II. Learning and Success

Toward a Platform for Universal Learning

Dr. Derrick M. Anderson; Dr. Michael M. Crow; and Dr. William B. Dabars

Admissions protocols observed by leading colleges and universities, both public and private, increasingly favor students from the topmost quintiles of family income, which precludes the admission of countless academically qualified but socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants. As a consequence, undergraduate education is generally equated with the experiences of successive cohorts of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds from privileged backgrounds who enjoy the prerogative to explore a variety of majors within the context of a comprehensive liberal arts foundation. However, because mere access to standardized forms of instruction decoupled from knowledge production will not deliver desired social outcomes, our nation’s public research universities have an obligation to broaden access to research-pedagogical education at scales with significant social impact. New technological modalities must accommodate learners of all ages from all socioeconomic levels. The advent of scalable online educational technologies that support personalized learning empowers learners of all ages. In a knowledge economy in which technological innovation catalyzes opportunities, only those who possess relevant knowledge and skills will be able to compete. Accordingly, Arizona State University is advancing a pedagogical model based on a term that we have trademarked: universal learning. To honor the spirit of this inclusive aspiration, we are constructing a platform for universal learning that extends the transformational technological and social advances pioneered at our nation’s universities over the past four centuries to learners from all socioeconomic backgrounds throughout their lives.

Higher education in the United States has historically been equated with the pattern of successive cohorts of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old undergraduates who enroll in college immediately following high school graduation. These rotating populations, which only since 1970 have included progressively more women and previously underrepresented minorities (Brint 2018), enjoy the prerogative of exploring an array of majors while enrolled full-time on residential campuses in classes taught by faculty members who actively produce knowledge in their respective fields. Not all colleges and universities are alike, however, and for the past several decades, in any event, this idealized profile has increasingly become the “exception rather than the rule” (Choy 2002; Horn 1996; Radford, Cominole, and Skomsvold, 2015).

Among other factors, inequitable admissions practices, unsatisfactory completion rates, and declining returns on investment are forcing stakeholders to reconsider who should attend college as well as the purposes and ends of higher education itself. Arizona State University, one of our nation’s youngest but nevertheless one of the largest major public research universities, has pursued three interrelated models over the past two decades that evince the potential to redesign the structure of American higher education. We propose that large-scale public research universities that ground the education of students in the liberal arts and funded research differentially adapt appropriate precepts from the New American University, Fifth Wave, and Universal Learning models to advance teaching, research, and the needs of the communities that they serve. [1]

Overcoming Structural Limitations in American Higher Education

Among the roughly 3.5 million American high school seniors who graduate each spring, the intent to enroll in college is nearly unanimous, but only one-fifth will graduate with a four-year degree (Cass 2018). Completion of a bachelor’s degree—graduation as opposed to enrollment and attendance—is demonstrably the “single most important indicator of educational attainment” (Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson 2019). Graduating with a four-year degree promotes the private and social benefits that a college education confers (McMahon 2009). However, although more than one-third of Americans have completed a bachelor’s degree, 36 million have attended college without completing their degrees (Shapiro et al. 2019) and, to make matters worse, are often burdened with crippling student loans.

Nearly two-thirds of recent high school graduates are now enrolled in college at some level, including community colleges and for-profit institutions (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2022). But for students seeking degrees, not all colleges and universities are equivalent. Since 1970, an increasing proportion of undergraduates have enrolled in less selective second-tier institutions or nonselective community colleges or vocational schools (Roksa at el. 2007), the outcome of a process of hierarchical differentiation known as “vertical institutional segmentation or stratification” (Cantwell and Marginson 2018). Students who enroll in second-tier schools that offer standardized instruction are less likely to graduate than those who enroll in research-based colleges and universities that ground education in the liberal arts and funded research (Hoxby and Avery 2013). As we have written elsewhere, inferring that all bachelor’s degrees are equivalent is false. Mere access to standardized forms of instruction will not deliver desired democratic outcomes. Nor is narrowly focused vocational or technical training sufficient to prepare graduates for future cognitive challenges and workplace complexities (Crow and Dabars 2020).

