Rethinking the First Two Years of Higher Education

Digital Learning

Rethinking the First Two Years of Higher Education

By Jeffrey R. Young     Nov 13, 2018

Rethinking the First Two Years of Higher Education

The first two years of college are often treated like something you just have to get through. Even the term “general education,” as the curriculum is called at that point, feels generic—and almost like a commodity.

Jennifer Schubert wants to rethink the first two years. She’s come up with a new model of a two-year college that puts less emphasis on academic disciplines and more on skills like communication and quantitative reasoning. She calls it Alder College, and it would be located in Portland, Oregon, though so far it’s just an idea and in the planning phase.

Schubert speaks the language of both higher education and business. She’s been a professor at a traditional college, as well as a consultant and business strategist. But these days she’s getting schooled in just how hard it is to start a college from scratch.

EdSurge sat down with Schubert recently to talk about her idea, and about her struggle to get a new college off the ground.

Listen to highlights of the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen. The transcript below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: Why did you decide to try to start a college from scratch rather than work within higher ed? What is it that you felt was the problem that really needed a whole new fresh start?

Jennifer Schubert: Well, many of the faculty and other people we're working with on this, we've tried to change things at some of the institutions we've been at. It's been challenging, and not because people don't want to see change but higher ed is just a very complex and mostly hierarchical structure that makes it really hard to do this.

What's the elevator pitch for the model?

Alder College, in a nutshell, would be a two-year liberal arts commuter college and students would graduate with an associate’s degree. The recruitment would be local.

When students enter they'd enter with a cohort, and they would stay with that cohort of about 30 students for their entire time. Then—this is where it's quite different—the students are going full-time and they're not taking random general education courses; They’re taking a block of courses.

Students always take four courses, and the faculty have designed the assignments and the courses around themes. That includes humanities, social science, STEM and communications, but all of those classes are maybe working on the senses for six weeks or immigration for eight weeks.

This is what we're calling an integrated curriculum. There's different names for this. We think it's important for three reasons. One, students just learn better when they're making connections. We just know that.

The second is a lot of students are entering college with skills gaps. The way that we've structured college, faculty 1) don't have the training, and 2) don't have the time to assess where those gaps are and then actually address them. Our entire two-year program is really designed to address those skills gaps so students are not leaving with big holes, whether it's communication or quantitative-reasoning gaps.

Third is, whenever possible, students really need to be connecting their learning with the world. Whenever possible, students will be going out into the world and interviewing and talking to people, we'll be bringing people into the classroom. The number of students that actually know what people do in their jobs all day is very low. Most students don't have a clear picture. They have a general idea of, "Oh, I want to do this" and then they start on a path without ever speaking with someone who is actually in that career field.

The goal of these two years we're talking about is to produce students who think of themselves as learners. They can go out, whether they go into a job, whether they go into a certificate program, into their major at a four-year [college]. They’ll know how to step into a situation and figure out how to learn.

Your model is small, not some project that hopes for mass scale through technology.

I think that education—and no one seems to want to admit this—education just takes time, and that just takes people and labor.

I would get rid of all lecture halls that are beyond 40 people. There's no reason for people to gather in a big room where people can't have a discussion and ask questions anymore. And if your model is based on relationships, on smaller classes, then it can scale, but it doesn't mean the classes are gonna be bigger. It means that you'll have more classes of 20 students with the professor.

I've been an adjunct. Many of my friends are adjuncts. There's nothing wrong with the actual teaching by an adjunct. The problem is both the labor conditions, they're not paid enough, and also they're not connected to the curriculum. I was literally handed a syllabus the week before I taught, and no one in five years ever saw me teach a class. That's the reality of what's going on in a lot of first and second year courses. So that issue of that first and second year, right now, the way to make it cost effective is to not pay the faculty very much, and our argument is that's leading to a lot of students dropping out. It's leading to students not being prepared to go on. Thirty percent leave in their first year.

Could you walk me through a chronology of events with Alder? How does one even start a new non-profit college?

There are two challenges that you have to confront: One, what are you going to do about accreditation? The other challenge is financing it.

Some people have started colleges, and they're not accredited. We felt like we were not going to get on that path. For two reasons, accreditation is connected to the ability to transfer credits to another school.

If you want to start a college there's three ways to become accredited. The first is that you open and you’re unaccredited for the first few years, and then you get accreditation after. You have to go through a whole process after you have graduated first class. Olin School of Engineering, which opened about 10 years ago, they did this. They also had I believe $500 million [from a backer], and so they were able to. That's really a challenge for almost anybody that does not have that kind of backing.

The second way is you [start] under the umbrella of another institution for a couple of years and then you "incubate" out. Minerva, many people know, is an example of that.

Then the third is that you could actually, if you will, convince another school that this should become part of a program at their school. Say, there's a nursing school, a business school, you'd become the Alder School, and it's kind of its own school at another institution [and piggyback on their accreditation].

No one gave us $500 million. We didn't do that one. We couldn't find a partner in our immediate area or state for various reasons. We had worked with a school in California and we were going to do the incubation model. That fell through for various internal reasons.

Then the second one, which we got much further with, was becoming a program. We were going to become, essentially, a branch campus of a school that was not in the state. We would have offered the AA. They were interested in our model, but also that they could potentially then add other programs because they wanted to be in the Portland area.

That was a great fit. Both of the institutions, wonderful people, love them, just intellectually all on the same page, cared about the students. The second one was really coming down to finances. We needed to raise a couple million dollars. We have a sustainable financial model once we're up and running, which means we have a few years where you're growing and adding students and you have faculty development and things like that, so [we needed] startup costs.

We showed that we could raise a couple million dollars, but not the whole amount. The other school just doesn't have the cushion to take a risk. That's a real challenge just generally in higher ed.

Higher ed funding, one, is often dependent upon alumni, and so you're already at a disadvantage because you don't have any. Then the second is that philanthropy tends to go towards buildings or specific programming. It tends to go towards the top and towards research. No one ever gives $100 million for writing 101.

What we're essentially saying is where you really need to put your resources are in the first and second year. That's just not that interesting to many philanthropists.

You mean to the people with the checkbook for like $100 million?

Before we started any of this I was building a financial model for three or four years and really talking to people about what would this actually cost. That's a piece that I would say. You can have as many educational ideas as you want and that's great but really when you're at the executive level talking to a president or a provost you need to be able to speak to how this is going to impact them financially and how it will benefit them as well.

What now? Where does that leave you?

The short answer is that we are continuing to try to figure out how we can make this happen but a lot of that is quieter conversations than when we were out there with a potential partner.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up