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Effective Higher Education Defined

By Thomas Eklund

As a starting point toward knowing what makes higher education effective, we need to define effective higher education. Such definition can be a working hypothesis that will be modified as relevant data is gathered, but we do need it as a starting point.

When we establish objectives and know what to aim for, it is more likely that we will attain what we need. Similarly, defining effective higher education helps to set and achieve relevant objectives. The alternative is zigzagging in countless directions somewhat aimlessly. Each part of a zigzag requires resources. Time, energy and financial resources can be easy consumed this way with suboptimal results.

Effective is a goal-oriented word that means having the power to produce, and being successful in producing, the desired effects or results. Keeping this in mind, and taking into consideration the most common needs of traditional students, adult learners and employers, effective higher education is defined here in the following way:

  • Effective higher education is a positive net value producing post-secondary education that combines knowledge that forms a foundation for professional expertise and skills that help to achieve professional and personal objectives.

In a nutshell, this means that as a student, effective higher education will contribute more to your well-being than it has consumed your resources (including your time and efforts). Further, this means that effective higher education will actually help you to succeed both professionally and personally.

Similarly, as an employer, this means that graduates who have attained effective higher education meet your evolving needs and have the capacity to contribute more to your company or organization's well-being than their competition does. Of course, for the best results, as an employer you should also use this capacity constructively.

Value as Effective Higher Education Component Part

Let's take the above definition apart, so that we can analyze why each of its components matter.

Effective higher education has the capacity to produce positive net value for those who use it. To put it differently, effective higher education benefits its users more than it consumes resources that are needed when the education is being attained and used.

For most learners this value includes, but is not limited to, increases in earnings. We should be able to measure this value reliably and validly, including the non-monetary aspects of it. Measurement of earning alone is far from sufficient, because non-monetary aspects, such as, for example, improved opportunities for professional self-actualization and improved opportunities for living a meaningful and satisfying life matter a lot, and can be reliably related to knowledge and skills.

The value that effective higher education can produce is related to the needs and wants of those who use the knowledge and skills, that is, the traditional students, adult learners and employers (or marketplace, a broader and more inclusive term).

Accordingly, here the concept of value represents an intersection between students and marketplace needs and wants.

The definition of value that is produced by effective higher education and the relevant measurement system can be less than perfect and can be improved over time. Perfection, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. More importantly, without defined and quantified value, we are all chasing different bubbles, and we can do so forever, without having tangible improvements.

Knowledge and Skills as Effective Higher Education Component Parts

In accordance with the above definition, effective higher education should incorporate both the needed knowledge and skills. Knowledge alone is similar to having a good idea. Good ideas matter, but without implementation, they have little value. Skills help to implement the knowledge.

The specific knowledge and skills that are needed for higher education to be effective should be defined based on the needs of those who use the knowledge and skills. Otherwise, we will inevitably have gaps between the education that is provided, and the education that is actually needed. Accordingly, the knowledge and skills that are needed for higher education to be effective should be defined by the work environment and personal life needs of traditional students and adult learners and the needs of employers.

Students side of the equations can be broadly categorized as individual's characteristics (including aptitude), needs, wants and preferences. Marketplace side can be broadly categorized as need for knowledge and expertise, skills, experience and personal qualifications.

Because of societal developments and the corresponding complexities, successful professional and personal development often requires interrelated multidisciplinary knowledge and skills. Accordingly, for higher education to be effective, as a foundation at least a general knowledge from different areas is needed, such as liberal arts, STEM, and organizational and business management. This general knowledge should be combined with development of skills, including cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary analytical skills and goal-oriented and self-expressive creativity usage skills. This can help the students to connect the dots between the individual areas and understand different points of view, problems and opportunities, and innovate and create solutions or, as applicable, artistic outcomes. Such knowledge and skills in combinations form an education that can be effectively used and built on in the contemporary world – an effective higher education.

However, it is very likely that specific knowledge and skills that form effective higher education can be largely defined by the matches between the two types of data sets, identified above as students side and marketplace side. Additionally, we also have to take into consideration the concept of change, that is addressed below.

Continuous Change as Effective Higher Education Component Part

Effective solutions can be found through understanding and matching marketplace requirements with individual aptitudes, needs and wants, keeping in mind that everything is in motion. Change is the most abundant intangible natural resource in the universe. What it means to us is that both marketplace needs and wants evolve, socio-economic conditions change, and we all are subject to life-span development. Therefore, any longer-term policy or plan, institutional or personal, that does not integrate these change-driven concepts sufficiently well, ends up, at the best, creating value temporarily, and at the worst, hurting those whom it is supposed to benefit. When we today plan and work for what was needed yesterday, we inevitably put ourselves behind the curve.

While the above concepts may seem rather abstract, when we ignore them, we do so at our own peril.

Why We Need to Measure Value

Education that combines knowledge and skills also helps to build successful bridges into the workforce and within the workforce.

Effective higher education is also the opposite of an ineffective higher education, which puts an imbalanced emphasis on knowledge or skills, provides lectures but does not deliver results that the students need, and treats higher education as if it were separate from the professional and personal lives where most students need and want to use its results.

Effective higher education should also be cost-effective, so that it creates sufficient positive net value as an investment of efforts and other resources and does not create an undue financial burden for the learner before, during or after the learning process. Similarly to measurement of value, discussed above, relevant net value is measurable as well.

To people, who doubt that these concepts can be rendered meaningfully measurable, I suggest to check out How to Measure Anything by Douglas W. Hubbard.

We can measure GDP, inflation and many other complex concepts. We can also measure different characteristics on individual level. Again, the relevant measurement system does not have to be perfect in order to produce useful results. Without focusing on and measuring higher education produced net value that it is based on students and marketplace evolving needs and wants, we will continue to have a substantial percentage of students who after graduation regret going to college.

Similarly, we will continue to have education providing and attaining infrastructures and processes that produce much less usable results than is necessary, and consume much more resources than is necessary, considering the level of results produced.

If higher education in the U.S. will continue to be financed largely through borrowing, as it has been, we will also inevitably continue to have the student loan debt problem, with all its impacts on individual lives and its ramifications throughout the economy.

If higher education is financed through redistribution of taxpayer money, the problem will be masked but not resolved. Taxpayers will be forced to subsidize less than effective services, while traditional students, adult learners and employers will receive services that only partially meet their needs.

The student loan debt problem is not only about the costs and earnings. The problem is, that compared to the cost, higher education has been producing lower than needed value to sufficiently high percentage of the primary users of higher education, so that the aggregated consequences started manifesting themselves in various socio-economic ways. Or, to put it differently, if the vast majority of the students would after graduation find jobs that are both fulfilling for them, allow to pay off the student loans without much of a problem, and make the employers happy about what the graduates can contribute, we would not have student loan debt problem – no matter how high is the tuition.

On a related note, effective higher education should be cost effective for the education providers as well, and that entails well planned and implemented usage of technological solutions.