Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why high schools will be the next major innovators in higher education

Nearly all of the press about innovation in higher ed is focused on technology firms--Coursera, or any of the many other MOOC providers, for example, or new low-cost online institutions like the University of the People.  But if I was looking for the business sector best situated to innovate on cost and quality in higher education, I would look to high schools, not high tech.

Three reasons why:

  1. High schools already have means to get their students college credit. Whether it be via AP, IB, Cambridge exams, CLEP, or concurrent enrollment, a large proportion of high schools in the US make it possible for their students to earn low-cost, transferable college credit.  And as those programs expand, the cadre of high school teachers prepared to support college-level learning grows as well.
  2. High school teachers, on the whole, have more training and experience in supporting student learning than do college faculty. (This is in fact one of the major lessons of MOOCs--that in very large, impersonal, online college courses, most students fail to complete.)  As the demographics of college-goers change, it will be high schools and their teachers more than universities and their faculties,who  are prepared to ensure their success.
  3. High schools, particularly independent high schools, have both market opportunity and the need to innovate here.  Independent, private, and parochial high schools charge tuition to their students. They are also widely perceived to be better schools than public high schools. But while their tuitions are generally lower than college tuition, and their value propositions stronger than public high schools,  they struggle to enroll and retain students.  If independent high schools built out their college-credit opportunities, though, they would both strengthen their value propositions and  reduce the overall cost of education to their students.
All of these points suggest that high schools should expand access to college credit with an eye towards offering their students a complete general education before moving on to college.  Doing so, most reasonably through the creation of a 13th year of pre-college coursework, would strengthen their market position, take advantage of their strengths, and make it possible for their graduates to move more directly to graduation from college. In turn, students would have greater access to less-expensive, rigorous, and well-supported college-level courses, and the credits that go along with them.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Learning from low-cost private universities

Most people believe that private higher education is too expensive.  Their suggestions for reducing costs fall into two categories:

These answers, though,are speculative.  No private institution has significantly reduced the cost to students through these methods.  In fact, it is from the most expensive and prestigious institutions that low-cost online courses are flowing.  Those schools seem unlikely to reduce tuition in the near future.

These speculative recommendations ignore the fact that there are many low-cost private non-profit institutions of higher education in the United States. The Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center generates lists of the private institutions with the lowest tuition and the lowest net costs.  What do these schools share?
  1.  Most have never had expensive administrators or luxurious campuses. 
  2.  Few offer online courses.
  3.  They have a clear curricular focus--usually religious--and generally offer a limited set of degrees.
  4. They often are subsidized by religious bodies or in the case of Berea College, a massive endowment.
  5. They are resolutely local (note, for example, the large number of low-cost private institutions in Puerto Rico).  Or put another way, few have national or global aspirations.
  6. Instead, their aspirations are to serve a single population, or a particular sponsoring body.
  7. Many are very small.
  8. They tend to have very low retention and graduation rates.
  9. Many are newly created.
A healthy discussion about the cost of private higher education would take these schools into consideration.  Their track records are not spotless--many teeter on the brink of collapse, others serve their students poorly by charging them so little.  

But four characteristics of theses schools are intriguing--curricular focus, local commitments, and recent origins.  All four flow against the trend towards offering more degrees, seeking global opportunities, and banking on the prestige that flows from venerability.  But education reformers who value private, non-profit higher education might bear these characteristics of real schools in mind as they try to craft the successful institutions of the future.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Kevin Carey is (mostly) wrong about merit aid

Kevin Carey is one of the smartest and most eloquent education analysts in the United States. He is also mostly wrong about the uses of merit aid.

Carey's recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, "Too Much "Merit" Aid Requires No Merit," argues that a significant amount of merit aid (institutional scholarships based on academic performance) is given to students whose academic record does not merit it.  In giving such aid to the "stupid sons of the rich" (here Carey is quoting Harvard's turn-of-the-20th century president Charles W. Eliot) higher education both forces taxpayers to subsidize other students more heavily than it otherwise would and debases the meaning of the word "merit."

