Sunday, November 25, 2012

The standardization of student recruiting

In the past week, my 16-year old daughter received letters from the University of Miami, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of Denver, and Texas Christian.  There is nothing unusual about strong private universities trying to recruit an academically promising high school junior. But the arrival of these letters, and their contents, say a lot about the standardization of student recruiting.

Here is what I mean.  My daughter hadn't received mail from any schools in about a month.  Then, in one week, a flurry of letters.  This can only mean that the schools sending letters are all using the same vendor to manage their name buys and the early search phase of recruiting.  That fact is borne out by the fact that the letters all look the same--they all tell my daughter how promising she is, and they all offer her a special publication (hints on how to have a successful campus visit in one; suggestions on choosing a college in the others).  All ask her to log-in to access the information, and provide her a special log-in and password to do so.  Three ask her to complete a "quiz' to determine her top major choices.  Even the layout of the letter and the envelope look the same.

The gaps in the letters are as interesting as their contents.  They contain very little about the institutions, their missions, or their distinctive programs, and this in spite of the fact that these schools are actually distinctive.  RPI is a great technology school, Miami is in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the University of Denver offers great programs in business and diplomacy, and Texas Christian is, well, Christian.  But unless you were a very well-informed high school junior, you would never know that from the letters.

What does it mean when significantly different institutions recruit students in ways that blur the differences between them?  It means first of all that student recruiting, as with many other parts of enrollment management, is becoming standardized, with the assumptions behind standardization being driven by vendors. Among those assumptions is that the first step in recruiting prospective students is to entice them with praise, promise them access to special information, and get them to provide information for the school's recruiting database, which in turn makes it possible for the institution to launch a concentrated marketing campaign at the student.

One has to wonder whether this approach is good either for students or for institutions. Is it likely to connect students early with schools where the students are likely to flourish?  Does it provide important decision-making information early enough in the process?  Does it create authentic relationships between students and potential schools?  And for institutions, does it make sense to put distinctive missions, programs, locations, and other institutional characteristics in the background?

 I would guess that the answer to most of these questions is "no."  Which raises another question--if these practices don't make sense for students or colleges and universities, how long will we, as enrollment managers keep them up?  Probably as long as vendors encourage them and we, out of anxiety about our ability to enroll enough of the "right' students, agree to do so.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Five ways small colleges can respond to MOOCs

The chorus of people proclaiming that MOOCs will destroy traditional higher education is long and getting louder.  MSN Money wonders if they portend "The End of Higher Education as We Know It." The excellent education analyst Kevin Carey suggests that they present both a solution to access and cost challenges of higher education.  And venture capitalists, world-renowned universities, and star faculty members are lending their wealth, fame, and wisdom to the creation of businesses that create, market, and manage MOOCs.

If MOOCs achieve their wildest dreams--huge enrollments of students taking courses for free that grant college credit, then  institutions that charge large tuitions will be hurt.  But MOOCs are far from those dreams.  While a few courses have massive enrollments, a tiny proportion of students complete them.  The quality of the course content is uncertain, and the pedagogical assumptions behind them are flawed, at least if what we think we know about the power of active learning is true. MOOCs offer individual courses, not well thought-through curricula that lead to higher-level learning outcomes. And MOOCs don't have a business model that works for the simple reason that free things don't earn the money required to create them.  In this, MOOCs are not unlike shareware and social networks--both things that consumers can use for free but which seek to earn income.

It is here--at the intersection of MOOCs' prominence and their weakness, that small colleges who wish to engage with MOOCs (as opposed to ignoring them or demeaning their popularity) can act.  So the question is how small colleges can respond to MOOCs in a way that takes advantage of their prominence and the expertise of small colleges.  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Provide academic support to students who enroll in MOOCs. Any traditional institution that lost more than 90 percent of the students in a class before it ended would shut down.  And so small colleges have figured out how to ensure that students stay enrolled, not just for a single course but through to graduation.  They do so by providing academic support--discussions, tutoring, advising, and evaluation to track student learning.  MOOC students who are serious about learning would be anxious to have this sort of support.
  • Provide feedback, evaluation, and improvements for MOOCs. One of the dangers of using famous faculty to teach MOOCs is that famous faculty get their fame from excellence in research, not (usually) in provoking student learning.  MOOC providers (and other edtech entrepreneurs) have not tended to study student learning or to design their work based on measurable outcomes. In other words, online providers of education haven't given attention to quality control.  Colleges and universities have spent the better part of the past twenty years building courses to achieve certain educational outcomes.  That expertise is sorely needed in the world of MOOCs.
  • Use MOOCs to fill gaps in their own curricula. Students at small colleges experience curricular gaps in three ways: the school does not offer a particular course because it lack faculty expertise in that area, courses are offered rarely so students who need to take a course can't get it, or students develop curiosity in an area where there is no course.  MOOCs could fill those gaps more easily and less expensively than hiring an adjunct, assigning overload to a faculty member, or hiring a new faculty line.  So if a student wants a course in, say, East African history, let her take a MOOC. more broadly, MOOCs could be a way to round out the curriculum for intensely focused schools.  If you run a music conservatory, for example, use MOOCs to fill out general education.
  • Use MOOCs for remediation. A large proportion of college students need remediation which institutions supply by offering lots of sections of college algebra, for example.  The quality of these courses vary among instructors (often adjuncts), and the cost to the institution (faculty lines, classroom space, etc.) and to students (uncertain quality, the need to repeat, slowing the path to graduation) make remediation a big issue.  But if an institution selected a MOOC in, say, remedial English (or built a curriculum in math through the Khan Academy's YouTube lessons) consistency of content would improve, students could progress at their own speed, and the cost to the institution would go down. 
  • Use MOOCs to assure the quality of prior knowledge. Colleges already accept massive amounts of transfer credit.  The quality of some of it is very good.  But other sources--concurrent enrollment, for example--provide prior learning of uncertain quality.  Add to this fact that ever more students will come to traditional colleges with credit from for-profit universities, corporate training, and military service.  Many schools deny students credit for that experience.  but a school which wanted to welcome students who had learned in those settings might ask prospective students to work through a MOOC for free, and use their success in the MOOC as a  rationale for granting credit for prior learning.  MOOCs thus become a real tool for access to higher education, not a tool for avoiding the wisdom built into enrolling full-time in a college.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

What I've learned by always voting for losers

With only two exceptions, I have voted in every election since I turned 18 in 1984.  And with equally rare exceptions (a couple of referenda and city council elections; Obama in 2008) I have voted for losing candidates every time.

You learn a lot when nearly every vote you cast is for the losing side.  Here are a few things I've picked up:

  • If you are a localist or a communitarian, you have no chance of winning an election.  When I say this I mean simply that I think that local communities are the basis of a healthy civic life, and that decisions about civic issues should be made by the people who are most effected by them.  Philosophically, both major parties have threads that align with localism--Catholic social thought, particularly about subsidiarity, and Burkean conservatism on the right; the reflexive praise for grassroots activism, the New Left, the "buy local" movement on the left.  But to get to the level of elections, candidates and platforms have a tendency to push decisions up the political hierarchy, not down it.
  • Voting is important, politics are important, elections  are not.  By this I mean simply that voting and politics are symbolically significant because they ask people with differing views to come to some sort of resolution about an issue.  Much of the rest of our lives do the same thing--we are always working to make decisions with others in our families, churches, schools, etc.  But elections often poison this natural  impulse, because they do not encourage joint decision-making, instead focusing on individual choice-making. Civic life, and major issues, are never about simple yes or no, this candidate or that choices.
  • The most troubling part of elections is not campaign spending, or attack ads, or any of the things that point to division between partisans.  It is instead the shared commitment of leaders in both parties to proclaim that their candidates (particularly for higher office) have within them the ability to solve problems.  When Mitt Romney said he knew how to turn the economy around; when Barack Obama said he would already have done so were it not for the recalcitrance of the Republicans, they were both wrong.  Their statements were not lies as much as they were delusions.  One person, especially in a democratic system and a market economy, cannot "fix the  economy."  It is not amenable to control, whether in good times or in bad.  Individual decisions matter, it is true.  But their reach is small, and no amount of blaming or chest-thumping can change that.
  • Fortunately, while elections are important for political parties, they are less important for the quality of community life. I live in an overwhelmingly Mormon, pro-Romney neighborhood.  I voted for Gary Johnson for president.  The day after the election, my position in my neighborhood was unchanged.  People who thought us strange before still think so; our kids still have their friends; I still wonder how to be a useful member of my community, I still long to feel a part of something, to contribute to the common good, to find a supportive place in the res publica
Voting again for losing candidates doesn't change that at all.

