Sunday, July 21, 2013

Learning at Westminster comes to a close

After seven years, five different jobs, and nearly 300 blog posts, I am ending Learning at Westminster.  Tomorrow I start work as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Barton College in Wilson, NC.

My thanks to my friends and colleagues who have read and commented on the posts that preceded this one.  And even more, my thanks to those people at Westminster and beyond, who have made my life, the lives of my family members, and Westminster College better.  My love and gratitude to all of you.

I will take up blogging again at, with posts focused primarily on helping to build a case for small colleges that extends beyond the "small class size" and "personalized attention" arguments that are at the heart of most defenses of the small college.

Best wishes to all of you,
Gary Daynes

Friday, July 5, 2013

Does nostalgia for the 1960s drive MOOCs?

I am not, in this post, primarily concerned with whether MOOCs are good things.  Rather, I am interested in an assumption shared by both fans and foes of MOOCs--that they are innovative.  If innovation is understood to mean using the internet to do something that in the past was done without the internet, then MOOCs are innovative.  But in three essential ways MOOCs are nostalgic, not innovative.  They embrace major assumptions about learning and about institutional quality that were held true in the 1960s, but are no longer assumed today.

  1. MOOCs recall the dream that huge numbers of students can learn from a single professor. This idea has been part of American higher education since the explosion of college enrollment after World War II.  It gained strength in the 1960s with the creation of public television, and again in the 1980s with the expansion of the television spectrum that allowed the creation of public-access television.  Today thousands of people earn college credit by watching televised lectures in Utah and then taking exams at remote locations.  The same surely happens in other states. (It happens in traditional classrooms as well. My own first opportunity as a college professor--a one-year contract at BYU--was to teach a class with an enrollment of 2700 students, who attended lectures in groups of 900 twice as week and then a discussion section of 30 once a week, led by a TA.  Students took exams in a massive testing center.)   These courses are not educational disasters for every student.  But any student who learns deeply in such a class must be highly motivated, since it is almost impossible to include any of the "high-impact practices" that deepen student understanding and help them connect the classroom to the real world. High-impact practices do not demand tiny classes.  But they do require regular, consistent interaction between faculty and students. And the require the recognition that students are human beings, whose approaches to learning, backgrounds, skills, and character vary widely. Enormous classes of all sorts are nostalgic for an approach to education that could ignore these facts, and instead treat students as an undifferentiated mass. 
  2. MOOCs imagine that the "best" professors are those employed by research institutions. Advocates of MOOCs argue that they are merely providing the "best professors" teaching the "best content" in the world. Those professors are uniformly found at research universities, since the major MOOC providers are contracting almost exclusively with Research I institutions.  In so doing, they look back to a time before faculty at Research I institutions lifted research excellence over teaching excellence as the basis of tenure.  It may have been in the 1960s that one could reasonably assume that faculty at  research universities were outstanding teachers.  But that is no longer the case.  Nor is it the case that research excellence guarantees teaching effectiveness. 
  3. MOOCs look back to a time when top-tier American research universities set the higher education agenda for the world.  In the 1960s, with a few European exceptions, the best universities in the world were in the United States.  While it is still the case that American universities are at the very top of major global rankings, more and more top universities from outside the US are rising in the rankings. What is more, a series of studies suggest that students who graduate from top-tier universities have not learned more and are not more likely to succeed after graduation than their peers at less prestigious institutions.
MOOCs might be an important part of the future of education.  But if that is to be the case, their advocates and designers need to ensure that their approach to learning becomes as current as their approach to the internet.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Do colleges take from the poor and give to the rich?

Celia Baker's article, "How colleges take from the poor, give to the rich," in the 24 May 13 issue of the Deseret News is a perfect example of what can happen when a journalist meets a think tank report.  The report's assumptions go unexamined, its examples become universals, and its conclusions become truth.

