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 from 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 of changing that status quo or the social, civic, and economic consequences of failing to do so. Racial discrimination, financial insecurity, and wasted talent are all troubling byproducts of the current system.

Peter Smith

In higher ed, we are used to controlling the dialogue. This time, however, we do not hold 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 GI Bill and the Truman Commission in the 1940s. The Truman Commission called for a radical rethinking of higher ed structure and purposes, 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 approach 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.

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