The Shifting Value Propositions of Higher Education

Updated: May 15, 2020

When considering the “social gatherings” most vulnerable to COVID-19, it is hard to leave higher education off of the list. And given the uncertainty around the fall and beyond, the remote college experience may be here to stay. This makes it imperative for universities to reassess their value propositions and react accordingly. If they don’t, they risk an imbalance between cost and value, leading to impacted enrollments and student outcomes. If they do, however, I believe that universities will come out of this crisis stronger than before, having implemented exciting new systems that support remote learners. In this post, I break down this problem and propose a tangible solution to act on.

The Shifting Value Propositions of Higher Education

Why do students attend college? The following comments come from my own experience (UC Davis Engineering, '15), as well as observations of friends, family, and countless student interviews over a four year period. I will break the values into two categories: the practical and the social.

First, the practical: college offers a structured path to "success" (financial independence, the pride of a career, proof of our competence, and so on). This value is tightly linked with credentialing— society trusts colleges to tell us who is prepared to enter a field. This value is relatively safe in the remote world, as both curriculum and testing are moving online with reasonable success.

Second, the social: college is a time to meet peers walking down a similar path to yourself, to collaborate, explore options for your future, and share knowledge in an effort to meet similar goals. While we can't completely recreate such organic social experiences, we can design others that provide new and exciting value in the same vein.

The Remote Experience, Today and Tomorrow

If I attended college remotely in the fall, I’d expect the following: I’d register for classes; attend large Zoom lectures; do my work from my desk; attend digital office hours with other students in silent witness; take my tests, pass, and move on. That’s pretty much it, and I'd pay $10,000 or more per year.

What’s missing are the social interactions that make college special— chatting outside of lecture, meeting an upperclassman in your club, and impromptu study groups in the library. It’s clear that this loss will majorly impact the way students learn. With the rapid switch to remote learning, I’d argue that such interactions must now be intentionally designed, woven into the college experience, in order to maintain a similar level of value for students.

A friend of mine taught a remote class at CU Denver. She required 1-on-1 and small group peer meetings between registered students. Many of the students were dubious at first, unsure about how to build virtual relationships with their peers. In the end, however, a majority of students cited these interactions as their favorite part of the course, noting that they offered a unique space to interact, discuss course material, and learn about their peers’ career experiences and goals. At Penji, we have heard the same message countless times from our users— interacting with a near-peer (close in age and on a similar journey) is invaluable.

So here is my proposal: for every course a student takes, they should be paired with a peer mentor who recently took the course themselves. The week of a student, then, consists of both attending lectures and meetings with your peer mentors, all over video-conference. These meetings can cover tutoring, your mentor's favorite technical elective, when to begin studying for the MCAT, etc.— it doesn’t matter, as long as the interaction occurs.

To me, these weekly meetings would make the college experience incredibly rich while providing consistent relationship-building opportunities. They’d be equally effective for both remote and in-person courses, and thus are a perfect system to invest in now as we face the prospect of a hybrid system moving forward.

The Path to Large-Scale Peer Teaching

Fortunately, structured peer interactions are already occurring. University learning centers are amazing organizations where high-quality peer teaching already occurs, but they are not given the appropriate weight or investment. Instead, they are treated as a place to go to only “when you need a little help” rather than as a core part of the academic experience. Such personalized teaching interactions should be given the same weight as regular lectures, and perhaps even be a required component of the course (students don’t always volunteer for experiences that would be beneficial). Students go to lecture, not because they are always useful, but because they are a part of the course. I'd argue that small-scale peer teaching should now be the same.

I’m aware that that is a big vision and that it will come with plenty of hurdles, so I recommend we build brick-by-brick on the foundation laid by learning centers. These groups have been hiring and training peer tutors for decades. We should start by supporting them with increased attention, funding, and critically, the appropriate technology. Many of these centers rely on staff labor to operate (lots of spreadsheets and emaisl) and, on the student side, require a web-form or phone call to schedule an appointment. Very few have a mobile-optimized scheduling experience, while 78% of Gen Z prefers mobile for accessing services. If we support learning centers in exploring appropriate technology, be it internal IT or an external vendor, their capacity can be dramatically increased. As these constraints are lifted, more students will be comfortable engaging with peer teaching, and more tutors can be hired to support efforts of ambitious scale.

Final Thoughts

You may have concerns about cost— that’s a lot of 1-on-1 time! While that’s true, I’d argue that in the quest to maintain and grow enrollment numbers, this personalization is something you can no longer afford to ignore. Further, we’ve seen that students love teaching and receive as many benefits as those they teach; with the appropriate design, and perhaps some bonus credentials for our peer teachers, they might take on the teaching role with minimal cost to the university.

Leveraging students as a deep and talented teaching pool is a huge opportunity. The remote environment amplifies the value of such a system. While Penji is one platform that can help you in this effort, there are others that will do, and we’d simply love to see universities begin travelling down this road. If you have opinions to share, including critical ones, please leave them below or drop me a line at


Ben Holmquist

May 15, 2020

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