Why the liberal arts are the future of graduate education

 Whether the concern is access, or price, or quality, or innovation, the overwhelming focus of public discussion of higher education in the United States is undergraduate education, and the overwhelming tone is one of despair.

At exactly the same time, though, critiques of graduate education suggest that it is undergraduate education, and particularly the liberal arts, that hold out promise for the future of higher education.  Here is what I mean.

In the United States, the curricula of most graduate programs reside entirely within the sponsoring department.  So, with the exception of a course here or there, if you determine to get a master's degree in, say, history, you will take only courses in history and its close cognates.  The history department will manage your registration, advise you, teach you everything it thinks you should know, and evaluate you.

Curricular trends in graduate study point ever more strongly towards this model of departmental domination.  One of the things undermining the strength of MBA programs, for example, is the emergence of master's programs in accounting, finance, real estate, human resources, etc.  This is an expensive model, one that relies on large cadres of specialized faculty, working closely with very small numbers of highly specialized students to achieve specialized learning outcomes.

The irony, of course, is that while the curricula become more independent and costly, criticism of graduate education suggests that the strong technical skills of graduates (finance graduates excel at financial modeling, for example) is undermined by the inability of graduates to communicate well, teach effectively, solve problems, and behave ethically.  In the undergraduate curriculum students develop these skills in the liberal arts.

That this is the case points to a different model for graduate study--one that improves student skills and   maintains their disciplinary excellence.  The model is to create a graduate-level liberal arts curriculum, where students from all graduate disciplines work through a program that drives them to develop competency in communication, teaching, problem-solving, and moral behavior.  Such a model integrates some portion of the graduate curriculum, so that students in several disciplines share courses.  And it allows the disciplines to focus more directly on their areas of specialty.

There are plenty of reasons to wonder about a graduate level liberal education could succeed.  Accreditors would need to change their expectations about faculty qualification and curricular content. Potential students would need to revise their views about what graduate school is about.  And liberal arts faculty would need to figure out what graduate-level training outside their disciplines would look like.  But the benefits to institutions (more efficiency, more integration, more alignment of the work done at the undergraduate and graduate levels, the opportunity to offer more graduate degrees that offer differentiated degrees but a common mission) and to students (better learning, more success at work, clearer path towards the degree) suggest that such changes are worth considering.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Success in the shadow of giants, or, What does a school like Westminster call itself?

With the exception of schools whose fame (like Williams, Pomona, Middlebury, Dartmouth, or Brown) or location (New England and the Midwest) make their purposes automatically comprehensible to prospective students, the first thing that institutions like Westminster must figure out is what to call themselves.

By saying this I mean something more than "schools must have a name."  I mean that schools like Westminster--which receive neither state, nor church, nor investor sponsorship, and which offer neither all fields of study or a severely limited roster of academic programs--are incomprehensible without a clear self-description.

Think about the prospective student growing up in Utah, or Colorado, or Texas, or Alabama, or any other state with a very visible state university system and/or prominent church-sponsored schools. If they are religious, they understand immediately what BYU or Baylor or Gonzaga are about.  And if they are at all attentive to the news or sports, they have been exposed to state universities (particularly flagships and land-grants) since before they even considered college.  Stuart Dorsey, the President of Texas Lutheran University put it this way to me in a conversation; "For a kid growing up in Texas, the first question about higher education they ask themselves is, 'Am I a Longhorn or an Aggie?'" State schools and religious universities enter the recruiting contest with an immense advantage, since they are not only more highly subsidized, but more frequently covered, more visible, larger, more famous, and more likely to be part of the everyday life of young people than are schools like Westminster.  They are giants, not just in enrollment, but in visibility, in reach, and in influence.

In this context, a school like Westminster is not just unknown but unfathomable.  So our first challenge, before we can work with a student on fit and affordability, is to figure out how to describe ourselves.

Our traditional way of doing it--"Institution X is a small, private, liberal arts college" is almost useless, since all of those terms are either weak, confusing,  compromised, or unattached from their historical meanings.  "Small," for example, is claimed by nearly every institution in the US (just look at how they market their average class size for an example).  Further, for students today, small carries as many negative connotations (no bigger than high school, boring) as positive.  "Private" is even worse, since it requires an immediate explanation of the legal  and educational difference between for-profit and not-for-profit institutions, and a quick distancing from the University of Phoenix, ITT Tech, etc.  "Liberal Arts" carries mixed meanings, with some equating it to general education and others to traditional approaches to learning.  And "college" is similarly confusing, since major universities contain colleges, and small institutions call themselves "universities." And none of the words convey any of the things that make such institutions distinctive or innovative.

So how can a place like Westminster describe itself so as to be both accurate and attractive?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Independent. Independence conveys three facts--all important and all desirable.  Independence suggests that the institution is beholden neither to church nor state. It points to the most important component of the traditional meaning of liberal arts, that it is the education necessary for free people.  And those two points open a meaningful conversation about why the cost of an education is higher at Westminster than at a particular state university--because it is self-funding, and because its educational goals include but go beyond employment.
  • Interconnected. Interconnection suggests something good both about the curriculum--that its pieces are tied together--and about the life of the community, that set schools like Westminster apart from their competitors.  Large public universities have no such interconnected community--they have at best interest groups--and private or technical institutions have no desire to make their curricula add up to something bigger than the sum of their parts.
  • School of higher learning. School is a rich word, one whose etymology suggests place, independent effort, and community.  Those meanings are both more varied and more precise than "college" or "university."  And "higher learning" locates the work of the school at a level of greater complexity and meaning than other school work, and puts the focus on learning, where it belongs, rather than on the scholarly bona fides of faculty or the institution's prominence, size, or image. 
It is true that "Westminster College [or any other such institution] is an independent, interconnected school of higher learning" sounds odd.  But the oddness of such a sentence is a good thing, since it pushes both the speaker and the hearer to recognize the oddness of the institution, its mission, and its location in the higher education landscape.  And that is certainly better than describing the institution using words that lack clarity and accuracy.  If we are going to move out from the shadow of giant institutions, some such language is essential.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Your vote is not your voice

The National Campus Voter Registration Project is an effort of 50 leading higher education organizations to increase voter registration and turnout among college students. Its slogan? Your Vote, Your Voice.

While it is a lovely slogan, it is exactly not true that "your voice is your vote."  Your voice is your voice.  Your vote is something else.

Here is what I mean.  A voice is communicative.  It expresses emotion, nuance, depth, and meaning.  It can be used to build relationships, to extend discussions, and to solve problems. In a democracy, these things are hallmarks of civic engagement.

A vote is mute, in three ways.  First, it is mute in its casting.  The voting hall is politically silent--no signs, no speeches, no posters.  And the voting booth is as well, since the main characteristic of the vote in the United States is secrecy--"the secret ballot."

Second, it is mute in its impact.  Unless a voter decides to declare his or her vote, it is unknown.  And even if it is known, a vote in itself is powerless.  Voting isn't a race, with the first candidate past a certain number of votes declared the winner.  And in our system, even tightly contested elections are almost never determined by a single vote, and when they are, no one knows whose vote.

