J.R.R. Tolkien famously noted that not all those who wander are lost. Yet, as I continue to work with students in transition, it is evident they are more lost than ever. It does not matter if the student is coming directly from high school, transferring between schools or looking for new skills in a changing labour market — each is fundamentally lost. This confusion is a significant contributor to why I believe higher education institutions need to begin the process of creating signature experiences. While I could talk at length about the necessity of these experiences, I’ll focus on how higher education has come to a place of needing them.

While some practitioners might argue the experience is necessary due largely to the shifting characteristics of the modern learner — and they would not be completely wrong — it has more to do with commerce. Through some research and a lively discussion in a course I teach, the notions of functionalism and rationalism came to my attention. As I began to better understand the roles of these philosophies in the history of higher education, I came to appreciate their impact on how learners are navigating this ever more complex system. Consider the current higher education landscape in Canada: Can you tell the difference between a university and a college? In the 60s that question would have been much easier to answer for two reasons. Firstly there were not nearly as many citizens who were wealthy enough or eligible for education. Secondly the college system emerged long after the establishment of the university.

Today it is hard to recognize the fine differences between these two institutions. In other provinces and countries around the world the solution has been to merge the two, as has recently happened in British Columbia and Russia. What does a prospective student see looking out at the higher education landscape? An overwhelming mix of messaging that appears to pin theory against ‘hands-on’ or applied learning. Going back to the reference of the 60s it was a clearer choice. Are you looking for a broad intellectual education focused on better understand yourself and the advancement of society? Go to a university. Are you looking to take a compressed industry readiness program to fill an immediate need in the local labour market? Go to a community college. That is no longer the case.

As community colleges drop the title ‘community’ and in some cases even the ‘college’ it is harder to tell them apart from universities. Colleges offer degrees, industry-backed research, cooperative education, and international exchanges, and they’re building campuses that rival their university counterparts.

And with declining birthrates, a shifting economy, and four decades of colleges advocating job readiness programs, universities have had to take notice. It is now more common than not at universities to have smaller classrooms, more community access, and access to research and publication opportunities in the first year. That’s not to mention the opportunities afforded by internationalization: You can be a student in any country at any given time, thanks to the advent of the Internet.

Given the degree of confusion from those looking down the road of higher education, there are three possible solutions to improve the overall experience for students:

  1. Draw a proverbial line in the higher education sandbox: colleges embrace empiricism and universities rationalism
  2. Merge the two-tier system into one: a singular institution of higher education
  3. Create a feeder system that works: colleges feed directly to university or an apprenticeable trade

Over the next three postings, I will explore each possibility, outlining the concept, features, and advantages and disadvantages of each — while keeping in mind the requirements of the 21st century learner.

If the current structure of higher education is to survive the rapid evolution of technology, it must provide what technology cannot: a unique signature experience for the learner. So I conclude with this question: What is your institution’s signature experience?