November 1, 2023 – Future of Work

In case you missed it: WGU’s Scott Pulsipher on how postsecondary education must change


What is the purpose of education? Western Governors University President Scott Pulsipher tackles that question in a three-part Forbes series. Pulsipher also discusses how postsecondary education must change in order to fulfill that purpose.

WGU’s Pulsipher: The purpose of postsecondary education is self-actualization

The purpose of education, WGU’s Pulsipher says in his first column, is not just to impart knowledge. Learners expect more than that. They want self-actualization — the chance to continually develop their aptitudes, expand their potential, and use those skills to improve their own lives and the lives of others. 

In short, learners want their education to help them “progress in their lives,” Pulsipher says. 

The country’s postsecondary education system is not fulfilling this mission and social and economic mobility is suffering as a result, Pulsipher says. He notes that a troubling number of institutions “do not provide their students with a minimum economic return after accounting for the cost of attendance.” 

To do better, Pulsipher says it is necessary to “fundamentally reconsider the very architecture of our current system.” 

Educators must change their mindset about postsecondary education

At the heart of the reset Pulsipher suggests is educators rethinking their attitudes about the purpose of education. Their goal, Pulsipher says, should be what students and their families seek: to activate learners toward opportunity and self-actualization.  

Educators are sometimes reluctant to embrace this shift.

“Oddly, this simple idea — that higher education should primarily serve as a means for helping individuals access opportunities that will lead to a better life for themselves and for their families — is regularly dismissed by those within academia as ignorant of the ‘higher’ virtues of education,” Pulsipher writes. “But I’m not suggesting that we do away with liberal arts degrees … it’s a ‘both, and.’ Liberal arts degrees, for example, can arm learners with the enduring and professional skills they need to succeed in the workforce. What matters is that they’re designed with that objective in mind.”

While educators must change their mindset, all stakeholders must work together to rebuild the U.S. postsecondary education system.

A roadmap for how postsecondary education must change

Over the rest of his first column and his second and third installments in the series, Pulsipher offers a roadmap for how postsecondary education must change. He advises:

  • Institutions utilize competency-based education. Learning and delivery models must be flexible and designed around building competencies, not amassing credit hours.
  • Institutions embrace tech-enabled learning and align what they are teaching with what employers demand from their workforces. 
  • Educators, administrators, parents, and learners challenge assumptions, refuse to define a student’s worth relative to other students, and stop seeing opportunity as a zero sum game.
  • Educators regularly intervene across the learning journey to increase the odds that every student graduates.
  • Employers look beyond pedigree and choose employees who have the skills needed to do a job.
  • Policymakers hold postsecondary educators accountable for delivering real value to students. This means providing oversight of completion rates, return on investment, and equity in access and attainment. 

“Amid our crisis of declining value and unmet needs, disruptive forces are compelling change,” Pulsipher says. “To ensure all will benefit from these changes, leaders in education, industry, and policy must work to build a system of equity with the ultimate goal of helping individuals access opportunities that will lead to a better life for themselves and for their communities.”

Want to learn more? Read this Hechinger Report op-ed from Pulsipher and Charles Koch Foundation Executive Director Ryan Stowers that also discusses how postsecondary education must change.