The Future of Higher Ed- Modular Degree Programs

What does the University need to do to stay relevant in its mission: produce, disseminate knowledge and educate the future workforce? Universities and academics will never stop conducting research as it is their primary role and a major source of income. At the same time researchers will continue publishing papers and books as it is the currency for advancement, recruitment, and continuation of research programs. But what about the last part of the mission, to educate the future workforce?

The current structure of bachelor’s level training in the U.S. is to require a certain number of fixed credits/classes to complete the degree. Students have limited ability to individualize their plan of study and the more programs students interact with the less ability students have to pick and choose what they will take. In addition, universities often have required general education requirements in social sciences and humanities that are taught to large groups of students and not targeted to individual programs, this is along with the general math, science and writing requirements. The purpose of these general education courses is to provide all graduates training in the core disciplines; but is there an alternate way universities could accomplish this? Consider also that students entering the university with AP credits can waive these general education courses, how does that fit the goal of general education courses when succeeding on a test in high school can substitute?

The other issue with current bachelor’s degree coursework in the U.S. is the structure of the courses. The major format of instruction is still lecture and the major assessment format is examinations; these are not inherently bad, but how often do individuals in the workforce have to demonstrate their route memorization and recall ability without the aid of technology or notes? Additionally, few courses challenge students to apply their knowledge problem solving or to create something useful. The combination of required general education courses and lack of knowledge application results in graduates not prepared to be productive in today’s workforce or in students dropping out of universities.

To address these challenges, I feel that university’s need to adopt “modular” degree programs that include exploratory introductory level courses, skills or competencies requirements, experiential learning, opportunities for certificates, and most importantly are flexible to fit with the interests of individual students. I believe that introductory courses should be re-conceptualized as exploratory courses where students are exposed to the major opportunities and sub-disciplines within each field. There would be a greater emphasis on the experience gathering rather than memorizing facts, it would be a cross between introductory courses with labs and first year experience programs within the major. Students would leave the course with an are within the major of interest and would have a better idea of how to set up the remainder of their degree program. Required skills and competencies can replace current general educations requirements by having a core set of higher-level learning objectives that are incorporated into major specific courses that students choose to take. This is somewhat like what VT does with its Pathways programs currently. Degree programs should offer certificate programs that are meeting industry accreditation standards or display specific technology or skill competencies. Having these be independent of earning a degree and being stackable (allowing students to earn multiple) would further enhance their usefulness since students could leave the degree program with certificates and still be employable. Degree programs should include mandatory experiential learning programs such as internships, undergraduate research, or service-learning projects to help students translate their course knowledge into real world application. Much of the changes to create modular degree programs could be accomplished by strengthening industry and community college partnerships to lessen the costs of student recruitment and to make their program more attractive. A degree program such as the one I outlined has been piloted by the University System of Georgia in recent years, called the nexus degree but its too early to tell if it has been successful.

Selingo, J.J. (2016). Rebuilding the Bachelor’s Degree. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Taylor, M.C. (2009). End of the University as We Know It. New York Times. Retrieved from

Kafka, A.C. (2019). New 2-Year Degree Promises Gen-Ed Basics and Fast-Track Career Skills. Retrieved from

Blumenstyk, G. (2019). Why isn’t It a No-Brainer to Embed ‘Certifications’ Intro Bachelor’s Degrees. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved From

Should Academics have Continuing Education Requirements?

Continuing education is required for maintaining certification status in medical, engineering, and teaching fields. However, academics view the PhD as a terminal degree and an end point for formal learning. This contrast is quite interesting when we consider the role of the academy in producing and disseminating knowledge.

Continuing education is used as a tool for requiring professionals to stay abreast of current developments in their field and also for professional societies to administer standardized content such as ethics and information dissemination around a new idea. One outcome of requiring continuing education credits among the professionals in a field is the creation of a field of “life-long learners.” It amuses me to think that academics are not cultivating a culture of life-long learning.

I understand that academics especially research faculty will constantly be reading literature and publishing their own studies, resulting in moving the discipline forward. One could call this continuing education, but I disagree. Academics are not (typically there are always expectations) pursuing training in cultural competency, teaching and learning philosophies, ethics, or data management. I think that one major reason why faculty are not pursuing formal education is that they are not supported by their peers and mentors. Faculty that decide to get further training need to take the initiative alone and seek out ways to get the formal training.

Since there are already numerous frameworks for continuing education with many different disciplines why haven’t universities adopted a requirement for some kind of formal training of their faculty? I think this is due to the assumption that faculty members are experts in their field and that as experts they don’t need to learn anything outside their field. To me this seems to be a belief that is contrary to the way universities embrace interdisciplinary collaborations. If more faculty had frequent exposure to ideas outside their field maybe there would be less resistance to creating interdisciplinary research programs.

I think it would be beneficial for universities to require that all faculty with teaching appointments obtain a teaching certificate through their university faculty development or teaching centers that would need to be renewed with every contract renewal or every 3 years. This would allow the university to explain their own specific curricula objectives and their learning management system. Additionally, this initiative could serve as a place to present teaching scholarship conducted by faculty at the university and encourage faculty to conduct teaching scholarship or research.

