A group of MIT professors refused provocative white paper in September, which proposed a new type of college that would address some of the growing public skepticism higher education. This week, they took the next step toward turning their vision from idea to reality.
That next step stuck virtual forum which brought together leaders of college innovation, including experimental college presidents, professors known for their new teaching methods, and critical observers of the higher education space.
The MIT professors who created the white paper tried to make it clear that even though they are from an elite university, they don’t have all the answers. Their white paper goes out of its way to describe itself as a draft framework and invite input from the education ecosystem so they can revise and improve the plan.
The first day of the forum, held on Monday, was an invitation-only discussion session with about 25 people, which EdSurge was invited to host in accordance with Chatham House rules (which state that participants can only be quoted by name with their permission after ). Then, on Tuesday, the organizers held a public forum, open to all, which brought together more than 100 participants (and 250 registrants).
One of the key questions that came up during Monday’s meeting boiled down to this: What type of student is intended to be served by this new college, now called New Institution, or NEI?
Several recent efforts to build experimental colleges from the ground up have targeted students with high standardized test scores and good academic backgrounds. That’s how, for example, for University of Minervaa private institution that uses a home-based online learning system and has a hybrid for-profit and not-for-profit funding model, and a start-up University of Austina startup college in Texas dedicated to providing a greater diversity of viewpoints.
But these highly qualified students already have many effective options. The authors of the NEI paper say that one of the biggest problems they are trying to solve is access to higher education. Part of the challenge, they point out, is making sure that students who didn’t graduate from high schools with high enrollment rates at selective colleges can still find an affordable college that can open them up to meaningful careers.
“We don’t need another elite institution,” Sanjay Sarma, the MIT professor who led the white paper, told EdSurge this week. “I suspect it’s the next rung after elite where it will find its first target.”
Speakers at the event spoke candidly about the existential crisis facing higher education at the moment. increase in tuition fees and student debt levels, growing skepticism college values and following a period of extreme distance learning that has seen many students open up to online alternatives to on-campus learning.
“Most Americans believe that higher education is going in the wrong direction,” says Richard Miller, founding president of the experimental Olin College of Engineering, known for its project-based program. Miller worked on Coalition for Life Transformational Education and other efforts to bring Olin’s key ideas to higher education more broadly.
Miller cautions that it’s easy for the technical papers to “sit on the shelf,” adding that it will take more than just one new college to make the changes he believes are necessary for higher education. The teaching staff of higher education institutions, he said, should see the need to change the way of teaching in order to better serve students. As he said in his keynote at the event, “We need to adjust our narrative to restore trust.”
Sarma, who chaired the NEI convocation this week, says he was “very pleasantly surprised by how candid the conversation was — there was no holding back.” Among other things, many speakers said that even in elite colleges, “pedagogy is not where it should be,” he adds.
Joshua Kim, director of online programs and strategy at the Dartmouth Center for Advanced Study, who attended the virtual event, says he was impressed by the enthusiasm and determination of the participants.
“It’s clear how excited people are, myself included, [about] having the design of creating a new school,” he tells EdSurge. “It’s a lot better than the incremental changes we can make in our own institutions.”
Kim praises NEI’s efforts for their intentions, which he sees as wanting to better serve students and help the higher education industry. He contrasted it with the University of Austin, which he said appears to be driven by “ideological” reasons, and Minerva, which he says is driven largely by commercial interests.
“They’re doing it for the right reasons,” he says of NEI. “It’s missing.”
It remains to be seen whether this off-the-shelf effort will ever make it to campus.
Until now, NEI has had one donor: Bruce Rauner, the businessman and philanthropist and former Republican governor of Illinois. Rauner has been providing funding for about a year to support five MIT professors as they took the time to research and write the paper. Sarma now says he will seek more potential funding as the NEI plan takes shape.
Sarma also says he expects to hold another forum, possibly in the early spring. “We’re hoping we’ll see more action next year because it’s an untenable situation where we’re at.”
As organizers noted on the virtual forum’s website, “If academia leaves a vacuum, the solutions that emerge will likely blur those boundaries, leaving society even poorer for it. However, the runway is limited. The economic model of educational institutions, shaky from the start, is unlikely to be popular with students, parents and the media. COVID caused further disruption; Distance education has replaced … face-to-face learning out of necessity during the pandemic, but tuition has generally not been reduced.”