Sunday, September 25, 2011

Enrollment management, cost, and quality--the questions

For a brief time the national conversation on higher education was attentive to the relationship between cost and quality, with open learning advocates and technology fans predicting a future where education might be both more affordable and better.

More recently, though, the two matters--cost and quality--have become separated.  The smaller stream, focused on quality, has been concerned with findings like those in Academically Adrift which point to the lack of learning taking place in higher ed.  The broader stream has focused on the cost of higher education, especially in relation to an economic decline which puts into question the dollar value of a college degree.

There has been little attention to enrollment management in the discussions.  This is a shame, since regardless of the direction of the stream, enrollment managers are the ones most likely to have a sense of what preoccupies prospective students and the most likely to have to explain new approaches to education to those students.

So here are several questions about the relationship between cost, quality, and enrollment management, all of which I've been wondering about over my past couple of months in enrollment management::

  1. What is the current relationship between cost and quality at your institution?  What should it be? On most campuses discussions about cost take place in budget meetings while discussions about quality reside in faculty meetings, so the two rarely meet.  When they do, enrollment managers often are not at the table.  For this reason campuses are not always clear about where they stand on this issue, and unclear about which direction to move.  That direction needs to be set both by practical considerations (the "is" question) but also by strategic ones that can only be uncovered by asking the "should" question.
  2. Who does attend your institution?  Who should attend? Most campus stakeholders have some idea about who should attend their institution, and those views have a great deal to do with where the stakeholder stands on the cost and quality issues.  But those views are rarely informed by an understanding of who does attend the institution and why.  Often, enrollment managers are the ones with the information that makes a conversation about the demographics of the student body possible.
  3. What does your school mean by quality? What role do students play in that definition? One of the reasons that the conversation about cost has outpaced the conversation about quality is because the meaning of quality is so unsure, especially at institutions where inputs--the wealth and academic performance of entering students, the wealth and prestige of the institution--are not the key measures of quality.  Here, enrollment managers seem to be behind the game, largely using input measures as the key indicators of quality. But if quality is about student growth, or about learning outcomes, then an input approach to the entering class gets in the way of advancing an institution's work on lowering cost while improving quality.
  4. Does your school have a coherent philosophy regarding merit- and need-based aid? Over time more and more institutional funds have gone into merit-based aid (academic scholarships) and less into need-based aid. If this shift aligns with an institution's strategy about cost and quality, then it makes sense.  But if not (which I expect is the case on many campuses) then not only does enrollment management fail to support the institution's direction, but it cuts against it.  If, for example, your school is more costly than its peers, and your students are struggling to afford it, and campus stakeholders believe the institution should be accessible to a diverse student body, then a merit-focus cuts against strategy and culture.
  5. Does your school have a defensible balance between standard aid practices and special sources of aid?  Most schools have published aid grids--if you have XX ACT score and X.XX GPA you get a scholarship of $XXXXX.  But they also award aid to students for other things--athletics, science achievement, coming from abroad, etc.  Many of these special sources of aid advance strategic initiatives, others support new programs, or meet the interests of donors, or seek to open new student markets.  It would be naive to think these special sources should go away.  So the question is whether the number, size, and frequency of these special sources of aid undermines the main financial aid strategy.
  6. Does enrollment management have a meaningful place in the campus strategic plan? Many strategic plans include enrollment management in an operational role--the plan says to do things X, Y, and Z, and enrollment management will get us enough students to provide revenue to do them. But especially if an institution is serious about making headway on cost and quality, enrollment management has to be an active part of the plan--not just meeting enrollment goals but providing insights into who is likely to attend, why they attend, and who the plan is most likely to serve well.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Institutions with vision

Over the past couple of months I've written several times about problems with the vision of  American higher education.  Here I noted that strategic planning seems to drive institutions to look more like each other rather than helping them distinguish themselves, here that the thirst for prestige gets in the way of a serious focus on learning, here that too often campuses try to differentiate themselves on superficial grounds, and here that colleges and universities are not well-situated to respond to the big challenges facing the world today.

On this last point I should note the growing number of colleges that have realigned themselves to respond to climate change and the challenges of sustainability.  The College of the Atlantic has been hard at this work for quite a while, as have, in less visible ways, schools like Sterling College, Unity College, and Northland College. All of these schools are doing great work.  All of them are also quite small, but all of them have a powerful vision that helps shape the curriculum, learning, and environment of the schools.

I am deeply interested in the resurgence of religious mission in higher education (see, for example, Naomi Riley's God on the Quad, George Marsden's The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship , and Budde and Wright's Conflicting Allegiances) and with it the possibility that colleges and universities will return to serious education about the big issues in human existence.  If this effort interests you, take a look at the vision statement for Houston Baptist University.  HBU right now is a small but serious college about the size of Westminster.  But in their vision statement they aim for nothing less that creating a world-class protestant university, one where all the efforts of the institution serve bigger ends--helping students lead meaningful lives, merging the best of secular and religious learning, and setting the example for other religious universities to follow.

Think what you will about HBU, or about their mission.  But the ambition of the school, not for prestige for its own sake but to remake American higher education and American culture, is a big thing.  Something all schools should think about as they seek to create authentic visions that stretch them beyond prestige, financial sustainability, and the latest trends in higher education.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Who is most cost sensitive?

It would be simple to assume that in this period of rising college costs and economic difficulty, the most cost-sensitive students would come from the lowest-income families.  But a large portion of those families have been priced out of the market for quite some time, and those that haven't and are strong students continue to have access to strong scholarship and aid packages.  (I am not suggesting that lack of access is a good or overlook-able matter--just that the situation is not tremendously different now than they were five years ago for those families.)

