The Job
Sign up for the newsletter

A weekly newsletter about the intersection of education and work. By Paul Fain

Students as Educational Designers

A recently formed group of six colleges and universities is taking the mantra of “listen to students” to the next level—by tapping learners to solve higher education’s biggest problems.

The pandemic and related enrollment collapse have prodded many in the industry to pay more attention to the needs of lower-income students, including by looking beyond their financial challenges to focus more on time poverty and mental health.

Even so, the new REP4 coalition led by Michigan’s Grand Valley State University is unusual in its ambition and sector-crossing membership, which includes six geographically diverse institutions: Boise State, Fort Valley State, San José State, and Shippensburg Universities, and Amarillo College. For example, Fort Valley State is an HBCU located in Georgia that recently inked a STEM transfer agreement with Grand Valley State.

The Big Idea: Created last year, the group enlists students to be lead designers of education prototypes to remove barriers and improve outcomes. Like the University Innovation Alliance, it will take the best ideas and roll them out across the consortium.

One of the top pitches to emerge so far came from high school students who participate in Grand Valley State’s TRIO Upward Bound program. They proposed a digital tool to help students find campus groups that line up with their interests, to foster a sense of belonging.

Another concept, from students at Amarillo College, a two-year college in Texas, is a questionnaire for high school students about their college and career interests. The results would be used to match students with mentors on campus.

“We’re really trying to start a movement in which learners feel they have a voice,” beginning with students from underserved groups, says Philomena Mantella, Grand Valley State’s president.

The experience has been uncomfortable at times. Mantella says some of the group’s members were skeptical about getting tips from high school students, who haven’t been integrated into campus systems and structures.

“It’s fresh to the institutions,” she says. “We are asking them, in their lived experience, what they are most worried about with the experience of college.”

In its early stages, the ideas mostly haven’t been about curricular innovation, instead centering on peers, mentoring, mental health, and financial literacy. And mobile technology has been a focus for the digital natives.

Grand Valley State is ahead of the curve with its focus on career development, as well as its creativity with public and private partnerships. For example, a large nonprofit healthcare company recently announced it will pay for the regional university to expand its nursing program, while also covering student scholarships in exchange for a work commitment. 

Given the enrollment crisis and looming storm clouds for public university budgets, Mantella is concerned about higher education’s commitment to expanding career exploration and experiential learning for students.

“I worry about the institutional capabilities and the seriousness,” she says. “You’ve got to invest in it.”

Higher Education’s ‘Redlining’

General education requirements—in particular college algebra—are common stumbling blocks for students on their way to a degree and ultimately a career. That’s especially true for students who start in remedial education.

As many as four in 10 first-time college students will take a remedial course at some point. And the numbers are much higher at community colleges. In California, for example, 80 percent of students attending the state’s community colleges took at least one remedial math or English course prior to recent reform efforts.

That’s millions of students. And almost half never made it out.

The issue got a lot of attention from colleges and state legislatures during the last decade. Florida helped kick off the reform movement with a controversial 2013 law that nixed remediation and replaced it with corequisite models, where students enroll in credit-bearing gateway math and English courses with additional academic supports.

My coverage at the time featured plenty of pushback on the legislation, which was passed hastily with little feedback from colleges—as Florida tends to roll. 

In the years since, however, corequisite education has proven to be far superior to traditional remediation.

  • Researchers have reached a consensus that many students who typically have been placed into remedial courses are capable of being successful in college-level courses.
  • A recent study found that students who were enrolled in the corequisite model later earned higher wages than their peers who took traditional remedial courses.

Other states followed Florida with similar reforms, including Tennessee, Texas, California, Connecticut, and Louisiana. But the shine came off as the movement ground into the implementation phase—and then the pandemic changed everybody’s focus.

For all the attention on newer efforts to even the playing field, like going test optional in admissions, remedial reform remains perhaps the most important equity issue in higher education. It certainly affects the most vulnerable students. 

That’s why Work Shift is running an explainer on remedial reform in California, which I wrote with Elin Johnson.

We took a step back from specific proposals and politics in the state to look at the core of reform—what’s at stake for millions of vulnerable students, the accomplishments and challenges thus far, and the continued investment that will be required to make it work in the nation’s largest public college system.

