The Future of American Higher Education?

Last week, The Atlantic ran a cover story on “The Future of College.” As we have heard many times over the past few decades, the article lamented the death of higher education as we have long known it, focusing on a future “by stripping it down to its essence.”

In this case, it meant looking to the work of the Minerva Project, a for-profit effort to “replace the modern liberal-arts college.”

Of course, one could ask what the “modern liberal-arts college” actually is. If we look at the thousands of college campuses around the United States, there is little modern about them. Sure, we may have new buildings and have replaced card catalogs with technology, but what is taught and how it is taught is largely unchanged. Liberal arts, as our parents or grandparents may have studied it, is very much like the liberal arts education our children have received today.

We’ve heard many stories like those coming from the Minerva Project. University of Phoenix made a similar promise. Just a few years ago, we were told that MOOCs were going to do the same thing, put the final nail in traditional higher ed’s coffin and usher in a new era of consumer-based higher education.

Years ago, when Eduflack was working in for-profit higher education, I remember having discussions with researchers about why we would expect traditional higher education to change. People will pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to access the current model. Acceptance rates and wait lists tell us that the demand is larger than the supply. That just tells us we should be charging more. There is real hunger for what we have now, so why change it? Why have a “New Coke” moment in higher ed when we all are clamoring for Coke Classic?

The arguments are enough to frustrate even the most aggressive of cynics. Why repair or replace our existing IHEs? Why fix something that so many people don’t see as broken?

We are reminded of why this past weekend in an editorial that appeared in the Chicago Tribune (and was republished in the Indianapolis Star here). Its editorial board looked at the efforts of current Purdue University President (and former Indiana Gov.) Mitch Daniels and his push to reinvent the American university on the Indiana campus.

In its analysis, the Trib noted, in looking at Daniels’ approach to financial management at the IHE:

Daniels isn’t the first college chief to cut costs or hold tuition steady. We know that many schools are pushing hard to make higher ed affordable; a few have even trimmed tuition rates. But it’s big news when a major university freezes tuition, even for a year. Would that such news, accompanied by news of frozen spending, were ho-hum routine at many campuses.

 

Unfortunately, it isn’t. Daniels offers a chart (reproduced nearby), which won’t shock parents struggling to pay for college. It traces how tuition costs have outstripped inflation since 1990.

“In our view, that game that relied on jacking up costs year after year is over,” he tells us. “The marketplace is beginning to rebel.” Does he worry that Purdue could be unilaterally disarming against other schools still investing lavishly in amenities for students? “It could be that we’ll still lose students to someone with a higher climbing wall, but we are prepared to take that chance.”

 

Daniels isn’t focused solely on cost cuts. He’s also invested in expanding Purdue’s engineering and computer science programs, among others. In a letter to the Purdue diaspora, he set this goal: “If we can maintain a campus-wide commitment to holding costs down, counting every $10,000 saved as a ‘student tuition equivalent,’ we can fulfill our duty to our students, taxpayers and everyone who chooses to invest in Purdue’s enterprise.”

 It is an interesting approach, and one that is far too unusual in higher education today. Focusing on the students as consumers, and ensuring they are getting ROI and tuition (and state) dollars are being spent wisely and focused on educating the students themselves. Investing in new programs that better provide students the pathways from higher ed to the jobs their communities and states and nation have the most need to fill. And a recognition that just because we have done things one way in the past, and just because our peers may now do it that same way, does not mean it is what is best for our institution, our students, and our nation.

As the Trib summarizes:

The ultimate test of Daniels’ tenure: Will a focus on value help lift moderate-income students into productive lives and careers? Might a degree from a leaner, no-nonsense Purdue gain luster at a time when other campuses project the creature-comforting images of country clubs?

 

Ultimately students and hard-pressed parents will vote with their feet, and their checkbooks, on whether Daniels has succeeded at making an already fine institution a greater value than it is today.

 

A greater value, that is, than other major universities that compete with Purdue to educate the best and brightest.

That is indeed the case. When we talk about the future of higher education, it will be decided by the outcomes and byproducts of its work. The universities that will thrive will do so because they will meet the changing needs and expectations of their customers. They will offer a high-quality product that aligns with their students and the career opportunities they seek. They will be prudent with the dollar. And they will realize we must begin to change structures and approaches to ensure we are meeting the future needs of our students and communities, and not simply using IHEs to pay homage to educational days of yore.  

