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.

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