Higher Education, Quality, Regional Comprehensive, Return on Investment

Being a Community Asset

In the past decade or so, many higher education institutions have worked hard to raise their profile. Savvy enrollment directors and presidents had their eyes on the coming demographic shifts, and they worked hard to establish reputations beyond their traditional recruiting area. They knew there were not going to be enough students in that region to sustain them. Some invested in new programs, others rushed to specialized accreditations, and still others celebrated winning athletic contests that brought them national recognition.  It was an exhilarating race.

All of these seemed like sane strategies, and there have been some big winners.  But the field is crowded, and not all of us have the resources to found a medical school or compete in division one sports. For those of us designed to serve a broad range of students while working with more limited funds, this quest for national brand identity was and is out of reach.  To put it simply, being recognized costs money. When choosing to invest our resources, schools like mine tend to focus on direct student services, rather than reputation.  It may seem shortsighted to some, but when faced with the day-to-day realities of our student’s needs, direct services win every time.

But, here we are.  The demographic shifts are upon us, the big winners in the branding arena have been determined, and we are not among them.  We don’t have national recognition, and as we work hard to maintain reasonable enrollments, we are facing difficult decisions about the allocation of our resources. As we make those decisions, it might be a good time to focus on the value we bring to our local community.

WCSU is a wonderful option for so many people. We have a diverse array of programs, highly qualified faculty, interesting research opportunities, and some very nice buildings.  Many of our students go on the impressive things, like law school, medical school, and other interesting graduate programs.  Others win prestigious scholarships like Fulbright’s and Goldwater’s, or full-funding for graduate degrees in math or economics.  However, the vast majority earn their degrees from us, secure employment in the region, and get on with living productive lives. I am very proud of every one of these accomplishments.

Having lived in this region for over twenty-five years, it is impossible for me not to see our impact. Everywhere I go, I run into our graduates.  They are running small businesses, inventing new things, and working for global firms.  They are in our healthcare agencies, our schools, our police forces, and running social programs. They are volunteers, elected officials, and proud parents. They are my friends and neighbors.

Just last week, I was out to dinner, listening to some friends play music, when I ended up in a conversation with another musician who earned his business degree from us and is now working for an international accounting firm.  His wife earned a degree in social work from WCSU as well. Both are having wonderful lives, working in their fields, and raising their children in CT. Their parents also attended WCSU and if they send their children to college with us, they will be third generation WCSU graduates. That is some kind of endorsement of our offerings, don’t you think?

These kinds of conversations are a common experience for me. I hear of great outcomes in grocery stores, at concerts, and local fairs.  I am occasionally called upon to give advice to families whose children may be struggling.  I have helped friends of friends guide their children back to college, after the study-away experience didn’t work out. Sometimes, I find myself explaining our policies on park benches or at the beach. It is actually an honor.  I am happy to be that resource for so many members of my community.

Reflecting on these experiences, I realize just what a privilege it is to be a good, regional comprehensive university.  Instead of focusing on being a national brand, we’re focused on doing quality education.  Our offerings are typical of our kind of school and they are, in fact, pathways to productive lives. From the generalist degrees that serve as great foundations for careers in many fields, to the more direct career focused programs that prepare students to be nurses or social workers, we provide opportunities for all students to thrive. When appropriate, we add new majors that meet emerging demands (cybersecurity and addiction studies come to mind), and that is important, but mostly, we offer quality education that sets our graduates up for success.

I guess what I am saying is this–as the number of students in our region drop, I still want to be that great option for my friends and neighbors.  I don’t want to chase a trend or invest resources in the ratings race or hire a consultant to tell us what we already know about who we are. Instead, I want to invest in the things that support this environment, so that we can continue to be the community asset that we have always been.

This makes us a little vulnerable. We have to figure out how to manage our resources while we wait for a new generation of learners to be ready for college. It is a real challenge to budget for status quo, rather than growth.  But, I think we are on the right track if we keep quality education as our focus, rather than shiny objects.   It may not be glamourous, but it is sure does change lives.


