The academic structure at most higher-ed institutions makes access challenging, and works again equity goals--here's how to improve it

5 ways a flexible academic structure increases equity

The academic structure at most higher-ed institutions makes access challenging, and works against equity goals--here's how to improve it

In a world dominated by the convergence of information and technology, where almost anything–from fast food to cars, and even homes–can be selected and ordered 24/7 over the web, and at a time when the economy is dominated by a service-on-demand environment, higher education is, for the most part, still largely stagnant in responding to the changing needs of the populations it serves.

A large percentage of our students today do not fit the definition of “traditional” students. An increasing number of our students are first generation, already work full time or at multiple jobs side-by-side with their academic pursuits, being the breadwinner and primary caregiver for their families, or are returning to college after years in the workforce. Unlike the “traditional student” of yesteryear, these students are faced with the pressure of balancing academics with the realities of life, balancing the potential opportunity afforded by a degree with other competing–and at times more important–priorities of work, home, and family responsibilities.

The structures in place at most universities, designed around constructs of the distant past, are at best constraining for this population and at worst create an inequity of access and opportunity for success. Here are five aspects related to increasing flexibility of the structure of higher education that could help better meet the needs of some students, while increasing opportunities for all.

1. Moving away from a rigid agrarian calendar

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that universities were able, when needed, to be flexible about the calendar, changing start and end dates to best meet the exigencies faced. While a rigid set of start and end dates for a traditional semester may be appropriate in some cases, the use of two specific dates built around the agrarian calendar for the start of semesters has less relevance for courses taught online or in an accelerated/intensive formats, and even for regular courses under specific conditions. Rio Salado College in Arizona, for example, offers as many as 12 different starts in a term through its semester block calendar and both Arizona State Online and the University of Texas at Arlington offer multiple starts for their online programs. This flexibility enables students to meld their schedule of work and other responsibilities with academics rather than being constrained by a single set of dates. The “miss one and you have to wait an entire year to start” scenario should not be the barrier that it is to access and starting courses.

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