Admissions protocols favored by selective colleges and universities have increasingly favored applicants from privileged backgrounds to the exclusion of academically qualified middle-class and socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants (Brint 2018; Chetty et al. 2017; Crow and Dabars 2015, 2020; Mandery 2022). Although most selective schools seek to recruit socioeconomically disadvantaged students, the scale of these efforts is not commensurate with the need, and offers of admission correlate most strongly with socioeconomic status of students as captured, for instance, by zip code. Consequently, reduced accessibility to advanced educational attainment exacerbates social inequality and stifles intergenerational socioeconomic mobility.

Many potential applicants, however, are unwilling or unable to uproot their lives to attend residential colleges and universities because they are bound to remote geographical locations by necessity or preference. In contrast to less encumbered students, certain learners cannot participate in classes in person due to personal obligations. Furthermore, potential learners who want or need to build skills, pursue training opportunities, or seek advanced education increasingly come from older or diverse demographic backgrounds, including veterans or the disabled. If individuals are to succeed in an era when knowledge correlates with prosperity and well-being—and if the nation is to remain competitive in the globalized knowledge economy—millions more Americans will need to access advanced levels of education.

Universal Learning

To overcome the structural limitations of American higher education, colleges and universities need to differentially extend the transformational pedagogical and technological advances pioneered over recent decades to learners from all socioeconomic backgrounds throughout their lives. Although wealthy schools should use their robust resources to explore alternative models that leverage synergies between knowledge production and pedagogy as well as to expand access, it is especially incumbent on large public research universities to increase their efforts to counter the consequences of inequitable admissions practices, inadequate academic preparation, and soaring tuition costs by helping all learners as well as society to derive the democratic spillover benefits of higher education (McMahon 2009). Since aggregate enrollment capacity is scalable, a subset of these universities may simultaneously bolster both research and educational outcomes (Taylor et al. 2021) as well as help meet the workforce demands of the emerging economy.

Educating students from the top 5 or 10 percent of their high school classes represents the baseline obligation of our leading colleges and universities. For a subset of large-scale public research universities that are committed to negotiating the tension between academic excellence and broad accessibility (Bowen, Kurzweil, and Tobin 2005; Calhoun 2006), the more consequential challenge is to differentially educate to internationally competitive standards of achievement the top quarter or third of traditional undergraduates, i.e., successive cohorts of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, as well as to provide opportunities for lifelong learning to more than half the population of the United States (Crow and Dabars 2020, 10, 66–67, 425–426).

The Universal Learning Model

The Universal Learning model enables large-scale public research universities to accommodate two groups of learners: (1) traditional on-campus immersion students consisting primarily of successive cohorts of primarily eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds who will increasingly come from diverse socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds to enroll in undergraduate academic programs based on funded research that is grounded in the liberal arts; and (2) everyone else, including all possible demographics of learners who would benefit from advanced education and training, especially the 36 million Americans who have attended college without completing their degrees (Crow, Dabars, and Anderson 2024).

Redesigning research universities will require innovative institutional models that creatively use learning technologies to cooperate rather than compete with other universities, which will help them form strategic partnerships with business and industry, government agencies, and civil society organizations such as churches and non-governmental organizations. The Universal Learning model represents an innovative paradigm for large-scale public research universities that focuses on excellence, access, and impact. Of course, scale and accessibility are by no means the sole challenges confronting American colleges and universities, nor are they the exclusive dimension of the Universal Learning model. Consideration of the critical roles of the research university in discovery and innovation, graduate and professional education, and social engagement lies outside the scope of this chapter.

The Universal Learning model is based on a term that Arizona State University has trademarked: “universal learner.” To advance toward this model, ASU is creating an innovative platform that extends the transformational technological and social advances pioneered at our nation’s universities over the past century. Because traditional on-campus immersion grounded in the liberal arts and sciences is available only to a small number of students, universal learning modalities must accommodate multiple student-centric approaches that are accessible to learners of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds throughout their lives. As we contend in a forthcoming book, to meet these challenges a subset of public research universities should assume broader mandates by redefining their structures as differential platforms for universal learning. This would “enable qualified students within their communities, regardless of socioeconomic status or life situation, to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to achieve their goals by empowering them to freely shape their intellectual development and self-determined creative and professional pursuits” (Crow, Dabars, and Anderson 2024).

