Ashford official highlights key players in innovation and higher education

Over the past two decades, higher education has evolved to incorporate the needs of nontraditional students like working parents, active military and veterans.

When for-profit institutions realized that they could provide education to millions of students who couldn’t physically attend classes on campus by introducing eLearning, the service quickly exploded and attracted more students to for-profit institutions. By 2010, over 10 percent of higher education students were in the for-profit sector.

Dr. Andrew Shean, vice provost of Curriculum and Innovation at Ashford University, wrote an article highlighting the leaders in innovation and higher education and pointed out that eLearning has some advantages, but has its share of faults.

“MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) have received extensive coverage in the media as they enroll millions of students from around the world in free courses from elite universities,” Shean wrote. “Unfortunately, course completion rates are extraordinarily low, limiting impact. They largely mimic the ‘sage on stage’ model of traditional higher education: watch a lecture, do some work. Fortunately, for students and their parents, higher education change-agents are working hard to innovate their way forward.”

Many institutions are now considering ground-breaking opportunities to make learning more effective. Shean went on to list “industry influentials currently leading the way,” namely Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) – College for America, High Point University, Georgia Tech, StraighterLine and Hack Reactor.

Between 2009 and 2013, SNHU, a nonprofit institution, increased its revenue by 43 percent, largely due to online education and its groundbreaking in “competency-based education,” Shean said.

“Instead of receiving credit hours for completing semester-long courses toward earning a degree, students in SNHU’s College for America are measured by demonstrating their mastery of a subject by completing tasks – as quickly as they can,” he wrote. “The yearly tuition is just $2,500 and College for America is the very first competency-based program approved by the U.S. Department of Education for federal financial aid.”

Shean added that the Education Department is encouraging other colleges using the competency-based model to apply for financial aid eligibility.

High Point University in North Carolina has taken an approach that focuses more on business-model innovation, Shean explained, and has invested $700 million since 2006 towards revamping the institutions facilities, creating an immaculate campus.

“HPU’s president, Dr. Nido Qubein, created an ‘all-in’ tuition model (currently about $31,000) to appeal to affluent parents who want their kids taken care of, soup to nuts,” Shean stated. “Tuition includes dry cleaning and a steak dinner once a week at an upscale campus eatery. More substantially, HPU’s upbeat, well-funded culture has drawn fantastic academic talent eager to improve higher education.”

High Point’s ranking has improved substantially since adopting the new model, Shean added. In fact, the university ranked No. 1 among regional colleges in the South by U.S. News & World Report, and has seen a boost in its enrollment.

“Unlike many in the space, HPU has a clear institutional voice and truly differentiates itself in the eyes of parents and students,” Shean stated.

Georgia Tech is another industry leader. Shean pointed out that by partnering with Udacity (a for-profit MOOC provider) and AT&T, the institution plans to launch a $6,600 online master’s degree in computer science for 10,000 students over the next three years. That is significantly lower than the more than $40,000 non-Georgians pay in a traditional program.

“It’s audacious and, while it may not scale to other academic disciplines, the deep partnership among a prestigious university, major corporation and tech company is thought provoking,” he wrote. “This is not just a company endowing a professorship and paying to renovate a lecture hall. AT&T put up $2 million to build out the program hoping to encourage more students to study science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Becoming more prevalent in the industry are companies offering college courses like StraighterLine, Shean noted. The company offers a variety of college courses for a $99/month membership fee and course fees as low as $49 each.

Students are pre-approved to transfer credits to more than 50 institutions, including the University of Maryland and Newbury College, and the company provides first- and second-year courses all online, Shean said.

“For $1,000, students could complete much of the general education curriculum required by four-year programs,” he said.

The final institution Shean noted was Hack Reactor, which labels itself “the Computer Science degree for the 21st century.” The school offers 12-week courses for $18,000, boasts an average graduate salary of $104,000 and a 98 percent graduate hiring rate. Hack Reactor, based in San Francisco, does not offer loans or transferable credits.  

The school has been targeted by California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE) for not registering or validating its curriculum with BPPE, Shean noted.

“Higher education is one of the oldest institutions in the world. Many of our universities have existed for more than a hundred years. They are resilient and baked into the fabric of many communities,” he wrote. “They’ll change, and perhaps shrink, as the number of college-age students slowly decreases and competition from online programs increases. But there is opportunity to grow and to prosper, at least for institutions that understand who they are and are capable of communicating that difference to prospective students.”

Shean is devoted to “changing the face of higher education through technology to meet the needs of an evolving student base.”

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