The report in question is the New America Foundation's Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind, which makes the unexceptional observation that the purchasing power of a Pell Grant has been in long decline because its value has become stagnant, state aid for higher ed has shrunken, and tuition at all sorts of colleges has been on the rise. The report's goal is to propose policies that will make it possible for more low-income students to go to college. Again, unexceptional, and, with changes in the demographics of college-going, necessary. But Undermining Pell makes additional arguments that require more scrutiny. Baker does not provide that scrutiny.

Take, for example, the article's title, which mimics the subtitle of NAF's report.  Do colleges take from the poor and give to the rich by means of what the NAF calls a "an elaborate shell game" wherein an institution reduces aid available to poor students because of their Pell grants, and re-directs that aid to "wealthy" students?  No.  Instead, institutions offer need-based aid and merit-based aid (academic scholarships) that stack on top of other aid (federal, state, outside scholarships, savings) to reduce the amount of money a student pays out of pocket.

Take this example.  Two students with the same academic background are accepted to the same college.  One qualifies for a full Pell Grant, the other does not qualify for any Pell aid.  How do their financial aid packages compare?

Student one gets $5500 in Pell aid, $3000 (for example, institutions set their own need-based aid policies) in need-based aid, and $15000 in merit aid, for a total scholarship package of $23,500.  Student two gets $15000 in merit aid  and $2000 (for instance) in need-based aid.  For which student does college cost less? Student one.

But Baker and NAF would argue that the situation described above is a perfect example of the problem, in that the amount of merit aid dwarfs the amount of need-based aid.  They would argue further that poor students should get more aid than "wealthy" students, because those "wealthy" students have greater means to pay for college.  But is student 2 "wealthy"?  Almost certainly not.  As the report notes, Pell funds are not available to students whose family income tops $50,000 a year.  The determination is made by means of the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) component of the FAFSA.  EFC is a notoriously complex estimate of how much a family can contribute annually to a student's college costs.  Suffice it to say that very few families are actually able to pay as much out of pocket as the government suggests they can.

So is there a shell game going on, where Pell funds are taken from the poor and given to the rich? Or, as Baker puts it: "Like a carnival conman duping an earnest mark, colleges are using Pell grants to take the place of institutional aid they would have given to needy students, then shifting those funds toward recruiting wealthy ones through "merit aid"?

 Only if by "take from the poor and give to the rich" you mean "using Pell funds and other income to pay for educating students."  Otherwise, no.  In fact, as I have argued before, if there is a subsidy it flows from students with weaker academic backgrounds (who thus receive less or no merit aid and must pay more out of pocket) to students with stronger academic backgrounds.  At my institution, the proportion of students with need has increased, not declined over the past several years.  This is due to families being willing to borrow a bit more for the indisputable benefit of a college degree, to subsidies that flow to all undergraduate students from donors, graduate student tuition, etc., and  to my institution's willingness to increase the amount of aid available to students.

 It is simply wrong to suggest that merit aid reduces aid to low-income students, unless those students are so academically weak that they do not qualify for any merit aid.  Otherwise, merit aid serves them well, and coupled with need-based and federal aid, reduces their cost of going to college. Further, merit aid provides a baseline predictability to a student.  If a family's financial situation improves, the amount of need-based aid might decline.  But merit aid stays steady.  So for a family budgeting for four years of college, merit aid is a key component of their financial aid approach.

I could go on at length about other assumptions and assertions in the article and report.  But let me address one more directly.  After complaining that colleges unfairly treat low income students be means of their institutional aid policies (preferring merit aid over need aid) Baker reports a contradictory assertion from the NAF report.  They suggest that institutions actually try not to enroll low-income students, taking a "passive-aggressive approach" to low-income students called "gapping" wherein they "offer needy students aid packages much too small to meet their needs, deliberately underfunding them to discourage enrollment." (The quotes are Baker's.)