Change, Higher Education

Starting Fresh

I admit it, this morning’s review of the higher education landscape has got me a little down.  In the Northeastern US, we are facing devastating demographic predictions–well over a 5% decline in high school graduates through 2025 (NCES).  The closure of the week was Concordia University in Portland, Oregon.  The announced merger of the week was the Minnesota Rural Community Colleges.  This comes on the heels of Maine’s plans to unify it’s four-year system. Pennsylvania seems to have sold out its public university system in favor of SNHU’s nimble degree completion programs.  Relaxed recruiting rules from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) mean last minute (and continuous) efforts to poach each other’s students is now standard operating procedure.  And, my personal favorite, we’ve become accreditation crazed, shelling out tens of thousands of dollars annually to say we are the best in business, education, nursing, art, social work or music… just like everyone else who can afford to do so. Our collective response to innovation, competition, reduced state support, and changing demographics has been to act like for-profit industries.  Oh dear.

So, now what?  It isn’t like we can afford to do nothing.  In the simplest of terms, there aren’t enough students to support all of the colleges and universities out there (particularly here in New England, but we aren’t alone).  At the same time, we cost too much for many of the families that need us most.  For the public systems, the taxpayers are no longer willing to bear anywhere near the full cost of our operations. For all of us the student loan system is broken. We have to do something, but is taking a corporate approach the right answer?  I don’t think so.

What if we were forced to start all over again? If we had the opportunity to design an education system from scratch, would it look like what we have today? With a blank slate, what might we come up with? Here are some considerations.

Question 1: Does the traditional four-year degree model still make sense?

We did not always think everyone should go to college. Even a high school education for all is relatively recent.  The increasing demand for advanced credentials has come from a variety of stimuli, including social justice, GI bills, and the world of work and invention.  The expansion of access to higher education was and is crucial for a society built on advanced technologies and socio-economic mobility.

Nevertheless, it is not necessarily true that the traditional path to and through post-secondary education meets that need.  That is why things like technology boot camps, and mega online universities are gaining traction in the education landscape.  So is the investment in high school programs that grant college credentials, and community college technology programs. This isn’t all bad, but for many of us, it is a limited approach to education.  But, it might be a good clue to what we should be thinking about.

Question 2: Does the going away to college model, with all of its attendant co-curricular supports, still make sense? 

When we first imagined higher education in the United States, it was a place to which students had to travel. Universities were a destination, and as such required an infrastructure to house, feed, and (eventually) amuse students. These services, and the attendant healthcare, mental healthcare, and co-curricular programming are a significant part of the cost of higher education.

Yet, the majority of students do not live on college campuses. In the US, about 73% of students attend public colleges and universities (Statista). Only 40% of those students live in dorms (The College Board). In addition, about 56% of students choose to attend colleges and universities within 50 miles from home, another 12% within 100. The tendency to attend a relatively local institution has risen consistently since 1990 when it was about only about 37% (Econofact Network) .  Much of this change is probably driven by economics.  Some of it is social, as we see trends of students living with their families longer both during and after college. Maybe we should take a hint from these patterns.

Question 3: Is it possible to structure education in away that truly meets the need for life-long learning?

Colleges and universities (and accrediting bodies) all assert that life-long learning is an essential outcome of an undergraduate education. Yet, we very much suggest that learning is complete upon graduation.  We hand out a diploma and call it a day.  We may be laying the foundation for learning, but we are also shutting off access to the things that support learning in very real ways.

Meanwhile, the need to keep pace with changing cultural and technological demands is persistent.  Whether we are discussing re-tooling for world of work because new technologies have emerged or jobs have disappeared, or we have to adjust to an increasingly diverse community and need to know a little bit more about how cultures interact, it is clear that life-long learning has never been more important. But this need for knowledge often emerges in contexts that one did not anticipate in school and then we are ready to learn.  Should we be considering structures that truly support life-long learning, by being available long after the first part is done?

As usual, there is so much more to think about.  What should the role of online education be? Why do we still entwine athletics with education? Should everyone have a gap year or two?  How should we re-structure the funding of higher education so that there is actual equity? Why are we spending so much on accreditation? And the list goes on.

It is a big project, when you think about starting from scratch.  It might be uncomfortable, because we may have to let go of some of our favorite things.  We may have to face the fact the tiers of access that we have built are unfair or insurmountable. We may have to acknowledge that our priorities need to be realigned. Nevertheless, it might be a better place to start than the for-profit priorities we’ve drifted toward in the recent decades. At least I hope so.



Evaluation, Higher Education

Outstanding Education?

