A Summer Full of Optimistic Ideas for Higher Ed

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Sometimes I feel like we are the voice of gloom and doom in higher education. We don’t mean to be. Colleges and universities will survive — they are the gateway to a better, more productive life for almost everyone. But they will evolve — the present business model is broken.

So where are the  new ideas to make colleges better? Attending a number of recent higher education conferences, I heard a lot of optimistic approaches to higher education — or at least examples of where we need to direct focus to solve problems.

Here’s a few that seemed especially promising:

Make Community College Transitions Easier

Community colleges are the entry point to higher education for a growing number of students every year. But they have a dismal record for helping students achieve their dreams. More than 80 percent of first-time students entering community college intend to achieve a Bachelor’s degree. But only 17 percent of students who start in community college obtain a Bachelor’s degree within six years.

A series of papers published by HCM Strategists looks at ways to help more community college students succeed. Some clear themes emerged.

  • First, most community college students don’t understand the path to earn a Bachelor’s degree. Advising is minimal, little advice is available on even such basic facts as whether their community college credits will be transferable to a four-year college. Build in advising and give students clear dashboards to achieve their goals.

  • Many of the older students enrolled in community college have work experience. Competency-based education, which would measure their existing skills and give them credit for them, would be especially popular at community colleges, and perhaps give them a better chance of one day attaining a Bachelor’s degree.

  • Four-year colleges and universities should be setting up overt partnerships with community colleges. With the demographic plateau in the number of college-age students, community colleges are a great source of non-traditional age students. These students statistically are a much likelier bet to persist to graduation. It is about time many colleges began paying more attention to them.

Class Formats Focused on Engaging Students Seem to be Working

The flipped classroom is one of those pedagogical innovations that makes a lot of sense. But does it work? One professor at Missouri State University has been trying to not only change the way she teaches an entry-level psychology class, but also to measure her students’ progress. So far, it is looking very promising.

Danae Hudson, a psychology professor, still lectures, but first her students take part in small study groups and tune into MyPsychLab, an online portal run by Pearson, before the lecture. Her students have scored as much as 86 percent higher on a standardized test than they scored on the same test under the old read-the-textbook-and-attend-lecture approach. The withdrawal rate from her class is down by more than half, and, as an added bonus, the new approach has cut instructional costs by 27 percent per student.

The key is engaging the student, giving them several points of contact with instructors every week, and varying the ways they are learning, said Hudson.

Make ‘em Laugh

I recommend watching this funny, clever, iconoclastic video from Jacksonville State University about how higher education is changing, and the Core program that this university is pioneering. My favorite part starts at 1:04, with the question: “What’s the solution?”

This level of snark must have made a number of people on campus uncomfortable. But they took a chance, and included it anyway. You want to cut through the clutter? Be edgy while making a point. Showing this level of creativity makes others want to work with you.

Stop Looking to Fail. Look to Succeed.

Young incoming college students are having enough personal crises when they arrive on campuses: Can I make it away from home? Do I have any friends? Did I pick the right major?

Why compound the angst by steering them into survey courses designed to trim the herd rather than to inspire?

Young students are just figuring out who they are, and gaining confidence, said Deirdre M. Mageean, the provost of Cleveland State University. But colleges are destroying it by forcing them into classes they fail.

“How many more STEM students would we have, but they have given up because they failed introductory math?” she said at the Summer Academic Affairs meeting of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.  In the not-too-distant past, Cleveland State, like most colleges, would have given freshman a list of required classes that overwhelmed students. “Once students fail one class, they might drop out of college and never come back,” she said.

Instead, why not ease students into college, let them find their bearings and gain confidence, and then take on challenging classes. “We are looking at ways to steer young students away from Introductory Biology before they have settled on a major,” said Mageean. “Because it is a devastating experience for many students.”

MOOCs Haven’t Killed Higher Ed — Will Online Learning Finish the Job?

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Another academic year has finished on most college campuses. And tradition won, or at least it thinks it has. Most of the change-resistant masses in higher education are celebrating the defeat of the MOOC. Two years ago, the massive open online course was seen as the innovation that would destroy traditional higher education. Free classes from the top professors at the top universities seemed unstoppable, and sure to undermine the traditional business model.

But the MOOC was not the killer app — it turns out most people are just sampling, not looking to actually complete the classes. MOOCs assuredly have their uses, but they are just another option for taking university-level classes.

But preoccupation with the threat of MOOCs has taken higher education’s eye off the bigger picture.

Online education — of which MOOCs are just a small part — continues to grow rapidly, and appears to be a larger and larger part of the future of higher education. In the last decade, the compound annual growth rate for online enrollments is 17.6 percent, while the annual growth rate for overall higher education enrollment is 2.6 percent. Almost one-third of students take at least one course online.

