Will MIT’s Proposal For An ‘Affordable New Educational Institution’ Grab Hold Or Fall Flat?

Last week, a group of five professors at MIT released a white paper summarizing their ideas for a new kind of undergraduate institution, an idea meant to spark dialogue if not immediate support. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is one of the world’s leading research universities. So what’s her angle here? Why WITH? Why now? And why might that matter? great questions. Let’s take a deeper look at it.

MIT has long been recognized as one of the world’s leading universities for technological research. Over the past few decades, they have used their reputation, location, and ability to generate resources (through research grants, philanthropy, and corporate partnerships) to expand both their program and reputation for excellence to reflect more of what is at A comprehensive company might be seen at a research university such as Harvard of Stanford (private) or Michigan or Berkeley (public). They have explored and invested in new and emerging disciplines between the traditional disciplines, drawing heavily on transdisciplinary teaching and research, and helped create significant new ventures and university-industry partnerships that are fast becoming the most successful in the nation , if not the world, became world. They attract the best students and faculty and some of the most significant donor funding anywhere in the institute, in STEM and far beyond.

In other words, MIT is exceptionally well placed to speak from a position of knowledge, success, broad and deep expertise, innovation, and both industry and global partnerships. You are a juggernaut. What they may lack in broad understanding and appreciation (or even knowledge) of the overall higher education landscape in the US, they make up for in both impact and ability to invest and take risk in growth/emerging areas. Typically, these investments have benefited (besides MIT) partner institutions that are in many ways comparable to MIT, and of course stakeholders in the form of corporate partners or investors. But this report from five MIT faculty across a wide range of disciplines takes a different approach.

The white paper provides guidelines (and roadmaps) for starting an “affordable new educational institution” unlike MIT and currently no other in the United States. It draws on elements of all forms of higher education institutions (research universities, teaching-oriented institutions, community colleges and polytechnics), on proven hallmarks (e.g. collaborative and internship experiences) and on new concepts that many talk about but few universities have so far been successful at large Scale implemented (e.g., stackable transcripts, joint or jointly listed classes across a cohort of universities, partnerships with employers).

In describing their “alternative model for baccalaureate education,” the five MIT faculty members offer important levers to address three specific challenges that higher education has faced for decades and that the global pandemic has highlighted, and in some cases exacerbated : rising tuition (access and affordability), rising debt (financial sustainability), and concerns about workforce readiness (value and ROI).

The key features of their proposal are intriguing, if not entirely new. The authors begin by positing a university focused on undergraduate majors in computer science and business, eventually expanding to engineering and design. (This is not dissimilar to nearby Olin College, an experiment nearing its third decade but whose story is still unfolding.) But it’s not just about STEM and business. Indeed, it positions both as critically dependent on a much broader education (including “substantial classes in the humanities and social sciences carefully integrated into the curriculum”) that prepares students to think critically and engage effectively with their to deal with the world.

Features of their proposed “New Educational Institution” (NEI) include:

Changing the balance between teaching and research. Faculty will split time between teaching (80%) and research or practice (20%), and promotions will be primarily teaching-focused. This is in stark contrast to faculty at research universities, which are likely to have a more even split between teaching and research, or even favor research. The faculty is also expected to keep up with new pedagogical approaches, pedagogical innovations and the development of new pedagogy. Faculty are also expected to take a sabbatical in industry and other partner organizations.

Rethink curriculum and teaching. The authors suggest widespread use of the flipped classroom model with online material drawn from multiple sources, including partner institutions.

Holistic Curriculum. Beyond skills and knowledge, students need to understand context and implications. You need to be able to work on increasingly complex (and ill-defined) problems in an increasingly complex (and interconnected) world. The curriculum therefore provides for “humanities (including art) and social science specializations” that are integrated into the overall curriculum.

Stacking themed micro-credentials. Majors and minors are reimagined as a series of micro-credits that can be stacked to form the bachelor’s degree. This allows for greater customization, flexibility, and portability for students. The course packages that make up the micro-credential are team-taught by faculty from contributing disciplines.

A trimester model and focus on experiential learning. The academic calendar consists of three equal terms (fall, spring and summer). Cooperative education will be at the heart of the NEI curriculum. Cooperatives are carefully curated and monitored by the NEI to ensure value to the student and the partner or sponsor organization. Students spend 4 of the 11 required trimesters in cooperative programs.

Leverage modern, capital-efficient approaches to campus infrastructure. Use partners’ facilities (not just their teaching capacities), work more closely with community facilities and organizations (libraries, museums, clinical or research laboratories, companies). Skip campus “nice things” (e.g., climbing walls and lazy rivers) that have become all the rage — and part of the arms race — on many traditional campuses. Instead, focus on “Pedagogy, Students and Outcomes.”

The five MIT faculty members who co-authored this latest white paper to reinvent the baccalaureate institution hope it will become a starting point for discussion. And this discussion is necessary. But it’s also about getting the right people around the table. Not just the private elites or the big research universities, but also the universities that more directly serve their communities and states, as well as the liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and technical colleges. The authors have done a commendable job in identifying and compiling some of the high-impact best practices that each of these types of higher education institutions can offer. Now let’s see if the broad audience necessary for the uptake and further development of these (and other) ideas receive an invitation to discuss and if they choose to accept them.