Third, a vote hides meaning.  The process of voting for a candidate is one of condensing a whole range of a voter's views, feelings, priorities, interests, and values into a single act that conveys none of them.  Think about it this way.  Does knowing that a person voted for a particular candidate help you know that person more deeply?  Of course not, since what matters in knowing a person is not who they voted for, but why.  Living in a state like Utah, I am confident that the vast majority of my neighbors will be voting for Mitt Romney.  That tells me nothing about them, and does nothing to help us work together for good.

None of this is to say that voting is bad, or useless.  Voting is a ritual, its silence is something that should be applauded, and the sense of duty that often drives it is a valuable thing in a democracy. And the overall uncertainty about the future that is bound up in the vote--uncertainty about the outcome of the election and its impact--is an important reminder of how modest we should be about predicting the future.

Nor is it to say that a voice is always a good thing.  One need only recall all of the pointless "debate" and misleading rhetoric to know that. But only if after one takes the mute act of voting, one goes into public and private venues and explains that vote, does the vote do something for civil society.  And at that point, it does so because of the voice, not the vote.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What kind of business is enrollment management?

Until recently, one of the most consistent complaints about American higher education was that it had become too much like a business. (Ironically, now the louder complaint, coming from a different source to be sure, is that colleges and universities are not enough like a business, spending time as they do on things besides job training.)

The debate about whether higher education should or should not be like a business obscures a smaller but important question--what sort of business discipline should the components of a college be like?

While someone who knows more about the business office and fundraising operations of a college could write something brilliant about whether those offices should be more about accounting, finance, or entrepreneurship, I would like to touch on a question in my area: What kind of business is enrollment management?

This question matters because over the past twenty years, enrollment management has become a marketing discipline.  By this I mean that its key foci (pricing, branding, messaging, advertising) fall within marketing as a discipline, and that the obsessions of marketing (novelty, agility, cleverness, persuasion, differentiation, growth) have become the core obsessions of enrollment management.

Those obsessions seem to work best in a growth market, one where many additional consumers are looking to buy a product and are making decisions about the purchase based on marketing questions (How much will it cost me? How will it make me feel?  Is the product glamorous or prestigious? Do its ads and sales pitches speak to me?).  In this landscape, enrollment management teams can improve and expand marketing and thereby expect ever better results.

It may be that we don't live in that landscape any more.  Students are increasingly skeptical of traditional marketing tactics, and parents are dubious about the prices being charged for education.  Schools with a powerful brand can still rely on that brand, but the down economy and skepticism about the value of regular higher ed suggest that marketing tactics may not enroll students the way they used to.

So if enrollment management is becoming less like marketing, is there a business discipline whose insights are more helpful?

I would put my money on supply chain management as the disciplinary future of enrollment management. (Thanks to Dr. Brian Levin-Stankevich for making an off-handed remark that sparked my thinking on this.)

Supply chain management argues that it is not marketing, but instead creating value through the entire supply chain that leads to a product's success.  Further, it argues that relationships and customer service are more powerful than messaging and advertising in ensuring satisfaction.

In a supply chain model of enrollment management, admissions offices would think of establishing supply chains of students rather than increasing the number of prospects.  These supply chains--in schools, churches, non-profits, employers, would be in relationship with the college, and would be tasked with selecting the best supply of students for the particular college.  They would be fully empowered to make that decision--given control over a scholarship budget and admissions decisions.  Their work would be evaluated on outcomes--if students succeed in college, the suppliers would continue to get rewards.  If not, then the college would seek out new suppliers.

In turn colleges and universities would go out of their way to build, strengthen, and satisfy their suppliers, since there are many competitors for the supply chains.

Describing access to college in this language sounds, well, business-like.  But looked at another way it is an effort to solidify relationships that ought to be strong, but instead are weak in American society.  Would high school counselors know their students better if they were actually responsible for getting them into college?  Would high school and college curricula align better if there were real incentives to the high school to have its graduates succeed at particular colleges? Would freshmen be more likely to be retained if they attended a college where many of their older classmates attended? Would communities be healthier, and colleges more focused, if their supply of students depended on maintaining good relations with other institutions?

The answer to all of these questions is yes.  And if we could respond to all of them positively, we could be sure, too, that both students and society would be benefiting from the power of a meaningful college education.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Mormon Church's Massive Educational Experiment

There have been few bigger announcements in the past decade from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints than the one it made last Sunday--that young men could leave on missions at the age of 18, and young women at the age of 19. (The previous policy allowed young men to leave at age 19 and women to go at 21.)

The LDS Church made the decision in order to increase the number of missionaries and smooth their departure by making it possible for young men ( who make up the vast majority of missionaries) to leave on a two-year mission immediately after completing high school.

Time will tell whether this move increases the number of missionaries, and whether it has a positive impact on the number and quality of missionary work (though my bet would be yes to the first question and no to the second).  But the move also raises major educational questions.

For institutions in Utah, the big question is where they will go to replace the freshmen who would have enrolled in college before leaving on a mission under the old policy, but who will now go directly into mission work from high school.  Some schools (like BYU and UVU) will lose massive portions of the men in their freshmen classes.

For learning though, the questions are even bigger.  The experiment that the LDS Church has undertaken is this: will young men who serve missions be more or less likely than before to go on to college?  And, will those young men who go to college be more or less successful as students if they skip two years of education between high school and college?

There has been almost no discussion of this matter in the press.  The only nod to it came in the Salt Lake Tribune's sports section, where coaches and student athletes both agreed that going on a mission first would make student athletes more successful as athletes.

Setting aside the tiny handful of LDS young men who are college athletes, I expect that we will see the following impacts of this policy:

1. Top students who are also active members of the LDS church will be fine in college after serving a mission.
2. Decent students who are serious about their futures will also do well in college--the maturity that they gain on a mission will bolster their self-management skills and help them do better in college.
3. Mediocre students, and those in the new college-going demographics, will be slightly less likely to go on to college, and among those who do go to college, more likely to struggle in college.
4. Students who would not have gone to college before the change will not go to college after the change either.

On number 3 above, the recent report from College Board about the levels of college preparation of SAT test takers is instructive. Only 43% of SAT test takers are prepared to succeed in college.  This means that 57% of SAT test takers, (and presumably a higher proportion of those who don't take the test) aren't ready to succeed academically in college.  Among that number will be many Mormon young men, who, if they serve missions, will have let at least 2 years pass between graduating high school and entering college.

The gamble the church is taking is that mission service will help young men develop positive personal and educational maturity that outweighs the losses in learning and focus that come from spending a substantial time out of school after leaving high school.  That seems unlikely.  But if it is the case that taking two years off from formal education makes young men more likely to succeed once they return to schooling, then the world of higher education should take notice.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What the British can remind us about higher education funding

I've argued before that one of the ironies of American education is that K-12 and higher education work under assumptions that are both radically different and uninformed by each other.

One of the most obvious focuses on per-student funding.  In public K-12 education, per student funding is a major point of discussion.  And while there is debate about exactly how important increasing per-student spending is for student learning, it goes without saying that schools that have more funding per student are able to invest in more learning opportunities, better quality resources, and higher paid teachers than those with lower funding levels.  In short, at the K-12 level, per-student funding is about fairness and access to resources.

In American higher education, though, we rarely talk about per-student income as an important indicator of fairness.  It is true that representatives from public institutions express concern about declining state subsidies for higher education. But key rankings of colleges and universities are uncritical about the wealth amassed by major universities (public and private).  And measures of student learning--the value-added scales of the CLA for example--don't directly take into consideration per student income as a factor.  Instead, they predict performance based on student test scores.  Indeed, the main discussion that touches on per-student funding is about the cost of higher education.  Concern about rising cost is spot-on as far as it goes.  But to imagine that financial resources are unimportant for student learning (one implication of the call to reduce the cost of higher education) is to live in a fantasy world.

Enter Professor Roger Brown from Liverpool Hope University. He has calculated an index of the per-student incomes of British universities.  The disparity is huge.  Cambridge has the highest per-student income, at 65,840 pounds.  In comparison, Edge Hill's per-student income is 7,050 pounds.  (The disparity in per student net assets is even larger).

