Monday, January 30, 2012

Which "high touch" practice would you kill?

Campuses love to tout their high touch approach to education--the small class sizes, one-on-one interaction between faculty and students, mentoring, academic advising, etc. Students and parents seem to like them as well.

But beyond their virtues, there are five problems with the typical list of high touch educational interactions:

  1. They are expensive.  Faculty time spent one-on-one with students costs more than faculty time with a bunch of students. 
  2. They are not well integrated into faculty workloads.  Faculty work is designed around hours in the classroom (and preparation for those hours).  Some institutions add research expectations, and most add governance work as well.  But how does a campus account for and compensate outside the classroom interaction with students?  Hardly at all, much to the chagrin of faculty.
  3. They are not equally distributed among students.  Some faculty are open to lots of high touch interaction; many are not.  Some students take advantage of the opportunities; many do not.  And among those who do not are often students who need it most.
  4. High touch practices are not always high impact practices.  George Kuh and the NSSE folks have studied which practices lead to higher student engagement, and by extension better learning. Most of them are curricular reforms (learning communities, freshmen seminars, capstone courses, etc.) Some have high touch as a by-product, but few high touch practices are, in themselves, high impact practices.
  5. Most campuses don't align high touch practices with their missions.  All types of schools tout small class size, for example, regardless of whether small classes are more likely to help their particular students learn, graduate, and become who they wish to become. And few campuses ask which practices their students need for success.
So given these problems, it seems like schools ought to be willing to cut out certain high touch practices for providing less benefit than their cost implies.  One could study this question, but I think most of us could come up with a few that we would kill right away.

My first choice would hours. Few students use them, many faculty ignore them, and the benefit to individual students is marginal. 

Which would you kill?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why Larry Summers is wrong about the future of education

 Larry Summers is a very smart and very powerful man.  And has a lot of wise things to say about education.  But one of his notions (which is also shared by Bill Gates) deserves more scrutiny. Summers has argued recently that colleges and universities should back off on hiring faculty because they are content experts. Instead, they should show their students the classes of the best professors in the world. The inevitable result, in his thinking, would be smarter students all over the world since they had all learned at the feet of the best professors.  Let's call this view the "best course model."

Now you can see the appeal of this idea.  Why not, after all, make the best education possible available to the most students possible?  And why limit access to the best professors to the small group who manage to get accepted to the universities where they teach?

Attractive notions, both of them, but hardly likely to result from some sort of massive national screening of courses taught at Stanford, or Berkeley, or Harvard.  Why?

  • Faculty at prestigious universities are rarely the best teachers of their disciplines.  They are, instead, the best researchers in their fields, who teach an occasional course for undergraduates.  This is not to say that all professors at top universities are poor teachers (think, for example, of Michael Sandel's course on justice), only that the question of quality, which is assumed in the proposals of Gates and Summers, is actually quite complex, and is unlikely to be resolved by picking courses offered by "the best professors."
  • The main motivation behind this notion is prestige, and prestige is rarely a good motivator for learning.  Think, for instance, if through some sort of process it was determined that the best physics teacher in the world was at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah.  How many colleges would select his/her course as the basis of their own physics courses?  Hardly any, if we can extrapolate from the world of textbook publishing, which is dominated by texts from faculty at top universities (or by textbooks written by committees of faculty from top universities), or from the world of open content learning, which is dominated by the content offered at MIT, Yale, and Stanford, not that shared by faculty at regular colleges and universities across the globe.
  • Learning is not guaranteed to be the result of watching lectures taught by the best professors in the world.  What evidence we have about learning suggests that it happens in active learning settings, where students are responsible for puzzling through problems, struggling through assignments, critiquing each others work, putting theory into action in the community, etc.  In other words, watching the "best" courses is likely only to replace a very small portion of what has to happen in order for students to learn.  The bulk of it will still have to happen in the interaction of students, teachers, course material, and the real world.
  • Many of the best courses are idiosyncratic, and apply only in particular settings at particular times.  Try to imagine, for example, what the best freshman literature course would look like.  What would its content be?  Which books would students read?  What would they write? Which theories of literature would be welcomed?  Which would be shunned?  Or try watching the lectures from "basic" courses at MIT and Yale.  Many of the professors are wonderful.  And most make choices about content which faculty and students wonder about.  Gates and Summers can be forgiven for assuming that agreement on content would be a simple thing.  Their fields--computer science and economics--may have a more standardized set of assumptions about the content of introductory courses.  But most disciplines don't share that level of agreement.  And past the first few courses, even the most standardized disciplines give way to specialization based on the interests and assumptions of the faculty who teach those courses.
  • Standarization, not excellence, is likely to be the outcome of widespread adoption of the best course model. Now Summers is comfortable with a centralized, standardized model, since it is the model that most respects the worlds in which he leads.  But as long as education is about helping real students with real aspirations reach those goals, and the varied goals of their institutions, the best course model is an impediment to the development of students as learners and as people.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

When cost, quality, and access are in conflict

People who worry about the cost of higher education often argue that high cost reduces access to higher education.  That is undoubtedly true.

