Sunday, July 31, 2011

How innovative is "The Innovative University"?

Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring's new book, The Innovative University is garnering significant attention right now, as one would expect from a book penned by Christensen and a book that is organized around a comparison of BYU-Idaho and Harvard University.  (Full disclosure--Westminster College is mentioned in several sidebars; I was part of the Westminster group who made suggestions about those sidebars.)  Christensen and Eyring's recent Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed, "How to Save the Traditional University, from the Inside Out" has elicited 62 written comments as of 31 July, and several webinars devoted to the book and its argument are pending.

Their argument--that in order to innovate and succeed, colleges and universities need to do more with technology, reduce costs to students, and focus themselves in order to provide to students what they desire while giving society what it needs, is unexceptional.  In fact, it happens all the time, as colleges and universities make decisions about starting new programs, discontinuing old ones, and recruiting students who will succeed on their campuses. (And, it should be noted, it is small, focused institutions that, if they don't find a market, are more likely to die.) I would suggest that the authors' central trope, that Harvard's DNA has been grafted into nearly all of American higher ed causing a sort of arms race that prices students out of the market and fails to deliver good learning, is a bit of a stretch.  It may be the case that Research I universities, and top-tier (and top-tier wannabe) liberal arts colleges have adopted  Harvard-like mission and faculty roles, but the vast majority of public and private universities have not.

But setting this aside, the real question is this--How innovative is "The Innovative University"? At least in their op-ed piece, Christensen and Eyring look towards a future where more specialized institutions (ones that have focused their offerings and their student profile) produce knowledge that meets the needs of their learners, using technology in discovery, dissemination, and learning. (For a great example of this sort of school, plus one that really innovates in its focus on learning, take a look at Roseman University of Health Sciences.)  But presumably, students would still take classes, work towards degrees, and engage with the institution over a brief but focused period of time.  That is, college education would still look largely the same to students once they matriculate. The main difference would be in the options available to students, and the role of cost and specialization in helping students choose those options.

Such an approach, for all of its virtues, fails to respond to some of the major issues facing education in the US.  It does not, for example, do anything to ensure that college-going students are prepared to go to college.  It does little to reach the millions of adults who need more education but cannot enroll in college to get it.  It doesn't put the interests and passions of students at the center of the learning experience.  It assumes that much knowledge exists largely in universities. And it maintains (or perhaps exacerbates) the assumption that learning and knowledge exist in disciplinary boxes, rather than being integrated with each other.

One might imagine an entirely different model of education--call it the Education Maintenance Organization (EMO).  An EMO would look like an HMO.  Its job would be to provide regular check-ups on the learning and academic growth of young people and adults.  EMOs would be made up of generalists--educators who could diagnose needs and provide guidance on behavior.  They would develop relationships with their clients. They could prescribe--a focused set of sessions on math for the 10-year old, learning experiences that would develop competency in history for the college-age student, job re-training for adults wanting to shift careers-- and they could provide treatment.  Costs would be paid like health insurance--on an on-going basis throughout the lifetime of their members.  The goal would be well-being--ongoing learning that serves the needs of individuals, and y so doing, of the broader community as well.

For some an EMO would sit on top of a traditional education--filling gaps, helping parents raise student achievement, providing focus during the summer, helping relate learning to student's passions.  For others it might replace some aspects of formal education.  But EMOs, whatever their role, would look little like colleges and universities.

I am not suggesting that colleges and universities should disappear.  In fact, I think that the reason so few of them are disappearing is that, by and large, they do meet the needs and desires of their students.  But if it is innovation we are looking for--not just in content but in structure, role, and location in society, it will take more than focus to get us there.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Being the parent of a transfer student

The past decade has seen a shift in how higher education thinks of parents.  Ten or so years ago parents were hardly a part of marketing, recruiting, admitting, or orienting new students.  Then came a period of begrudging acknowledgement that parents were again engaging in the lives of potential freshmen.  From this time came the phrase "helicopter parent" and the stories about parents monitoring their college students' homework, calling their faculty, and staying as connected to their kids as they were when those kids lived at home.  Now, higher education has, by and large, embraced the role of parents.  In enrollment management, for example, a school without a considered approach to recruiting parents is a school that is losing out on enrollment.

That shift, though, has paid much less attention to the parents of transfer students  (for a few examples of schools that do give some focus to transfer parents look here and here--mostly information on the dates and times of orientation). This is, in part, understandable, since the reigning assumption about transfer students is that they are more mature, older, or have not had actively involved parents, hence their college path from one school to another. But the increasing number of students entering community colleges, and the fact that now nearly one-third of college students transfer, suggests that we ought to be paying a lot more attention than we do.