Inherent limitations in the designs of colleges and universities that were not designed to facilitate broad accessibility coupled with disinvestment in higher education by state legislatures (Mitchell, Leachman, and Masterson 2017) have increasingly shifted responsibility and costs for educational attainment to students and their families. The advent of scalable online educational technologies that support personalized learning empowers learners of all ages. In a knowledge economy that catalyzes technologically innovative opportunities, only those who possess relevant knowledge and skills will be able to compete. Moreover, consistently executed, broadly accessible, and scalable digital platforms will not only supplement but for many may replace the traditional undergraduate experience of immersion learning within residential campuses. To meet these challenges, ASU is acquiring or developing the technology and expertise to redesign online education. In addition, ASU is developing effective learning modalities such as Dreamscape Learn, a virtual learning environment that combines innovative pedagogical and technological advances that appeal to the emotions of students to extend the benefits of in-person learning.

The New American University and Fifth Wave Models

To set the stage for the Universal Learning model, ASU has reconceptualized its operations under the New American University model over the past two decades by demonstrating that large public research universities can manage the tensions between broad accessibility and academic excellence to achieve maximum societal impact (Crow and Dabars 2015). Informed by the social embeddedness of the land-grant university system, the model couples with single institutions the research excellence of the University of California system with the educational accessibility offered by the Cal State system. While America’s leading universities, both public and private, have become increasingly selective and costly, ASU admits all academically qualified Arizona residents regardless of financial need. In so doing, ASU advances socioeconomic mobility and prepares students for the competitive global knowledge economy.

The subsequently conceived Fifth Wave model extends the objectives of the New American University model by envisioning the emergence of a subset, or league, of similarly committed public research universities that differentially maintain world-class research profiles while expanding opportunities for learning within the communities that they serve. Potential institutional peers in this context include Purdue University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University System of Maryland. To promote broad accessibility, ASU led the effort to form the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) in 2014, a collaboration among eleven major research universities that collectively enroll nearly half a million students. Alliance members promote educational attainment, especially among historically underrepresented and socioeconomically disadvantaged students (Crow and Dabars 2020, 19, 185–189).

As delineated in two comprehensive case studies (Crow and Dabars 2015, 240–303; 2020, 98–203), the reconceptualization of ASU represents transformational change: “Whereas routine change involves incremental evolution in response to external stimulation according to a university’s existing institutional momentum, transformational change involves radical pursuit of design-specified aspirations that redefine the why, what, and how of a university’s operations” (Crow and Anderson 2022). To understand the premises of the Universal Learning model, it is important to appreciate the scope and scale of the underlying design processes of the New American University and Fifth Wave models. The university’s first charter, adopted in 2014, succinctly premises the redesign of ASU on an overarching commitment to societal responsibility: “Arizona State University is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural, and overall health of the communities it serves.”

The initial imperative to redesign ASU was based on the need to respond to demographic challenges that plagued Arizona (Grawe 2018) such as “lagging educational attainment, lackluster economic output, and an unprecedented shift in the regional demographic profile from the sole comprehensive research university in a metropolitan region projected to double in population by midcentury” (Crow et al. 2004). The scope and scale of the redesign was initially motivated by the intent to improve the accessibility, academic performance, and research output of one of the nation’s youngest but largest public research universities. The set of interrelated and interdependent design aspirations introduced in the foundational white paper sought to guide the administrative and academic communities at ASU to co-develop “solutions to the critical social, technical, cultural, and environmental issues facing twenty-first-century Arizona” (Crow et al. 2004) despite multiple and often contradictory institutional logics (Thornton and Ocasio 2008), such as the academic, bureaucratic, market, and entrepreneurial (Crow, Whitman, and Anderson 2019).

The design aspirations, which sought to institutionalize novel normative orientations (Greenwood et al. 2017; Randles 2017), include social responsibility, societal embeddedness, sustainable development, global engagement, and academic enterprise, which incentivizes risk-taking and entrepreneurial initiative within the academic community (Crow et al. 2004). As Randles put it: “Institutional entrepreneurialism is shown at ASU to be encultured, critical, reflexive, and collective; and articulated at multiple levels within the organization” (2017, 278). The transformation demonstrated the de facto institutionalization of responsible innovation before its theoretical formulation (Dabars and Dwyer 2022).

