How to reach the underserved third



The U.S. Department of Education recently forced Corinthian Colleges into a government-monitored wind-down of its operations and sale of viable campuses. The sale will include Heald College, the 150-year-old institution that we led for just under one year.

Unaddressed by the department action and overlooked in subsequent commentary are two fundamental and related points. First, as a society, we fail to prepare approximately one-third of our citizens—the “underserved third”—for either college or career. Second, we must remove the structural hurdles that limit innovation among existing institutions, and, more crucially, we must create space for radically redesigned new institutions of higher learning to emerge and compete.

Today, according to a recent OECD study, approximately 36 million American adults lack the basic skills to succeed in the current economy. According to another study, 30 to 40 percent of America’s high-school graduates, or more than one million students each year, are neither college-ready nor trained in a meaningful career skill. Almost all of them will require remediation if they attempt college, and well under 10 percent will ever graduate. Those adults often faced multiple hardships or traumas when young, they are typically underemployed but working, many have young children themselves, and they uniformly lack the basic numeracy, literacy, and communication skills to navigate and succeed in a professional setting.

Effectively serving that population requires a new type of college experience, one that is highly structured, deeply attentive to and accountable for demonstrable learning, and addressed to a specific array of needs. By contrast, the vast majority of existing efforts at higher-education reform aim to make existing colleges work better and more efficiently—to build new student supports and to move instruction online.

But that approach assumes that, with a few modest changes, 19th-century institutions designed for an entirely different kind of student are capable of serving the underserved third. Incremental improvements of our existing institutions are essential and praiseworthy, but ultimately they are insufficient. Even the most promising online models require learners who are already capable and self-directed.

If we’re serious about the idea that people should have the opportunity to transform their place in society through education and training, we need innovation for the underserved third. We must create space for alternative models that foster long-term well-being alongside measurable and repeatable improvements in learning.

The good news is that many elements of a new model already exist; we must simply aggregate them into a freshly designed 21st-century institution.

The most important element is extraordinary teaching. The last decade has been marked by tremendous innovation in teaching and professional development for teachers, particularly among certain elementary and secondary charter schools, such as KIPP and Uncommon Schools. Those institutions have identified, tested, and documented replicable techniques to transform the classroom experience and close remarkably large achievement gaps. Higher education must learn from the innovative efforts that are working in such schools and adapt those lessons to its own work.

Second, and related to excellent teaching, is the careful use of technology in an in-person setting to create a blended, self-directed, competency-based learning environment. Technology is no panacea, but, properly used, it allows students to “own their own learning” as they work toward clearly defined skills or competencies. Teachers shift from lecturing, or delivering content, to coaching and problem solving, while the networked learning environment provides both student and teacher with abundant real-time formative feedback on progress, hurdles, frustrations, and accomplishments. Charter schools like Summit Public Schools place blended learning, data, and continuous improvement at the heart of a new school model that empowers students and teachers alike.

Third, we must drastically increase the emphasis on noncognitive and professional skills. Colleges have long focused on transferring specialized knowledge; that is not the most important objective when developing solutions for the underserved third. Long-term success and well-being require grit and social intelligence, as well as professional skills ranging from communication and time management to problem solving and teamwork. The pioneering and inventive nonprofit organization Year Up is exemplary in this regard.

Finally, we need to pioneer new models of education-employer integration to meet the realities of millions of would-be students who are struggling just to make ends meet. With properly structured apprenticelike programs, even front-line retail or fast-food jobs, often lampooned as career graveyards, could be transformed into productive learning environments and career-launching pads. (The Starbucks/ASU partnership, while promising and worthy, leaves untouched the real needs of the underserved third.)

If the elements for a transformative institution of higher learning exist, why hasn’t anyone assembled them? As with most mature industries, the established players have vested interests, structural and governance constraints, cultural hurdles (including faculty tenure and fixed ideas about quality), and financial models that are often real impediments to change. With important exceptions, most community colleges are resource-constrained and have governance issues that make scaling innovation difficult.

For-profit career colleges, while often serving underserved portions of the higher-education market, are constrained by revenue models under great pressure, legacy operating practices, and a hostile regulatory environment that limits the operating freedom to innovate. And the existing requirements of accreditation and federal and state regulations, while well intentioned, were originally designed to check the quality of old systems and frequently present hurdles to anyone seeking to develop truly new models of higher education.

We continue to believe that, with the right ownership and strategy oriented toward the long term, select for-profit institutions like Heald are perhaps our best bet for redesigning and scaling educational solutions for our most underserved citizens. There is, however, no room for the status quo. To survive and thrive, for-profit entities must become leaders in the push for demonstrable and lasting student learning. They need to be willing to challenge long-held assumptions, abandon antiquated business models, and reinvent themselves around a student-centered value proposition.

We must also create the conditions to allow for a new breed of educational institution to be built from scratch. The institution we envision is a higher-education public-benefit corporation, built for the underserved third with a single objective: a truly outstanding student experience that results in demonstrable learning and career preparation. We believe this new type of institution, through a fresh approach to adult-education curricula and a belief in unlimited human potential, will finally do away with the tired distinction between vocational training and the liberal arts.

Instead, it will provide our most underserved adults with the opportunity to overcome deeply ingrained emotional blocks to learning and the opportunity to reconceptualize themselves as lifelong learners. At present, such an institution would probably have to operate outside the federal financial-aid system, at least for a while, proving that it can deliver unquestionable value to students and taxpayers. We hope that, with sufficient proof points, accrediting bodies, the Department of Education, state regulatory agencies, and lawmakers will adopt policies that reward and allow such an institution to prosper. The well-being of millions and American competitiveness are at stake.

Author Bio: Darren Gold is a former president and chief executive officer at Heald College, and Jonas K. Leddington is a 
former senior vice president and chief strategy and development officer there.