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.