Has the time come for personalized higher education?

Students listen to their professor at a community college.

Personalized learning is now a major movement in education. Districts and schools around the country are increasingly seeking ways to tailor and align instruction and supports–often via education technology and adaptive technology–to match the individual needs of students based on their unique learning profiles.

Many education personalities are behind it. In his recent, well-received book “The End of Average,” Harvard’s Todd Rose makes the compelling case that generalized curriculum and teaching approaches “based on everyone and relevant to no one” fail to meet individual student academic needs or ignite a passion for learning for many students. Education philanthropists are betting heavily on personalized learning as well: Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan as well as the Gates Foundation recently announced personalized learning initiatives.

Yet while the focus on–and funding for–personalized learning has spurred exciting changes at the K-12 education level, what about at the post-secondary education level? Given concerning trends in college attendance and completion rates, and rising student debt, I would argue that personalized learning must be greatly accelerated and expanded across post-secondary education as well, particularly in ways that provide a new range of affordable education and career pathways to adult learners. And this means going beyond online courses and degree programs, which have proliferated in higher education, designing highly individualized learning sequences and supports for students.

The current post-secondary system isn’t working for all

Higher education attendance and persistence rates continue to fall. In 2014—the most recent year government data is available—812,069 fewer students enrolled in college in the United States than the year before. The U.S. college completion rate is now the lowest among 18 developed countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Forty-five percent of all undergraduate students do not earn a degree within six years of matriculating into a college program.

One driving factor is affordability. Since 1978, U.S. college tuition has risen over 1,000 percent. The median tuition and fee price in 2014-15 was $11,550. By contrast, the 2013 median income in the U.S. was $51,939, and is significantly lower for student subgroups (minority and low-income households). Thus, those attending college have increasingly had to borrow to cover costs. Nationally, 68 percent of college students graduate with debt at an average of $30,000. Collectively, student loans now exceed $1.4 trillion.

Another key factor is the rise of nontraditional, older students–working adults, adults with families, etc. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 38 percent of college students are now over the age of 25; 25 percent are over the age of 30. And students over age 25 are estimated to grow another 23 percent by 2019.

Further, as with K-12 students, college-age/adult students have individual learning strengths and needs. Higher education models that are “based on everyone and relevant to no one” will not adequately meet the academic needs of many students. Students who learn better in small groups may struggle in large lecture hall formats. Other students who are visual learners may have difficulty with courses that rely heavily on textbooks and reading lists.

Thus, there is a strategic opportunity for more flexible, cost-effective, and personalized post-secondary education pathways. Some of these pathways exist and are expanding. There are a growing number of fully online, accredited degree programs–such as College For America, Western Governors University, and Capella University—that provide students with easier accesses, self-pacing options, and credibility with employers. Bridge organizations, or “pathways intermediaries,“ that connect students with employers by providing job-specific technical training for in-demand, middle-skill jobs are also on the rise (e.g. coding boot camps).

Match Beyond, a Boston-based education nonprofit, operates as both a personalized college program and a jobs program. Specifically, Match Beyond enrolls cohorts of high school graduates in low-cost, online associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America. At the same time, they provide students with personal coaching, tutoring, and job placement services.

A new approach: ‘Student-of-one’

Yet given troubling post-secondary education outcomes, we need further experimentation and customized approaches. Specifically, education providers might design “student-of-one” pathways–options that allow a single student to pursue education and career interests at their own pace, accessible wherever they work and live, and offered at an affordable price.

Such a novel approach would be based on the needs of the student, not the systems, cost structures, or faculty of post-secondary education institutions. And if augmented by strategies, such as competency-based learning, virtual coaching, internships, and peer-to-peer support, these types of individualized pathways could offer students rich education and career alternatives. Emerging tech platforms and connectivity could allow for scale, such as the ability to provide multiple, single-student pathways for thousands of students across hundreds of careers and fields.

How exactly might this model work? Let’s say Tom, a college drop-out, is working as an administrative assistant in the finance office of a company. He wants to become an accountant. A personalized pathway provider would:

  1. Design a six-month, online accountant training sequence to have Tom: review and learn relevant knowledge and skills; demonstrate competencies in key skill areas; and prepare for an accounting exam.
  2. Have Tom complete this training sequence part-time, supported by a learning coach (a retired accountant).
  3. Connect Tom with similar students–locally or around the country–through an online peer group, in order to seek advice or share experiences and ideas while going through the training. These students are interested in same topic and/or taking the same or similar learning modules, but perhaps studying to be budget analysts or grant managers.

The possibilities are endless. Pathways providers could design individualized, online training and virtual coaching for a restaurant hostess who wants to go into hospitality management; a home health aide who wants to become a medical lab technician, etc. Further, pathways providers could pre-assess each student’s learning strengths and needs, supplementing their job-specific training with key adaptive supports and skill development in areas, such as time management, communication skills, basic math, and English proficiency.

In terms of affordability, fees could be based on the cost to deliver training and coaching virtually, versus traditional higher education tuition that include fees for textbooks, administrative personnel, and other overhead costs. For example, online programs, such as College for America, have reduced their tuition to $3,000 per year.

Of course, this is largely untested ground. Research and evaluation must go hand-in-hand with new pathways to understand their benefits and outcomes for different types of learners. But the need for post-secondary education innovation along these lines is clear if we are to reach greater number of students and adult learners, forge partnerships with current and emerging industries, and develop valid, industry-recognized training pathways and credentials. With improvements in education technology and our greater understanding of how to identify and respond to individual learning needs, the strategic moment is here to take personalized learning in post-secondary education settings to the next level.