Even prestigious schools like Northwestern have online schools staffed entirely by adjuncts (though some of the adjuncts are actually full-time Northwestern faculty picking up some additional experience in the new medium — and some extra pay too.).

Recently, Bloomberg published an article predicting the demise of perhaps half of the nation’s business schools. Why? Because of inroads made by online education. Once the top schools have put MBA degrees online, how will lesser-known colleges, with less valuable brands, compete for students, the article argues.

But why doesn’t that same logic apply to all of higher education? If online education is going to wipe out business schools because of convenience and the creation of new efficiencies, why not entire colleges? The same logic applies.

Clay Shirky recently wrote that those who work in colleges and universities “live in institutions perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists.“ The MOOC certainly doesn’t not fit in that environment, and not surprisingly, those insiders celebrated the defeat of this threat.

But what a hollow victory. The world is quickly moving on, online education — in whatever form — is taking a larger chunk of the market. Some are trying to stay ahead of the market. And some seek the comfort of denial and dismissal.

Universities are Department Stores — Is That a Good Thing?

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There was a day when the department store was the center of American consumer commerce and its social life.

The department store sat atop the retail evolutionary chain — every region had its own: Boston had Filene’s and Jordan Marsh, Philadelphia had Wanamaker’s, Washington had Hecht’s and Woodie’s, Phoenix had Goldwater’s, St. Louis had Famous Barr, and on and on. Even small towns revolved around the department store — think of Higbeee’s, the store at the center of A Christmas Story.

Those days have long since passed. The mall replaced the individual store. Macy’s gobbled up all the old brand names and homogenized the department store experience, giving the same name to every store coast-to-coast. Wal-Mart put the small town department stores out of business. We all do a lot of our shopping online now.

We don’t really need one store to have everything anymore — we just appreciate having to make fewer stops. So Macy’s has become a utilitarian shopping experience. We shrug, and plunge through the doors, not expecting to see anything much better than average.

The American system of higher education long ago got stuck in that same evolutionary chain. Every large American university, when faced with a question of whether to start a new program, said yes. They were driven by the same mentality: the place that offered the most programs and degrees wins.

They built vast collections of degrees, faculty and facilities — mini-cities where everything is available in one place. And now that students have so many ways to study, interest in all-in-one universities is not what it used to be..

Department stores have had the wisdom to pare down and shed some merchandise as shopping patterns changed.  My wife fondly remembers her dad taking her to a department store to go book shopping when she was a child. That was in the days before Barnes & Noble. But colleges and universities, for the most part, have not pared down and eliminated weak performers.

What are the hottest concepts in retail? Specialty stores that carry a much greater variety of products in a narrow niche. So DSW has come to dominate shoe sales because it devotes the entire store to shoes while a department stores has only so much space for them. Sephora or Ulta can devote an entire store to makeup and beauty supplies, Crate & Barrel to kitchen and home supplies. Department stores still sell that merchandise but wise consumers know the better merchandise and greater selection are at the specialty store.

Universities are department stores in an era of specialty stores. They are, as a noted futurist recently put it, “perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists.

Shopping for a pair of pants is not the same as shopping for colleges. But consumers are increasingly seeing it that way. In the days when the department store still dominated commerce, college was very reasonably priced and therefore seen more as a place of self-discovery. Now, parents say the best reason for a child to go to college is “to get a good job.” Study after study emphasizes ROI above all other qualities. One says that unless you are attending an elite institution, “the new rule of thumb should be to avoid paying more for a non-STEM bachelor’s degree than you absolutely need to.”  Another popular survey rates colleges solely by the expected salaries of graduates.

It’s pretty near impossible to drive a highway or watch a daytime television program without seeing an advertisement for a college degree or training program of one sort or another. You can blame the for-profits for making the college transaction more crass, but it is not going back to the way it used to be.

College has become a consumer exchange.

Which brings me back to the department store: I don’t know if you have been in Macy’s lately, but the last few times that I have gone, no one is even glancing at the Sean John spring collection, and whatever else passes for luxury brands. Customers are too busy pawing through the sales racks, looking for a bargain. The less-trafficked departments look more and more neglected; mice run among the mattresses.

Department stores still maintain some of the allure of having most everything you could want under one roof, but it’s a lazy approach: Yes, I am not getting top quality, but it was easy and it’s good enough.

We’ve been conditioned as shoppers to expect bargains, at the mall and in academe. Everything at the store is for sale, or it will be soon. If it’s not the Valentine’s Day sale, it’s the End of Winter Sale, followed closely by the St. Patrick’s Day sale, followed by the pre-Easter sale, then the post Easter clearance. At colleges, financial aid results in tuition being almost 50 percent off year-round. Colleges just don’t advertise their sales quite as widely.