Brown makes two points about this disparity.  First, he wonders whether it is good for the nation to have such a massive range of institutional wealth, given that the well-being of the nation as a whole depends on having relatively healthy educational opportunities for all of its students.

 Second, he notes:

"...there is a basic question of fairness. The better-resourced universities generally recruit students from better-off backgrounds, including many educated at private, taxpayer-subsidised, fee-charging schools. So students who have already had the most spent on them up to the age of 18 continue to have the most spent on them, reinforcing their social and educational capital. By the same token, many of their less favoured state school-educated brethren will continue to have less available to them."

Of course British higher education differs from American higher ed in significant ways.  But certainly the range of per-student income at American colleges and universities would be wider than that at British institutions, given the larger number and more diverse missions of American institutions. But our politics contain no policy recommendations related to that disparity.  Instead, the presidential discussions about higher education share naive calls for reducing the cost of higher education and a tempest in a teapot argument about whether private banks or the federal government ought to fund federal student loans.  All the while, sources of funding flow to institutions who can bring in major philanthropic donations and research support, or who can catch the eye of venture capitalists.  

Nowhere is there a call to shift subsidies from those institutions to institutions whose missions, faculties, and student bodies guarantee that neither the philanthropic rich nor the federal-corporate research nexus will fund them in the future.  But if we hope that education will be a way for people to lift themselves out of poverty and unemployment, we should consider such a move.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What does the history of newspapers suggest about the future of higher education?

Worriers about the future of higher education sometimes suggest that American colleges and universities will follow newspapers in their rapid fall from great prominence to insignificance.  They extend the analogy one step further, arguing that it is technology that will make brick-and-mortar colleges as irrelevant as the newspaper itself.  The proof  is the rise of online course content, which has supposedly made learning free in the same way that social media has made information free.

As analogies go, this one has provoked relatively little discussion, by which I mean it is taken as an absolute falsehood or an absolute inevitability rather than an opportunity to think.  This is too bad, because a fuller look at the history of newspapers suggests a far more interesting set of opportunities for higher education than for newspapers.

Let me start with a thumbnail sketch of the history of newspapers in the US, dating back to the 19th century  (rather than the 2000s where most of these stories start).

In the 19th century, the United States was  a newspaper nation. By this I mean four things:

  •  first, that the nation was awash in newspapers, with hundreds circulating in New York City alone; 
  • second, that newspapers reflected the nation's political and ethnic diversity in that they spoke for particular groups or viewpoints rather than trying to objectively report news; 
  •  third, that most newspapers were local or parochial in outlook, and 
  • fourth that their parochialism and ideology formed a key component of the American democratic system, in the same way that local bosses, ethnic networks, and civil society did. 

Several things weakened the position of newspapers in American society and civic life in the 20th century.  The availability of information via other media (radio, TV) was one.  Another was the rise of national newspapers, both that handful of newspapers with national influence (the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and much later USA Today) and in the national perspective of local papers, whose lead stories increasingly focused on the national rather than the local.  A third was the emergence of objectivity as the goal of reporting, replacing as it did ideology.  And a fourth was the decline of major American cities, which had been home to the majority of newspapers.

The industry's response was consolidation, as represented by the emergence of investor-held major newspaper chains, and by the sharing of operations between ostensibly competing papers.  So, by the end of the 20th century and before the attack of the internet, the newspaper industry was centralized, profit-focused, homogeneous, and already in decline.

Contrary to the regular narrative, then, newspapers weren't toppled by the internet. They were toppled by consolidation, by nationalizing their viewpoint, by seeking profits for investors rather than for owners, and by failing to respond to media who had copied them. If anything, the internet re-created in electronic form the model of news that existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries--hyper-local, ideological, biased, parochial, and democratic. Radio has done the same. And TV is on the same path.

So what might this history of newspapers suggest about the future of higher education?

 First, that if higher ed is in decline, it is in decline on a path that is wildly different from that of newspapers.  Newspapers were in decline in number and readership long before the internet.  Both the number of institutions of higher education, and enrollment in college, is on the rise, and has been for some time.

Second, that organizations that sponsor colleges and universities--states, churches, donors, etc.--ought to oppose consolidation and homogenization, preferring instead diversity, localism, and ideology as the basis of colleges and universities.  We will certainly see declines in enrollment at some schools--rural liberal arts colleges, church schools closely tied to declining denominations, decent small schools with curricula pretty much like dozens of others.  But we will also see the emergence of new institutions, only some of which have the internet as their sole delivery model.  Witness, for example, the emergence of health and wellness-affiliated colleges and universities, set up to respond to the needs of particular industries; and sustainability-focused schools, intent on responding to our environmental crises. My guess is that the next wave of institutions will focus wholly on the new college-going demographics.  A few schools will emerge entirely online, but those who survive will find an online niche, rather than becoming the facebook of online education, particularly since there is yet to be a good business model for such types of schools.

(If I am right and that the future of higher ed is more diversity in institution type, in ideology, in content area, and in delivery, then we will also need to see a greater diversity in pricing.  Colleges tend to price themselves in narrow bands, with most state institutions of a particular type offering similar tuition charges to students, and most private institutions offering tuition in alignment with their peers.  Older schools are close to locked into this pricing model; but new schools will be free to charge what their markets bear--most of them probably less than today's norms, but some much more.)

In short, I am arguing for a decentralized, localist, less-regulated, less-objective future for higher education, both as a means of keeping the system as a whole healthy, as a way of ensuring that people who want an education can get one, and as a way of ensuring that higher education can provide the sort of civic spark that newspapers once did.

This, more than the warning that place-based schools will die in an online onslaught, is the lesson that the history of newspapers has for the future of higher education.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Early admit for regular students

Most colleges that offer early admission programs do it to attract top students.  It is a way both to ensure that top students enroll, and to indicate to them that they are, in fact, top students.  In the logic of enrollment management, these purposes, and the early admit process itself, make perfect sense.

But in the logic of student success, the students who need early admission most are not top students, who know how to do school, and who are likely to succeed wherever they enroll.  Instead, the students who need early admission are regular students--those who are at the median or below academically, and who have little experience with higher education.

The reason is this--the later a moderate or weak student is admitted and enrolls, the less the likelihood that they will be successful.  And if admission takes place after registration begins, the likelihood of success drops even more.  In short, students with a marginal academic background need more advising, more access to the right classes, and more time to integrate into college.

(And for those focused on revenue, since marginal students receive smaller merit scholarships, admitting and enrolling them early is a way of ensuring decent revenue.)

So if enrollment management has as its purpose student success in addition to prestige, building a class,  and revenue, then early admit programs ought to target students who will benefit most from it--not the stars, but the regular students.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Sharing the right data on student loans

Public discussion about student indebtedness is composed of three less than useful strands.  The first frets about the overall amount of student indebtedness, which has now topped 1 trillion dollars and surpassed the amount of credit card debt in the US. The second points to extreme cases of student debt, particularly for students in fields where salaries are low or uncertain. And the third tries to respond to the first two by reporting average amounts of student indebtedness.

Mixed together, the three fail to help families make good decisions because they are all true, but taken together provide an incomplete view of student indebtedness--one that is unlikely to apply at all to an individual student.  Let me propose that to help round out the picture of student debt, financial aid offices should provide these two pieces of data for students at their institutions:

  • The range of student indebtedness. It should be a simple thing for schools to make a chart showing the range of student indebtedness, rather than just reporting the average amount of debt.  I suspect such a chart will be sobering both for those fretting about the student debt crisis (since a perishingly small proportion of students rack up huge amounts of debt), and for admissions officers at schools, since the median and the mode of indebtedness may in fact be higher than the average.
  • Student debt by major. It is almost certainly the case that there are students in low-paying fields (history, for example), who have high student debt.  But the most common location of highly indebted students are graduate students in professional fields--law, business, healthcare.  At the undergraduate level, debt is closely related to time in school, so majors with high indebtedness are likely to be majors where it takes a long time to graduate.  Such data would help families make informed choices about borrowing in anticipation of future earning power.  And it would force institutions to reform the curricula of programs where student debt is higher because graduation is slower.