I have unexpectedly become the father of a transfer student.  My oldest daughter, about whom I have written from time to time, made a slow and difficult decision to leave the private university she attended in California and enroll at Westminster.  As I reflect on my role in her decision, here are a few things I've learned about the role of parents in transfer students' lives, especially those transferring from one four-year school to another.

  • The decision about where to transfer is harder than the original decision about choosing a college.  Choosing a college as a high school senior is a decision shaped by opportunities.  Thousands of schools are possibilities, and most offer similar majors, aspirations, services, etc.  The transfer decision is much more constrained.  The courses a student has taken, the student's major, friends, habits, and debt load all constrain the decision. And that means that selecting a new institution is much more challenging.  The pieces (course offerings, transfer evaluation, financial aid, etc.) are harder to fit together. 
  • The decision to transfer is psychologically difficult.  My daughter was both quite unhappy at her previous school and quite connected to a few of the people there.  And as a student with high aspirations, the decision to transfer included a feeling that she was betraying friends, abandoning possibilities, and wasting opportunities that she would never have access to again.
  • The decision to transfer is financially risky.  The financial risk in our case was limited because I am fortunate to have a wonderful tuition benefit at Westminster.  But many schools set academic scholarships for transfer students at a lower rate than for new four year students.  And since many transfer students will not live on -campus, the cost of housing, food, and transportation are less predictable.
  • The exiting school can significantly impede a student's ability to transfer.  My daughter's university in California charges money to withdraw from courses, hides information on how to do it, and provides essentially no advising to students struggling with the decision.  So the host school both sets some of the reasons for considering transfer and does almost nothing to help in the decision.
  • Things that should be simple are incredibly hard.  Have you ever tried to send scores from your AP exams to a new school? Much harder than you would think (for example, you have to have your AP student number, the four digit identifier of your potential new school.  Then you have to make a phone call to request that AP send the scores to your potential school--you can't do it on-line.)
  • The parent's role is more complicated. Since I was involved in helping my daughter choose her original school, the advice I gave then, and my ability to give meaningful advice, are both in question.  And since my daughter is two years older and significantly wiser than she was when she originally made a choice, the things she wants and needs to hear from me are different.  Our discussions have been both harder emotionally, but also more professional and focused. And as a parent who has watched his daughter struggle, grow, and suffer, the stakes feel even higher the second time around.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The role of consultants and vendors in enrollment management

One of the major differences between enrollment management and other parts of colleges is that enrollment management relies heavily on consultants and vendors to do its work. We develop prospects with help from one vendor, analyze data with another, use a third to develop our publications, and employ several others for smaller parts of our work.  Consultants help shape our strategy, test our messages, and improve our workflow.  And a great enrollment management consultant, Ian Symmonds, is my guide and mentor as I learn my way into this work.

None of this should be surprising.  Enrollment management is a results-driven business that relies heavily on data to make decisions. And it is a business that has changed rapidly in the last 20 years.  That change has made space in the market for businesses with specific expertise. And if those businesses can demonstrate return on investment, then it makes sense to contract with them, rather than expanding the college's fixed costs by hiring full-time employees to do that work.

One surprising thing about the field, though, is that consultants and vendors are also the source of most of the research about recruiting, admitting, funding, and enrolling students.  Compare data about enrollment management with data about the next step in the student's experience--the freshman year--to see the distinction.  Data about the views of freshmen comes out of the higher education research institute at UCLA.  The epicenter of ideas about  curriculum and retention in the first year is the first-year experience project at the University of South Carolina. And learning about the first-year emerges from peer-reviewed journals and academic conferences.

By contrast, summaries of research in enrollment management are more frequently compiled by vendors, as in the case of this report put out by Noel-Levitz.  The best-known experts in the field are consultants, be it Symmonds or George Dehne. And the list-servs, best practices, and conferences are sponsored by companies who sell products and services to colleges and universities.

There are several reasons that this is the case. Enrollment management as currently practiced is new--perhaps only 20 years old.  Therefore graduate programs that produce researchers in other fields haven't grown up yet in enrollment management.  The rapid change in the field makes it possible for individuals or small consultancies to gather and distribute meaningful data.  The competitiveness of the field, with dozens of colleges battling for top students makes practitioners less willing to share information among themselves.  And the nature of enrollment management--as practice more than discipline or skill--means that campus-based professionals aren't situated in a position to make the sort of generalizations that are the basis of academic research elsewhere in higher ed.

One wonders what this means for the future of enrollment management.  Will it eventually become an academic discipline with its own literature, faculty, etc.?  Or will it leave the university entirely, and become an outsourced service in the way that food service, bookstores, and security are now?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is enrollment management a skill or a discipline?

