Reflections on Higher Education: Radical Individualization

By Walter V. Wendler

On the very best days, the very best universities treat each student distinctively. Universities are in the business of creating, developing and nurturing human capital. This is true when faculty and staff are hired for their unique skill sets to contribute special value to the institution. Responsive universities will treat students similarly.

Walter V. Wendler

The process is complex. No two students begin university study with the same set of characteristics, capabilities or aspirations. As an outgrowth of this high “feedstock variability,” universities perform best when the idiosyncratic characteristics of the leadership, faculty and staff are responsive to heterogeneous students by meeting every student where he or she is—responsibly.

Generation Z may be many things, but there is a surge in the idea of individuality, entrepreneurism and expectation. You get what you earn. It is not greed—Forbes says Gen Z’s are team players—rather, it is what’s right.

There are many manifestations of such a perspective of university life. Because unique faculty and staff work with unique students, the costs of personalized responses to need, ability and aspirations vary dramatically. In fact, radical individualization would mean that no two students will learn exactly the same thing, nor should they pay the same price for an educational experience. Is radical individualization required for fair treatment of all?

The accounting and record keeping process of this approach would be a bureaucratic labyrinth. It is possible that a university with 10,000 students could have 10,000 different pricing structures based on individual student aspirations, commitment, engagement and success. For example, the number of credit hours students take to achieve the 120 credit hours required for a bachelor’s degree varies dramatically. Some students end up with 160 hours of coursework for a 120-hour degree requirement. The willingness of students to accept responsibility for their actions. Surprisingly, students are willing to accept their responsibility in choices, reminiscent of the “Silent Generation.” Institutions should match that willingness to accept corporate responsibility.

If a student takes extra hours because they are interested in subjects not required for the major, maybe that student should pay more for those hours. Public and private resource streams all support a student’s diversified interest on the one hand, or lack of focus on the other. Differential costs are associated with both.

Incentives or rewards for early graduation leading to efficiency in consuming educational resources and efficacy in costs and time-to-degree would recognize focus and completion for an individual. The importance of six-year institutional graduation rates might recede.

Precise calibration of scholarships and financial aid are possible, even if simultaneously challenging for institutional record keeping. The award and management of scholarships are stubbornly unchanging—a student performs in an exemplary fashion in order to receive a merit-based scholarship. A more precise and effective utilization of scholarship dollars might include incentives that stipulate performance bonuses above the general expectations of maintaining a scholarship. Likewise, there could be a diminishment of resource flows based on a lackluster academic performance. This is radical individualization of rewards and effects.

To put the concept in even a brighter light, imagine a university that rewarded performing students with lower tuition and fee charges based on current achievement.  People change. This perspective challenges current views of costs and performance and their calibration in the attainment of an education.

The complexities are beyond this reflection, but the concept is simple. The job of universities is generating human capital. Human capital starts with individuality and grows in response to the arrays of experiences and abilities that students provide to universities, and vice versa. Only sensitive and complex instruments would allow appropriate and fair assessment of a full palette of considerations—the reality of the human condition.

Current views and monolithic processes treats everyone the same, creating cost burdens to both the state and the student. Coupled with the generalized notion that going to college and earning a degree guarantees anything is a debilitating truth evidenced by $1.5 trillion in educational debt. The roadway from campus, littered with pizza boxes, used textbooks, broken aspirations and books of promissory notes is full of potholes. Universities have unintentionally worked to shield students from the notion that hard work, commitment and achievement have great inherent value to individuals and are the foundation of entrepreneurship and innovation that powers communities and societies.

The risks, rewards and benefits for genuine performance should provide both internal satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Moreover, external recognition that places material consequence on the differences between success, merely adequate performance and failure is required. The coming generations of students expect that consequences for work and achievement have real impact. This is not to be confused with greediness or self-centeredness, as is often the case. Generation Z’s own passion and pragmatism may be a 21st century reincarnation of The Greatest Generation.

“Wanting to work is so rare a merit, that it should be encouraged.” Abraham Lincoln

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