Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

The Ecosystem of Higher Education

According to Brittanica.com, an ecosystem is “the complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and all their relationships in a particular unit of space.” This concept reminds us to look at how things interact with and influence each other rather than focusing on isolated instances of things. A convenient metaphor for interactions within commercial spaces, this term has been applied to contexts outside of the biological, things like healthcare, technology, housing, and so on. Today, I am thinking about higher education through the ecosystem lens.

Several years ago, I was at a legislative breakfast – a semi-annual ritual where our university hosts our local representatives to give them updates on all that is going on at WCSU. These are often pleasant affairs where we get to know each other and talk about our challenges, but also our strengths. At one such meeting, I was asked a pointed question out our university outcomes. The College Navigator tool had just become widely available, and so the focus on comparisons between schools and their retention and graduation rates had come into sharp focus. It was an interesting moment because it was clear that the tool itself did not yet give a context to those numbers, a context that should have demonstrated the differing expectations for those numbers depending on the type of school. I endeavored to explain.

While every college and university strives to support every student to degree completion, there are striking differences in types of campuses, programs, and student needs at each. All of those differences impact our outcomes. It is no surprise that elite campuses, who only admit the most prepared students, have very high retention and graduation rates. If they did not, it would be cause for concern. As admissions standards open to a more inclusive group of students, those numbers change. When you add things like the proportion of residential vs. commuter students, high need vs. middle income students, state appropriations sufficient to support reasonable student to advisor and student to faculty ratios, those numbers change again. Despite the goal of 100% degree completion all of these factors make a big difference in those outcomes.

Now, it is not the case that a campus has no agency. Prioritizing a focus on student success strategies can make a difference. Investing in opportunities for faculty to engage new research about teaching can make a difference. Focusing on fundraising to help support those tremendously important last dollar student grants – grants that can keep a student from stopping out for lack of a few hundred dollars – can make a difference. If a campus can manage to do all of these things, it will likely rise to the top of the list for student outcomes among its peer group (taking into account all of those other variables).

But on that day eight or nine years ago, I was actually discussing something more akin to that ecosystem idea. In Connecticut that ecosystem includes UCONN (the research university that many outside of CT think is a private university), the Connecticut State Universities (regional comprehensives – 2 large, 2 small), Community Colleges throughout the state, Charter Oak College (the public online college), and a significant number of private colleges and universities (Sacred Heart, Fairfield, University of Hartford, Quinnipiac, University of New Haven, Yale, Trinity, and there are more). I was arguing, at that time, that we had different jobs to do, different students to serve, and we needed to be understood from that perspective. Don’t evaluate colleges and universities on one data point, I said, you want us to be different so that all students in the state have options. You need to consider how we work together. That was then.

Now we are all staring at that long-warned demographic cliff, and in a state as small as Connecticut, our crowded ecosystem has reached a critical moment. With so many of us competing for the same students with similar programs and accreditations, we are out of balance, and something will have to give.

But wait there’s more. Although most of us offer some online programs, large online providers from out of state are here, and their impact is already being felt. We have also seen the growth in popularity of Coursera, Google, and Amazon education programs, giving strength to the argument that there are many ways to prepare graduates for the jobs available in the region. That crowded landscape, coupled with the not so quiet questions being asked about the value of our traditional models, is causing panic (and it should), but perhaps it might inspire invention and adaptation instead.

As I think about our overbuilt higher education ecosystem, not just in CT, but in all of the Northeast, the natural impulse is to think about campus differentiation. Should we try to apportion out who will offer what? That question has been asked for years and outside of a few specialties, it is largely impossible to achieve. Universities must have a broad range of programs that interact with each other to create a quality liberal arts degree. We might haggle over a few specific degrees, but overall, there really isn’t room for much differentiation. This is a path that will not yield much change.

But I am wondering if this is an opportunity to adapt to this crowded landscape in a different way. Instead of focusing on the programs we offer, maybe we can specialize in approaches to teaching and learning. I’m thinking about a much more defined campus experience, curricular and co-curricular that are organized around a consistent teaching and learning model. It might be thought through based on those conditions I described at the outset -the types of students we serve and the types of campuses we support. Focusing on teaching and learning, instead of programs might help us find our niches, without losing the breadth of subject matter that we so value. It might allow us to improve our outcomes and be more specific about the kinds of support our campuses need to achieve these ends. It might help us articulate our specific value within this crowded world of higher education.

Taking this approach might help us reposition our questions about how many programs we can support, to how we might build a true educational identity that draws in an appropriate audience of students who have an excellent chance of success. I don’t know if this strategy could work, but what I do know is that something is going to have to change. We are at a tipping point in this ecosystem, so I am thinking it through.

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