At the Nordstrom at the other end of the mall, a pair of men’s Docker’s was going for $68. That same pair of pants was on sale at Macy’s for $32.

Who would pay that much at Nordstrom? The same people that would send their children at full tuition to an Ivy League school or another college they believed to have a stellar reputation, and not even blink an eye. To them, clothing is an investment. They trust the retailer to sell them good quality, and they need look no further. Those consumers feel the same way about colleges they trust.

So what can colleges learn from retailers?

– The Ivy League retailers still benefit from reputation and trust. But not many can afford to shop there. And the seat at the top can be precarious.

– A lot of the big universities are seen as comprehensive but bland, intimidating in their diversity. They are trying to be so many things that education seems to be just one of their products, and not always the most important one.

– So many other smaller colleges are like dime-a-dozen stores dying for a makeover, the JCPenney’s and Foot Lockers of the world, so familiar in their obscurity that most people don’t even see them.

As the retail market shows, specialization matters. The stores that choose to serve only a part of the market, but do it as thoroughly and refreshingly as they can are the success stories. They are constantly nibbling away at the business model of department stores by going narrow but deep.

As consumer culture takes over higher education, it might be a good idea for college leaders to think like a consumer about what might make their institution attractive. Does your university want to be “good enough?” Or would it be better to go narrow and deep?

(h/t to John Pulley for the idea for this post.)

The Slippery Slope of Private College Finances

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There are few yardsticks for measuring the financial health of colleges and universities in America, particularly private
ones. Every college uses its own sets of figures, or interprets questions in different ways. The resulting data is often years out of date. Analysis by bond-ratings agencies cover only a small subset of colleges, and usually the largest ones.

So when the Department of Education recently released its scores for financial responsibility of private colleges, I took notice. The data is not perfect and these most recent numbers cover 2012, but as a general measure of the health of the industry, this is one of the rare “neutral” insights.

The scores take into consideration such factors as levels of debt, assets, and operating surpluses or deficits. If a college or university has a particularly bad score, it may be required to post a letter of credit in order to continue to participate in federal financial-aid programs. The scale runs from negative-1 to 3. If a college or university posts a score of at least 1.5, it “passes” the test.

What do the colleges on this list tell us about the overall health of private colleges? Are there any parallels that can be drawn to the larger financial picture of higher education? Here’s the trends I see in the data:

1. A total of 168 colleges and universities are on the list. That’s a lot of colleges with severe economic troubles. Admittedly many college associations have criticized the methodology as misleading or problematic. Even so, this number is large and troubling.

2. Surprisingly, 50 of the colleges on the list are for-profit. These are colleges with low overhead — no tenure, no residence halls or campus life office, fewer administrators, and generally located in rented office space — and they still have financial problems. Some of these are affiliates of deep-pocketed national chains: the Vatterott College location in Omaha, Neb. (now closed) and the Art Institute campuses in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, which are owned by for-profit giant Education Management Corp. There are also tiny schools like the National Institute of Massotherapy in Akron, Ohio(with this website no wonder it is in financial trouble), National Hispanic University (it closed in January), and The College of Office Technology in Chicago,where the most prosaic of career dreams can apparently come true. With the staggering debt load of young people and the apparent lax financial management charted in this report by the Department of Education, one wonders why these colleges are allowed to continue operating at all.

3. A significant subset of the institutions on the list (at least 34) are tiny Bible colleges, seminaries, and rabbinical institutes. Presumably, they are getting low scores because of budget deficits. These colleges’ budgets are frequently underwritten by their denominations, so their presence on this list should not be surprising.

4. And that brings us to the other colleges — regional or national institutions of some renown. Much has been made of the University of Miami’s appearance on the list. I think it probably was a typo or a misunderstanding of the instructions. When a major research university drops from a 2.9 rating (0.1 below the highest possible ranking) to the “trouble zone” in a single year, mistakes were made.

I am more interested in institutions like Catawba College, Carson-Newman University, Adrian College, Hiram College, Belmont Abbey College, Brevard College, and Dowling College (more about financial problems of Dowling and other Long Island colleges here), all regional institutions of some size and following. It is the second consecutive year for Brevard and Carson-Newman on this list. That is a disturbing trend.

The strength of Jesuit education is legendary, yet two Jesuit colleges — Rockhurst University and Spring Hill College — are on the list. So is historic Westminster College, where Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946. And it isn’t all small liberal arts colleges that are in trouble, according to this list. Among other institutions on it is the University of Evansville, with its 2,500 students, 80 majors, international campuses, and Division 1 athletics.