Friday, August 24, 2012

On administration, vocation, and going over to the dark side

At least since 1977, it has been possible for faculty members to "go over to the dark side."  This phrase is always directed (in jest or in anger) toward former faculty members who have become administrators.  As such, it betrays a great deal about some faculty--that they see administrators as impediments to faculty governance, or as a sign of administrative bloat, or as highly compensated power-seekers, or simply as representatives of the meetings, task forces, committees, reports, studies, regulations, rules, and procedures that are the most visible manifestation of administrative work.

There is undoubtedly some truth (and falsity) in each of these characterizations.  But they miss what is a bigger temptation in administration--that upon going over to the dark side, one will gradually replace belief in something bigger than the institution with loyalty to the institution and the techniques that make it work.

I describe this as a temptation, because it is technique far more than power or regulation that provides pleasure and reward to administrators.  It is the ability to solve problems, to work out conflicts, to find funding, to enroll students, to entice donors, to serve the institution and make its infrastructure stronger that brings satisfaction.  And after a time, a good administrator develops an entire repertoire of tactics that get this stuff done.

Let me be clear--getting this stuff done is good work, and institutions without a good dark side are likely to be short-lived.  But let me be clear also that becoming a technocrat can erode one's sense of vocation, of filling a higher purpose in work.

Vocation erodes for three reasons.  (1) Administrative work is generally non-reflective, and as such one can go very far down a path without thinking about the path's meaning. (Note that I am not saying the path itself is bad, simply that it is unexamined.) (2) Administrative work is busy, and as such it creates an energy, a motivation, that emerges largely from activity, rather than from purpose.  (3) Administrative work lacks a way to act out a sense of vocation, and educational institutions rarely reward vocation in administrators.

Let me say a bit more about point number 3.  Earlier this summer, while taking my first week-long vacation since I became an administrator ten years ago (see points number 1 and 2 above), I read Chris Anderson's Teaching as Believing.  It is an incredible book and wise both about how learning takes place and how the professor's vocation aligns with that learning, even in a secular setting.  Anderson is a Catholic deacon and an English professor at a state university, and his effort to give meaning to academic freedom by bringing his sense of vocation into the classroom was inspiring.

I was hard-pressed, though, to imagine what a book with the same spirit as Anderson's, but written about administration, (call it Administration as Believing) might say.  It is certainly the case that many administrators act ethically because of a set of religious or philosophical commitments to what is right.  And it is true that religious institutions often bring the religion's faith commitments to bear on administrative practices.  But it is also the case that administration rarely feeds one's sense of vocation, which instead gets built outside of work, or through relationships that exist at work, but outside of the real work of the organization.

By saying all of this I mean simply to say that institutions and administrators would be better off if going over to the dark side did not mean slowly losing the sense that one's work was about both earthly things (solving problems, launching initiatives, etc., etc.) and things that have meaning outside and beyond the institution that sponsors it.  Faculty members and students are encouraged to seek that level of vocation.  Administrators ought to as well.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Higher education's impoverished talk about work

In my last post I suggested that higher education has failed to keep its talk (and action) about civic engagement up with the experience and needs of students.

We are similarly laggard in the way we talk about and treat work (I've made this point before).  On one level, this should be surprising, since a tremendous amount of public discussions in the past 5 years have been about the ability (or inability) of colleges to help students get better jobs.  But it is exactly that talk, done almost entirely by people who aren't students, that is the cause of our impoverished talk about work.

When you chat with students about work, this is what you hear:

1. Most of them are working, expect to work through college, and will then continue on in jobs, to be accompanied by periodic bursts of education while they are working.
2. Many of them are skeptical about the future of careers.  They aren't confident that their work lives will continue on a path, or that their jobs will build one on another to some sort of pinnacle of employment.
3. Their skepticism about careers frightens and frees them.  On the one hand, they fear that they will never be able to pay off student loans.  On the other hand, this means that they can select jobs that do not tie them down and that allow them to be creative.
4. Their hope, then, is that this work freedom will lead them to personal freedom.
5. Many hope that their freedom will help them to lead good lives, not lives of corruption and malfeasance, nor lives that are dominated by their jobs.

Put briefly, what students want, then, is not the sort of career guidance we give them (how to network, how to write a resume, how to interview, and access to big-name employers).  Parents want that.  What students want is work that has meaning.

Colleges and universities, especially secular ones, spend precious little time on making work meaningful.  Drop into your career center and you won't see workshops on vocation.  Go to an alumni event and you won't talk about right livelihood. Peruse campus jobs and you will see precious little about learning from work.  Look at the general education curriculum and you will see no guidance about how to think about work, in spite of the fact that we spend half of our waking lives doing it. Look at universities that explicitly serve working adults.  Lots of talk about job placement.  Little talk about the meaning of those jobs.

Again, as with civic engagement, it may be that students have moved well beyond us, and that they don't need our help to do this anymore.  But as with civic engagement, we are failing in our missions if we don't take work seriously. Learning from, through, and about work (or its analogue, discipline)  is, after all, the proper job of educational institutions.  If we aren't committed to it, then we aren't committed to our missions.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Third phase civic engagement and the mission of American higher education

Let me argue that we have entered a third phase of campus civic engagement, one which most campuses are unprepared to face.

Though nearly every type of college or university in the US was born with a civic mission, by the late 1950s, many had abandoned that mission for narrower, more private ones.

Phase one civic engagement emerged with the campus-based rebellions of the late 60s and early 70s.  It grew out of a critique of the higher education of the 1950s. That critique argued that colleges and universities were irrelevant unless they escaped the thrall of the powerful and reactionary. Instead, they should be sources for the creation of a just, egalitarian society. Though phase one grew out of student rebellion, its main supporters were faculty, who through the 70s and 80s built the intellectual apparatus that supports civic engagement--fields of research dedicated to understanding and overturning oppression and pedagogy that favors active or experiential learning.

Phase two adopted the pedagogy and theory of phase one, and adapted it to the civic landscape of the late 80s and 90s.  Its thrust was institutional, and its goal was to build an infrastructure--centers, journals, conferences, and organizations--to embed service-learning and civic engagement into the life of the college.  If phase one had been built on faculty members' desires to bring about radical change in politics, phase two grew out of staff and administrator desires to change students, who in the narrative of phase two civic engagement tended to be traditional full-time students who were disengaged from civic life and from learning.  Service-learning thus became a tool to get students engage in learning by engaging in the community.  Community leaders, who might have blanched at the theoretical radicalism of phase one, found phase two to be wonderful--a source of volunteers, project-doers, supporters of non-profits, and future interns, employees, and citizens.

Most campuses continue to practice a blend of phase one and phase two civic engagement.  Faculty continue to push civic engagement as a tool for political change, staff and administrators continue to see civic engagement as a tool for learning through community-building, and the apparatus that supports these efforts continues.

But while campuses have settled in, students have changed radically.  The proportion of traditional college students--full-time 18-24 year olds living on or near campus and away from their families--is in decline.  So, too, is support for traditional approaches to higher education--approaches which seem to cost too much and lead to too few graduates.  In their place is emerging a new civic context which colleges and universities ought to attend.  Among the characteristics of the new civic context that matter for higher ed are the following:
  • Student demographics have changed radically.  There are more students of color, more low-income students, more first-generation students, more returning students--in short, more "non-traditional" students than ever before.
  • These students are not disengaged from "the community" to use the language of phase two civic engagement.  Instead, they have never left the community.  Many live at home, and work, and have families, and maintain powerful civic and community commitments.
  • These students do not have the time or habits of using phase two's infrastructures.  They are often on campus long after the Center for Civic Engagement has closed, or they are rushing from class to work, without time to stop at the service project.  In fact, group work, partnership building, and the rest of the pedagogical apparatus of active learning is a headache for them because they do not own their time. Learning takes place online as much as in the classroom, and reflection is a natural habit, one supported by facebook, instagram, tumblr, and twitter.
  • These students are impatient with the radical politics of phase one, and with the traditional civic engagement efforts of phase two.  The distinctions between school, work, community, and family life don't work for them, since those things do not fall into neat silos in their day-to-day lives.
  • Instead, today's students are pragmatic.  They will join coalitions with anyone.  They are all leaders comfortable in leaderless efforts.  They favor social entrepreneurship over traditional non-profit work, and boycotts, protests, petitions, marches, and occupations over voting and political parties.
If I am at all right about the third phase, then colleges and universities have some important questions to ask themselves.  Our tendency will be to jump to the practical ones--How should we use twitter in civic engagement?  Should we keep the Center for Civic Engagement open later?  How can we engage this new demographic of students?