Nearly twenty years ago, when my children were just getting started in elementary school, I attended a community meeting about the proposed school budget.  I live in a very small town (smaller now, with the regional demographic shifts), so such meetings were an important part of the democratic process. We came together to discuss the details of the budgets before heading to any votes.  At that time, I recall two dominant themes – what do we need to invest in to create a great educational experience and how do we keep the costs down so we do not price people out of our community.  These themes, of course, turned into questions about must haves vs. nice to haves.  Like any town, we had differing opinions about what that meant, but we generally came to some consensus, or at least voted to approve a budget.

Today, I am a member of that school board, and we are still having the same conversations. Our shrinking enrollments and aging tax base have made the conversations a little more strident, but it is still mostly good conversation.  We are spending our time trying to define quality educational experiences that will help our students thrive, without creating an overwhelming cost burden for the town. As I listen to the concerns of my neighbors, and try to keep us from speaking in the hyperbole that so easily divides, I find my mind turning to my job as provost.  We, too, are facing shrinking enrollments (the drop in K-12 enrollments has a necessary consequence in higher education) and a tax base concerned with their ability to support everything the state needs.  As the challenges have descended upon us, we have done a lot of speaking in hyperbole.  Perhaps, it is time to have some honest, if difficult, conversations.

Let’s start those conversations by asking ourselves to identify the necessary components of an outstanding undergraduate education.  No one sets providing mediocre education as a goal, of course, so we want to set the bar high.  However, we do not usually think carefully about what we mean by “outstanding” or how we might achieve it.  Instead, we wait for it to emerge from our offerings.

Because higher education is built on the idea that faculty expertise is our greatest resource, we have a habit of deferring to that expertise at all times.  Much of this habit is a good one.  It would be foolish to hire people who have deep expertise in their disciplines and then tell them what to teach.  No innovation will happen under those circumstances. So we try to create an environment that encourages faculty innovation and hope that this will help us discover excellence.

However, the result of too much deference to this expertise is generally curricular sprawl.  New options or concentrations or majors and courses pop up on a regular basis.  They reflect emerging interests or fields, or sometimes a momentary trend.  These additions to the curriculum are rarely accompanied by a reduction in other offerings, because, well there is a good argument to be made for any course or any major.  Frankly, good arguments are a specialty of higher education. The sprawl is fine until we see sustained dips in enrollment. Then we are faced with low-enrolled courses, degrees, or majors, and the removal process awaits.  We are not good at this part, so we try to avoid the question, or speak in the language of outrage, and try not to eliminate anything.

But, eliminate we must.  Enrollments have made the decision for us.  So has the proportion of our costs that states are willing to fund. The time for avoidance is over. However, we still want to rely on the insights of our faculty.  So, as we take these necessary steps, instead of starting the conversation with dollar figures, we should start by coming together to define the components of an outstanding undergraduate education.

There is a lot to consider, and it isn’t just the number of courses or majors. For example, we might want to look at how we have defined our degrees (BA vs. BS vs. BFA) and the proportion of each in our catalog.  Doing so might uncover a tendency toward more professionally oriented degrees (or the opposite), and reveal that for the students we serve and the faculty expertise we have, we see this as a priority.  At the same time, we might want to take a close look at the differences between options within a major and answer the question of whether that level of specialization really benefits our graduates. Perhaps some things could be a little less career focused.

Then there is the general education curriculum or liberal arts core.  What role is it playing in the overall vision of an outstanding undergraduate education?  Are students encountering varied ideas or are they mastering key skills or some combination of the two?  Is it organized developmentally? Does it support the major? We know we must provide general education, but have we set it up in a way that promises to support critical habits of mind in our graduates?

What pedagogies should we feature? Are there approaches to teaching that every student should experience? If so, how do we organize schedules to support those, pedagogies while keeping the balance of offerings in view?  Is it possible to design schedules around encounters with critical pedagogies, without privileging one approach?

Then there is that very tricky question: How will our graduates be different from the graduates of any other college or university? This is a difficult to answer, of course, because much of what is promised in higher education really is the same everywhere. We are all trying to support graduates who have a reasonable grasp of the world around them and the potential to thrive in an environment where change is a constant. Nevertheless, we have different students, different faculty, and different expertise. Surely, we have a unique point of view that can help shape the decisions we must make about what we offer.

If you read any news about higher education, you will encounter a long list of mergers, financial challenges, closures, and other worrisome trends.  No one in the northeast is immune (well, no one but Harvard and Yale).  It is a scary time, but I think, if we try to come to a consensus about the qualities of an outstanding undergraduate education, we might just start to see what the path forward could be.