When we talk about colleges being in trouble, aren’t these the very size and style we are thinking of? Think of a world without these colleges, and you will begin to imagine what the American system of higher education risks as finances grow worse and worse. I am not predicting the demise of these particular colleges, mind you. No financial rating system can be that precise. But when you see these failing scores across dozens of colleges and universities, you can easily picture a wave of closings of institutions of about this size and breadth.

Some potential losses of colleges, as noted above, will hardly be losses at all. Many others may echo for years through the halls of academe.

An Optimistic View (or Not) of The Future of Higher Education

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This past weekend I had the pleasure of listening to Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera, and Ben Nelson, the CEO of the Minerva Project, speak on a panel. It was the best panel I have ever heard. Evidently it is a common occurrence for these two to be on a panel talking about the future of higher education – they are after all two of the leaders in the now infamous Ed Tech “disruption” movement.

More than their knowledge – it was their pure idealism that struck me most. They both believe deeply in education as a human right. It didn’t hit me until after the panel that it is this true idealism that is missing in higher ed. Over the past five years, all anyone writes about is the higher ed crisis – the ridiculous tuition, the student debt, the death of tenure, and colleges closing. Are universities adapting? Are they fighting to stay alive? Or are they defeated watching their slow demise?

Daphne believes that by the end of 2015 Coursera will have more than 3,000 courses online – making it the size of a medium sized university. Mind you, a completely free medium sized university. This begs the question: when will Coursera be giving out its first diploma? Yes, two weeks ago Coursera started testing the idea of selling credentials for four-course sequences for $50. But when will it offer a full diploma — the diploma that signals you have learned from the world’s top professors and the world’s top institutions? Remember this is the University of 100 + universities. Your diploma will say Coursera, but your alma matter will be Wharton, Princeton, Michigan, and over 100 others.

What happened to believing in the power of the university? Not just the power of MOOCs? No one talks about this anymore. When I applied to college I was told that it was going to change my life. It did. How do you measure the ROI of an enriched life?

In ten years will anyone have the experience I had? I hope so, but maybe not. At the end of the panel both Daphne and Ben were invited everyone there to share their vision for ten years from now. I was glued to my chair – for a moment everyone in the audience knew they were about to peek into the future.

Daphne: “What happens when all of your students stop taking your accounting course because they decided to take the top ranked accounting course on Coursera instead? Do you need an accounting professor anymore? Do the students need you anymore?”

Ben: “There will be a few universities who figure this all out, take the risk, and stake their claim. The rest will watch it happen and disappear.”

I think I believe them.

Colleges are Cracked Mirror Images of One Another

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I can major in education at all 14 of the universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. I can do the same at the state’s public flagships, Penn State and Pitt.

I could obtain a bachelor’s degree in English at 14 of the campuses in the State University of New York system.

I could major in political science as an undergraduate at 16 of the SUNY campuses, in history at 17 campuses. I could get a Bachelor’s degree in history at these private colleges and universities in New York: Adelphi, Alfred, Bard, Barnard, Canisius, Clarkson, Colgate, Columbia, Cornell. I could go on — I’m only on the C’s and there are more than 100 private institutions in New York.

The level of duplication in higher education is simply mind-boggling. How can all of these similar programs from all of these institutions survive?

They can’t, and they shouldn’t.

Colleges and universities have lived for decades in a business model protected from the voracious realities affecting every other industry. Every college has been an island — each built its own academic programs, arguing that the way it would teach history would be different than the way they [Note italicized] would teach history. Unbridled growth and untrammeled ambition have led to costly duplication.

We are already beginning to see signs of consolidation. The University System of Georgia has merged eight universities into four over the last two years, and is now proposing another merger. Other state university systems are looking at what is happening in Georgia, and wonder when, not if, it is coming to their state. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is giving grants to private colleges to study ways to consolidate. But, if the case of Carleton and St. Olaf is any example, and all they are looking at is combining back-office and libraries, it simply won’t go far enough toward making a real financial difference.

Oversized institutions in precarious financial situations are like blocks of granite perched on grains of sand. The only way to begin to resolve the top-heaviness is to chip away at that block of granite. What is the most costly part of a university? It’s academic programs. That makes them the biggest part of the granite block and the most likely to get chipped away.

We can be sure that a large part of the great shaking out coming in higher education will involve the mass closings of academic programs. Presidents are already closing some, arguing that the programs are being closed because they are not distinctive and have few students.

And they are right. Most academic programs in the same subject are virtually indistinguishable from college to college. They require the same number of credit hours, use the same textbooks, and have been taught in virtually the same way for decades.

Every college does not need to have every academic department represented on its campus in order to be whole. Arguing the opposite might make for a well-read essay in Slate but it doesn’t make any economic sense.

