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As some of the most innovative leaders in education gather in San Diego this week for the annual ASU+GSV Summit, millions of students are preparing to return to campus after a long pandemic-induced absence. 

Whether higher education leaders are on their way to the largest conference focused on innovation or staying at their home schools, they must prepare themselves for a new reality: Nearly two-thirds of students who responded to recent polling said higher education is not worth the cost. 

Students are making their voices heard, and we should all listen. While a lot of issues will be on the agenda in San Diego this week, the main topic, put simply, is the future. 

Students are making their voices heard and we should all welcome that challenge. While a lot of issues will be on the agenda in San Diego this week, the main topic, put simply, is the future. 

Recent polls tell us that a plurality (38 percent) of students say they would prefer a hybrid of online and in-person classes, but they had strong reservations about the quality of virtual instruction during the pandemic. In yet another poll, 72 percent of those seeking to acquire new skills said they would prefer an option other than a four-year college or university.  

Those numbers are playing out across high schools and colleges across America. Since the pandemic began, over a quarter-million fewer high school students have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, a key part of the college application process for many students. Unsurprisingly, college enrollment has declined as well, with undergraduate enrollment down nearly 6 percent compared to a year ago.  

These changes in student beliefs and behavior have been precipitous and largely driven by the pandemic. But students’ underlying needs and preferences have been changing for quite some time. 

While universities tend to prioritize “traditional,” younger students at physical campuses, some might be surprised to learn that the majority of undergraduates are actually “nontraditional”: They tend to be over age 22; many are low-income; they often work part- or full-time and are often paying for college without family assistance.  

Related: For adults returning to college, ‘free’ tuition isn’t enough 

Unfortunately, higher education has typically pursued a one-size-fits-all approach that fails to adequately cater to the highly individualized needs of this new majority. Instead, the expectation has been that learners will adjust their circumstances to the institution, often leaving students with suboptimal experiences and outcomes and burdensome debt. 

If institutions offer a more individualized approach that considers each student’s individual circumstances, we can enter a golden age of education in which every learner can discover and develop their innate gifts and aptitudes. 

One powerful approach to personalize learning is competency-based education. We know that it works because we’ve seen it in action. Instead of measuring students’ progress simply by checking off the number of their credit hours, competency-based education focuses on students’ learning: making sure that every student, once they leave school, has the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve success and pursue fulfilling careers in which they can grow and contribute to the lives of those around them.  

There’s nothing magical about spending four years getting a degree. If students can show mastery in less time, they should be able to obtain degrees more quickly and start their careers. While this would represent a marked shift in how people approach education, it still doesn’t go far enough.   

Simply put, our system needs more innovative approaches. In one extraordinary example, our organizations — Western Governors University and the Charles Koch Foundation — are conducting a pilot to test whether a WGU degree earned through a local partner — a hybrid college — can deliver better outcomes for underserved learners.  

Hybrid colleges, alongside high-quality academic programs, provide individualized support and physical workspaces to help learners feel connected to their communities and find meaningful career opportunities. 

Educational progress hinges on this kind of innovation. But if these experiments fall short of our expectations, we will learn from our mistakes. Partnerships like these cannot provide all the answers, but they help ask the right questions. Educators and their supporters need to adopt the same openness to new ideas and lessons learned that we expect of students. 

Both of our organizations believe that education, properly designed, is uniquely able to unlock the potential of every individual. However, education designed around the needs of the institution and not oriented to the needs of individuals cannot realize this promise.  

We look forward to partnering with those who share our belief in bottom-up solutions. And we invite engagement this week in San Diego on the ideas and innovations that will fuel a passion for lifelong learning and discovery.  

Scott Pulsipher is president of Western Governors University. Ryan Stowers is executive director of the Charles Koch Foundation. 

This story about the future of higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. 

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