Two responses.  One, yes, colleges charge more for tuition than they give back in aid.  No institution, even the wealthiest ones with massive endowments or those in states that still provide strong subsidies, can stay open if students do not pay tuition.  Eliminating "gapping" is the same as not bringing in revenue.  And as I have shown above, the wealthier the student, and the weaker (academically) the student, the bigger the "gap" between institutional aid and total cost of attendance.

Two, no enrollment professional I know of would go to all of the work and cost of recruiting a student, evaluating that student's application, and creating a financial aid package in order todeliberately not enroll a student.  We don't have the time, or the resources.  But more importantly and contrary to the article's assertion, we want low-income students to go to college.  And we believe that they will flourish at our institutions.

Baker and NAF have the luxury of calling for a world where low-income students can go to any college they want for free due to the largesse of the federal and state governments and the generosity of the institution.  We do not live in that world.  So my job, and the jobs of my staff, is to do something much more difficult: enroll a diverse class of students who will learn, flourish, grow, graduate, and succeed after graduation, while at the same time bringing in enough tuition dollars to ensure that the education those students need is, in fact, available to them.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Seven ways service can make communities smarter

(The following post is a distillation of my opening remarks at the 2013 Central Region Conference on Service, held on 9 May 2013 in West Valley City.  Thanks to the organizers for the opportunity to participate in the conference.)

Ten years ago I would have been speaking about the need for more service in our communities, particularly from young people.  But it is no longer the case that young people are lagging in service or lacking in a commitment to the common good. Schools have a more intense focus on service, young people serve more, and the expectation to be involved in the community is more broadly felt now than at any time during my lifetime.

But while service happens more, and is more central to our culture, it is not clear to which ends we hope service takes us as communities. In many ways, our problems seem larger than ever. Income inequality is greater, poverty is rising, educational attainment at the national level has hardly budged in years, trust is in decline. 

So how can we make sense of the contrast between the blossoming of volunteerism and the coarsening of public life?  There are of course many potential explanations--that service has actually slowed the decline in public life, or that our problems require more money and power than service can provide, for example.

I would like to propose an additional explanation, one that doesn’t get talked much about, but which I think is essential to the well-being of our communities. it is that the volunteer sector has failed to focus on one thing that makes community life better--getting smarter.  By "getting smarter" I do not mean raising student test scores or adopting fancier software or better planning metrics.  I mean instead that service organizations, volunteers, public officials, and philanthropists should help communities learn together, be more reflective,  respond to problems more wisely, be more democratic, and have a better politics.

So let me offer seven ways of thinking about the components of service and civic life that are likely to make communities smarter in the ways I have described above. 

My thinking on these topics has been influenced by several books on community and civic life, all of which share a focus on local, self-organizing communities over big, centralized communities.  Those books are Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell: The Remarkable Communities that Arise in Disaster,  Jean Bethke Elshtain's Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy , Mary Parker Follet's The New State: Group Organization the Solution of Popular Government , Milton Kotler's Neighborhood Government: The Local Foundations of Political Life, and Roger Scruton's How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism.  

Taken together these works, and my own experience with volunteerism as a source of community change, suggest adopting the following ways of thinking if the goal is a smarter community:

  1. Broaden the definition of service--too much service or volunteerism (including service-learning) begins with a tightly defined role for volunteers (tutor this child, for example) and a pre-determined outcome for that service.  But the stories of communities that get smarter suggest that service needs to be more broadly defined, with roles improvised in response to particular issues.  Improvised roles both ensure that old responses don't get blindly applied to new settings, and that volunteers must stretch intellectually and politically in response to new challenges.
  2. Tighten the definition of community--for a sector that is devoted to community service, we do very little to think about what a community is, or what sort of community is best situated to respond to a problem. Instead, we talk about "serving the community" or we really mean service to individuals rather than a community.  But an effort that makes a community smarter must constantly return to the question, "who is our community."  Generally, the most successful learning communities are defined either by narrow geography (a neighborhood) or by community of interest (a church).
  3. Narrow the scope of the problem--too often the rhetoric of problem-solving gets ahead of reality, and so we talk about eradicating poverty, or raising the global competitiveness of the nation. But service can not erase poverty or fix America's schools.  Poverty and education have too many local components. But while service cannot fix them, but it can can respond to poverty in a particular neighborhood or a particular church.  It cannot "raise test scores" but it can help a particular school.
  4. Make mutual aid the way of working--service-learning programs often talk about "reciprocal relationships" where both parties in service receive benefits from the act of service.  But in the stories of communities that get smarter, people don't serve each other directly.  Instead, they serve a cause--responding to a disaster, fixing a city's sanitation system, etc.--and by so doing people's lives improve in indirect and deeper ways.
  5. Rethink the role of politics-- Volunteerism either eschews politics or calls for political solutions to a problem. But in instances where communities get smarter through service, politics plays a different role.  It verifies and enshrines the learning of a community by making policies that sustain the headway that service has made.  In this sense, politics is a learning outcome, or to borrow historian Christopher Lasch's formulation in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, “ democracy[is] not as the most efficient but...the most educational form of government."
  6. Consider service itself primarily as a way of learning--If you talk with people involved in building smarter communities through volunteerism, they will describe service as the activity that teaches them about the community, about others, and about themselves.  This formulation flies in the face of service-learning and other formal approaches to service which tend to think about service as a way of doing good that takes on meaning only  through reflection.
  7. Ensure that love is the most important outcome--in almost every story of communities learning through service, love emerges as the most important outcome for the participants. But the formal volunteer sector almost never talks about love, as a motivation or an outcome. We ought to attend to at least three types of love as the outcomes of learning through service. For some people, it is the love of place that deepens (Scruton is especially good on this point), for others, the love of the issue, and for still others, the love for other people.  But whatever form it takes, the language of love and the evidence of love are the things that endure once the initiative is done. And it is love that gives participants strength to continue to learn and serve.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The college president as enrollment leader

The following things are true:
  • college presidents are, above all else, responsible to ensure that their institutions earn enough revenue,
  •  more revenue comes to nearly every college from enrollment than from fundraising,
  • college presidents spend more time raising funds than enrolling students.
This last fact is both understandable and confusing.  Understandable because donors expect to be courted by the college's leadership, and because the model for many presidencies are the actions of presidents at well-endowed institutions, and because the possibility of an enormous gift keeps presidents pursuing single donors over long periods of time.  Confusing because over their four years at an institution students pay far more in tuition than most donors ever give, and because nearly all institutions realize more revenue from tuition than from gifts, and because students and their parents also value interaction with college leaders, and because personal interactions are more likely to result in enrollment and revenue.

So, if college presidents were to re-balance their time between enrollment and fundraising, where would that time go?
  1. Establishing a campus enrollment philosophy--During the salad days of the 1990s and 2000s enrollment was philosophically simple: raise tuition annually, and increase financial aid at a rate slightly slower than the rate of tuition increase, and your institution would enroll slightly more students and realize meaningful increases in revenue every year. The size of the increases would be driven largely by expected growth in expenditures.  That philosophy, though still dominant, is under question.  Today, institutions must set tuition and financial aid in a much more challenging context, one where old models may not succeed and new ones have yet to be fully tested.  In this context, a president needs to engage deeply and regularly in setting the enrollment philosophy of an institution.
  2. Lobbying for favorable financial aid policies--With a larger proportion of students relying on federal aid, presidential lobbying needs to focus on ensuring that students can access all sorts of aid, and that regulation of that aid be both rigorous and fair.
  3. Building partnerships--In a future where attracting individual students will be harder and more costly, partnerships with high schools, school districts, religious organizations, civic organizations, employers, foreign governments, and community colleges are ever more important for ensuring enrollment success.  The president, due to her visibility and rank, is the key person to open doors and to seal agreements with these partners.
  4. Hosting prospective students--Most presidents would relish the opportunity to have their dining rooms full of potential donors who were prepared to give over $50,000.  Those people are the parents of prospective freshmen and prospective graduate students.  There are hundreds of them who come to campus every year; a few minutes with the president may be just the thing to seal the deal.
  5. Focusing on retention and graduation rates--Just as presidents are ultimately accountable to donors to ensure that gift agreements are fulfilled, so they are ultimately responsible to students and parents for delivering on the promises made during recruiting--that faculty are available, that courses focus on learning, that students are retained and that they graduate in a timely fashion.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why high schools will be the next major innovators in higher education