Of course, as California goes, so does the nation.

The Kicker: “This is the inflection point,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges. “We’re not going back.”

Explainer: California’s urgent work to reform remedial education
Explainer: California’s urgent work to reform remedial
The nation’s most important college equity push isn’t the test-optional movement—it’s the reform of remedial education.

Report Card on Experiential Learning

Forage straddles the gap between college and work by offering employer-endorsed work simulations to students. During the last couple years, more than 2.5M students have registered for the bite-size and free simulations, which employer partners can use to recruit workers.

The company, which has Australian roots, rolled out awards this week to highlight best practices among 650 U.S. universities that embed the simulations into their coursework. The awards are based on student engagement, faculty involvement, and participation by students in experiential learning early in college.

A growing number of universities are incorporating experiential learning into the curriculum, Forage says, including Arizona State University, Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Mississippi.

Experiential learning teams are becoming more common, says Jeremy Grunfeld, the company’s global head for higher education, and some universities have begun to incentivize faculty participation through grants and other perks.

“But transparently, the pockets of progress are far smaller and less advanced than we see in other regions like the United Kingdom,” he says.

The University of Rochester fared well under the company’s methodology. Joe Testani, a deputy to the president at the university and a career services veteran, backs Forage’s take on what works best.

“We have known that these types of experiences lead to better learning and outcomes, but making more of it mandatory and engaging faculty on this has been slow going,” Testani says. “I have seen more progress in the last few years. So it is trending in the right direction, especially with changing of the guard among faculty.”

The progress, he says, is due in part to universities increasingly seeing that offering experiential learning is a way to distinguish themselves and to add more value for the ROI question they’re getting from families.

“This is about social justice and economic mobility. And now that there is more data that correlates experiential learning to outcomes, we can maybe drive this home faster and more at scale,” says Testani.

Open Tabs

Community Colleges

“The infusion of technology into every industry has made short-term training programs essential to success—sometimes even for those who hold a bachelor’s degree,” Glenn Dubois, the outgoing chancellor of Virginia’s community college system, writes in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Though we have a legacy of thinking transfer first when it comes to campus planning, it is time to place workforce development first.”

“Workforce development is considered a part of economic development, but that realization is sometimes lost on the community college sector even though it’s one of the few places where the two can truly operate in unison,” Ian Roark, vice president for workforce development and partnerships at Pima Community College, said in an article by New America’s Shalin Jyotishi on regional innovation economies.

Enrollment Crisis

The share of U.S. high school students who are considering a four-year degree has declined by 20 percentage points since May 2020, and stood at 51 percent in January, according to surveys conducted by the ECMC Group. The 5K respondents said careers, earnings, and debt were top factors in what they will do after high school. And 47 percent said an academic program that can be completed in less than two years makes sense.

Alternative Credentials

The recent acquisition of Concentric Sky, a platform that supports flexible, nonaccredited credentials, by Instructure, a premier learning management system for college and university degree programs, “speaks volumes about the growing importance of the new ecosystem of non-university-based methods of continuing education,” writes Trace Urdan, a managing director at Tyton Partners.

Career Support

To support lower-income community college students, the Morgan Stanley Equity in Education and Career Consortium will give $5.5M to College Possible and CUNY ASAP. The grants are designed to support the growth and reach of both programs and to help replicate the ASAP degree-completion model across other two-year systems while strengthening career training for its 25K students.

Break Through Tech recently received $26M to create a free, 18-month program to provide underrepresented college students with skills training and career mentoring in AI, data science, and machine learning. The nonprofit, which offers short internships to help women get into tech careers, received the new funding from Melinda French Gates’s company, Pivotal Ventures, among others.

Strada Education Network announced the second phase of a $10M grant program, which is designed to help colleges and universities improve long-term outcomes for more students, especially those who face the greatest barriers. Grantees can receive up to $1.5M each to improve economic and social outcomes for students, with a focus on connections to careers and measurable results.

Job Opening

Salesforce is hiring a senior vice president to lead Trailhead, its free credential program. Trailhead offers more than 1K badges and certifications to help prepare people to work for employers that use the company’s customer relationship management tools.

I’m going to NOLA next month for JFF’s annual summit. Look me up if you’re down there? Thanks for reading. —@paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.