His article is wrapped around an anecdote about the son of friend.  The parents were intelligent and rich; the son shared his parents wealth but not their academic prowess.  Nonetheless, he was admitted to several decent private colleges, two of whom offered him a merit scholarship--in Carey's telling in order to entice his wealthy family to pay the rest of the $50,000 annual bill. The parents were incredulous, the father telling Carey, "He's never gotten a 'merit' anything before...He's not a very good student."

It is true that there are students at many institutions like the student in this story, who were indifferent academically but still qualified for merit aid. And it is true that giving such scholarships to the children of the wealthy somehow seems, well, wrong.  It is, in my experience, rarely the case that such a scholarship is given to a student only because s/he is from a rich family, though. And it is also true that the alternatives to awarding merit aid in this way are not much better, either for students or for the institution.

Think about the three pricing models that private colleges use to attract students.  In the first, the college prices tuition at what it costs to educate the student and offers almost no scholarships. In the second, the college prices tuition at roughly what the market will bear, but then provides institutional aid (almost entirely in the form of a discount) based on family need.  In the third, the college again chooses a market price, but then provides institutional aid (again, as discount) based on merit.  What happens for students and for the school?

In model one, schooling is largely available to students of middle and upper-middle class families who can afford the $15K+  that it costs to cover the costs of education.  The student body is thus from roughly the same economic strata, but of varying levels of academic preparation. Will the school be able to enroll enough  students to keep the doors open?  Only if its reputation is strong enough, its quality high enough, or its costs low enough to generate demand.  Otherwise, students have no reason to choose the school.

In model two, schooling is largely available  either to wealthy students who aren't academically strong enough to go somewhere else, or to students with significant enough need, met by need-based aid, that the cost of attending becomes affordable. Again, academic preparation varies widely, but so does the economic well-being of families.  And again, the school will struggle to enroll enough students, unless it has very generous donors whose gifts offset discount, or its reputation is so distinctive that it can attract both of its potential main audiences.

In model three, schooling is available to students with a relatively narrow range of academic preparation (those whose grades qualify them for merit under the school's criteria), and with a relatively narrow economic range as well.  The school will attract students who can afford it, who are attracted to its message, and who may be enticed by a reward for their prior academic performance.

None of these models is inherently better than another.  Schools choose them based on a mixture of their position in the marketplace, their mission, and their view of the social ends of education.

In practice, no school uses one of these pure models.  Most use a mix of models 2 and 3, supplemented by federal or state aid.  In the case of Westminster College, for example, applicants with an ACT score above 21 and a high school GPA above 3.0 earn merit scholarships. Scholarship amounts and ranges are posted publicly. Very few students below that range come to Westminster.  But at each merit scholarship level, students are also evaluated for need-based aid, some from the college, and some in the form of federal loans and Pell grants.  It is the case, therefore, that attending Westminster is actually less expensive for a student with financial need than for a student with a comparable academic background from a more prosperous family.  It is also less expensive for a student with a strong academic background, regardless of his/her economic situation, than it is for a student with a weaker academic record but the same economic profile.

These results--that the cost of school is less for needier families than richer ones, less for strong students than weak ones, and  least for needy, bright students--are defensible on social and educational grounds. But for a school that accepts these results, there are several implications. For enrollment managers, the biggest challenge is balancing the number of prosperous and less-prosperous students, and the number of academically strong and less strong students, so that the institution earns enough revenue to stay open and meet its goals of maintaining access to a quality education.

I have written critically of this practice, known as financial aid leveraging, because it makes price opaque to students and because it may not be well-founded in human psychology. It can cause academic problems as well, since the range of academic preparation can (though needn't necessarily) vary widely at leveraged schools. (That can also be the case at schools that hardly leverage at all). Further, students who are among the weakest academically at any institution are less likely to be retained.  But so are students who are needier, so leveraging is no guarantee of college success.  And for someone like Carey who is looking at higher ed as a whole, the practice raises questions about the quality of the system, since because different schools attract different pools of potential applicants, a student with a 1000 on the SAT may get merit aid at one college, but nothing at another.

