Peter Smith’s New Book Charts a Path Through the “Blizzard” of Higher Education Change

Peter Smith, educator and author, asks two questions.

How much of what you know did you learn in a college classroom?

How much of what you know did you learn from personal and on-the-job experience?

If the answer is—as he expects—that you learned far more from your experience outside the classroom, he then asks a third.

Why do employers and universities tie themselves in knots requiring that someone undertake an abundance of expensive classroom time to earn a college degree in order to qualify for a job?

That’s a radical notion for someone who has spent his life in higher education.

For the last two years, Smith has held the posts as University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Orkand Endowed Chair and Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education. He has served on the Provost’s Academic Innovation Advisory Council.

Over the course of his career, he was the founding president of two institutions of higher education—California State University Monterey Bay and The Community College of Vermont. He worked on education issues with the United Nations. He was a high-ranking executive with Kaplan University and dean of George Washington University Graduate School of Education.

He even served in political offices in his home state of Vermont, including one term as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Much of his academic career focused on helping adult learners realize their potential.

His new book, “Free Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career and Education,” takes the next step on that path.  In it, Smith questions many of higher education’s underpinnings that have limited who can get a degree, and predicts the coming revolution that will change academia to its core.

Smith’s book is written for people who have struggled to get a college degree and find themselves stuck in dead-end jobs because, even though they had the necessary knowledge and skills, they didn’t have the required academic credentials.

Also it is written as both a warning and a roadmap for people in the higher education establishment so they can find their way in the disruptive world awaiting them.

“The future of education is one where it never ends, and Peter Smith provides an essential guide to this new learning economy,” said Jeff Selingo, a best-selling author who writes about higher education and student potential.  “[His book] is a roadmap for learners of all ages and backgrounds.”

Donald Graham, CEO of the Graham Holding Co. and former owner of The Washington Post said, “This book is badly needed by millions of people, and I would bet you know some of them. They are the people who didn’t go to college the first time around and want another chance.”

Colleges and universities must keep up with this demand if they are going to stay relevant, wrote former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

“Peter understands change and that in a changing world, education cannot be limited to the limits and barriers of the past,” Panetta said. “It must be about results—the development of the human potential in all of us.”

Norman R. Augustine, a longtime leader in the American aerospace industry, calls Smith’s book “a must-read for anyone who has gained a host of skills and experience in life but whose career has smacked head-on into what might be called ‘the parchment ceiling,’” he said, referring to the lack of a college career.

The point of the book, Augustine said, is that the classroom is not the only place where a person learns skills and knowledge. Yes, employers need documentation that prospective employees know what they say they know. Colleges and universities should be looking at ways they can measure learning other than having a student sit through a class.

With so many ways to obtain knowledge through the internet and with the need to continually update one’s education, Augustine added, alternative methods of certification must be found.

Smith reflects that looking back on his undergraduate years at Princeton, he now realizes that much of what he learned was outside of the classroom.  Yet, few people without college degrees are encouraged to understand how much they have learned on their own.

“Very few of us have been able to receive recognition of our hidden credentials,” he wrote. “Most colleges and employers continue to cling to traditional practices that favor traditional academic learning and training over work and direct experience.”

This, he said, “is personally damaging to millions of people.”

Smith interviewed individuals who were late bloomers for college, but who benefitted from the personal and work experiences that enhanced their classroom learning. Their personal learning, he wrote, was “hiding in plain sight.”  But it took time for them to understand both the importance of their personal learning and its value in creating the people they had become.

He tells readers that failure to attain a college degree is not necessarily their fault—even though they may unconsciously erect mental barriers to their own advancement. Smith cites “unfriendly” college practices and bewildering job requirements and application processes that often impose barriers to many adults. As a result, who you know and where you went to school is more important than what you know and how well you can apply it. He calls this “knowledge discrimination.”

But that is changing, Smith insists. “Adult-friendly” colleges and universities are beginning to adapt their programs to adult learners. Such schools are giving students course credit for what they already know, instead of insisting that they sit through classes that rehash their skills. These colleges may be nearby or entirely online, but they share a common goal of putting the learner first and seeking out their hidden credentials.

Smith interviewed five presidents heading this new breed of college who describe in the book what their alternative approaches offer students and how they distinguish themselves from traditional universities.  While each may employ different methods to accomplish similar goals, Smith said they all agree on some core values and priorities, including the need for a personal approach so that adult learners have both the academic—and non-academic—help they need to navigate through the system and achieve their higher-education goals.

Everything must be aimed at convenience for the learner, Smith said. “When it comes to customer service, think Nordstrom or Amazon in higher education.” And, all college programs must be aligned with what employers are seeking, he added, so that students know they will be ready to get a job or advance in their careers once they have graduated.

The presidents Smith interviewed were Ed Klonoski of Charter Oak State College, Joyce Judy of The Community College of Vermont, Chris Bustamante of Rio Salado College, Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University, and UMUC’s Javier Miyares.

“Most adult learners are very practical,” Miyares told Smith. “They want a promotion, a new career or a better job. And they need to be able to see and understand college’s payoff in these terms—and see it clearly—to make practical decisions about its value.

“Lower costs and less time to degree combine to make the journey more attractive, work more acceptable and completion more valuable to the learner,” Miyares said.

Smith’s book gives practical examples of new services that empower learners by increasing their access to education, reducing costs and improving quality.  He describes what he calls “a global positioning system for learning and work” made up of the emerging services and practices that put students in the driver’s seat when it comes to planning their education, finding their hidden credentials and determining how to use their personal learning to enhance their college career.

His book provides as well electronic connections to these services so the reader can get started right away, and guides readers to existing services offering courses, sequences and micro-credentials at little—and sometimes no cost—that provide certificates of learning short of a full degree. It gives students the power to chart their own learning path.

And finally, Smith talked with innovators and entrepreneurs who are coming up with more ideas on how to disrupt the education model to benefit those who have found themselves locked out of it for so long. The ever-expanding universe of education data opens all kinds of ways for prospective students to seek out the best path to their higher-education goal and then receive support to attain it.

With so much change and innovation underway, Smith said students’ task of pursuing an education is comparable to “skiing in a blizzard with no goggles.” And it’s not just students who may be lost in the blizzard, he wrote.  Academic leaders, higher-education officials in state and federal government, and legislators are all groping to understand where these myriad changes are taking higher education.

“This is a time of extraordinary change,” Smith concludes.  “With change comes new experiences as well as mistakes.  With experience and mistakes, however, if we learn from them, comes improvement and excellence.”