Affordability, Higher Education

Iowa Caucuses

Here it is–Iowa Caucus day 2020.  In this topsy-turvy field of democratic candidates (obviously the republican candidate is already settled), we’ll be watching the winnowing begin.  Student debt has been one of the top issues for many of the candidates, and I have been watching with interest as various plans for reform are put forward. While I do not have anything to say about the plans, such as they are, I do want to focus on some issues that are salient for me.

The structure of our economy, coupled with the cost of housing, means that most people cannot achieve a measure of economic stability without some level of post-secondary education.  What that post-secondary education consists of can vary widely, but as a society, we must acknowledge that a high school diploma no longer carries any real advantage.  To help people help themselves, we must support affordable post-secondary education.

Affordable has two important variables, where one starts and where one hopes to end up. Where one starts is all about the assets we can leverage to go to college.  Those assets have to do with our K-12 experiences (did we have access to quality college preparatory curriculum or will we need remedial education), our socio-cultural experiences (has anyone in our family/neighborhood ever attended college or do we have to figure it all out on our own), and our economic status (can we pay tuition? can we afford not to work full-time?). Policy proposals surrounding higher education need to take these questions into account, because they answers have everything to do with student debt.  Less-preparation, more time working, and even cultural adjustments generally add time to degree completion. Time to degree completion drives up cost.

Where one hopes to end up has to do with the potential earnings associated with one’s college degree. This is not a simple equation.  Investing in nursing, or education, or accounting degrees may have a pretty clear return on investment, (if you don’t overspend to achieve them) but most degrees do not. Working in public service careers generally means earning less than in the private sector, but not always.  A good education in entrepreneurship does not a millionaire make.  It simply prepares students for the changing world of work. So does a degree in literature. For advanced degrees, it may make more sense to align cost with earnings potential, but at the undergraduate level, it just does not add up. Given this complexity, perhaps it is the cost of the undergraduate degrees that we should focus on, not the earnings potential of particular majors.

Much of the college debt conversation in the press features extravagant and often unnecessary borrowing.  It makes a good news story to focus on the student who took out $150,000-200,000 in student loans and now cannot afford to live reasonable lives.  This is a lot of debt, but those loans frequently reflect some unfortunate decisions, most of them motivated by an obsession with brand recognition. Social pressures and guidance counselor recommendations inspire students to pursue degrees at private colleges and universities, when families do not have sufficient resources to support attendance at those schools. Borrowing to attend many privates can easily top $150,000.  Yet, there are many public alternatives with the same curriculum and leading to the same certifications.  Let’s try to stop the debt before it happens, by focusing on the public options. We should celebrate the investment we have made in public higher education and the opportunities it provides, instead of convincing students that a lot of debt for comparable private school experience is necessary.

While public colleges and universities are relatively affordable, and our system of Pell Grants is admirable, we are still too expensive for many families. Remember, we have increased the credential requirements for a reasonable standard of living, so more people must go to college. This means many families who might not have ever considered post-secondary education now feel compelled to provide it. They are not likely to have amassed sufficient savings to support a college degree. If we simply take the basic model, where students live with their parents while in college, then the costs per year at a public college in the northeastern US is somewhere between $8,000-$14,000 per year (considering fees and books, etc.). If families want their students to have a residential experience, then we are talking about an additional $10-12,000 per year.  This could easily get a student to $80,000-100,000 in debt. It is not the norm, though.  Most opt to commute and save on the housing.  There is actually quite a lot of responsible borrowing. But, how much is reasonable?  What level of interest should a student pay on that debt? These are the important questions. What is a reasonable return on investment based on the typical, not the exceptions?

What is clear to me is that I am looking for a candidate with a demonstrated commitment to public higher education.  Seventy-four percent of all students attend public higher education institutions. These institutions do their very best to meet the needs of a diverse student body, by combining support for the least prepared students, with opportunities for the most-prepared students, all with the same finish line in view. They are non-profit, which frees them to focus on the best interest of the students, not the bottom line. Unfortunately, public institutions have faced funding cuts for over a decade and these have been passed on to our students.  Those cuts are a huge driver of student debt. So, let’s fund public higher education at a level that does reduce debt. Let’s invest wisely in these engines of opportunity, because we know that we need to education the majority, not the lucky few. Let’s commit to creating opportunities for all because the return on that investment will benefit the whole of our society.