Kevin Carey decries financial aid leveraging also when he criticizes institutions for giving merit aid to "the stupid sons of the rich." But Carey is wrong about schools' motivation for giving merit aid to wealthy underachievers. Schools don't do it because they want to enroll more stupid sons of the rich.  We do it to enroll more bright daughters of the poor.  That goal may be worth a few thousand dollars of merit aid to a "stupid son", even for a kid whose parents don't think he deserves it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The unwise pleasures of administrative work

Forgive me for writing about something both personal and mundane.

My family and I took last week--spring break at Westminster--and went to Southern California.  It isn't a particularly opportune time to travel if you work in enrollment management (though truth be told, more opportune than lots of other times of the year).  And since I also play a large role in Westminster's current strategic planning process, and since I'm holding down the fort as the Interim Director of the Office of Communications for another week or so, I decided that I ought to work a couple of hours each morning.  Which I did, along with checking my email every ten minutes or so, and also working at night after everyone went to sleep.

The trip was pleasant but not relaxing, in part because of where we spent several days (Disneyland--don't ask why), but largely because of my inability to disconnect from work, and thus to agreeing to be superficially on the trip and superficially at work.

I told myself on Sunday that the habits I have developed are unwise.  They have left me a bit frazzled, and a lot uncertain about the grounds upon which I stand and from which my motivation stems.  I've been reading Ruth Haley Barton's Sacred Rhythms (ironically including in the wee hours of the morning on vacation and on the flight back), and have been struck by its deft description of my own spiritual disconnectedness and by its recommendations for establishing a "rule of life" --a set of practices that are slower, quieter, and more aligned with what I think I desire deep inside myself.  And I'm committed to taking up lectio divina as a way of paying deep attention to something small ( a few verses of scripture, a poem), and trying to remind myself that a key reason I got into higher education was to focus--to develop a discipline, a profession.

I drove to work this morning, my first day back, with that desire for something deeper on my mind.  I got to my office, and then spent an entire day in frantic activity--bouncing from meeting to meeting, answering phone calls, writing emails, and producing documents. My day touched, among other topics, accreditation; 2+2 exchange agreements; the number of FAFSAs filed by admitted students from outside of Utah; the design of webpages for graduate programs; the intersection of strategic planning and liberal education; graduate education; the strategic direction of the Utah Campus Compact; our commencement program; the transition for the next Director of Communications; our tuition and fees schedule; the college's SWOT analysis; the Utah higher education legislative agenda; the impact of sequestration on federal financial aid; three personnel questions; aligning recruitment, financial aid, retention, and long-term financial sustainability; and recruitment for graduate programs.

That said, today had its pleasures.  This is the largely unspoken truth about administrative work--it has its psychological pleasures.  It doesn't offer just busy-ness, but the opportunity for flow, for making Blink decisions, for moving many things one step further ahead.  The pleasure is part of the reason that administrators thrive in meetings--because meetings are brief periods of focus, in which decisions get made that allow the rest of the rush of the day to take on meaning. It is what makes it possible for them to keep working when the work doesn't carry the intrinsic rewards of working in an area of one's passion. Administration is a "feat of strength"--a demonstration that in the face of overwhelming demands, one can avoid succumbing to any of them (at least during working hours--the feeling at night and first thing in the morning is something else entirely...)  It is a feat of connection--a way of remaining a contributing part of a community whose core purpose you serve but do not participate in.

I've got no deep insights (as befits my role as an administrator) into solving this problem, if it is indeed soluble. But a few thoughts: any effort to make administrative work meaningful in the way that lectio divina, or disciplinary work, or deep commitment to a single task, well-performed are meaningful,  has to grapple with the fact that administrative work is not just all of the things that open it to mockery, but that it is also attractive, pleasurable, and rewarding in ways that other forms of higher education work are not.  Even more, the effort at meaning has to face up to the fact that for all of the grousing about the burgeoning administrative corps in higher ed, administrators do work that is central to the success of colleges and universities. The true challenge, then, is not about time allocation, or better run meetings, or clearer procedures for governance, or any of the other proposed solutions to the administrative problem.  At least in my mind, the challenge is to find ways that the pleasures of administration--which are in many ways unwise--can become wise.

If you know how to do that, let me know.  I check my email constantly...