Residential College Spotlight

What is it?

                A collegiate residential environment in which live in faculty play an integral role in the programming and leadership of the community – Residential College Society


The mission for residential colleges at VT is to give students a place to belong, learn and give. This is embodied in the philosophy of VT residential colleges “know and be known.” While VT has 3 active residential programs and one more in development, they aren’t well advertised especially for students that enter the community in a non-traditional manner (transfer undergraduate students, non-traditional undergraduate students, or graduate students). I only recently discovered this on campus from an article in the Fall 2019 Virginia Tech Magazine which highlighted the Honors Residential College.

Residential colleges are an old model for university educations, where students live with or near their professors in order to learn from them and to aid professors. Residential colleges provide places for students to live and learn together but are different from “living learning programs” because in residential programs faculty leaders live with students and are responsible for cultivating the community through programs and or scholarly activities.

At VT residential colleges serve multigenerational communities, students at different years in their enrollment at VT. Incoming members of a residential college will sign a 2-year housing contract to give students a sense of roots in the university and helps to develop community. Oftentimes students that have stayed in the community longer serve as mentors to the new students. In addition to older students and the faculty principal, a student life coordinator is attached to the community to help with the community development and management as the university student affairs liaison. In residential colleges with strong scholarly components other faculty at the university can join the community as associated faculty members. These members can deliver guest lectures or host special activities for the community. Other residential programs offer certificates or minors for students to pursue to give students something tangible to show on their resumes or transcripts from their membership in the community.

VT has 3 established residential colleges:

  1. Honors Residential Commons – East Ambler Johnston Hall: serves students in the honors college
  2. The Residential College at West Ambler Johnston Hall: invites students of all academic programs to be together, not the same.
  3. Leadership and Social Change Residential College – O’Shaughnessy Hall: a 2-year academic program leadership studies and development program with 2 required courses; collaborating with the CALS department of agricultural, leadership, and community education

& 1 in development:

  1. The Creativity and Innovation district to be built on the Eastern edge of campus to be affiliated the Studio 72 and Innovate programs on VT’s campus.

What does it mean to be a faculty principal?

Faculty principals are responsible for coordinating educational and social programs to facilitate the development of the individual community. This role requires a principal to have a vision for the community, to build relationships with the members of the community as individuals and as part of the group. Furthermore, faculty principals will have a unique role in students lives as a mentor and advisor. So, what does this entail exactly? Since VT is developing a 4th residential college, they have a job posting for a new faculty principal that consolidates the information for prospective faculty.

  • Responsibilities: Live in the apartment with your family (pets allowed) for 12 months, encourage create of community, stimulate other faculty involvement, lead and work with the community leadership team, Host regular activities, lectures, informal gatherings with residents, participate in recruitment and admissions of new students
  • Benefits: 9 month appointment for 3 years (renewable once), $9,000 administrative stipend ($3,000 with negotiated 3 months of summer work), furnished apartment and partial meal allowance- expectation that meals allowance with be used to facilitate responsibilities, Ability to negotiate a one-course reduction in teaching load, annual programming budget provided
  • Qualifications: Tenured or Tenure-Track faculty member at VT

This still leaves me with the question of how would involvement as a faculty principal impact research productivity? I hate to say this, but it doesn’t seem very feasible for a STEM experimental scientist (mentoring graduate students) to serve as a faculty principal as they would be tied up significantly with community activities.  I also wonder if the faculty principal role could be expanded to include academic tract faculty. I don’t see why an academic faculty member should be excluded from this potential role.

My experiences

During my undergraduate program I was involved with residence education by working as a residential assistant at Michigan State University and during my freshman year I lived in a living learning community. Being a part of a living learning community was a wonderful experience for me I was able to live with people who had common interests, we also registered for most of the same sections in general education classes so we were able to spend a lot of time with each other. The program also had a seminar course every week that all participants were in and the RAs and professors created weekly events to further foster a sense of community. For me this program was essential for my success at college and while ultimately my interests diverged with the program causing me to leave the community but I am forever grateful for the program and am looking for a way to give back to such a program in the future.

My experience with residential life changed once I became a RA because I was involved in the not so fun part. For me I excelled at maintaining security and structure in the building, I struggled with the planning events and activities. I realized that the reason I flourished in the living learning community was because of the common interest or the learning component of the program. I wasn’t able to replicate that in my own RA experience because I couldn’t find a way to connect all my residents. Considering my past interest and understanding my personal life currently, I wouldn’t feel comfortable serving as a Faculty principal in a residential college. I would love to be involved in a residential program or living learning community as an associate faculty (as its known at VT) because I am so grateful for my own experience.


Residential College Society. (n.d.). Definition. Retrieved from

Residential Colleges at Virginia Tech. Retrieved from

Barlow, M. (2019). Living, Learning, and Loving It. Virginia Tech Magazine Fall 2019. Vol 42, No 1. p:42-46