But the more important question is not practical, and it does not have to do with students, but with institutional mission.  If students are richly engaged in communities and only sporadically engaged in college life, and if this trend will continue into the future, how can colleges and universities make use of those changes to fulfill their own civic missions?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Does competency-based education shorten time to graduation?

Over at The Quick and the Ed, Mandy Zatynski reports on a hearing of the House Education and Workforce subcommittee about the cost-effectiveness of higher education.  There, she reports that Teresa Lubbers, Indiana's Commissioner of Higher Ed testified that competency-based education, particularly of the sort offered at Western Governor's University, shortens the time to graduation.

I am a fan of competency-based education. Westminster offers three degree programs, a Bachelor's of Business Administration, an MBA, and a soon-to-be Masters in Strategic Communication, that are all competency-based.  Student learning in these programs is phenomenal.  Students feel like they have learned deeply, and that what they learned is more relevant to their lives than what they would have learned in the traditional classroom. And where we have been able to measure learning outcomes side-by-side with traditional programs, students in our competency-based program learn at least as much as students in our traditional programs. But these programs do not, by their nature, lead students to graduate more quickly.  

The same is true for Western Governor's University.  Their IPEDS data is quite clear on this point. Only 18% of students who entered in 2005-2006 had graduated in six years, and only 25% had transferred elsewhere.  No matter how you look at it, at WGU, competency-based education  does not lead to quicker graduation, regardless of what Teresa Lubbers says.

This isn't surprising, given the students who enroll at WGU.  All courses are taught on-line, and most students are non-traditional.  Many stop and start, or take more time to complete classes because of work, family, etc.  This is WGU's market, and based on the students I know who attend there, the approach to learning matches their lives.

The take home is simple.  WGU fills a niche.  Their academic programs are well-designed; their organizational structure innovative.  But if you want to improve time-to-graduation, you've got to look elsewhere.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why cities need higher education strategies

In the United States, almost all colleges are either state schools--that is, sponsored by a state government with the help of federal funding--or private schools.  Both state schools and private schools have geography problems, in that their masters (state governments and boards of trustees) and their locations (actual physical communities) do not align.

This is an obvious point.  But when coupled with another obvious point--that cities, not states or nations--are becoming the most important political geographic units on the planet, that obvious point needs a response.

The response is this: cities need higher education strategies.  Some cities (New York, and for a while longer San Francisco) sponsor universities.  But few cities have a bona fide plan that says: "Our city needs educated people in these fields to create a good society, and support civic life, and build our economy.  Therefore, we will be active in higher education in these ways..." One that has moved in that direction is Mesa, Arizona, which is inviting private non-profit colleges to set up shop within its boundaries

Benjamin Barber will be arguing in his new book that mayors should be much more important political figures than they are.  To that let me add this simple point: one of the most important thing a mayor of any city or town can do if s/he wants to live out the significance of the office, is develop a strategy for higher education.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The tension between the goals of families and the goals of colleges

A couple of weeks ago,  30 Latina 15-year olds and their parents came to Westminster for a days-worth of workshops about getting to and succeeding in college. (The event was co-sponsored by El Observador, the spanish-language publication of the Deseret News. Thanks to them for encouraging college attendance.)

It fell to me to welcome the parents, and to say a few words about the value of a college education, particularly a college education at Westminster. I told them about how connection was at the heart of learning, and how Westminster is built to foster those connections.  And I told the stories of my two daughters, both of whom have made some connections at Westminster that have helped them be better students and better people.  I talked about how Amelia had left Pepperdine because, for all its beauty and quality, she didn't fit there, and how she has found something of a place at Westminster with the  women's lacrosse team.  I showed them her picture from Facebook and told them about how she's spending the summer working in an orphanage in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.  And I shared Lucy's picture as well, surrounded by the friends she has made from China while living on campus, and about her dream to create a major that combines Political Science and Cognitive Neuroscience and her hope to become a diplomat.

I could see in the response of the parents in the audience that they hoped for similar experiences for their daughters, because they loved their daughters, and because access to those experiences would improve the prospects for their families.  This point bears making more clearly.  As the demographics of college students changes; as there are more students of color, and more first-generation students, a college degree is more important not just for students but for their families as well.

In telling the stories about my daughters I was torn. As a father I felt proud. As an administrator I felt also the tension between what higher education thinks is important and what we, as parents, think is essential.  The tension is, in fact, built into the idea of connection.  For it is connection that both makes learning possible and makes families work.  But colleges have failed to take advantage of this continuity.  They have preferred instead to try to weaken one connection (to the family) and replace it with another (to a future that grows out of a college education and relies on the connections of the college, not the family, to succeed).

The idea of weakening one connection and strengthening another has, of course, long been part of the purpose of higher ed.  It became particularly strong in the second half of the 20th century, and is thus the main mode of thought among the people who were socialized during that time in those places.  Many of those people lead colleges today. It is behind the effort to build community in residence halls, to talk about campuses as communities, and to suggest to parents (as campuses sometimes do) that their students will do things at college that they don't want to know about.

It is true, though, that the future promised by the connections of colleges is less certain today than in several generations. It is also true that as college costs rise, more parents will be paying for their children's educations for a longer time than ever before. And so the shift from family networks to college networks, that seemed so rational not long ago, seems more suspect to students and parents than it once did.  Colleges have been slow to realize that, and so we have done less well than we ought at keeping families strong while expanding the opportunities available to families because of the education of their children.

As with the subjects of many posts, I don't know how to resolve these tensions.  I suspect that some of the resolution will be natural, as an increasing number of students will live at home while in school (and in the years after), and figure out one by one how to balance family ties and college ties. Some of it will be attitudinal, as colleges change the way they talk about transitions into college.  (It need not be the case that a move to college means a move away from family ties, or that we should be sanguine about the notion that students will behave worse with classmates than they do with families, or that the only phrase in our lexicon about parents is "helicopter parents"). Some of it will be conceptual, as we stop drawing distinctions between family and college networks. And some of it will be opportunistic, as colleges understand that working with families from the time their children are young is the best way to ensure that those children will be able to afford, attend, and graduate from that college.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why legibility is better than transparency

In the political sphere, transparency is a hallmark on democracy.  But in education, transparency, or making all possible information available to all possible users, confuses as often as it helps. For students legibility, or making it  possible for them to read where they are and where they go next, is more valuable than transparency.

Consider these hallmarks of educational transparency--the campus map, the course catalog, and the tuition and fees list.  Colleges and universities place maps showing all buildings on their websites and at key points on campus.  But students, parents, and visitors are constantly lost.  Why? Because the map provides too much information.  No one really needs to know where all buildings on campus are located.  Instead, they need to know how to get from where they are to where they are going, something that maps do only with difficulty.

Similarly, the course catalog aims to encapsulate all information about a campus' curriculum and graduation requirements.  But students consistently make poor choices, misunderstand policy, and emerge from the catalog more confused than less.

And tuition and fees lists aim to make students and their families aware of all potential costs of attending an institution.  But those tables are generally ignored, in lieu of parents asking a straight-up question--"How much will it cost to attend your school."  To that question we have few good answers, since costs of attendance are variable and odd, given the way that schools rarely charge round figures for anything.

