Previous efforts to speed up the BA degree have failed. Will this time be different?

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? Test drive a new version of Buyers and Sellers. Since Who Gets In and Why was published last year, thousands of readers have downloaded the list of Buyers and Sellers—my shorthand for how colleges approach financial aid.

? Next Wednesday, December 15 at 2 p.m. ET, please join me for the last edition of the NEXT Office Hour for 2021, “Delivering Value to Students, Post-Pandemic,” with the chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Rochester, the president of Denison University, the vice president of marketing and communication at Purdue University and the vice provost for academic alliances at Arizona State University.

? Independent journalism about higher ed is disappearing all across the U.S. as local newspapers cut back their coverage or close. My friends and colleagues at Open Campus have been building a national network of higher ed journalists to fill this gap.

A Flexible and Fast Degree

When Harvard University was founded in 1636, it started by offering three-year degrees. By 1654, it switched to a four-year plan. Most of higher education followed, of course, because even then colleges followed Harvard.

What’s happening: During the pandemic, campuses embraced flexibility—from the curriculum to the academic calendar.

  • At Georgetown University’s Red House, which is its R&D arm, Randy Bass is working on a more flexible degree.
  • Bass, vice president of strategic education initiatives, calls it a “3-to-5 flex” that gives students opportunities to earn a what we now know as a bachelor’s and/or a master’s degree, all in a less structured time period.
  • “We have a flex system now by chaos and negligence,” he told me in an interview for LinkedIn’s 29 Big Ideas that will shape 2022. “Some kids go faster, some kids go slower, but it’s not with any kind of intentionality as a system.”

Driving the news: More than a dozen institutions have joined a pilot to create a brand-new three-year bachelor’s degree, according to Inside Higher Ed’s Emma Whitford.

  • The effort is being led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Bob Zemsky and Lori Carrell, chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Rochester.
  • The goal isn’t to “design a program that packs 120 credit hours into three years, but to overhaul the curriculum” and allow students to learn in a shorter amount of time.

Why it matters: Three-year degrees are nothing new, but they often failed to catch on because traditional students didn’t want to speed through college feeling like they missed out on key experiences.

  • What’s different now is that colleges are reconsidering degree requirements and how to give credit for outside-the-classroom experiences that students value but often don’t count toward the bachelor’s degree.
  • At Georgetown, “we’re actively talking about how to use the summer,” Bass told me. “We’re mobilizing as many departments as are willing to consider what their major would look like if the summer was in play.”

What’s next: Carrell’s campus, the University of Minnesota at Rochester, will launch a new degree in the fall called “Next-Gen Med.”

  • The university has redesigned the student experience to offer a year-round, two-and-half year bachelor’s degree in health sciences in partnership with Google Cloud.
  • Every student in the program will be assigned a coach as well as mentor from the Mayo Clinic, research experiences, a paid internship at Mayo, and a digital portfolio to track their learning, among other things.
  • “The key to speed is how can we drive down costs but also drive up retention,” Carrell told me.

? Read more on LinkedIn’s big idea for higher ed in 2022.

It Turns Out, There Was No Gap

Last year, one enduring story in the media was that graduates from the Class of 2020 delayed college in droves because of the pandemic.

Background: The worry among parents of teenagers from the Class of 2021 was that those graduates of the previous year who took a gap year would take precious seats in the freshman class this fall.

  • That was the question I regularly got asked in talks with parents and counselors—even though many colleges reported their numbers of deferrals for the fall of 2020 were similar to previous years.
  • It seems the legend about the Class of 2020 taking a gap year got started with—Harvard (of course). 20% of its incoming class deferred admission.

By the numbers: It turns out that just 2% of students from the high school Class of 2020 who didn’t immediately enroll in college in the fall of 2020 went on to enroll this fall, according to a report out last week by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

  • “We found that very few high school graduates followed the gap year enrollment pattern,” the report’s authors noted. “In fact, the gap year enrollment rate for the class of 2020 declined slightly from previous classes.”

