3 Big Ideas from the Aspen Ideas Festival

More than 100 leaders in the field of higher education attended the Aspen Ideas Festival this past week, where they helped brainstorm innovative ways to  connect learning and earning in the future.

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Here are 3 of the ideas that generated the most discussion among the university presidents, policy-makers and startup founders present — all of which underscore the need for technologies like the Ledger.

1. “The typical college student is not who you think it is” – and new learning platforms and should be designed for the 95%, not the 5%

Who are today’s college students? The answer surprises most people who attended four year universities, according to Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina Foundation. Addressing audiences, like the one he spoke to Friday at The Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, he frequently poses this question: “What percentage of students in American higher education today graduated from high school and enrolled in college within a year to attend a four year institution and live on campus?”

Most people guess “between forty and sixty percent,” he said, whereas “the correct answer is five percent.” There is, he argued, “a real disconnect in our understanding of who today’s students are. The influencers––the policy makers, the business leaders, the media––have a very skewed view of who today’s students are.”

The conversations we’ve been having at LearningisEarning2026.org represent new possibilities for all, but especially for this under-acknowledged and under-innovated-for 95%.

And the numbers will only get bigger: Another 50 million college students are expected to seek out higher education by the year 2025 who will fall into this category of working learners.

According to the research, this group’s primary goal in seeking out higher education is “as a way to acquire training and a certificate of hireability.” In other words, this groups wants clear pathways to employment, and more engagement with future employers throughout their college coursework.

Which leads us to…

2. “Work colleges” reduce student debt and leads to higher employment – Can new online learning platforms borrow their best practices?

Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College, which aims to be the 8th federally recognized “work college” in the U.S., participated in our July 1 afternoon Learning is Earning brainstorm. He shared an institutional vision that colleges should be helping students become better workers, not just better learners. “Many first-generation college students aren’t just under-prepared for college coursework, they’re under-prepared for work. They may come from backgrounds where employment in their community is a constant struggle, where there are not good models for stable full-time work.” At Paul Quinn, all students are required to work 120 hours a semester, in jobs provided by the university and chosen to instill a range of professional and collaborative work skills; the students receive a tuition rebate of $1200 a semester in return.

Teaching students how to work in professional environments, and shifting them away from the entry-level service jobs that most would otherwise pursue as part-time work, can help the students get double the growth during their college time. They’re not just earning a college degree, they’re also learning how to earn. (They also graduate with far less debt.)

One creative thought emerged: Should all colleges grant work transcripts in addition to coursework transcripts? If more than 70% of learners have jobs, can colleges actively seek to represent the skills and knowledge acquired in that context alongside their classwork?

Some additional background on the work college model:

Work Colleges share two fundamental beliefs. First, that a college experience should educate the whole person. Second, earning a college degree shouldn’t require a lifetime of debt. Through an innovative approach of Work-Learning-Service, all Work College students offset college costs by participating in a mandatory work program and performing service in their communities. Most work positions are limited to 8 -15 hours per week and designed to enhance a student’s academic studies. The Work-Learning-Service approach teaches students the critical balance of study, service to others and managed work expectations.

According to alumni, four years of purposeful work has a lifetime payoff. Graduates of Work Colleges enter their careers prepared with real world skills, and owing reduced or no debt. Research confirms that a Work–Learning–Service approach to higher education builds character, work ethic, leadership and competence in critical thinking and time management skills. These attributes are directly transferrable to the workplace and among the characteristics employers say they seek the most. More supporting info from the National Association of Colleges and Employers here.

A Work College experience is very different from just ‘working while in college’. Enhanced work and service at Member Colleges deliberately exposes students to people, places and practices that are new and different. All Work Colleges emphasize the value of community, social equity and teamwork. – Work Colleges Consortium

Work colleges are a model which has been around for 100 years but is only now starting to get attention from the start-up world. Could new platforms like the Learning Ledger help scale up this model of work colleges, to reach the next 50 million college students? Noted investor Mark Cuban, for example, has been advising President Sorrell on technology strategy for Paul Quinn College — leading them to move to using exclusively open-source textbooks, to virtually eliminate the cost of textbooks entirely for their students.

Could a technology platform like the Learning Ledger arise from the intersection of the start-up world with the innovation happening at traditional work colleges? This is an under-the-radar and important place to watch for signals of the future.

3. “Taking more courses, faster, may help solve the college debt crisis” – and Blockchain learning credits could fill this learning gap

New research suggests that students are more likely to complete their degree and finish with less debt if they take a more ambitious courseload in their first semester – despite the conventional wisdom and common advice to working learners to take a limited first semester courseload as the new students adjust to the demands of college learning.

A report produced by Clive Belfield, Davis Jenkins, and Hana Lahr and published by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University finds that students in Tennessee who took on 15 course credits rather than the traditional 12 in their first semester of college pay roughly 10 to 20 percent less per degree in tuition and fees. The researchers’ economic model shows community-college students save $1,560 per degree and four-year students save $12,800.

The heavier workload does not appear to weigh students down academically, either: Students kicking off their college careers with 15 credits had the same pass and fail rates in their courses as students with 12 credits in a term, suggesting the additional three credits didn’t overwhelm them.

Many students choose to take 12 credits because that’s the minimum level needed to receive the maximum dollar award through their Pell grants—government aid largely dedicated to lower-income students. But too few courses may persuade students to quit on higher ed. “If you take 12 and 12 (credits) in your first year, you probably end up with 20 credits,” Belfield said of a community-college student. “You might think to yourself, this is going to take me three solid years to get through this, and I can’t do that, so I’m just going to drop out.” – Read more in the Atlantic

What if college students could supplement their college credits each semester with a blockchain-powered credit from other learning sources? During our Learning is Earning replay at the festival, we imagined how existing colleges could take advantage of a decentralized learning platform like the Ledger.

Could students, for example, take 12 credits of formal coursework and receive 3 additional credits for “learning that happens anywhere”, including their workplaces and hobbies? The future of accelerated higher education may depend on colleges not only reporting their credits on the blockchain, but also allowing other learning sources to report via the blockchain to them.