5 Areas to Reform and Improve in the US Higher Education System

​​October 21, 2022

This interview was originally published by Authority Magazine on Medium.

Joshua is the founder and CEO of Woolf, the first global collegiate university that lets qualified organizations join as new member colleges and offer accredited degrees. He was previously a member of the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford and a member of the governing Congregation of the University. He also held a Humboldt Fellowship, during which he worked on the role of modern universities in support of human progress.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I’m from the US originally and spent more than a decade in the UK (where I was on faculty at Oxford) and Germany (where I was a Humboldt Fellow). I worked on the philosophy of human progress. I was especially interested in how modern universities were created to support progress. While I was writing about the creation of the University of Berlin, which was the first modern research university, I began to think about what would be required to create the university of the future.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There are so many interesting stories, but I can say that one of the most fun elements of starting Woolf has been the discovery of so many wonderful people around the world. We have colleges in seven countries and employees distributed across Europe and North and South America. Our work surfaces many wonderful and high-quality education organizations—it has expanded the horizons of what I knew to be going on in the world.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Naturally, I’m most passionate about working on Woolf—the mission is so impactful, and the team is so impressive, it is just wonderful to work with them. We’ve been focused on one hard problem: software for academic accreditation. We built the only software platform that helps colleges meet and maintain regulatory and university standards so that they can launch accredited degrees. This allows Woolf’s colleges to launch globally recognized degrees without asking students to pay for a large bureaucracy because our software automates so much of the process.

One exciting new initiative is our effort to begin introducing tools to help our colleges grow and improve. Whether it is student recruitment, financing, or course content, we see a big opportunity to help colleges that join Woolf to grow and strengthen their programs.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

I’ve been lucky to be affiliated with some wonderful US universities (particularly Yale, but also some research at Dartmouth and Duke), and most of my academic career was at Oxford, where I was on the Philosophy Faculty and the governing Congregation. I also enjoyed lecturing at many universities in the UK, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, and Poland.

At Woolf we’ve had to capture in software all of the regulatory rules required for an institution to be accredited, handling everything from course creation to degree issuance. We’ve codified regulations in our software in order to support real-world problems, so I’ve been forced to understand the details of accreditation. I’ve met with regulators in many countries to ensure that what we’re building is aligned with their requirements and standards. In the end, the whole team at Woolf not just our accreditation and compliance specialists, but also engineers, designers, and support staff—have learned why accreditation exists, how it works, and why it matters.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

The US university system continues to perform well—largely producing well-trained, thoughtful graduates who are prepared for a lifetime of learning; the top quartile of US universities act as an elevator for students from around the world, lifting them to middle-class opportunities; and the top percentile of the US university system (about 50 universities) ranks in the top 200 universities in the world, and they rightfully get a lot of attention and produce groundbreaking research.

These results shouldn’t mask the two most deeply concerning trends in US education, which have remained unsolved for decades: student debt and adjunct teaching. Students increasingly go into unmanageable debt in order to fund their education while their teachers increasingly work on part-time contracts at multiple universities, earning low wages. In the US, we have students at one end of the classroom representing tens of thousands of dollars of tuition fees paid with debt, and at the other end of the classroom you have teachers earning a few pennies for every dollar of those fees. It is a lose-lose arrangement.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

  1. Producing groundbreaking research
  2. Producing startups and a culture of entrepreneurship and judicious risk-taking
  3. Welcoming students from around the world
  4. Innovating with forms of online education, such as when Harvard and MIT joined to create EdX
  5. Involving the community of alumni—the US is unique in its culture of involving graduates in the support of their alma mater

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

  1. Administrators outnumber educators. The administrative requirements of institutions have become increasingly complex and professionalized.
  2. Aspiring students face significant debt burdens. The US student loan situation is unprecedented in our history ($1.6 trillion or more in student loan debt). Most of the proposed solutions lack imagination and ambition.
  3. Adjunct faculty are underpaid. Higher education is a double-licensed profession: faculty cannot work outside of a university even after they get a Ph.D.; the university provides the degree-granting license, and so it has a kind of monopoly on the profession.
  4. Accreditation is location-bound. This started to break down with the Covid pandemic, but it is still a byzantine system involving all 50 US states plus regional or national accreditation. The rules were made for a pre-internet world.
  5. Speed of new program approval is glacially slow. This is a consequence of bureaucracy.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

My own focus is on how universities can contribute, and in line with that I’ve long admired the way some universities are able to extend to young people and expose them to knowledge areas that aren’t typically taught in school. MIT is an excellent example here—my own family and Woolf employees have benefitted from MIT’s online courses and programs like MIT’s the Friday After Thanksgiving (F.A.T.) Chain Reaction, which consists of teams of students adding sections to a giant Rube Goldberg machine. It introduces competition, and engineering problem solving—and it is a lot of fun.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

When there are residual biases—whether social or structural—that direct young girls away from exploring STEM subjects, not only is the wider community missing out on their contributions, but we’re also steering them away from exploring what are deeply satisfying careers, limiting the scope of their opportunities.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

At Woolf, we’ve thought a lot about the twin problem of student debt and adjunct teaching. How is it possible for students at one end of the room to be going into large debts to study, while the teachers at the other end of the room earn only pennies on every dollar of that debt? One of the big hidden costs in the room is university bureaucracy. At Woolf, we examined how much bureaucracy was required for an institution to meet and maintain its accreditation requirements, and we set out to use software to reduce the number of human hours involved. This includes both general administrative bureaucracy and accreditation-specific bureaucracy.

Accreditation is meant to protect students, and it is core to the $2 trillion higher education industry. It is embedded in the legal fabric of every country, affecting tax, visas, employability, and the right for institutions to operate at all. But the cost of our accreditation and administration system is ultimately paid for by the students it is meant to protect—many of whom go into debt paying for it.

The internet has opened huge opportunities for study—students no longer depend on physical brochures or proximity to campus to assess what is possible; they can learn directly online and compare opportunities across thousands of physical campuses. The only limitation for a US high school student applying to thousands of colleges is their time—and colleges know that, so they send them advertisements hoping they will apply, and then evaluate whether they should have applied. Some countries (e.g., Japan and the UK) have a centralized application system, and advertisements are comparatively inefficient at matching students to colleges. I would rather there were a centralized US application system to save students time and position colleges to seek out the best students, offering them scholarships and opportunities.

Here is my list of 5 areas to improve and reform our education system:

  1. Digitize the accreditation process (we’ve done this at Woolf)
  2. Lower the bureaucracy burden with software (we’ve done this at Woolf)
  3. Create a centralized application system so that students only have to apply once, and thereafter colleges can make offers to students, who can choose the best opportunity from the widest pool (we’re working on this)
  4. Aggregate financing options for students so that they get the best opportunity (we’re working on this)
  5. Aggregate job placement opportunities (we’re working on this)

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When it comes to fixing hard, complex problems that have persisted for a long time, I’m reminded of the comment “Complaining is not a strategy,” which I first heard Jeff Bezos say. American academics and students have been complaining about student debt and adjunct teaching for decades, but this won’t fix the problem. The problem requires a strategy—it is fixable, and it requires dedicated effort, but it can be solved.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

Eric Schmidt was recently interviewed here, and I admire his mix of philanthropy and venture investing as a way to put capital to work for positive outcomes. We’ve come across both of his endeavors in our network of colleges at Woolf, and we’re looking at creating both pathways to support our colleges and the startup companies their students create.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Our website is woolf.university and I’m occasionally on Twitter @JoshuaBroggi.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!