But it is also true that low cost limits access.  Here is how: When a good school offers a very low tuition, demand for enrollment in that school increases.  In this case, schools could do one of two things: increase enrollment or become more selective. Because schools have a limited ability to increase capacity (both because of physical plant and because low cost is almost always a result of finite subsidies from outside sources), they almost always become more selective.  And by becoming more selective, students who need access to higher education are often unable to enroll in those top-quality low-cost schools.

US News and World Reports' recent list of the 10 Least Expensive Private Colleges makes this point in spades. The top four schools in this list (which is an idiosyncratic list--it is missing Cooper Union, for example) are good schools and inexpensive.  But they are hardly accessible.

Berea College is inexpensive because its endowment--almost 800 million dollars--subsidizes a huge portion of its budget.  The BYUs that follow--Idaho, Hawaii, and Provo--get subsidies from another source.  When I was a faculty member at BYU Provo about a decade ago, the rumor was that 80% of the budget came from LDS Church funds--mostly the tithing dollars of members. I don't know if that number is correct, but it is certainly the case that BYU is inexpensive because the church pays most of the costs of attending there.

These schools limit access in two ways. First on  mission.  Berea is dedicated to serving low-income students from Appalacia, the BYUs to serving Mormons. Second, on academic preparation.  Here BYU Provo is the strongest example.  Its entering freshman class routinely has an average HS GPA of 3.75 and an ACT composite score of 28.

(BYU-Idaho has worked hard to increase capacity to be able to serve Mormons who cannot get into BYU-Provo.  It has adopted a year-round calendar, and has recently begun aggressively moving into online education. (Take a look at The Innovative University for the full glowing story. Here are my views on the book.)  In doing so it hopes to draw on volunteer faculty--retired Mormons with PhDs who will teach online for almost nothing.  Hardly a business model for the nation.)

The stories of these schools share a simple message--reducing cost doesn't necessarily help with access at all. It may, in fact, make it harder for good students to go to good schools.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why cities are the future for liberal arts education

There are two main questions about the future of liberal arts colleges.  The first focuses on relevance, and wonders whether in an increasingly technological and career-centered world, there is any room for a major that doesn't lead directly to a particular job. The second frets about cost, and wonders whether, in the future, students will be able to afford to enroll in a liberal arts college, most of which, being private, are very expensive.

These are important and useful questions, both of which I have written about in the past.  But there is another question we ought to be asking, one which, if schools get the answer right, can help them respond to the first two queries.  It is this: Where is the future of liberal arts colleges?

You can start to understand the importance of the question by asking where the present of liberal arts colleges lies.  The answer is, by and large, in rural communities east of the Rockies.  This is true of top liberal arts colleges like Dartmouth and Middlebury and Grinnell.  But it is equally true of little known liberal arts colleges, which are sprinkled by the dozens through the towns of New England, the Midwest, and the upper south.

Those towns were important population and cultural centers when their home colleges were founded, mostly in the 19th century.  And for much of their histories, the small colleges mostly enrolled students from the local region. But today, the population of those regions has dwindled, and large public universities have swallowed up much of the enrollment in the state.  A a result, small, rural liberal arts colleges struggle to either raise their profiles by competing with nationally known liberal arts colleges on amenities and cost, or they struggle to stay alive. (The parallel with mainline protestant congregations is instructive.  Those congregations often planted colleges in the farming towns of the New England diaspora.  Now those churches struggle to stay alive in places where the population is aging and shrinking.)

You might also ask where liberal arts colleges are not.  They are not east of the Rockies, by and large, with the exception of pockets in Seattle, Portland, and California.  And they are not in the burgeoning cities of the sunbelt and West.  There is one liberal arts college in Salt Lake City--Westminster College.  There is one in Denver--Colorado Christian.  There are none in Phoenix, or Las Vegas.  There are only a handful in the cities of Texas, Georgia, and Alabama.

This matters for two reasons.  First, students enroll in colleges close to home.  If the vast majority of the American population lives in or near cities, the vast majority of students will pick urban institutions.  Second, cities contain both the employment opportunities and the amenities that make it possible for students with liberal arts degrees to find employment, and for colleges to keep costs low.  If you run a rural college and want to attract students interested in theater, and athletics, and restaurants, you have to build them.  But if you run an urban liberal arts college, those opportunities are within walking distance of campus.

In fact, if I had to build a new liberal arts college right now, I would build one in the heart of a city.  Instead of erecting a gym and a library and a cafeteria and taking on those costs, I would make arrangements with the local Gold's gym, and the public library, and surrounding restaurants for my students to use their facilities at a cost.  The college supports local economic development, and connects deeply with the local community,  reduces its own costs, and heightens the range and diversity of the learning experiences of its students.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ten theses on improving quality, reducing cost, and increasing revenue

The challenge facing small private colleges like Westminster is to improve the quality of learning while maintaining or lowering costs to students and increasing revenue to the college.  To date some colleges have been successful with one of these goals, but often at the cost of the others.  There are many reasons for this failure, but two stand out.  