Minnesota State University, Mankato may not be wise to continue with its own history and physics departments, for example, when it could arguably cut a deal with the better-resourced University of Minnesota to offer the same programs. That would free up Mankato to plow resources into programs that make it truly distinctive.

This is how every college and university ought to be spending its time: accentuating its distinctions and ridding itself of underachieving programs, or reinvigorating those underachieving programs by combining them into imaginative and useful interdisciplinary programs.

They also need to think of more creative ways of serving their students. The key to success for many colleges is student retention. The upper hand in the student/college relationship is shifting to students.

So if MSU-Mankato outsourced teaching of some classes to the University of Minnesota (or another institution), does anyone think that students would complain if they were able to take a better class taught online by a professor at a university with a deeper bench in that particular subject? They would instead likely be grateful to MSU-Mankato for giving them the opportunity.

Colleges everywhere should be looking at their academic programs, and seeing what they can borrow from others: online programs, community colleges, MOOCs, even some for-profit colleges. And they should be looking at marketing their most distinctive programs to other colleges and cross-registering students from other colleges as a way to raise additional revenue.

The survivors in the near future of higher education will be colleges that are looking for innovative ways to partner with other colleges and offer a buffet of choices for obtaining a degree, not those that can’t see their ways past the way they have always done things.

Admittedly, changing the way of doing things is not an easy sell in higher education. An ear that has never been open to compromise is usually also deaf to cooperation. But it makes no sense for the hundreds of colleges offering seemingly identical degrees to argue about what curriculum is better when no one is knocking at the door who wants to take that major. They say the members of the orchestra on the Titanic kept a stiff upper lip and continued playing even as they were engulfed by the cold, cold sea.

Can’t We Replace Professors Faster?

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Chief academic officers see a clear need for more interdisciplinary instruction at colleges and teaching that seamlessly incorporates technology, onsite and online learning. But, as we asked in an earlier blog post, is the faculty ready and able to do this?

No — most provosts who responded to a recent poll said flatly. “Graduate preparation lags woefully behind the needs of the industry,” wrote a chief academic officer of a private university of more than 4,000 students, responding to a recent survey about faculty qualifications and needs.

In our previous post, we talked about the mismatch between the way faculty members are trained (as specialists in a discipline) and what colleges need (generalists who can serve as mentors and draw together disparate information from many sources).

Don’t blame the professors for the way they are trained. The professoriate has long been a calling for people who love research and knowledge for its own sake. To many members of the public, however, professors are cloistered elitists, immune from accountability and real-world learning. Forbes notoriously called being a professor the least stressful occupation in the nation. (it got so much pushback from professors that it took the extraordinary step of adding an addendum to the original story.)

Now, as it has with so many other facets of society, the Internet has shaken the professor’s role fundamentally. Instead of being the expert in a classroom filling empty vessels (students) with knowledge, professors now contend with the reality that any student can gain access to just about any information with a Google search. So professors are adjusting their sights, from being an “oracle” to an “organizer and guide,” as we put it in our report, The College of 2020:Students.

Chief academic officers who responded to the survey (details on response to the survey were included in our previous post) suggested that the professoriate is going through tectonic change. They are responding by looking for different qualities in candidates for professor jobs. The chief academic officers will place less value on research — only 42 percent of respondents said someone who “is a recognized scholar in his or her field” describes well or very well “an excellent professor.” That was the lowest rating in the poll of 21 possible attributes of professors. The highest rated attributes were “treats students with respect,” “is well prepared for class,” and “pushes students to reach their potential.” All were cited by 98 percent of respondents.

Chief academic officers believe more professors are needed with “real-world experience” beyond academe. Some wonder if in a new world the very status of professors will be lessened.

“Certainly we expect that becoming a college professor will change,” wrote a chief academic officer at a regional public university of more than 10,000 students. “Due to less federal money, fewer people will go into the sciences; due to high salaries in the private sector, fewer people will go into professoriate areas of business like finance and accounting; and the liberal arts themselves are at risk as more and more legislative calls decry any field that does not produce ‘job ready’ candidates for graduation.  I think we need to prepare people for essentially very different jobs that are more akin to high school teaching than what we have formerly considered.”

There is more bad news for aspiring professors. By and large, chief academic officers expect professor salaries to stagnate — 85 percent anticipate that salaries, adjusted for inflation, would stay the same or increase less than 25 percent in the decade ending in 2020. Another 4 percent expect professor salaries to decrease.

To train future professors, one provost suggested that graduate schools be changed to include two tracks for aspiring professors: those who wish to teach and those who want to do research. Students in the teaching track would be steeped in curricular design and learning theory.

