Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Praise of Business Education

These are, we are told, dark days for business education.  The economic downturn has been laid at the feet of business schools too caught up in teaching theory to inculcate ethics.  Employers complain that business schools fail to provide them with students who can complete the most basic tasks--writing clearly, speaking well, working with others.  And most recently, business schools are bearing the brunt of the criticism growing out of Academically Adrift, which suggests that standards are low, teaching is poor, students are unmotivated, and that business fields have become the major of last resort for students hoping to slip through college without troubling themselves to learn.

As a historian serving for this year as the Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business at Westminster College, I have three responses to these complaints:

 First, at least during my entire education career, business schools have been magnets for these sorts of complaints.  My fellow history majors looked down their noses at business school students who just wanted to get through and get paid.  Later, when I became a faculty member, my colleagues and I looked with jealousy at the big salaries paid to business school faculty and graduates.  And we complained in the halls about the business students in our general education classes who could not find a passion for important things like the social history of British colonies in the Americas.

Second, many of the supposed faults of business schools--large classes, lecture-oriented teaching, disengaged students, shrinking amounts of homework--were not pioneered by business schools.  Instead they are the creation of colleges and universities enamored of what John Tagg calls "the instruction paradigm"--an approach to education that focuses entirely on educational efficiency, or in other words, getting as many students as possible into and out of classes.  Sir Ken Robinson's recent speech (made into a video that has gone viral) is only the latest demonstration of the soul-killing futility of such a model of schooling.

Third, these criticisms of business schools miss both the innovations in business education that are now leading change in higher education, and the new generation of business students who are transforming the goals and curricula of business schools across the United States.

Let me start with business students.  While there are certainly students who have selected business because it is an "easy" major (in the same way that students fall into other "easy" majors--sociology, english, history--pick your favorite) the business students I have met at Westminster tend to be ambitious, focused, and intent on improving the world they find themselves in.  Fifteen years ago when I started leading civic engagement efforts on college campuses, I was most likely to attract students from the social sciences.  Today, those students come from business.  They have discovered the transformational power of social entrepreneurship, they understand the way that the world is a complex system, and they believe that business fields are the ones best prepared to empower them (and their fellow-citizens) to respond to the economic, environmental, and educational crises before us. 

Nor are all business students upper-middle class white kids intent on maintaining their status through high-paying jobs.  Business is a field that attracts non-traditional students, first-generation college attenders, students of color, and others who are looking for a way to craft better lives for themselves.

In business schools that are paying attention to changes in education and the business world, those students are met with curricula and pedagogy that are as good or better than that found anywhere else in the university.  Here is what I mean:

Outcomes--Many academic programs are designed around classes and then, almost as an afterthought, they add desired outcomes.  Many business programs are designed with the outcomes in mind, and then the learning experiences are built to lead students to those outcomes.  In the Gore School, our MBA was built after long conversations with alumni and local business leaders led us to agree on a set of outcomes.  Then the courses were built to add up to those outcomes.  The result is a curriculum that reinforces itself, where every class adds to student understanding of a range of topics, not just a single subject. When we have learned about gaps in student performance, as with writing a few years ago, we have adjusted the curriculum to respond.

More radically, in recent years we have created two project-based programs, where rather than taking courses, students work through a series of projects.  Those projects lead them to the outcomes.  The programs are competency-based.  That is, students graduate when they can demonstrate competency in all of the program areas.  No competency, no graduation.  The result is programs where students can demonstrate their business acumen, not just demonstrate that they have taken courses on business topics.

Pedagogy--While many business (and non-business) schools use traditional lectures as their teaching method, more and more of them, including Westminster, focus on teaching that leads to learning.  By this I mean that our courses require students to get a hands-on learning experience.  They work through cases, do live consulting projects, build businesses, serve internships, and solve real-world problems.  They can do this because their faculty are both academically qualified and experienced in the business world.  Our students may not be able to rattle off complex formulae or theories at the drop of a hat.  But all of them graduate with real experience in the business world.

Relationships--While it is not the case that small class sizes guarantee excellent learning, at Westminster we have been able to use small class sizes to build strong relationships among students and between students and faculty.  The result is a learning environment where no student can hide, and where no student is ignored.  This is good educational practice, to be sure.  But it is also good business practice.  In a work world where more and more jobs require people to work in teams, to respond to complex problems, and to innovate rather than replicate what has been done in the past, an education focused on ensuring both support and accountability is essential.

I do not mean to suggest that Westminster, or any business school, has "solved" the problem of business education.  Nor do I mean to suggest that all of the critiques of business schools and business students are wrong.  But I do think that the sort of education that good business schools provide their students is the sort of education that all students need.  The proof, perhaps, is in the results.  Last year, accountants with a Westminster undergraduate business degree passed the CPA exam at higher rates than students from any other school in Utah.  Westminster's D.A. Davidson investment team consistently is one of the top five in the US at making gains in the stock market.  And for the past two years, Gore School of Business seniors have significantly outperformed expectations on the CLA--the very assessment tool which has sparked the furor about business education in Academically Adrift.