As documented in the two case studies, ASU has advanced both the academic rigor and diversity of students including those from historically underrepresented and socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as first-generation college applicants. The charter created at ASU measures the results of its strategic plan by inclusion, not by the standards of highly selective universities that conduct status warfare by neglecting the needs of the excluded. Through learning grounded in ongoing research and innovative educational approaches, students are trained to become lifelong learners who can adapt to the changing needs of the workforce or pursue personal goals. The interrelated New American University and Fifth Wave models preceded the emergence of the Universal Learning model and platform (Crow, Dabars, and Anderson 2024).

Operationalizing the Universal Learning Platform

As a platform for universal learning, ASU may be characterized as an enterprise that serves all potential learners by creating, incubating, and scaling tech-enabled educational solutions that are personalized, stackable, accessible, and responsive to workforce needs. In this new type of learning enterprise, students acquire skills and competencies by building on traditional credentials such as high school diplomas as well as college and university degrees at any stages of their lives. The abundant systems perspective implicit in universal learning requires that high quality education be available to any potential learner.

The development and application of digital educational technologies is the remit of EdPlus, the unit at ASU that provides access to the knowledge core of the university to an ever-widening population of students around the world. EdPlus “derives its charge from the recognition that the enabling technologies that allowed universities to grow and scale over the past centuries have changed fundamentally during the past thirty years, and will continue to do so,” observes Philip Regier, University Dean for Educational Initiatives and CEO of EdPlus. In these ways, he continues, EdPlus is foundational to the Universal Learning platform, which is “limited only by our creativity, dedication, and speed of execution—not by the physical space of our campuses.” In other words, EdPlus seeks to deliver higher education at the scale and speed needed by anyone anywhere to achieve their goals.

Through ASU Online, ASU extends this mission in multiple modalities. The online programs at ASU are grounded in the knowledge core of an institution that has achieved world-class academic excellence. Online degree programs and courses at ASU are delivered by the same faculty who teach on campus. Students who graduate from online programs at ASU receive the same degrees as those who have attended class on campus. Most important, employers readily accept degrees from online programs offered by ASU Online. Within the context of escalating demand for advanced higher education in an era of public disinvestment, the Universal Learning platform allows ASU to deliver innovative higher education more efficiently and at greater scale than could be achieved using anachronistic methods chained to modalities that cannot scale.

ASU Online now serves 84,000 students online from across the nation and around the world. Of this number, more than 22,000 are graduate students. More than 70 percent are adult learners over the age of twenty-five who may be returning to school after long hiatuses or undertaking university-level coursework for the first time while holding down jobs or raising families. Furthermore, nearly 25,000 are students supported by corporate partners like Starbucks and 12,000 are military students. The scale provided by the Universal Learning platform is essential to meet challenges posed by the technological and economic forces unleashed by an emerging economy, social goals such as equity and inclusion, and health concerns such as delivering classes during the onslaught of global pandemics.

Toward an Abundant Systems Perspective

 Educating students from the top 5 or 10 percent of their high school classes is the de minimis obligation of our leading colleges and universities. The real challenges, however, are to educate to internationally competitive standards of achievement the top quarter or third of successive cohorts of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, and for our public universities to provide opportunities for lifelong learning to more than half the population of the United States. To achieve these objectives, a subset of our nation’s large-scale public research universities must differentially lead efforts to accommodate not only successive cohorts of traditional on-campus immersion students (eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds) but also potential learners from increasingly diverse socioeconomic and demographic profiles, who seek degrees and whose undergraduate educations are conducted within programs based on funded research that is grounded in the liberal arts and sciences; and also everyone else, referring to all possible populations of learners, including the 36 million Americans who have attended college but not completed a degree.

A system of higher education that rewards only the privileged fails to animate hope in meaningful societal progress. Instead, ASU views higher education as an abundant system, which like languages or open information systems are more valuable for individuals and society when they are widely adopted. An abundant systems perspective calls for high quality undergraduate education to be available to anyone qualified to access it. The impact of implementing such a goal at a national scale would transform and empower our society.

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  1. This chapter represents a synopsis of arguments and themes from our forthcoming book, National Service Universities: Democratizing American Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2024). Portions of this chapter quote or paraphrase our draft manuscript as well as Crow and Dabars, Designing the New American University (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) and The Fifth Wave: The Evolution of American Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020)

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Toward a Platform for Universal Learning Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Derrick M. Anderson; Dr. Michael M. Crow; and Dr. William B. Dabars is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.