Flipped Universities for a Student-Centered Future
Today’s US university is asked to be everything to every student, providing services from housing to healthcare and public safety and judicial systems while ensuring that students feel safe and supported, that they are free from food insecurity, and that they are entertained and engaged and feel a strong sense of belonging. As Christian Schneider notes, “Campuses are set up like full-service county governments, forced to provide a range of human services.” This was especially true during the pandemic, when—facing a lack of public health support locally—higher education institutions like my former one were even forced to create their own local health agencies to successfully manage the crisis.
This expansion of expectations on what institutions provide to today’s students has stretched many institutions very thin. And despite heroic efforts by many faculty and administrators, students are struggling emotionally in ever greater numbers, and degree completion and graduation rates are suffering nearly universally.
A post-pandemic, student-centered reality
While the pandemic exacerbated these challenges, it also forced shifts in pedagogy and learning that may provide creative ideas for a more sustainable educational model in the future. When the pandemic arrived in spring 2020, every educational institution was forced to move to a fully online model to complete the 2019–20 academic year. Many institutions that had traditionally been fully in person continued remote learning through the 2020–21 academic year, and some have now permanently adopted hybrid models. While many of us were relieved to return to in-person living and learning more recently, we would be remiss if we did not mine the creative technological and structural changes brought about by the pandemic—not to mention the escalating debate over the perceived value of a college degree—for ideas about how to evolve higher education. Every campus would be well served to examine ways to be agile and responsive to a post-pandemic, student-centered reality.
During the pandemic, many of us heard feedback from students that the courses that worked and engaged them best were those that employed a “flipped” model, one that focused on student-centered, active-learning approaches. Research has shown that flipped classrooms, which creatively engage technology and empower students to guide their own learning, give students agency over when and how they approach the material to be absorbed, and have a positive impact on student learning and retention. Empowering such student engagement in the classroom can also make the teaching experience more creative, more satisfying, and more engaging.
What if we empowered students to have agency over how they not only learn in the classroom but also shape their entire educational journey? What if instead of touting the use of flipped classrooms, colleges and universities touted themselves as “flipped institutions,” where students can decide what and how they learn and where learning could be thematic, real-world applicable, and not strictly focused on structured departments, majors, or requirements? Such a model would give students the ability to shape their education, to decide when and where to invest their education dollars and consider whether an undergraduate or graduate degree is even valuable for their lives and careers.
A flipped model would allow colleges and universities to refocus on educating more broadly rather than on trying but struggling to continue being “everything for every student.” It would force institutions to think innovatively about cost models, pedagogy modes, and what their true mission and purpose are. Faculty would need to drive such a creative reframing of institutions’ curricula. It would require far greater collaboration among faculty, administration, and leadership, and perhaps among different higher education institutions, to even begin to envision what such a shift could look like from the institutional side. This may not be the best solution, but neither is the status quo, especially for many small institutions.
Is the current model really working?
Gen Z continues to tell us they want this kind of agency and ownership—over the learning experience and over their careers and over big global issues, which students tasted of during the remote experiences of the pandemic. Gen Z students have a general distrust of and frustration with authority and with older generations from whom they have inherited so many problems, and they actively seek to solve complex world problems now. Therefore, forward-thinking institutions might find success in “meeting students where they are” and allowing them to work with professors to craft their own focused learning pathways—across disciplines and maybe even over their lifetimes, interweaving academic, experiential experiences, remote and in-person learning, global exposure, and more.
This is not a brand-new idea. It is in many ways an extension of the “open curriculum” model a number of institutions adopted long ago, or of the “self-designed majors” most institutions offer. And there are already intriguing, burgeoning models for cross-institutional, self-directed opportunities. For instance, many of us are closely watching the European Universities initiative, whose transnational alliances (I quote)
- include partners from all types of higher education institutions and cover a broad geographic scope across Europe
- are based upon a co-envisioned long-term strategy focused on sustainability, excellence and European values
- offer student-centered curricula jointly delivered across inter-university campuses, where diverse student bodies can build their own programs and experience mobility at all levels of study
- adopt a challenge-based approach according to which students, academics and external partners can cooperate in inter-disciplinary teams to tackle the biggest issues facing Europe today.
At a moment when we need to rethink US higher education to make it more affordable, more accessible, and more attractive and valuable to prospective students—as well as to better support faculty in their teaching, research, and creativity—exploring such options may lead to some intriguing solutions. If the purpose of higher education is to educate citizens to be active, thoughtful participants in a free, democratic society, then instead of remaining wedded to what we have always done, we must ask ourselves, Is the current model really working?
Creatively addressing higher education’s cost issue
Most institutions of higher learning are struggling to attract, enroll, and retain enough students to remain financially viable in the long term. The high cost–high discount model is not working; data shows us that parents and students are not convinced of the benefit of the value proposition our higher education system currently offers. Many students are leaving without degrees but with burdensome debt.
This is true beyond the US as well. As Samira Shackle noted in 2019 of the UK, “In the drive to make universities profitable, there is a fundamental confusion about what they are for. As a result, there has been a global shift from prizing learning as an end in itself to equipping graduates for the job market, in what for some can be a joyless environment.”
A flipped university model might help address higher education’s cost issue for students as (a) the cost could possibly be amortized over a career or lifetime (when income might be higher), (b) students could possibly “lock in” payment for their education at current prices but spread out their use over time, or (c) such a model could entice corporate partners and sponsorships to invest in educating their future workforce in new ways.