“If higher education is to thrive, those who are not  specifically headed towards a research based career need to understand learning/pedagogy/and curricular design for a digital age,” said one chief academic officer of a private college of fewer than 1,000 students. “If graduate programs fail to do this, then we will no longer be a viable part of the learning enterprise.”

Others want more scrutiny on the quality of instruction. “Faculty will be expected to do more serious outcomes assessment and be held more accountable for results,” wrote the chief academic officer of a mid-size private university.

However, if instruction is found lacking at colleges and universities, not all the blame can be placed on the faculty. One alarming aspect of the survey is that while provosts are quick to espouse the need for major change, surprisingly few are demanding better.

  • Chief academic officers say they need to create more interdisciplinary classes. Now, they report that just 4 percent say at least half of their courses are interdisciplinary; by 2020, they expect that percentage will grow to just 12 percent.

  • Chief academic officers say they need to meet students where they live with greater use of technology and social media. Almost two-thirds of them reported that fewer than 30 percent of their faculty use social media to communicate with students. But 40 percent of chief academic officers said it is “not likely” that future faculty contracts would require comfort with social media.

One has to wonder what is taking these chief academic officers so long to make change. Public impatience with the pace of change at colleges is only increasing. Any college that is not making itself more flexible and user-friendly for students is falling further behind.

Part of it can be explained by an inability to change the workforce quickly enough. Once you grant a professor tenure, it is pretty hard to get rid of him or her. That post-tenure career can last 40 years, tying up an important position on campus.

Chief academic officers seem content (or is it resigned?) to letting the process of tenured professors age out of the system.

Almost all of the poll respondents (92 percent) expected to hire adjunct professors in the next year, but only 56 percent expected to hire tenure-track faculty. Of those colleges that plan to hire tenure-track faculty members, 86 percent plan to hire 15 or fewer. Meanwhile, of those who plan to hire adjunct faculty, 48 percent plan to hire more than 15.

Others are looking to be more proactive. “We need to develop and implement more on the job training for faculty members to teach them methodology, learning theory, use of technology for presentations, etc,” wrote the chief academic officer of a community college.

Many other respondents cynically said they don’t see teacher preparation changing significantly before 2020 because higher education simply can’t adjust that fast.

Add it all up and you have a picture of colleges that seem defeated. The intellectual firepower and engagement of their faculty members is their No. 1 product. Yet their bosses complain that many professors don’t know how to teach, don’t want to adapt to new instructional and communication methodologies, and can’t be dislodged quickly enough.

Meanwhile, those in the profession are going through a lot of soul-searching of their own. They are being downgraded from oracles to coaches, with a future prospect that their roles will be more like high-school level positions. Job security, in the form of tenure, is slowly eroding. Salaries are stagnant.

If college instruction is to be revitalized, these issues must be resolved or at least assuaged. Creative ideas welcome.

The Mismatch between Academic Training and Student Need: A College of 2020 Poll

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Administrators are looking for different qualities and experiences in new faculty members. But the results of a recent survey show how painfully slow change can be in higher education.

For example, at a time when outsiders might expect colleges to be looking for a more flexible workforce, colleges are doing the opposite. While 37 percent of chief academic officers now say that at least 60 percent of their faculty is tenured, 46 percent say at least 60 percent of their faculty will be tenured or on the tenure track in 2020.

Higher education is simply not an industry that is built to embrace and create change quickly.

Some other examples:

– Nearly two-thirds of chief academic officers say that 30 percent or less of faculty members are using social media to communicate with students.

– Only 32 percent believe their faculty is “extremely well prepared” or “very well prepared” to “integrate new technology into the classroom.”


[Before I go on, let me talk about the genesis of this survey. We were hoping to write a report about faculty issues, a sequel to our report The College of 2020: Students. George Dehne, a college marketing and enrollment management expert and our longtime collaborator who did all the polling research for the original report, carried out this survey as well, completing it in May 2012. We received results from 156 provosts or chief academic officers. The majority of respondents were from small colleges -- 45 percent were provosts from colleges of fewer than 2,000 students.

For many reasons, however, we concluded that we weren’t going to be able to write a full report. But we want to get out the results of the survey through a series of blog posts. Please contact George Dehne for more details about the survey.]

We have written before about the importance of getting the faculty involved in change on college campuses. Faculty naturally are trying to protect their positions on campus — administrators are so afraid to approach them that oftentimes the faculty is not even consulted during attempts to make change. They have to be at the center of change, and can be a major force in making it happen. As Robert Zemsky, a longtime researcher in higher education, recently said, “If you get faculty thinking, ‘We can do better,’ you’re a third of the way home.”

Our recent survey found another reason why faculty members may be so afraid of change. Many of the chief academic officers polled said their professors have been exposed by a fundamental problem: They don’t know how to teach.

