Everything takes more time if you are poor. The essentials of daily life, getting groceries and doing the laundry and getting to and from work, take planning and time that most of us scarcely consider when the groceries are being delivered, the washer is down the hall, and getting to work means jumping in our car. For students of modest financial means, time and the way we rigidly structure it in colleges and universities, makes success more difficult. This is especially true of the millions of non-traditional age students juggling work, family, and study with a razor thin surplus of money and time.
The economy is reeling from the impacts of the pandemic and 30 million Americans now need to find work. Many will need to complete degrees, retool, and find new career pathways. Some will complete the degree that got side tracked along the way – -approximately 37 million Americans have some college credits, but no degree – and others will need to add a credential to the degree they possess, while others will welcome shorter term programs that get them back to work more quickly. Our higher education system is core to the national recovery effort, but must rethink the relationship of time and learning if it is to lift up the 50% of our population that says it would struggle to find $400 for an unexpected car repair (and that was before the recession).
Higher education is built around the credit hour as a measure of learning time. We build courses and programs on the number of credit hours required, assign faculty workloads on credit hours, allocate classroom space on a time basis tied to the credit hour, and disperse over $150 billion of federal financial aid on the basis of time. The financial aid system, and thus colleges and universities, has rigid and complicated rules around the structure of academic years, terms, what constitutes full time attendance, and student measures of progress, such as full-time versus part-time and satisfactory academic progress.
Here’s the problem: time is a poor measure of learning – the credit hour is pretty good at indicating how long someone sat in a classroom, but not what they actually learned – and it often hurts the poverty stricken. Consider the example of Susan [not her real name], a student who attends DUET, an alternative college in Boston that uses a competency-based degree pathway that is untethered to time. A single mother, Susan has a daughter with chronic respiratory illness and had tried completing a degree at two local community colleges. She said, “Whenever my little girl got sick, I’d stay home to take care of her, missing class and assignments. I never could catch up and always ended up with F’s or withdrawals. I was using up my financial aid and not making any progress.” In the DUET program, where students set their own pace, she described simply “hitting the pause button” for a week or so when her daughter had a relapse and then starting up again when she recovered. “In this program, I set the calendar,” Susan explained.
Susan is smart and racing along to completion of her degree. Time, or at least the way conventional higher education imposes it, was her enemy. The idea that Susan had to stay on pace with her peers and have her performance assessed at a fixed point in time, no matter how different everyone in the class is as a person or their circumstances, is senseless and has no grounding in meaningful educational theory. In his 2016 book, The End of Average, Harvard professor Todd Rose persuasively argues that fixed time grades are a terrible measure of anything meaningful and makes a case for using competency and mastery as measures for actual learning. Some people need more time to master the learning (painfully so in my case, as I take up the guitar), while others race ahead. What should matter is not how fast or slow someone went, but did they actually learn what they needed to in order to unlock opportunity for themselves.
American higher education cannot respond to the current crisis with a calcified industrial production model of learning. Innovation abounds in higher education, but our regulatory and financial aid systems limit the ways we can re-imagine the higher education eco-system for a world in which people will need to dip in and out of learning for what might be just two hours or two days or two week or two years. In short, where time and the amount of learning are flexible and best defined by student need, not institutional priorities.
Work is changing at a ferocious velocity and we will all be learning and re-learning throughout our careers. Higher education’s task is to offer just the right kind of learning in just the right amount in just the right way. We’ll know we have it right when students can:
· Begin a program of learning on any day of the year;
· Go as fast or as slow as they need and pause when they want;
· Pay for mastery and actual learning instead of how long they spent sitting at a desk;
· Get learning from any source, as long as they can demonstrate it and it can be rigorously assessed;
· Get financial aid for a wider array of programs offering a wider array of credentials from a wider array of providers.
The urgency to get people back to work means that a short term program in cloud computing, for example, might be far more important to some under served learners than the deferred payoff of a conventional four year degree. Millions of Americans don’t have the luxury nor the means of waiting.
With other national catastrophes, American higher education was reinvented. The Morrill Act, which created our state flagship universities, was passed during the Civil War. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – what we know as the GI Bill — democratized and expanded higher education after World War II. The Pandemic of 2020 is dramatically changing our world and while we will likely move beyond the virus in the next 18 months or so, the economic crisis will be with us for years. If higher education can break from the tyranny of time, it can unleash a wave of innovation and reinvent itself for the challenges ahead. Most importantly, for America’s poor, it can be once again an engine of social mobility and economic opportunity