Friday, October 9, 2009

A pathway to reduced cost and improved learning

This article outlines the ambiguous results of the National Center for Academic Transformation's efforts to redesign courses to improve learning and reduce costs. With an 8.8 million dollar grant they were able to rework many courses to be more cost-effective and provide equal or better learning to students. But even key participants didn't see cost reduction as a key outcome, and while the article isn't clear about it, it seems that students saw few, if any, reductions in cost to them.

Why is this the case? Because the project focused on redesigning courses, which, I will argue, is a late rather than early step in the effort to reduce costs while maintaining quality. Why? Because it does not foreground the cost to students, and so cost reductions do not make it back to them.

Here is a process that, by putting the cost to students first, has as a by-product the improvement of student learning and course redesign:

1. Hold the line on tuition. This is a no-brainer. Tuition is the biggest bill that students pay; this is the place to start. Holding the line might mean several things depending on the campus--no tuition increase, tuition increase at the level of inflation, a guarantee to every student that they will not pay more tuition in any year than they pay in the first year. I've advocated before for greater transparency in tuition as well by cutting tuition by the amount of the discount rate and then not discounting. Holding the line also has the benefit of bringing positive publicity to the college at the beginning of the process--essential if the campus wants to increase its overall budget by increasing enrollment.

2. Push back on other fees, especially the cost of "board"--Even very good students who get essentially a full-tuition scholarship fall into financial hardship because of the other costs of higher ed. The cost of "board" (eating on campus) is especially obvious. Why pay over $1000 a semester to eat on campus when you could grocery shop and spend much less? The cost of food in campus cafeterias is set by the food service (Sodexho here). Visit any cafeteria and try to find any meal for less than restaurant costs. It cannot be done. (There is an opportunity here, btw, for Sodexho and other food service providers. Be on the cutting edge and lower your costs. Or, provide lower-cost options. Or open an on-campus grocery store where students can shop for themselves. Any of these things wins market share in this climate.)

3. Institute a 4-year guarantee--I know that there will always be exceptional programs where it is impossible to get through in four years, or reasons why students choose not to complete in four years. But a four-year guarantee should be the default, not the special case. A by-product of the guarantee is curricular reform--not reworking course content (this comes later) but re-thinking course sequences and other learning experiences affiliated with the major.

4. Innovate in cost/quality by starting with new programs--Any new program ought to be able to deliver an education at a cost below the campus average. And it ought to be able to attract new students to the campus by virtue of its lower cost. Here the guiding rule should be to think big. I proposed the creation of a new, private junior college in a previous post. I've been running the numbers and I think it could be done by a private institution at the same cost as at a state-run community college (and provide a decent salary to faculty and a better education to students) if students could earn an associate's degree or complete their GE requirements in 3-semesters while paying the equivalent of 4 semesters of community college tuition. Westminster's BBA program costs students half of what regular tuition costs here. The power of requiring new programs to cost less than existing ones is that it gives faculty the opportunity to design better, less costly learning with a blank slate rather than refining what already exists (something that has rarely worked.)

5. Work on curriculum reform in the mainstream--Once a 4-year guarantee is in place, and new programs are designing innovative, excellent, and low cost education, then it is time to turn to the campus mainstream. Here, I recommend curriculum redesign, not course redesign first. Why? Because curriculum redesign will already have begun due to the 4-year guarantee and the new programs. And because it is key to passing reduced costs to students. The best way to go at it is to focus on redesigning the general education curriculum, the curricula of big academic programs, or the curricula of programs most similar to the new, low-cost programs. I would also encourage folks to think about the ways that the co-curriculum could fit in here by bringing students powerful learning entirely outside the classroom. This is the place also for technology to be inserted. The question becomes how might technology allow us to reconfigure the entire learning experience of students, not how can technology make a course different.

6. Course redesign--once costs are constrained, new models are flourishing, and the campus community is working on redesigning curricula, then faculty can turn to the work of redesigning particular courses. Why do this here?
  • Because faculty tend to be late adopters (this is the virtue of a discipline and faculty tradition--you are disciplined to not follow every whim of fate or time or culture).
  • Because course redesigns have a context in which to flourish.
  • Because the campus infrastructure is already in place.
  • And because faculty can see that a focus on cost has not hurt them or intruded on their academic domain--the classroom.

In a setting like this, redesign will flourish and it will already be the case that students are enjoying the benefits of reduced costs. Or, it will be clear that the process doesn't work, and the learning that takes place in the classroom will have continued without significant interruption. Either way, the outcomes have a greater potential for good than by starting with course redesign and seeing what happens next.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Gary,
You bring up some really good ideas. The most of important of which is that you can reduce cost in the LONG run. The notion of freezing tuition or having the same tuition for 4 years really reduces the cost associated for students. All that without having to figure out immediately where to reduce costs in the classroom.

I really hope people at Westminster take a look at your proposal.