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Optimism in Higher Education; Reshaping the Narrative

HundrED, a non-profit organization that discovers inspiring innovations in K-12 education, has a list of the top 100 worldwide education innovations for each year. They seek out innovations in K-12 to document and share in the hopes of inspiring other schools to copy or create new ones. Meanwhile, the reports about post-secondary education seem to be mired in unsolvable problems, attacks from politicians and the general outlook that it is the end of higher education.

However, there are few organizations in the higher education space that highlight successful innovations at higher education institutions. My search for trailblazers in the higher education arena first lead me to the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities Innovation and Economic Prosperity (IEP) Universities Program. There, more than 60 institutions have been recognized for demonstrating “excellence and leadership in planning, implementing, and evaluating programs and initiatives that support regional economic development and engagement.” The 2017 award winners are listed here.

Scott Cowen, president emeritus and distinguished university chair of Tulane University, recently wrote a piece that appeared in Knowledge@Wharton. Cowen highlighted some little-reported stories on the efforts that small institutions are taking to overcome some of the big disruptions in higher education, including rising costs and equity. I was especially interested in the work underway at two historically black colleges and universities that resulted in increased enrollment.

 The article, When the Stars Align; A New Constellation of Innovation, suggests that innovations are happening, led by optimistic change makers at all levels within institutions. Topics included the recognition of voices often excluded from the conversations about innovation in higher education, those of students and employers. The President of Arizona State, Michael Crowe, advocated a Universal Learning framework, “an evolving model of higher education that is capable of being of service to all learners, at all stages of work and learning, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, through educational, training, and skill-building opportunities.”

CAEL supports lifelong learning by supporting institutions and state systems. There are reasons to be optimistic about post-secondary education. While the 19th Century naysayers claimed that photography would eliminate fine art painting, we know that photography and painting still co-exist, though both have changed over the years. For adult learners, higher education institutions and workforce organizations and employers should be able to do more than merely co-exist. We should putting our energy into creating a culture of collaboration, expanding the way we think about the issues that adult students face and meeting those challenges together. We should stop competing with one another, operating out of fear that we will lose a student, a dollar or an advantage and instead find ways to share our expertise and align our goals of supporting adult student success.


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