In September, a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors released a provocative whitepaper that suggested a new type of college to address the growing suspicion of higher education. They took the next step towards bringing their vision to life this week.
The next step was to hold a virtual forum, which brought together a who’s who of college innovator leaders, including presidents and professors well-known for their innovative teaching methods, as well as critical observers of higher education.
The white paper was written by MIT professors to emphasize that they are not experts, even though they come from an elite university. The white paper is a draft framework that they invite input from all stakeholders to improve and revise.
The forum’s first day was Monday. It was an invitation-only session that had 25 participants. EdSurge was invited by Chatham House to observe the rules. Participants can only be named if they consent afterward. On Tuesday, organizers held a public forum that was open to all, drawing more than 100 people (and 250 registrants).
One of the key questions that came up during Monday’s meeting was: Who is this new college, referred to as NEI at this point by its place-holder name “New Educational Institution”, intend to serve?
Many recent attempts to create experimental colleges have focused on students who are well-prepared for college and have high standardized test scores. This is the case for Minerva University which uses an online learning system that’s been developed at home and has a mix of for-profit funding and non-profit funding. It also includes the University of Austin, an innovative college in Texas that aims to increase diversity of viewpoints.
However, highly qualified students already have many options. Access to higher education is a major problem that the NEI paper authors claim. They note that it is difficult to ensure that students who don’t have high acceptance rates into selective colleges find affordable colleges that can help them get into meaningful careers.
Sanjay Sarma (MIT professor) said this week that “we don’t need another top institution.” “I suspect that this will find its first purpose at the next rung after elites.”
The event featured speakers who were open about the existential crisis higher education faces at this time with increasing tuition and student loan levels, growing skepticism about college’s value and following an emergency period of remote learning that allowed many students to access online learning alternatives.
Richard Miller, founder of the Olin College of Engineering and known for its project-based curriculum, says that “most Americans believe higher education is heading in the wrong direction.” Miller is currently involved in the Coalition for Life Transformative education, as well as other efforts to spread core ideas from Olin into higher education.
Miller cautions that white papers can be easily put on the “shelf,” but he says it won’t be easy to create one college that will bring about the change he believes is necessary for higher education. He says that faculty at higher education institutions must recognize the need to improve student service and change how they teach. He stated this in his keynote address at the event: “We must adjust our narrative to rebuild trust.”
Sarma, the NEI convening leader, said he was “very pleasantly shocked at how candid it was–there wasn’t any holding back.” He also added that many speakers stated that “pedagogy isn’t where it should be” at elite colleges.
Joshua Kim, the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning’s director of online strategies and programs, was a participant in the virtual event and said he was impressed by the energy and determination of the participants.
In an interview with EdSurge, he said that “it’s evident how excited people [are] about having the construct of starting new schools.” It’s better than the incremental changes that we can make to our institutions.”
Kim praises the NEI effort because of its purpose, which he views as a desire for students to be better served and the advancement of higher education. That contrasts with the University of Austin which, he said, is driven by “ideological” motives, and Minerva which, he claims, is driven largely commercially.
He says that NEI is doing it “for the right reasons.” This was missing.
However, it remains to be seen if the effort will ever move from “the shelf”, to being embodied in a campus.
NEI only has one donor so far: Bruce Rauner (a businessman, philanthropist and former Republican governor of Illinois). Rauner has been providing funding for the five MIT professors for approximately a year, while they worked on the paper and researched it. Sarma says he will be seeking out additional funding as the NEI plan develops.
Sarma stated that he plans to host another forum in the spring. “We hope to see more action in 2015 because this is an untenable position where we are.”
The organizers of the virtual forum noted that “if academia leaves a vacuum”, the solutions that emerge from it will likely blur these lines and society will suffer. The runway is short. Students, parents, and media are not happy with the precarious economic model of educational institutions. COVID was a major disruption. Remote education was replaced by in-person teaching because of the pandemic. However, tuition fees did not decrease.