Bottom line: More than 650,000 fewer students enrolled in colleges and universities in the fall of 2020 compared to the fall of 2019, a decline of more than 3%. If they didn’t take a gap year, as we now know, what happened to them? And will they ever enroll in college?

  • Since the turn of the century, we talked about the Class of 2020 as this almost mythical thing. Now, it might be better known as the Lost Class.
The end of the stacks? In recent years, most colleges have relocated books offsite.

The Future of the Campus Library

Filed under there is a day for everything, December 10 is Dewey Decimal Day. Friday marks the birthday of Melvil Dewey, inventor of the well-known book filing system.

Background: Even before so many lives moved to online learning in 2020, college libraries were undergoing a transformation.

  • Between 1998 to 2018, the number of books checked out of university libraries dropped by 68%, according to the Association of Research Libraries.
  • Yet the campus library is still “vibrant,” Dan Cohen, dean of the libraries at Northeastern University, noted in The Atlantic in 2019, serving as an active meeting place and hosting other scholarly activities.
  • The American Library Association’s The State of America’s Libraries 2020 found academic libraries are often hubs for so-called high-impact practices that are well known for improving student success, such as writing classes and new-student seminars.

What’s happening: Libraries are turning into student-centered communities of learning, said Jim O’Donnell, the university librarian at Arizona State University.

? O’Donnell just oversaw a $90 million renovation of ASU’s largest library, the Hayden Library. O’Donnell calls the facility a reinvention.

  • For one, it has less stack space. With digitization and off-site storage options, campus libraries simply don’t need the same physical footprint to store assets.
  • Hayden hosts a Makerspace, where students can come see things, touch things, and practice on things, a central location which provides access to studio facilities, tools, and equipment across academic disiciplines.

Even so, campus libraries will remain a hub for special collections—unique materials that don’t exist everywhere, such as presidential papers, and require both preservation and secure access.

Impact of Covid: It’s a commonly held belief the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated demand for digital resources.

  • So I was surprised by a key finding in a recent study on the impact of the pandemic on academic libraries, published by Information Technology and Libraries. While only three schools were studied, researchers say all three experienced a decline in the use of websites, and other digital resources, such as databases. O’Donnell from ASU says his institution saw a slight decline too.
  • Libraries in the study (Louisiana State University, Northeastern Illinois University, and Valparaiso University) all experienced increased forms of electronic communication with users, but other types of online interaction dropped precipitously in the spring of 2020. 
  • The authors suggest catalog use may have been impacted in part by the closure of library facilities, as librarians are heavy catalog users, and browsers on library devices are often set to open to a library search tool.
  • Without face-to-face interaction, students may have also looked for other resources to conduct research and study.

What’s next: O’Donnell predicts we’ll see a global, transparent, and digital library, with contents readily available to anyone, for free. Yes, for free.

  • Higher ed institutions that have been paying to subscribe to journals will instead pay to publish faculty articles and research, O’Donnell said.
  • It’s not a permanently sustainable model, he cautions, and perhaps a model fraught with questions about editorial control and the impartiality of peer reviews.

Bottom line: Campus libraries and librarians aren’t going away, their roles will just evolve, O’Donnell assured us. Students, faculty and the community will always need help finding and sorting the vast quantities of information available to them, and help figuring out how to use that information. 

—Jen Gillan Hitchcock


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The Problem of Stranded Credits
The Problem of Stranded Credits

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MasterClass Instead of Econ 101?
MasterClass Instead of Econ 101?

This line in the New Yorker about MasterClass caught my attention: 200,000 college students signed up in a day last fall when MasterClass had a back-to-school promotion, selling an annual subscription for a dollar instead of $180.

? You may have noticed above a new contributor to NEXT.

  • I’m pleased to welcome Jen Gillan Hitchcock to my team. She will be assisting with the newsletter, the Future U. podcast, and other projects.
  • Jen spent more than two decades as a television journalist for Gannett and Hearst Television and as a business technology writer.
  • As Jen told me when I first talked with her, “everyone has a story worth telling—they just need help articulating it.”

Until next time, Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...