Many other economic options could be imagined. Regardless of how it might be structured administratively, such a self-directed model could reinfuse more joy, excitement, and satisfaction in college students when they truly need it.
Beyond these issues, Chat GPT and AI have, almost overnight, demonstrated that content acquisition is no longer the goal; in fact, children as young as two can access information through parents’ smartphones, and a computer can easily assist on a student’s coding assignment or write a draft of their essay. But with an inundation of information and the rise of AI capabilities comes an even greater need for the very broad, diverse liberal arts education introduced by the ancients, whose aim has always been to educate free citizens. It is hard to argue that today we do not need to learn and strengthen intellectual tools to analyze an overwhelming amount of information (not all of it correct); to process information from different channels; to pass along information in a coherent, thoughtful, and constructive way; and to integrate multiple lenses and areas of knowledge to solve our world’s complex problems.
Flexibility to serve different student populations
We also ignore at our peril the exploding demand of “lifelong learners” who want to and will pay to return to structured education opportunities later in their careers, in between career pivots, or after retiring. A small sample of offerings includes Temple Rome Adult Education, Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, and Lasell University’s Lasell Village senior living. And while we all know about the “demographic cliff” to arrive in 2025 through which enrollment of college-age students will decline by 15 percent in most areas, we also know that today, “there are more Americans ages 65 and older—just over 49 million, according to the US Census—than at any other time in history.” This number will only increase as more of the baby boomers retire.
We need to find flexible educational models to serve all these various populations, which may mean being willing to move away from the standard approaches we all know and were trained in, where we recruit students to sign on to four years of study at our institutions, educate them in topics we feel important, and graduate them after four years of a set curriculum.
What if, in truly self-designed education, students played a role in developing their own educational objectives and pathways over the course of a lifetime and then selected courses and opportunities from a variety of institutions, including trade schools, apprenticeship opportunities, small residential colleges or research universities, and everything in between?
Stanford 2025, the report from Stanford d.school’s inspiring “design thinking” exercise on what higher education might have evolved to become by 2100, sparks a number of creative ideas. A pure flipped university model might allow students to “purchase” the equivalent of four years of education and then use the purchased institutional opportunities over a longer period of time (10 years? 20? A lifetime?). This might mean taking courses for a year and then a pause to work, then taking courses for more years and then another pause. It might mean crafting a course of study around a burning global issue and integrating work and internship experiences from across institutions to frame out various perspectives on that, guided by a team of in-class and workplace-based advisors. It might mean stacking credentials or courses instead of completing a degree. It certainly will mean rethinking the college degree requirement for many careers and jobs and engaging in more flexible thinking about skills, expertise, intelligence, timing of education, and “age versus experience” in the workplace.
None of these opportunities would eliminate the option of pursuing the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree in the 18–22-year-old timeframe. But the plethora of learning opportunities offered and being pursued by those around them would undoubtedly influence even traditionally focused students toward becoming more empowered and self-directed in their learning.
Rethinking the traditional institutional model
To make such a system feasible, so much would have to happen that it is almost overwhelming. Just to start, institutions would need to leverage more meaningful partnerships with local industries and organizations to mutually understand and bolster each other’s needs. They would need to create even stronger alumni networks both for teaching skills and a variety of subjects and for mentoring, providing job opportunities, and welcoming alumni back later in their careers to continue their learning. They would need to envision a course of study that encompasses a far more diverse curriculum and spectrum of skills, perhaps a combination of hands-on tools and cocurricular activity that includes traditional liberal arts study options alongside credential-oriented, skills-based training that could happen throughout a lifetime. They would need to accept that partnering with other institutions would be an advantage, not a competitive threat. They would need to rethink traditional ways of supporting faculty that would relieve some of the heavy administrative burdens they carry and free them up to be more creative in their teaching and research, without fear of penalty. Accreditation agencies, universities, workforce agencies, and industry would all have to work together to craft guidelines and methods for assessing success for this new undertaking. And industries would have to become more flexible about pipeline development and the credentials they require for hiring and be more willing to invest in institutions of learning.
None of this is simple or quick or maybe even possible—but there are some steps institutions can start to take regardless, beginning with engaging in honest conversation about why they exist and what their true mission and values are. Such frank, vulnerable, open-minded, and unconstrained conversations need to take place at all levels of an institution, and the conversations alone could free us up to imagine intriguing new opportunities we may not yet have considered.
As a scholar of the Italian Renaissance, I believe more than most in the value of a traditional, four-year, liberal arts education. As an interdisciplinary thinker inspired by the multipronged approach of Galileo, I also believe that higher education’s path forward needs to consider many different perspectives, options, and opportunities.
If we learned anything from the pandemic—just as the Renaissance thinkers, writers, artists, and scholars did following their 14th-century pandemic—it is that we can and must be nimble and flexible in how we think, teach, and even live. Perhaps it is also time to be flexible and nimble about what “student” and “higher education” really mean for our future and our world. If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?
Hilary L. Link, PhD, is the president of Drew University. Previously, she served as the first female president of Allegheny College. Dr. Link is a transdisciplinary and globally oriented scholar whose leadership approach is informed by the belief that gathering multiple perspectives on issues is essential in enhancing and enriching institutional growth and transformation and preparing students to think critically, communicate creatively and question everything.