These are small things all.  And the number of students participating in each is too small to generalize about all Gore School of Business students as a whole.  But at the very least they suggest that not all business education is broken.  In fact, it may be very good indeed.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Why are liberal arts colleges expensive when the liberal arts aren't?

NITLE just held a conference on the uses of technology in the liberal arts.  One key theme of the conference was that liberal arts colleges are headed for disaster because their business model is broken.  Inside Higher Ed's summary of this conference theme is full of the language of crisis.  NITLE's hope, of course, is that technology can help reduce the cost of education at these schools, and therefore save them. (Because, presumably, without liberal arts colleges people would cease to learn the liberal arts.  A questionable assumption, but the theme for another post.)

But what the article seems not to ask is this: Why are liberal arts colleges expensive when the liberal arts aren't?  After all, the lowest labor costs are to be found in liberal arts disciplines: a historian is cheaper than a finance professor; an english prof earns less than a PhD in nursing.  The liberal arts require no costly infrastructure (except for the sciences, but the goals of science in higher ed are so far from the liberal arts that they hardly belong in the same institution).  Because of the sort of practices that lead to learning in the liberal arts--discussion, writing, service-learning, group projects, etc.--it is conceivable that classes in the liberal arts could have larger enrollments than those in professional disciplines and achieve the same learning value. And because of the focus on human development in the liberal arts traditions, student support infrastructure could be less costly.

So the short answer to the question is this: Liberal arts colleges are costly because they aren't really liberal arts colleges. That is, over the years, liberal arts colleges have adopted the budgets, infrastructures, faculty roles, aspirations, and curricular specialization of comprehensive or research universities.

These things are almost impossible to put off once a school adopts them.  And so the alarms sounded at NITLE and in many other venues are likely to be true. There will be liberal arts colleges that die because students can't afford them.  But there is irony here, because once liberal arts colleges die, their place in the market could easily be filled--by liberal arts colleges.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The perils of prestige

This article, in the Washington Monthly's outstanding College Guide, tells the story of George Washington University's rise from an affordable private university in a dreary DC neighborhood to one of the most expensive universities in the United States.

GW's story is one that gets played out in smaller degree on campuses across the US.  In order to attract more students, colleges and universities build new buildings, form new teams, hire more faculty, and mimic the goals and cultures of the richest, most prestigious campuses in the US.  The result is, on the one hand, rising prestige, and on the other, rising costs.

There are all sorts of reasons to wonder about the wisdom of a prestige-focused path to institutional success.  Most of them are obvious--there isn't a bottomless pool of families able to afford such schooling, and moves towards prestige don't necessarily lead to better learning are two of the most compelling.

But a third is equally important--in nearly every instance, colleges and universities on the prestige track give up focus and mission for prominence.  (The story about GW is full of such losses of focus.)  This need not be the case, of course.  A campus could seek prominence by offloading all programs that are unlikely to attract attention, or by getting rid of all departments that are unlikely to become nationally prominent. 

That schools do not seek prominence through focus teaches us a couple of things about American higher education.  First, the pursuit of prestige is really a form of hedging bets, of trying out lots of things in the hope that some will be successful.  Second, while apologists for higher ed in the US like to point out the "diversity" of institution types, there is really only one that matters for prestige--the research university.  You can have big ones or small ones, but if you want a prestigious campus you need new buildings, a wide range of programs, faculty who publish a lot, and outcomes that are as much about prominence in and connection to the world of wealth as they are about learning.

That world of wealth and prominence is in key ways a zero-sum game--only so many people get to play. And so the prestige path is likely to be a winner for a few campuses and a loser for lots more.  But without alternative models of success in higher ed, colleges and university leaders anxious to improve the lot of their schools will struggle to propose something other than the things that George Washington University has done so well.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

on-campus work and retention

This year, as every year, our campus is looking at retention.  Our institutional retention rate has crept up over the past several years; it was 79% last year, our best number ever.  As we break down the data, there are two factors that predict retention more than any others--level of previous academic performance, and working on-campus.

Previous academic performance is no surprise, since it tracks with what we know about success in college--if you have done well in school in the past (which is often a factor of high socio-economic status and family culture) you are likely to do well in the future, and likely to say in school.

But on-campus work is different.  It doesn't depend on high SES.  (In fact, getting a job on campus often depends on having a lower-than-average SES). It is a factor that the school itself can control.  Compared with the expense of other retention efforts, it may be relatively cheap.  And work can, in fact, have a meaningful impact on learning.  (Westminster has begun requiring all on-campus jobs to specify how the job helps students achieve the college's learning goals.)

Students who work on campus at Westminster as freshmen are 6 to 10 percent more likely to be retained than students as a whole.  On-campus work isn't a panacea.  Schools in the Work Colleges Consortium (where all students work) have retention rates that range from 36% to 82%.  But a campus interested in investing in retention would be wise to put its money in student jobs.