Skip to main content

Unfortunately we don't fully support your browser. If you have the option to, please upgrade to a newer version or use Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, or Safari 14 or newer. If you are unable to, and need support, please send us your feedback.

Publish with us

Think LEGO towers, not ivory: How we can rebuild trust in higher ed

January 13, 2023 | 6 min read

By Anant Agarwal

Quote by Anant Agarwal

The founder of edX highlights 4 major issues with higher ed and how to “create a new reality … that puts the learner squarely in the center”

In the image above: Prof Anant Agarwal writes about why we need reform in higher education and how we can empower students to “erect their own towers to success.” For Gen Z, the ivory tower of higher education is crumbling fast. Together, we must take bold steps to put learners at the center of the new future we are building in higher education, reframing the conversation and the way we deliver education — with learners as the foundation.

In its recent report on America’s Most Trusted Universities, and the Need to Bridge Gaps in Public Trustopens in new tab/window, Morning Consult found that public trust in higher ed diminished with each new generation. Only 41% of Gen Z respondents said they trusted colleges and universities compared to 49% of millennials, 52% of Gen Xers and 55% of baby boomers.

Add to this outlook another 4.1% decline in college enrollmentsopens in new tab/window for 2022, and it’s clear we’re headed for a crisis. The disconnect between what post-secondary institutions hold sacred — and what people are feeling as they come of college age — has become a gaping chasm.

But this erosion of trust should come as no surprise.

This post is from the Not Alone newsletter, a monthly publication that showcases new perspectives on global issues directly from research and academic leaders.

It can be traced to four major issues with traditional higher education:

  1. It’s hard to access. Getting into college is a near herculean feat. Finding the right match. The time-consuming applications. The standardized tests. The nail-biting admissions decision process. Before even starting college, learners are under immense stress.

  2. It’s unaffordable. Tuition costs keep ratcheting up. So do interest rates and student debtopens in new tab/window. Add upfront deposits, room and board, textbooks, supplies, and other expenses, and college falls outside the realm of possibility for many learners. Even though the US government’s new student debt forgiveness planopens in new tab/window is a step in the right direction, it’s relief if it does happen — not a reform.

  3. It’s not flexible. One size fits all is the norm; a typical bachelor’s degree requires attending full-time on campus for a continuous four years. Learners who leave early are called dropouts and have nothing to show for their time. In addition, we are seeing more and more students juggling classes while also working to pay for college. In the United States, 74% don't fit the profile of the "typical" college studentopens in new tab/window. Many are working full-time, while only 15% live on campus, and more than one-fifth are parentsopens in new tab/window. No wonder more than 39 million Americansopens in new tab/window have some college credit but no degree.

  4. Its ROI (return on investment) is increasingly up for debate. Driven by pandemic instability, shifting work-life balance, and technology’s rapid pace, the next generation of learners is questioning whether a four-year degree still equates to better opportunity and a better economic outlook — and whether college is worth it at all. The majority of learning in college remains academic, but to be job-ready in the face of so much technological change today requires new and increasingly applied skills.

So, what can we do to rebuild people’s faith in college? Rebuilding trust will take a lot of work and many steps. This article suggests one step in the right direction. Let’s start by ending this notion that higher education is this grand ivory tower in the sky where academic pursuits are separate from everyday life.

Instead, let’s give learners LEGO-like building blocks to empower them to erect their own towers to success. I’m talking about incremental, easy-to-access, career-relevant learning that forges direct links between education and work — and puts learners’ needs front and center.

While standard learning packages like bachelor’s and master’s degrees are valuable for many learners, others would benefit from more nontraditional pathways to reach their goals. One innovative approach to meeting diverse learners’ needs is to break down degrees into modular and stackableopens in new tab/window LEGO-like parts, each providing more flexibility and their own credentials and skills outcomes.

Here’s where modular, stackable online learning can solve some of traditional higher ed’s core challenges:

  1. It’s more accessible, with one-click enrollment. Learners can get started on accessing high-quality content right away — no application, prerequisites or SAT required. Jumping into a course is easy and learning’s ready for the taking, just like the air we breathe. Higher education has been a privilege of the few, but shouldn’t all education be a human right?

  2. It’s more affordable, with disruptively priced options. For a fraction of the price of a full degree, learners can quickly acquire new skills toward launching or advancing their career. Microcredentials that make up part of a full degree but can stand alone as valuable learning experiences are game changers here, especially when the microcredentials offer learners credit that can be applied toward a full degree, which lowers the cost of the full degree and further maximizes learners’ investment.

  3. It’s more flexible with anytime, anywhere learning. The pandemic taught us that quality education can be delivered online, and now a third of college studentsopens in new tab/window say they’d prefer learning this way all the time. With a wide range of colleges and universities embracing the pivot to offering content fully online, learners can complete work day or night, at their own pace, wherever they are in the world.

  4. It’s proven to lead to better ROI. Just three examples: A 2021 study by researchers at Northeastern Universityopens in new tab/window found that 71 percent of C-suite executives perceive online educational credentials as on par with or of a higher quality than those completed in person. And for online graduate degree programs powered by 2Uopens in new tab/window — edX’s parent company — Gallup found that 97% of alumniopens in new tab/window surveyed for its 2020 report achieved a positive career outcome after completing a program. edXopens in new tab/window learners also echo the trend of positive outcomes and ROI; surveys found that 92% of MicroMastersopens in new tab/window learners, one year after completion, said their investment was worth it.

It’s time to redefine higher education — together

Higher education has an image problem. In a world where convenience, personalization and on-demand reign supreme, people want right-size, right-time online learning experiences that translate to skills they can immediately apply toward clearer outcomes.

By integrating more modular, stackable, career-optimized programs into their offerings, universities can prove to current and future generations that we have their needs top of mind. I believe in the power of education to unlock human potential, but how we perceive and activate education needs to adapt as the world evolves. We need to rethink, re-imagine and redefine what’s possible in higher education together — to take bold steps to begin to regain the trust that has been lost and to create a new reality for higher education that puts the learner squarely in the center.