how it is delivered, all learning models need to provide the most direct path for students of all ages looking to learn and complete their program. This will involve collaboration with policymakers and employing organizations to assure we all evolve in concert, taking collective action to improve higher education outcomes to support the knowledge economy now and in the future.

2. We need to make organizational and mindset shifts based on the future workforce.

The McKinsey study, “A Future That Works: Automation, Employment, and Productivity,” from January 2017 estimates about half of activities people are paid to do in today’s workforce could potentially be automated through current technology. Findings like this make it imperative to rethink how colleges prepare graduates for a job market in flux.

One way is to ensure curriculum is relevant to the needs of working professionals today, and into the future. We should place less reliance on where someone goes to school and focus instead on the roles a job applicant might play today, as well as roles they might play tomorrow.

This, paired with career-long learning efforts, is vital. As the economy evolves, changes in expectations should affect how we educate our students. Higher education institutions should not only focus on disciplinary depth and knowledge, but also make sure students can write and communicate, problem solve, work in teams, apply quantitative methods and technology, and be creative — all things needed in today’s economy. And this should be available continuously throughout one’s career to maintain relevancy of skills in this changing and dynamic context.

In my own educational journey, I’ve come across diverse perspectives from multiple disciplines. From starting as a student at Mesabi Community College to getting my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, I know firsthand how transformative education has been in my life. And after serving in higher education leadership roles for more than 15 years, I’ve seen how competency-based education and new models that maintain high academic standards can transform the lives of adult students, their families, their communities, and our world.

Innovation and integrity are at the heart of Capella’s culture, and that’s what is needed to serve today’s adult students. I’m ready and excited to serve as president at this crucial time of transition and lead major, necessary changes in higher education.

Richard Senese, Ph.D., is president and chief academic officer of Minneapolis-based Capella University. 


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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by David LaPorte on 09/10/2017 - 08:18 am.


    This article appears to be an advertorial for Capella University, an on-line, for-profit institution. I agree with the areas of higher ed that need to be improved. However, I can’t see any actionable recommendations, other than signing up for Capella.

  2. Submitted by Christopher Williams on 09/11/2017 - 10:33 am.

    Local Programs

    Locally, both Augsburg and Hamline have outstanding programs for adults. I recently completed a double major at Augsburg as an adult and couldn’t have been happier with my experience. I even worked in a study abroad program overseas during winter break. They were very helpful with dedicated advisors available in “off hours”, class times on weekends and evenings, and a financial aid department that was fully competent at working with employer’s tuition reimbursement programs.

    Hamline also looked very good, especially for an adult MBA, but I liked the campus feel of Augsburg better.

  3. Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/11/2017 - 10:18 pm.


    We could leave the funding of job training to the industries in need of employees and maintain higher education in its proper role as the developer of articulate, critically thinking and questioning, civically engaged citizens. I get that employers, corporate and otherwise, would prefer malleable worker drones, unlikely to question their place or their portion of the pie, but as recent events have shown, a populace of pliant yes persons would tend to impart a bad prognosis for the continued existance of our civilization

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