A learners-first system sounds simple, but changing the status quo won’t be easy

by Jeremy


Editor’s note: Peter Smith is a higher education professor at the University of Maryland Global Campus and was the founding president of California State University, Monterey Bay, and the Community College of Vermont.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ripped away the shroud of traditional practice in higher education, revealing a discriminatory system that, despite our best efforts, excludes as many people as it serves.

It is impossible to overstate the challenges involved in changing that status quo, or the social, civic and economic consequences of failing to do so. Racial discrimination, economic insecurity and wasted talent are all troubling byproducts of the current system. 

In higher ed, we are used to controlling the dialogue. This time, however, we do not control the forces driving change. Some colleges will go out of business. Simply trying to adapt the status quo to a changing world will only yield marginal success. We must instead put learners first — and to do so, we must focus on developing fundamentally new models.

The modern American higher ed system has been a miracle in the making since the passage of the GI Bill and the Truman Commission in the 1940s. The Truman Commission called for a radical rethinking of the structure and purposes of higher ed, and the GI Bill paved the way for significant, need-based financial assistance.

But our current system was designed for a bygone era. We need a new, more inclusive model for higher ed. A growing “learners-first” movement is a central part of that call. It acknowledges that our current system excludes as many people as it serves, exacerbating economic and racial divides and hurting our competitiveness. It calls out the failure of our current system to meet shifting workplace demands. And it anticipates lifetimes of learning, service and work supported by on-demand, tailored and evidence-based learning services that, in turn, are supported by new government policies.

Peter Smith

Peter Smith

Permission granted by University of Maryland Global Campus


The result will be a move away from the vertical “ladder of educational opportunity” with degrees at the top. The new educational opportunity structure will be lifelong, a horizontal ecosystem of resources and information that is learner-centered and need-responsive.

Is this too extreme a prediction? I do not think so. Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation rests on a core premise: that the needs and capacities of the community around your organization change, and those changes transform what has been your greatest institutional strength into your greatest weakness, allowing new economic and delivery models to compete successfully.

That is precisely what is happening to higher ed. Campuses were once oases of organized knowledge in an information-poor desert. They were the only game in town. But the desert has gone green and our increasingly information-rich and technology-enhanced society is revolutionizing the opportunity to learn whatever, wherever and whenever throughout life. There is no dodging this bullet.

Forward-looking higher ed leaders understand this. One such group, the Presidents Forum, has built a Learners First Framework for creating a new ecosystem for learning and work, based on 10 principles:

  • Focusing on learner objectives.
  • Embracing lifelong learning.
  • Achieving equity and inclusion by design.
  • Owning our results.
  • Signaling through skills.
  • Developing outcomes-centric innovations.
  • Instilling cultures of service.
  • Crossing boundaries.
  • Ending the broken economics of learning.
  • Modernizing policy. 

At its core, the framework recognizes that simply trying to adapt current practices to an unknown and rapidly changing future won’t work. Here are some of the characteristics in the framework that I believe will come to characterize quality.

Equity and inclusion by design. For too long, we have assumed that students will lift themselves by their own bootstraps. Learners-first organizations will abjure the bootstrap fallacy. Effort is important. But respect for cultural differences, learning styles and other necessary accommodations have been overlooked for too long and are equally so.

Cultures of service. Instead of thinking in terms of delivery models to determine the viability and quality of an educational offering, we should consider characteristics of service delivery that provide quality. With multiple education and training delivery models, we will need a definition of quality that can operate across all of them.

There will always be brand quality. When people sue Harvard over its admissions practices, they are suing for access to the brand. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other colleges with equivalent academic quality. In the learners-first world, quality will be determined by whether the learner got what they came for. This will be more than completion. It will include measures such as retention in desired work and at desired income levels. Measures like those signify the effectiveness of the program at meeting the needs of the learner and the employer, hence its quality.

Signaling through skills. Accurate validation of all learning, wherever and however gained, will become one of the cornerstones of learners-first organizations. The knowledge, skills and abilities of the learner, including behavioral traits, will be accumulated in a lifelong learning record that can help learners demonstrate their qualifications for further education or jobs.

Embrace lifelong learning. We need to recognize that education and career are now lifelong journeys that happen simultaneously. We need a GPS for learning and work that allows for a continuous recalibration of learners’ aspirations and needs throughout their lives, along with greater government support.

We do this for vehicular travel. Let’s do it for life’s learning journey.

Putting learners first also understands that having the government invest in productive and personalized futures for financially insecure learners is not only good for them, but it is also good for society. Market capitalism fixates on profits and high margin returns, benefiting the individual. Community capitalism emphasizes returns that benefit the individual and the local and regional community and economy. Cost and quality still matter, but a significant part of the return on investment is social capital development.

In that context, we could explore government-funded lifelong learning accounts that are means-tested. They would give learners the consumption power to meet their educational needs. They could be used all at once, like a Pell Grant, or over time, like a drawing account. Coupled with lifelong learning accounts, stronger business tax credit incentives to train and upgrade workers would also encourage employers to invest in training.

The issue of quality assurance is going to be critical. We are off to a good start with national interstate programs like NC-SARA. And regional accreditors are working tirelessly to respond to the changing world around them. Quality cannot be federalized in an era characterized increasingly by the mass personalization of learning throughout life. 

In a learners-first world, I should be able to look at 10 delivery models and identify consistent characteristics, practices and policies among them that collectively define quality. It is too early to say what entity will ultimately spearhead this new model, but whether it is a national, regional or state effort, the consequences of learning and its impact on the learner’s life must be the ultimate criterion to build an ecosystem that truly puts learners first.

This column is drawn from Peter Smith’s upcoming book, “Stories From the Education Underground: The New Frontier of Learning and Work.” Smith is a senior adviser to University of Maryland Global Campus President Gregory Fowler, who is a member of the Presidents Forum.


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