Can a Group of MIT Professors Turn a White Paper Into a New Kind of College?

A group of professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology dropped a provocative white paper in September that proposed a new kind of college that would address some of the growing public skepticism of higher education. This week, they took the next step toward bringing their vision from idea to reality.

That next step was holding a virtual forum that brought together a who’s who of college innovation leaders, including presidents of experimental colleges, professors known for novel teaching practices and critical observers of the higher education space.

The MIT professors who authored the white paper tried to make clear that even though they’re from an elite university, they do not have all the answers. Their white paper takes pains to describe itself as a draft framework and to invite input from players across the education ecosystem so they can revise and improve the plan.

Day one of the forum, which was held on Monday, was an invite-only discussion session with about 25 people, which EdSurge was invited to observe following Chatham House rules (which hold that participants can only be quoted by name if they give permission afterward). Then, on Tuesday, organizers led a public forum open to anyone, which drew more than 100 attendees (and had 250 registrants).

One key question that surfaced during the Monday meeting boiled down to this: What type of student does this new college—referred to at this point by the place-holder name, “New Educational Institution,” or NEI—intend to serve?

Several recent efforts to start experimental colleges from scratch have aimed squarely at students with high standardized test scores and strong academic preparation. That’s the case, for instance, for Minerva Project, a private institution that uses a home-grown online teaching system and has a hybrid for-profit and nonprofit funding model, as well as the budding University of Austin, a startup college in Texas aimed at ensuring more viewpoint diversity.

But those highly qualified students have plenty of effective options already. Authors of the NEI paper say that one of the biggest challenges they’re trying to solve is access to higher education. Part of the complexity, they note, is making sure that students who didn’t graduate from high schools that have a high acceptance rate into selective colleges can still find an affordable college that can launch them into meaningful careers.

“We don’t need another elite institution,” says Sanjay Sarma, an MIT professor who led the creation of the white paper, told EdSurge in an interview this week. “That next rung after the elites is, I suspect, where this will find its first purpose.”

Speakers at the event were, at times, frank about the existential crisis that higher education is facing during this moment with spiking tuition and student debt levels, rising skepticism of the value of college and following a period of emergency remote learning that exposed many students to online alternatives to campus learning.

“Most Americans think that higher ed is headed in the wrong direction,” says Richard Miller, the founding president of the experimental Olin College of Engineering known for its project-based curriculum. Miller has been working on the Coalition for Life Transformative Education and other efforts to bring core ideas from Olin to higher education more broadly.

Miller warns that it’s easy for white papers to just “sit on the shelf,” adding that it will take more than just creating one new college to bring about the kind of change he sees as necessary for higher education. Faculty across higher ed institutions, he says, must see a need to change how they teach to better serve students. As he put it in his keynote at the event: “We need to adjust our narrative so that we rebuild the trust.”

Sarma, who led this week’s NEI convening, says he was “very pleasantly surprised at how candid the conversation was—there was no holding back.” That included many speakers saying that even at elite colleges, “pedagogy is not where it needs to be,” he adds.

Joshua Kim, director of online programs and strategy at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, who attended the virtual event, says he was struck by the enthusiasm and resolve of participants.

“It’s clear how excited people are, including me, [about] having the construct of starting a new school,” he tells EdSurge in an interview. “It’s so much better than the incremental changes we can make at our own institutions.”

Kim praises the NEI effort for its intent, which he sees as a desire to better serve students and help the field of higher education. He put that in contrast to the University of Austin, which he says, seems driven by “ideological” reasons, and Minerva, which he says is driven largely by commercial interest.

“They’re doing it for the right reasons,” he argues of NEI. “That’s been missing.”

It remains to be seen whether the effort will ever get from “the shelf” to embodied as a campus, though.

So far, NEI has had one donor: Bruce Rauner, a businessman and philanthropist, and a former Republican governor of Illinois. Rauner has provided funding for about a year now, to support the five MIT professors as they took time to research and write the paper. Sarma now says he’ll be looking for more potential funding as the plan for the NEI takes shape.

Sarma also says he expects to host another forum, possibly in the early spring. “We hope we see more action in the year ahead because this is an untenable situation where we are.”

As the organizers noted in the virtual forum’s website: “If academia leaves a vacuum, the solutions that emerge will likely blur these lines, and society will be the poorer for it. However, the runway is limited. The economic model of educational institutions, precarious to begin with, is hardly popular with students, parents and the media. COVID caused a further disruption; remote education replaced … in-person teaching out of necessity during the pandemic, but tuition fees were not generally reduced.”

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