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.