Two weeks ago I began another unexpected posting in an administrative role at Westminster College--Interim Vice President for Enrollment Management.  As you might imagine, I've spent quite some time contemplating whether anything in my previous experience has prepared me to be effective until the college hires a long-term VP with experience and expertise in enrollment.

The short answer is, of course, yes.  I've been at Westminster for five years now; that experience has certainly familiarized me with the campus' culture, stated goals, and implicit values.  I know how our budget process works, I've recruited undergraduate and graduate students, and I've worked closely with many on the staff in Admissions and Financial Aid, the main areas of enrollment management.

My own favored approach to work is becoming solidified as well.  I like to get people around a table to make decisions, I prefer framing the issue and then listening over having others frame the issue and present pre-determined options, I believe that building connections leads to unexpected responses to hard problems, I am confident that focused attention over time leads to better responses than quick decisions.  I would rather talk face-to-face or email over placing a phone call.  I am comfortable with an ever-changing array of issues, programs, and opportunities coming up each day.

Having said all this, though, I can't help but feel that Enrollment Management is a foreign country and I've just arrived without a visa or language skills.  Or in other words, my preparation has left me unprepared.

There is an ongoing debate in education between "content' and "skills" people.  The content folks argue that high school teachers (for example) ought to be trained largely in their disciplines, and their goal ought to largely be about helping students learn content.  History teachers should know their history; history students should be judged by their comprehension of history.

The skills folks argue that there are certain abilities--critical thinking, writing, leadership--that can be learned in any discipline, are essential for success in the real world, and ought to be the goal of education.  In this worldview, content is secondary to skills--it is the message and skills are the media.

My own reflection, and the research on content and skills, suggests that both camps are in error.  A content-only training is exactly what leads many university professors to be inept educators.  They know their disciplines, but they cannot convey their disciplines in any comprehensible way.  And skills-focused training runs up against the obvious fact that skills are context specific.  Writing in history, and poetry, and cosmology are radically different things.  Being good at one does not mean the writer is good at another.

So if neither content nor skills rule, how does one work with any success in a field outside one's own?  I have no deep insights.  But I have observed that skilled enrollment managers, like the man whose departure occasioned my temporary appointment and the colleagues I now work with in Admissions and Financial Aid, are practitioners before they are anything else.  Their jobs are about replicating the practices that have led to success in the past, ensuring that others do the same, and being mindful of when changing contexts make those activities suddenly obsolete.  Solving problems in a practice-based setting is not about coming up with a solution.  It is instead about changing behavior to see if those changes lead to different results, while knowing all along that the vicissitudes of time and place mean that all "solutions" are temporary.

These characteristics of enrollment management practice make it both fascinating and frightful.  And so to go along  with practice are a set of attitudes--the expectation that failure is always possible and always correctable, the willingness to accept responsibility, the temptation to hide mistakes until they fester, a fascination with trying new things.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Is your school more like a newspaper or a pub?

More to muse on from Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus...

Shirky argues that old media, like newspapers, are on their way out as a model for making money on information.  Nothing new here.  But arguing from the analogy between a bar and social media, he suggests that social media can make money for content providers.  After all, people can drink more cheaply at home than in a bar, but they choose to go to a bar anyway because of the conviviality, social connection, and sense of common purpose that can grow in a bar (and in other third places, for that matter).  In the same way, people gather to use social media because it provides them a sense of common purpose, and are willing to pay for that opportunity, or at least look at advertisements that pay for that opportunity. To borrow from the title of Richard Putnam's follow-up to Bowling Alone, there are some things that are done better together.

Colleges and universities operate on implicit models.  It is frequently remarked that higher ed (and K-12) is built explicitly on a factory model.  But the closer analogy is not a factory, but a newspaper.  Newspapers, like colleges and universities and factories, are efficiency-based, low profit-margin businesses.  But newspapers and colleges and universities share something that not all factories embrace--the creation of new content.  After all, a newspaper that ran the exact same story day after day would fail.  A factory that produces the same widget every day succeeds. For the past four generation, it has been the creation of content by faculty members that has been at the heart of the "colleges as newspapers" educational model.

Both colleges and newspapers, though, may be overtaken by quicker, cheaper ways to create content. And some of that content will be produced in bar-like settings where people collaborate to create.  In this setting, the concern is not how to produce content more quickly or cheaply, but how to help their publics make meaning (including establishing the value and quality) of the content swirling around.  Here is where the pub analogy helps.  Pubs are meaning-making venues where people pay to make that meaning. The value-add is the setting and the interaction that a good pub with a good clientele creates.

So, some questions to think with: How is your school like a newspaper and how is it like a pub?  What is your school doing to become more like a pub?