“Many of our faculty members are not prepared to teach, but are experts in their subject matter,” one community college chief academic officer wrote when asked what changes to expect to in preparation of professors before 2020. “We need to develop and implement more on-the-job training for faculty members to teach them methodology, learning theory, use of technology for presentations, etc.”

Provost after provost registered the same complaint.

“Unfortunately, teachers still teach as they were taught, and many professors have not experienced good personal learning experiences for years,” wrote the chief academic officer of a private college with fewer than 1,000 students. “I would heartily recommend that any advanced degree include learning theory, effective pedagogy, and effective evaluation of student performance.”

Another chief academic officer, this one from a private college with 1,000 to 2,000 students, said  faculty members “need to learn more about students’ world view because there is a generational gap that is hindering students. The academy has to find a way out of the little boxes of time and location, even credits, so students can learn with mobile technology, groups, and outside of the semester constraints. We all need to learn how to do that for our learners somehow.”

When you sift through these survey results, you realize the training of professors and the needs of colleges are utterly misaligned.

Everything in the training of professors is predicated on them becoming niche experts in their field of study. The more specialized they are, the better. A graduate student, in order to earn a Ph.D., is expected to write an original book-length document that no one has written before. So instead of becoming a generalist with in-depth knowledge across the spectrum of a discipline, the reward structure is based exclusively on specializing in a narrow alley of that discipline. And without a Ph.D., one has little to no shot of being a college professor.

So here is the result: colleges are looking for generalists but all the graduate schools produce is specialists. Extraordinarily smart and dedicated specialists, no doubt. But that is not what colleges need. And it is certainly not what students need.

Faculty members need to be “moving to a role as coaches and mentors as compared to purveyors of subject matter,” wrote a chief academic officer from a private college with more than 2,000 students. Another provost, this one from a private college of 1,000-2,000 students, said colleges in the future will have “less lecture (and) more use of technology in and outside the classroom as students will expect to learn and interact with faculty anytime and anyplace.”

Other provosts said they believe faculty members will be more involved in recruiting students, and retaining them.

Provosts and chief academic officers believe they must move quickly to a more interdisciplinary approach to instruction that combines technology, onsite and online learning. As one provost — this one from a small private college —  put it, by 2020, “the tradition classroom, as we know it… will truly be flipped and transformed, if not dead or dying.” But are faculty capable of changing that quickly? That will be the subject of our next post.

Can Big Data Save Higher Education?

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I warn you that this is a bit of a rallying cry. A wake up and start thinking creatively cry. A, you better start listening or you will be crying type of rallying cry.

We are living in the age of data, where our movements are tracked, aggregated into large data sets, and analyzed to build predictive models about how people like “us” behave, engage, and ultimately purchase. I can say quite confidently that in Higher Education – a world where ideas have been tested and validated for centuries – data  has become king. But the biggest question is, how can data save universities and ultimately help them thrive?

The once hidden institutional research departments are now at the forefront of the kingdom, where Chief Information Officers are finding correlations between earth-shattering data sets like the number of students who bought ice cream at the student center when the temperature outside was between 40 and 52 degrees. This type of insight is helping them determine how much ice cream should be ordered based on the extended 10 day forecast. But seriously, institutions now have dashboards that tell them the “what” and “how” of everyday operations. The only question is: What does all of this data really mean and how can it be used to create a better university. As participants and leaders in higher education we need to challenge ourselves to look at data in new ways in order to uncover insights that are truly new and can be used to create significant value across the enterprise.

People inside higher education tend to forget that the industry is market driven and that the people who want to purchase your product are ultimately the ones that control the growth and sustainability of your university.

So how do you understand what your market wants – what it expects of you – and where the biggest opportunities are for impact? Well you listen to your market. You not only use surveys, but you contextualize anecdotal evidence with true data sets – business, social, and market data. If properly empowered with the data that matters, university administrators can make daily decisions that are more likely to have an actual business impact. The implications string across the critical functions of your institution: recruiting, marketing, alumni management, development, faculty retention, and student satisfaction. The amount and nature of the data that can be gathered is evolving rapidly, so you have to find creative ways to cut through the clutter and you have to make some real decisions.

It doesn’t always feel good to shut down a program that started 50 years ago, or shrink your class size to maintain classroom quality, but it feels even worse to be irrelevant…There are deep insights hidden within your data and they are telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. So are you listening? How are you tracking? And more importantly, are you adapting based on what you hear?

When Colleges Close…

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The declining financial health of higher education has gotten me thinking about some of the hardest stories I wrote in my six years as a reporter and editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education: articles about colleges that went over the financial brink and closed.

