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.