Forbes journalist Patrick Spenner gets it right in his recent blog post, "Forget Engagement, Consumers Want Simplicity." There, he argues that marketers who aim to engage potential customers in too many ways--social media, frequent campaigns, personal contacts--instead trip them up.  I find this increasingly true in student recruitment, where improved marketing tools allow us to contact prospective students dozens of times over the three years prior to enrolling as freshmen.  Some students love the attention, but most ignore much of the interaction, or worse, disconnect early in the process.  (Enrollment managers talk increasingly of stealth applicants--students who apply to the college without us knowing about them.  But the truth is that there are few stealth applicants.  There are instead students who were in the recruiting pool at the outset, but disconnected until they ultimately applied.  They are "simplicity seekers" not stealth applicants.)

The best example I've seen recently of legibility (or in Spenner's terms "simplicity") is at Utah Valley University.  At UVU, all major educational buildings are linked, so that you can walk indoors from one building to any other.  UVU has made huge improvements in helping students and visitors get around--not by posting more campus maps, but by simply posting signs hanging from the ceiling at any juncture between buildings.  Those signs include simple information--the name of the next buildings down any possible path, and an arrow showing which hallway to follow.  The boundaries between buildings are simply marked by the purpose of the building ("business' or "liberal arts" for example) being spelled out in the carpet.

Anyone can get around UVU's campus, then, if they simply know three things--that all buildings are connected, that you can find your way by reading signs, and the name of your final destination.

Not all campuses are designed the way UVU's is.  But you can take their principles of legibility and apply them elsewhere by building educational systems with three questions in mind:

  1. What is the campus' approach to the educational experience?
  2. Where are the critical junctures where signs need to be placed?
  3. What is the student's end goal?
It is disappointing but not surprising that few campuses have simple and clear answers to these key questions.  Each school has all sorts of approaches to education--some majors are lockstep, others aren't, some require a thesis, others don't, some place students in internships, others don't.  We have too many critical junctures--between semesters, and years, and when changing majors, and all sorts of application deadlines.  And we aren't very good at knowing what a student wants to major in, let alone his/her overarching educational goals.  Given our complexity, we resort to putting all possible information out there, and hoping that students can find their ways or build a relationship with a wise mentor who will guide them through.  Or in other words, we default to transparency because our educational systems are illegible.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Mission, demographics, and the problems with enrollment management

Students who go to college in the future will be different from the freshmen who have traditionally enrolled in private colleges and universities.  In order to attract and enroll those students, private colleges and universities will need to better differentiate themselves from each other, and from public institutions of higher education.  But as an enrollment manager, I cannot be confident that I have the tools I need to enroll those students.  Here is why:

With the exception of very prestigious institutions, colleges and universities seek students by buying their names from testing and other college preparation services.  We then snail mail, email, call, text, and visit with those students to try to get them to enroll.  But our ability to buy names is limited by the sort of data that testing services gather.  And right now, they mostly gather demographic data and data on academic performance.

These data are important--they help us target students by geography, socio-economic status, and test score.  But they don't help us see who will really engage with our campus, learn successfully in our classrooms, flourish at our school in ways that they wouldn't flourish elsewhere.  In other words, because those data don't tell us anything about how a prospective student will match with the mission and the pedagogy of the institution, they don't help us link our institutional mission with its central task--educating students to succeed in college and beyond.

Now it is true that mission-matching takes place later in the recruiting process (sometimes), and it is true that many high school students do not care much about the mission of the schools they are looking at.  But it is also true that if schools don't do better at attracting students who really fit the institutions they are selecting, we will fail to do our duty to those students, their families, and the communities that support them. And we will fail to take advantage of the characteristics that make our institutions unique.

Having said this I confess that I don't have any idea how to align student search with mission.  But the organization who does it, who helps colleges and universities think about prospective students as more than an amalgam of educational and demographic data, will have done real good for students and for American higher education.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Why tuition-driven colleges are the future of higher education

To listen to the pundits, including such luminaries as Stanford President John Hennessy and Khan Academy founder Salman Khan, tuition-driven institutions of higher education are dying. In fact, in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Hennessy said, "if you look at the vast majority of colleges in the U.S., there are way too many that are [dependent on tuition to fund their budgets]. That is not sustainable."

Let me respond.  Baloney.  In fact, it is increasingly likely that the only institutions of higher education that will survive in the future are tuition-driven, that is, schools where students pay roughly what it costs to educate them in order to get an education.  Tuition-driven schools have a pricing problem--by-and-large we have not found the equilibrium price between what a student wants to pay and what it costs to educate them.  Hennessy and Khan are correct that the use of technology might help us find that price. So might many other things, including greater specialization, clearer curricula, more straight-forward pricing, better loan options, competency-based education, and about a thousand other innovations already rolling out in higher education.

But schools like Stanford, and Khan Academy,  and your local public institution have much more than a pricing problem.  They have a business model problem.  Here is what I mean.  All three of those institutions have built business models that rely on massive and unpredictable sources of revenue to stay open.

Start with the clearest example--state institutions.  For several generations, the subsidy that states provided to state institutions, plus a moderate amount of tuition money, kept the doors of state institutions open.  But the amount of subsidy, at least in comparison to the cost of education, is in sharp decline. And it is tremendously unlikely that that subsidy will return in my lifetime.  So state schools are hunting for a new business model.  What are they turning to?  Tuition.

Consider Stanford and other highly selective research institutions, private and public.  These schools will likely survive long into the future.  But it is unlikely that they will survive as schools dedicated to educating students.  Already, in fact, the chance of enrolling at Stanford as an undergraduate is perishingly small, not because Stanford is incapable of educating more students, but because education isn't its business model.  Instead, its future depends on donations from alumni and wealthy fans, effective management of its endowment, and the ability to capture research contracts from the federal government and corporations.  That is, Stanford is a foundation, an investment firm, and an R&D contractor.  There are almost no existing schools who, not being in the Stanford  category already, are likely to be able to follow that business model in the future.

Finally, think about Khan Academy.  Its mission is to provide a "free world-class education to anyone anywhere."  Except, of course, that the education is not free.  Students simply do not pay for it.  Instead, the cost is borne by investors, and donors, and advertisers who hope that running ads on YouTube sites associated with Khan Academy will drive traffic to their businesses.  It may be that Khan Academy can survive and prosper with a business model reliant almost entirely on subsidies.  But I doubt that the future of higher education lies with such a model.

(Please note that I am not arguing that the waning of state subsidies for education is necessarily a good thing.  It indicates a weakening of our sense of common purpose, of the notion that I am better off when my neighbor is well and wise, and of the idea that communities in the United States protect their futures by educating their young. That weakening is sad indeed.)

Which returns us, again, to tuition as a model of educational funding.  There is a certain logic to paying tuition, since it aligns exactly with what we do elsewhere.  Buying a snowcone involves exchanging money for a product.  So does buying a shirt.  When purchases are very expensive (as with cars, health care, and houses), industries arise to help buyers manage costs and avoid shocks.  Variety of quality and services emerge so there is a continuum of options available to purchasers. And subsidies arise on the margins of the industry to help those who need the thing obtain it at a reasonable cost.

So I can imagine a future with a much greater range of prices (as opposed to quite inexpensive state institutions and quite expensive private institutions) and services in higher education.  And I can imagine a future where there are some state subsidies for some students.  But the thing I am most certain for is that more and more people will pay for their own educations.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The end of financial aid leveraging?

Nearly every institution of higher education in the US leverages financial aid.  That is, we all give different amounts of aid to different students to encourage them to attend our institutions. The practical impact for students is that classrooms, like airplanes, hold customers who are paying radically different amounts for the same seat. The result for campuses, at least in theory, is that the institution realizes as much revenue as possible while still filling its class with qualified students.

There is solid research in behavioral economics, and plenty of lived experience to suggest that financial aid leveraging has worked in the past.  But my sense is that it may not work well into the future.  Here is why.