Visiting college campuses that were set to close was like visiting a terminally-ill patient who has not yet died. Everyone is moving stone-faced ahead with what needs to get done — assuring that students can transfer or graduate, that final paychecks will go out, that books and furniture will be donated or sold. All the while, the thought processes of anyone left at the college is like those of the relatives of that terminally ill patient: they keep hoping for a miracle that will reverse the fate, or at least a pinprick that wakes them from a terrible dream.

I revisit this topic now in hopes that colleges in decline can learn from those before that couldn’t reverse their downward spirals. I hope that those endangered colleges can recognize their dysfunction and make changes before it is too late.

Small colleges have much to offer, even if their total enrollment is a collective 5 percent of so of all the students attending higher education in this country. “Their very lack of pretense is what makes them attractive to some students, especially those who might be intimidated by the thought of attending a larger institution,” I wrote in my story documenting the last 14 months of Mount Senario College. “With each shutdown, the diversity of American higher education is lessened. And the future, at least in some small communities, gets a little dimmer.’

Take the examples of Mount Senario and Bradford.

Bradford College was a classic New England liberal-arts college, founded in a small town shortly after the American Revolution and content to skate by with small classes and limited ambitions until a disastrous plan to grow the college by building additional dorms in the late 1990s. (A reprint of the Chronicle story can be found here.)

Bradford had a history of shifting targets and one prominent president: education scholar Arthur Levine, who went on to become president of Teachers College at Columbia University. Levine looked back fondly at Bradford, which he led from 1982-89, but his recounting of the demands will be familiar to any small-college president:

“It was never easy. At small colleges like Bradford, having ten fewer students than expected in the fall or spring is a serious financial problem. Having thirty fewer is a disaster. Throughout the year there would be monthly reports on applications, this year versus last or the last two years. After April, there would be weekly yield reports, number of students admitted who paid deposits. After June, there would be twice-a-week meetings. Beginning in July, they were daily. Senior administrators sat with admissions and students affairs staff going over new students and current students name by name and developing strategies for each to convert them to matriculants. Have Professor X make a phone call. Have the dean of students write a note.”

Mount Senario was more of a longshot than Bradford. Mount Senario was only about 40 years old, and located in hard-bitten Ladysmith, Wis., a town of less than 4,000 people in the northern woods.

It had many challenges: a small enrollment (many years less than 500), a rural location, a rotating cast of unimpressive presidents, and a lackluster Board of Trustees who had a hard time owning up to the challenges of the colleges, much less trying to solve them. (The story is here, but a forewarning: it is behind the Chronicle paywall.) It had gotten by becoming one of the first colleges in Wisconsin to offer distance education at numerous locations around the state. But as that business faltered in the face of competition, it had little to fall back on, with out-of-date facilities, a faculty that was unequipped to properly teach all the classes they were assigned to, and a constant turnover of students.

These colleges, in their final days, had much in common: fatigue after years of hand-to-mouth existence, mutual distrust between faculty members and administrators, and an intense preoccupation on short-term issues that precluded any possibility of long-term planning.

Ann E. Martin, a professor of chemistry and biology at Mount Senario when it closed, went on to write a doctoral thesis on the reason colleges close, and concluded: “The end of a college is rarely the result of a sudden catastrophic event. Often there has been a long history of challenges and struggles, culminating in either a crisis or dead end from which no escape is possible.”

Her thesis refers to stages of decline of an organization, first identified by William Weitzel and Ellen Jonsson:

1. Blindness — a failure to recognize the problems at hand

2. Inaction — when employees recognize that something is wrong, but don’t do anything about it

3. Faulty Action — the institution takes action but the quick fix makes the situation worse

4. Crisis — the do-or-die point

5. Dissolution

This progression can be traced at any college that is failing. At most colleges in serious financial trouble, the constant cutbacks result in the deterioration of the core course offerings. Once that happens, there is nothing left. As William Bowen once said, “After you do not wash the windows once, what do you do for an encore? How do you not wash them again?”

The closure of a college is a loss not only to the immediate students, faculty and staff, it is a loss to the community, the alumni, the collective memory of everyone ever touched by the institution. Not every college can be saved, and not all will be. Some students perhaps will be served better by educators with deeper pockets. Even Mount Senario’s campus has college classes again.

What I observed at these colleges was a failure of spirit — an unwillingness by multiple people on these campuses to come together for the common good. Everyone kept their head low and their blinders firmly in place, thinking that saving the college was someone else’s job. As a professor at Bradford said in its final days: “Our inability to talk honestly is what killed this institution. What is at the core of the liberal-arts tradition is an open discourse with everyone involved. A lot of people here knew a lot of things. We were complicit with our silence.”

As financial pressure mounts on colleges, their continued health will require the collective good will, good ideas and common purpose of everyone. Saving a college is everyone’s job.