What should college for America look like in 2013 and beyond?

As pioneers in the higher education revolution recognized by experts like Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, StraighterLine has been on the forefront of helping to redefine what college for America should be like.

Notice that we said “college for America”, not college in America. There is a difference. College in America is dominated by traditional, “old school” schools that seem to exist to increase their endowments, increase their profits, and serve all their stakeholders except their students.

But college for America needs to think about the country as a whole. If our country is to remain at the forefront of the world (and there is an argument that we are slipping behind in a number of categories, from literacy to productivity to economic growth), then we need to look to the future. We need to educate our students to be competitive in a new world market where geography is no longer a protective factor. Rather than accepting the decline into a service based economy, we need to prepare our students for jobs in growing fields, not shrinking ones: for healthcare careers, information technology careers, and of course, STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

The World Still Comes to America for College!

Higher education has traditionally been a tool for spreading culture. The British Empire counted on sewing the seeds of their influence in their colonies by bringing the best and most promising students to the bosom of mother England for education in British schools.

For decades, the world has come to America for college. And surely, there will still be students worldwide who come to America for education in the most prestigious schools, the ones that offer political and economic connection along with their diplomas.

But the world is more than just the elite who can afford Ivy. Do you know what the fastest growing segment of student inquiries into higher education in the US is? China. Millions of Chinese students are searching for college courses in America, and do you know where they’re looking? Online. They are looking at MOOCs and online courses and competency-based learning programs. Because the average Chinese student (and there are millions of average Chinese students) and the average Indian student (again, millions) and rest of the average students around the world can not afford to spend over $100,000 to attend college for four years.

There is no more powerful force in the world than education. If America wants to retain its role as a leading citizen in the community of nations, we also need to keep the world coming to America for college.

So, What Should College for America Look Like?

America is better served by an education system that educates the largest number of students for the jobs that are out there and on the horizon as opposed to the jobs that used to be “hot.” America is better served by an education system that keeps the country competitive on the world stage, or, even better, the leader that we have been in the past. And America is better served by an education system that does what it takes to meet those challenges, rather than one that is stuck in old modalities, old contracts, old bureaucracies, and old structures that protect what they have against the winds of change that blow towards a future of prosperity.

The response to all of these challenges lies in what we refer to as the education revolution. Online college courses at prices that the masses can afford. Competency-based education that focuses on teaching students what they need to know and not what someone decided was important in the industrial revolution when the “modern” higher education system was codified. Credit-by-exams and Prior Learning Assessments that give people the credit they deserve for what they already know. And a change to the system of accreditation that currently assesses a college education not on the quality of that education, but the presence of climbing walls and student centers and dorm rooms and other trappings of the traditional brick and mortar college system.

Our partner schools are regionally accredited, but that is not why they are our partner schools. They are our partner schools because of their commitment to teaching students in ways that work for their specific situation, be they adult learners with full time jobs and responsibilities, active duty service personnel at home and deployed abroad, waitlisted students abandoned by state college systems that are failing, home schoolers, or high schoolers looking to get a jump start on their college careers.

College for America looks like the world we want to live in today: online, able to rapidly change to meet new opportunities, egalitarian, blind to distinctions like class, gender, race and geography, with access for all and barriers to none.

Now is the time to change “College in America” to “College for America.” Before it is too late.