Our ability to leverage financial aid depends on a set of beliefs among students and their parents:

  1.  a general assumption that higher education is a good value and a specific belief that the particular institution where a student will enroll is worth the cost,
  2.  a willingness to pay money (or to borrow money) to make up the difference between aid and cost of attendance, 
  3. a willingness to overlook the fact that each student pays a different amount for the same education, a difference based largely on the student's prior academic performance (and slightly on their actual need).
The institution has to have a different set of beliefs:
  1. that students will come even if pricing is unclear,
  2. that the particular model of financial aid leveraging is both financially and morally defensible,
  3. that the model of leveraging maintains or improves the overall quality of students at the campus,
  4. that the class of interested students will be academically and financially varied enough so that students who pay a lot are numerous enough to subsidize those who pay little.

It is fair to say that every one of the assumptions above is under question right now.  One need only consider the move of major research universities into online learning, the uproar about student loans, the explosion of parent appeals of financial aid packages, the outrageous financial aid packages given to  top academic students (who, of course, usually come from families with greater means to pay for higher education), and the changing demographics of new college-going students--to recognize that the landscape that once supported leveraging is radically changed.

Schools have two options to respond--they can stay the course, hoping that while the national mood undermines the assumptions behind financial aid leveraging their own markets will be willing to go along. Or they can move, as a first step, towards clarity in pricing while they figure out exactly what their education is worth to the families who want to buy it.  

Option two demands something more than  changing tuition, particularly for small institutions. It demands that we re-calibrate where we stand in the market and who are the students who are most likely to succeed at the college.  Gone are the days when small colleges could get by on a pitch about small class sizes and an academic program that looks a lot like that offered at big universities.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The most important fact about the future of higher education

Many things will be true about higher education; only some of those things will be important. If your school is concerned about the future of higher education, it must both figure out what makes a fact important (in my book important facts are those that, if acted upon, have the potential to change the whole institution), and which important facts your school wants to focus on.

The most important fact about the future of higher education is this: all students will be transfer students.  By this I mean two things: first, that an increasing proportion of students will approach an institution bringing transcripted credits with them, and second, that even more students will bring expertise with them that they have learned outside traditional institutions, but which must be transferred into their new campus if that campus is to be true to the student's learning and aspirations.

Here are several ways in which the fact that all students will be transfer students will transform higher education:

  1. Traditional measures of success for access, retention, and graduation, will become obsolete. If most students bring credit with them, there is no such thing as a "freshman class," retention will not be controllable (since students will move easily among several institutions), and four-year graduation rates will mean very little, since few campuses will provide the entirety of a student's education.
  2. The idea of a curriculum will be unstable. Curricula rely on students taking courses in sequence, or at least in an order required by the institution.  But transfer students will not join an institution with the same academic backgrounds, and so therefore won't want (or shouldn't want) to take courses in sequence.  Curricula must look like networks, not lines, and learning must include opportunities to make meaning of learning outside of a standardized sequence of courses.
  3. The freshman year will be less important.  For the past two decades colleges and universities have focused on improving the first-year and placing distinctive programs in it.  But given the increasing number of students coming with credit and knowledge of varying sorts, the first year will be much less important than the last year, presumably the only time when most students at an institution will be able to have a common experience.
  4. The most important skills for faculty will be aggregation, meaning-making, and certification, not teaching, learning, research, or any other currently popular aspects of pedagogy. It will fall to faculty to work with students to help them aggregate their prior learning from a variety of institutions and sources, make meaning out of it, add to that store of knowledge, and then certify that that knowledge adds up to something that can be carried along.
  5. Colleges and universities will specialize more than ever before. If students are transferring knowledge and credits from many sources, only those institutions with identifiable specialties will be able to stand out among standardized options.
  6. The most important alliances between institutions will be among unlike, not like, institutions. Currently nearly every alliance--athletic conferences, consortia, lobbying groups, faculty development networks, etc.--are among similar institutions.  Westminster is part of the New American Colleges and Universities, a consortium of institutions of similar size and programming.  The University of Utah has just joined the Pac-12 to be with schools more like it. But in a transfer world, schools will want to ally themselves with a network of differing institutions in order to maximize learning for (and revenue from) students.  We will see more formal alliances between community colleges and liberal arts colleges, research universities and teaching institutions, so that within a network of schools a student can get all the learning s/he desires, and individual campuses can contribute specific things of value to the learning of particular students.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What auto loans can teach us about student loans

If you were a recent high school graduate, worked hard, got decent grades, and wanted to borrow $20,000, you could spend it on one of two things: a new car or a college education.  One of those choices is a much better investment than the other.  But while it is almost universally understood that a college education is more valuable than a new car, it is also the case that the means of getting that education--a student loan--is widely feared while the means of getting the car--an auto loan--carries no such stigma.

There are big cultural reasons why this is the case: the contradictory fears that a college education is essential for success in life and inadequate to ensure that success, for example, or the nonsensical political debates about  student loan interest rates.

But I am more interested in the practical reasons that auto loans are accepted and student loans feared, because colleges and universities can do something about those practical considerations.  Here are five characteristics of auto lending that might be suggestive for student lenders. The characteristics share one factor that ought to be on the mind of people working to fix student loans: auto loans give people power to act in ways they see fit.  Student loans, at key points in the college process, make it more difficult, not less, to act.

  1. Markets in interest rates matter--I can borrow money to buy a new car at 2.94% from my local credit union.  Occasionally, manufacturers offer 0% interest.  If I had horrible credit, but was willing to follow a strict repayment plan I could still get a loan, albeit at a much higher interest rate.  In short, there is a market for auto loans dedicated to making it possible for all sorts of people to buy all sorts of cars.  There is no meaningful market for student loans--regardless of your background, career goals, or ability to pay, you pay rates set by a single lender, the federal government, and take out loans in amounts dictated by the federal government. (And because there is no real market for loans, the few private lenders in the business can set their rates even higher than the federal rates.) Markets, when they work correctly, empower people to make informed decisions.  The process of getting a student loan is disempowering--all the key factors are out of the buyer's hands--the rate, the amount borrowed, the source of the loan, its term of repayment.
  2. The size of the loan and the desirability of the purchase coincide--A new car is most desirable when it is new, and so its worth aligns with the amount owed.  As the car ages and its value declines, so does the principal.  As with cars, a college education is most desirable when it is new, before the hard work, the disappointment, and the frustration of choosing a major, writing a thesis, and facing up to the hard factors of life weigh in.  But unlike an auto loan, a student loan's principal is highest when the thing purchased--a college education--is at its end--the moment when satisfaction is often the lowest.
  3. It is the monthly payment that matters--When you take out an auto loan, the focus of the discussion is on the monthly payment.  This focus, of course, obscures the total cost of the loan.  But it also helps people budget, since they know that each month for the coming five years they have to pay that amount.  In student loans, the monthly payment is a moving target until after graduation.  That fact makes budgeting difficult and forces soon-to-be-graduates to make decisions about their futures in a context of uncertainty.
  4. There is a secondary market for the loan and for the purchase--If you borrow to buy a car, and then decide that the car isn't for you, you can sell it. Selling the car allows you to either invest in another car or pay off your loan early.  Or, if you keep the car, other people can use it--brothers, sisters, friends.  But there are no secondary markets for college educations or student loans.  The loan you take out is yours.  You cannot share its amount with a family member.  Nor can a friend take classes paid for by your loan. So the social benefit of a student loan and a college education are blunted by the way the loan is constructed.
  5. An auto loan buys a car; a student loan does not buy an education--You buy a car because you need a car.  The thing purchased is directly tied to the money borrowed.  But a student loan really buys time in the classroom, not learning or an education. There are no guarantees; you cannot return the education if it isn't working, or get it repaired under warranty. For this reason, if time in college does not lead to learning, the price of the loan seems out of alignment with the value of the thing purchased.
It is my sense, then, that if the government is going to reform student lending, or if student activists are going to take up the issue, that they look to the auto business, where loans align with desires, serve social purposes, come with clear information, and provide freedom to act.