So if  faculty and administrators at private colleges are looking for a group that is a bellwether of cost-sensitivity, I would recommend not low-income families but a different group--families we call "no-need merit." Prospective students who fall into this category earn some sort of academic scholarship, but because of their family income, they receive no other aid--not Pell Grants, work-study, or institutional grants.

These families are particularly cost-sensitive for two reasons.  First, without any additional aid they face the prospect of paying ten to twenty thousand dollars a year for college.  Second, no-need merit families are more likely to have a college-going culture, so if the cost at a private college seems too high, they are likely to choose a lower-cost public alternative.  Watching the performance of no-need merit prospects, then, is a key way to see the impact of college cost on the size and composition of the entering class.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hospitality is the thing that we've lost

Events like September 11th are almost impossible to write well about.  So today will be a day of failed blog posts, where writers struggle to say something meaningful knowing all along that  nothing can really be said.  It is a day for silence and contemplation.  More 4'33" than Beethoven's 9th.

Let me just observe, then, that the thing we have lost in the aftermath of 9/11--the thing we miss the most--is hospitality.  You see its absence in airports, where goodbyes now have to be said and welcomes made far away from the point of departure.  You see its absence in the stiffening of rules and regulations, in the limiting of options, in the officious way we relate in public capacities.  It is there in the decline of our public life, our inability to negotiate or be with people who differ from us.  It is in our schools, where the notion of home room is antiquated and the most important thing are outcomes.  It is in the stiffening of religious belief.  It is in the closure of parks, the need to eke every bit of capacity out of tax dollars, and time, and investments.  It is in the privatization not just of public services, but of the suffering resulting from unemployment, and loss, and fear.

So ten years on from 9/11, and in the ongoing fallout from the economic collapse, and in a nation where public life has become a zero-sum game, the thing I'll seek is a renewal of hospitality--sharing food, leaving the door open, welcoming people in, and remembering to accept those gifts from others.  I'll go to festivals, and parties, and host some myself.  I'll look for fear, my own and others', and see if there is a way to replace it with welcome, and comfort, and perhaps something that looks a little like love.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Washington Monthly College Guide Gets it Wrong, a Little, Twice

The best back-to-school college guide and rankings, hands-down, are at the Washington Monthly.  The rankings actually measure important things--like graduates' contribution to society--rather than wealth, prestige, and the test scores of incoming students.  And the accompanying articles are both well-informed and well-written.  (For example, this month's "The end of college admissions as we know it" should make anyone who cares about college access hopeful, even while it makes traditional admissions shops shiver...)

This month's college, guide, though, includes two articles that deserve a response.  The first, "Administrators ate my tuition" makes the argument that the on-going rise in college costs is due to bloat in the ranks of administrators, and that a solution to the problem might be, as the article's byline puts it, "Want to get college costs in line? Start by cutting the overgrown management ranks."  Three points in response:

  • The growth in the ranks of administrators is due to changes in faculty roles, driven by faculty and by external stakeholders.  Faculty don't take on the day-to-day work of managing colleges and universities as much now as they used to because faculty have pushed, successfully over time, to teach and research more, and to do less administrative work.  At the same time, external bodies, including the federal government, have heightened requests for data and compliance to such an extent that without a cadre of researchers, report-writers, etc. colleges would be unable to respond to those demands.
  • All administrators are not managers.  The author, Benjamin Ginsberg, seems to believe that there is little difference between an Associate Dean and an Associate Director of Student Life.  He is wrong.  At Westminster, over the past 5 years the number of full-time faculty has grown more than the number of new administrators.  And among the new administrators, only a couple actually spend their time managing.  Most spend their time programming--running environmental initiatives, leading trips to the mountains, helping students face psychological difficulties, ensuring that international students get their visas, etc.  The need for these tasks, at least at Westminster, comes from faculty, parents, and students requesting these services. And these tasks all lead to learning, something Ginsberg fails to acknowledge. At an institution like ours that has to compete to stay alive, if our key stakeholders request something, we are happy to oblige.
  • If a college wants to change its faculty/administrator ratio, the first step is not to cut administrators.  It is to focus its mission.  Until a school does that, it will be impossible to carry out the work that faculty, students, parents, and regulators have demanded.  The solution, then, is to figure out how not to be all things to all people.
The second, "The College for-profits should fear" is a positive article about Western Governors University.  I like WGU.  Its focus on student outcomes, and its innovative division of the work of learning among faculty and mentors (more administrators!) both saves money and can lead to better learning.  And it has blazed a trail into online learning that others ought to pay attention to.

But WGU shares two things with for-profits that don't get enough attention.  First, though tuition is low, the cost-per-credential (that is, the amount of tuition paid per degree granted) is very high. According to a recent Salt Lake Tribune article, it is around $80,000.  The article attributes it to a "statistical anomaly" but it also suggests that WGU serves many students well, but not many of them earn degrees.  This point alone is not damning--after all, the students who enroll in WGU are like the students who enroll in most-on-line programs.  They work long hours, are trying to switch jobs, and often take time off from school to solve family problems, change jobs, move, or manage life.  One of WGU's strengths, in fact, is that its students can do that.  But if an institution's goal is to get students a degree and on to life, then WGU has a ways to go.

Second, WGU, like its for-profit counterparts, has recently become a marketing juggernaut. All along I-15, the main north-south freeway in Utah, there are WGU billboards with photos of powerful Utah business and civic leaders--Harris Simmons, Board Chair of Zion's Bank, Mike Leavitt, former Utah Governor--touting WGU.  The Washington Monthly article suggests that WGU is unlike for-profits in that it doesn't spend as much of its resources on marketing as does, say, the University of Phoenix.  It appears that might be changing.