The first is the assumption that quality is measured almost entirely by inputs--the academic preparation of incoming students, the variety of services offered to students, the amenities provided on campus, the pay of faculty, the reputation of the institution, etc.  Many campuses pursue improved inputs as part of a strategy to heighten the prestige of a campus and thereby drive students to it.  But all of these quality measures add expenses to campus, which are either absorbed in the budget or passed on to some students through higher prices.  

The second is that campuses rarely coordinate the activities that bear on these questions. By this I mean that decisions about tuition and aid are set in one way, decisions about the curriculum, policy, and student services are set another way, and decisions about expenditures in a third. The separation of decision making means that choices, such as those on enrollment, which influence the ability of the campus to provide a quality education, are made apart from those decisions on curriculum, policy, and expenditures which make it possible to assemble a class.

So the question is whether a campus can work simultaneously on cost, quality, and revenue; and if so, under which conditions this sort of work is possible.  I believe the three can be linked.  Here are ten characteristics, which if they existed on a campus, would make simultaneous work on cost, quality, and revenue possible:
  1. The most important quality measures are outcomes measured by learning--of students, staff, faculty, and other campus constituencies--and by student perceptions of value.  Those value perceptions are almost always a function of how much a student paid to attend in relationship to how much the student learned.
  2. The most important cost measure, then, is not price (particularly not sticker price) but instead the cumulative amount that a student and his/her family pay for education. Communication with students before, during, and at the end of their educations should emphasize this point.  And influencing this measure should be the key focus for campus stakeholders working on cost issues. 
  3. The most important quality measure is time to graduation, since it sits at the intersection of cost,quality, and revenue.  In theory, excellent quality education and strong student learning should reduce the cost to students because they are more likely to graduate on time having learned enough to succeed in a future that they desire.  And excellent quality and improved graduation rates increase revenue by heightening demand and expanding the capacity of the institution to handle that demand.
  4. There are curriculum policies  that cumulatively improve quality, reduce cost, and heighten revenue.  Among them are smoothing transfer enrollment, regularly updating the content of the core curriculum (rather than creating new courses to respond to changes in the field), reducing the number of electives, increasing the number of core credits in a major, increasing opportunities for special topics courses and internships. 
  5. Curriculum reform should focus on implementing these changes across campus, so that the shape of majors (number of credit hours, proportion of coursework and independent work, capstone experiences, internships) is as similar as possible across the institution. Otherwise, while students in some fields will move more effectively through their educations, others will not.  And without similarity across campus, it is impossible to reward faculty fairly for their investments in this process.
  6. Greater similarity in the shape of the curriculum leads to greater efficiency.  But it also improves quality by increasing the consistency of faculty interactions with students and preparing students to learn successfully in the college’s particular learning environment.
  7. Improving quality, reducing cost, and increasing revenue can be accomplished while maintaining many sorts of diversity.  But it is unlikely to be successful at institutions that enroll students from a very wide range of economic backgrounds and levels of academic preparation. Diversity in academic background creates a wildly fragmented curriculum where highly skilled students (via honors and other special academic programs), and less skilled students (via remedial and introductory level courses) have special pathways to graduation which lessen the efficiency of the curriculum and the effectiveness of common approaches to learning.  And wide diversity in economic background means that certain students subsidize the tuition of others, thus lessening the likelihood that all students will perceive the quality of their education similarly. As with the curriculum, then, financial aid should trend towards similarity across campus, with the range of financial aid awards narrowing.
  8. Recruiting should shift towards enrolling students who will be successful with the college’s particular approach to learning, rather than recruiting a wide range of students of whom only a portion is likely to be successful.  Note that this does not assume that a college must only recruit academically strong students or only wealthy students (both of which are hallmarks of an input-focused approach to institutional success).  Instead, it imagines that schools can position their missions, curricula, and financial aid to align with a demographic that is most likely to be successful in that setting.
  9. Campuses must distinguish themselves as a whole from their competitors (so that, say, Westminster as a whole becomes more and more different from its competitors) by creating greater similarity within the campus (so that, say, there is greater uniformity of experience regardless of a student’s major). Doing so allows the development of campus-wide expertise in a particular sector of higher education instead of developing pockets of expertise in many sectors of higher education.
  10. The effort to improve quality, reduce cost, and increase revenue requires a coordinated approach that spreads over several years.  Often, institutions seeking to make headway on these issues start with rewriting their missions.  But the approach above  favors making headway on key infrastructural matters--curriculum shape, financial aid and recruitment philosophy, common approaches to teaching and learning, time to graduation--as a precursor for creating a mission that has support from stakeholders and systems.