Nearly all of the press about innovation in higher ed is focused on technology firms--Coursera, or any of the many other MOOC providers, for example, or new low-cost online institutions like the University of the People.  But if I was looking for the business sector best situated to innovate on cost and quality in higher education, I would look to high schools, not high tech.

Three reasons why:

  1. High schools already have means to get their students college credit. Whether it be via AP, IB, Cambridge exams, CLEP, or concurrent enrollment, a large proportion of high schools in the US make it possible for their students to earn low-cost, transferable college credit.  And as those programs expand, the cadre of high school teachers prepared to support college-level learning grows as well.
  2. High school teachers, on the whole, have more training and experience in supporting student learning than do college faculty. (This is in fact one of the major lessons of MOOCs--that in very large, impersonal, online college courses, most students fail to complete.)  As the demographics of college-goers change, it will be high schools and their teachers more than universities and their faculties,who  are prepared to ensure their success.
  3. High schools, particularly independent high schools, have both market opportunity and the need to innovate here.  Independent, private, and parochial high schools charge tuition to their students. They are also widely perceived to be better schools than public high schools. But while their tuitions are generally lower than college tuition, and their value propositions stronger than public high schools,  they struggle to enroll and retain students.  If independent high schools built out their college-credit opportunities, though, they would both strengthen their value propositions and  reduce the overall cost of education to their students.
All of these points suggest that high schools should expand access to college credit with an eye towards offering their students a complete general education before moving on to college.  Doing so, most reasonably through the creation of a 13th year of pre-college coursework, would strengthen their market position, take advantage of their strengths, and make it possible for their graduates to move more directly to graduation from college. In turn, students would have greater access to less-expensive, rigorous, and well-supported college-level courses, and the credits that go along with them.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Learning from low-cost private universities

Most people believe that private higher education is too expensive.  Their suggestions for reducing costs fall into two categories:

These answers, though,are speculative.  No private institution has significantly reduced the cost to students through these methods.  In fact, it is from the most expensive and prestigious institutions that low-cost online courses are flowing.  Those schools seem unlikely to reduce tuition in the near future.

These speculative recommendations ignore the fact that there are many low-cost private non-profit institutions of higher education in the United States. The Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center generates lists of the private institutions with the lowest tuition and the lowest net costs.  What do these schools share?
  1.  Most have never had expensive administrators or luxurious campuses. 
  2.  Few offer online courses.
  3.  They have a clear curricular focus--usually religious--and generally offer a limited set of degrees.
  4. They often are subsidized by religious bodies or in the case of Berea College, a massive endowment.
  5. They are resolutely local (note, for example, the large number of low-cost private institutions in Puerto Rico).  Or put another way, few have national or global aspirations.
  6. Instead, their aspirations are to serve a single population, or a particular sponsoring body.
  7. Many are very small.
  8. They tend to have very low retention and graduation rates.
  9. Many are newly created.
A healthy discussion about the cost of private higher education would take these schools into consideration.  Their track records are not spotless--many teeter on the brink of collapse, others serve their students poorly by charging them so little.  

But four characteristics of theses schools are intriguing--curricular focus, local commitments, and recent origins.  All four flow against the trend towards offering more degrees, seeking global opportunities, and banking on the prestige that flows from venerability.  But education reformers who value private, non-profit higher education might bear these characteristics of real schools in mind as they try to craft the successful institutions of the future.