From tightening budgets and endowments to increased competition for enrollments, small colleges are feeling the financial pinch more than most, and the increasingly challenging environment is contributing to a sense of decline in American higher education. In spite of these challenges, college and university leaders should view the current climate as an opportunity to innovate their instructional methods to meet students’ needs while also differentiating themselves from the competition. Through the application of new technologies and instructional best practices, small colleges can revolutionize their curriculum to be a truly unique student experience that not only attracts new students, but also better prepares them for the 21st-century job market.

Although the past few decades have brought about some change (most notably the rise of online education), very little has changed regarding how institutions deliver education. This is primarily due to factors within the higher education ecosystem that serve as barriers to change. In this review, we’ll cover several of the major trends in higher education innovation and discuss the primary barriers to change that institutions must overcome to implement them.

Current Trends in Higher Educationicon1

With some minor exceptions (online education being one of them), the vast majority of colleges and universities have changed their academic approaches very little over the past century. That being said, there are opportunities for innovation, and several institutions are already making headway in areas that others could easily follow.

Competency-Based Education

One of the biggest topics of conversation in educational innovation is competency-based education (CBE). CBE focuses on allowing students to develop individual skills at their own pace. CBE provides increased flexibility for students in selecting courses and, ideally, helps them move at an accelerated pace through their programs, thus reducing the overall cost of a degree. Although many schools have attempted to incorporate elements of CBE into certain programs, Northern Arizona University, the University of Southern New Hampshire, and Western Governors University have made headlines in recent years with the conversion of their online programs to a 100% CBE format.

Open Educational Resources (Textbook-Free Courses)

The worst-kept secret in higher education is the cost of textbooks. Although some institutions have sought to mitigate this issue by purchasing textbooks for students, others (primarily community colleges) are starting to remove textbook entirely from certain courses. By incorporating free, Web-based resources and leveraging existing expenditures (such as JSTOR), it’s possible to remove traditionally published textbooks from the classroom and eliminate that cost to students.

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning refers to the process of learning through experience. Several institutions (such as the Claremont Consortium’s Minerva Project) are folding experiential elements into their programs to provide students with real-world learning opportunities. In areas such as nursing and education, this has been a practice for decades, but for other fields, implementing real-world application as a part of the program gives students real-world experience and opportunities.

Badging and Grade Alternatives

The current grading standard is so ingrained in American society that “4.0” has become a standard turn of phrase. However, current grading does little to report on student ability in a detailed way. As many institutions implement objective-aligned portfolios with their programs, still more (such as Penn State) are exploring alternatives to grades, such as badging, that leverage new technologies for reporting.

Barriers to Changeicon2

Although there has been some innovation in higher education, these changes have had very little meaningful impact on most institutions. Unfortunately, a variety of factors within the higher education ecosystem serve as barriers to change. Institutions seeking to differentiate themselves through new and innovative instructional strategies can face challenges from a variety of sources.

Accreditation and Regulatory Organizations

Although curriculum adjustments are usually simple, institutions undergoing more involved changes (such as switching to a CBE model) must obtain approval from outside regulatory bodies such as accreditors or the Department of Education. Otherwise, their programs may become ineligible for financial aid or credit transfer. Although such changes are possible, institutions must invest a great deal of time and money in submitting the necessary documentation and making the necessary changes to their infrastructure. Many institutions are not willing to make such substantive changes when they don’t know if they will receive a return on their investment and thus are more comfortable sticking with their known product.

Diversity of Student Wants and Needs

It’s often easy to forget that a variety of student populations are consuming higher education and that they all have different needs in terms of learning modality, structure, and what they want from their education. Institutions must take that diversity into account when implementing innovation in their curriculum. Is the change going to align the school’s academic experience better to the needs of current populations, or is it an attempt to expand the enrollment base by varying the product? Institutions that can’t answer that question may struggle to implement their vision over the long term.

The Culture of Higher Education

Most organizations work hard to insulate themselves from change. Some even actively fight it. Colleges and universities are no different, and building a workable consensus with internal stakeholders can be a long, protracted process. Without effective leadership and the support of faculty members, the vast majority of curriculum innovation will likely meet with failure.


For these reasons and others, institutions seeking to implement curriculum change and differentiate themselves will have to make sure they’re capable of defining their vision clearly in terms of their regional market, the values and culture of their institution, and the ROI in terms of navigating successful implementation. Institutions should examine the market for opportunities and leverage both their own resources and vendor assistance to take advantage of those opportunities. Ideally, this process of change will inspire faculty members and administrators and empower them to bring the changes to their constituents within the institution.


Zalaznick, M. (2014, April 2). All-you-can-learn tuition takes off. University Business. Retrieved from