Help a Trojan Out!

For those of us who live social media, we hopefully find a lot of use from the #edchat hashtag. Whether you participate in the official weekly #edchat discussions or just use the tag to throw out ideas that others might find interesting or provocative, it is a useful tag for taking the pulse of what is happening in education.

Well, the good folks over at the University of South California’s Rossier School of Education are doing a little survey to better understand how #edchat is being used and how it might be improved, particularly so it is of more use to classroom educators. So now is the time to have your voice heard on the matter.

Five minutes of your time Just go visit the USC Rossier #edchat survey. Help improve the Twitter space.

If surveys aren’t your thing, you can always check out the Essential #Edchat Resource Guide that those well-meaning Rossier folks (and Rossier MAT Online) have made available.  

And for all you non-Trojans out there, I assure you it is not an endorsement of their football team (unless you want it to be). I offered my opinions, yet will still be rooting for the University of Virginia (and, to a lesser degree Notre Dame) as college kickoff comes …

Wahoowah!

 

Public Engagement vs PR

Those who know Eduflack in a professional setting know I am a firm believer in public engagement. This moves beyond the typical PR to an approach where we first inform then build support, then mobilize those supporters for action.

The framework that I have long preached is one that was taught to me by a dear friend and mentor years and years ago. It is the public engagement model developed by Dan Yankelovich and Public Agenda. I can’t count have many times I have deployed the model, and how it always worked when implemented with fidelity.

So when I saw the below meme, I just had to share. The lesson from Yankelovich is an important one, particularly as we look at the future of education reform and where school improvement efforts may head.

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Is Education a “Top” U.S. Issue?

Today, Gallup came out with its latest public opinion poll on the top problems in the United States. It should come as no surprise that dissatisfaction with government was at the top of the list. Whether frustrated with a do-nothing Congress, an overreaching president, or general frustration with Big Brother telling us what to do, Americans speak loud and clear that they are frustrated with government. (Of course, they are coming at it from all sides, so there is no clear fix.)

Immigration is a close second, with the economy coming in third. All of the issues we would expect to see at the top of the list for our citizenry’s general frustration.

So where is education on the list? Surely with all of the national fights over testing and Common Core and teacher tenure and everything else that is keeping edu-minded Americans up at night, concerns about our educational systems must be right up there, right?

Uh, not quite. Education comes in with a thud at number nine. It follows poverty and comes in just above the national debt. Where 18 percent of Americans say government is our top concern, and 15 percent say it is immigration, a whopping 4 percent say it is education. And that is now down a percentage point (or 20%) from last month.

Should this surprise us? No. For decades now, we’ve long realized that education is not a ballot box issue. Sure, we are all concerned about education, but it isn’t an issue that is make/break for us. We care, but not before we care about six or eight other issues first.

What do we do about this? First, we need to recognize that while many of us live in the edu-bubble, the vast majority of Americans do not.

Second, we need to be mindful of how education ties into the topics that are driving concern. Concerns about government? We see that extended in frustrations with everyone from EdSec Arne Duncan to local superintendents and principals. Immigration a concern? Especially as it relates to those kids who are stuck at the border, looking for a better life and opportunity that begins with access to our public schools. Economy a worry? How does that crosswalk with grad rates and STEM and higher education in general?

The short story is that education does not live in its own silo. It permeates each and every topic of discussion and concern that we have. If we treat “education” solely with a neat little k-12 or higher education label, we miss the bigger picture. And we lose the opportunity to draw attention to both the concerns and the solutions.

I yield the soapbox …

 

“Disruptive Change in Higher Education: Replace or Repair?”

Earlier this summer, Arthur Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the former president of Teachers College, wrote for Forbes magazine on disruptive change in higher education.

In the piece, Levine noted that:

In the digital age, higher education, willingly or unwillingly, will undergo disruptive change. Existing institutions can lead the change or become its victim. If higher education resists, new digital institutions will be established to meet the needs of the time.

This observation isn’t a matter of advocacy; rather, it is a conclusion based on the experience of disruptive change in two industries—the silent film industry, transformed by the advent of sound, and the news media, still being reshaped for the digital age. In each case, the major and highest-status companies resisted the change with dramatically different results.

We talk a lot about disruptive innovation in a general sense, but we seem to resist applying it to established institution like our colleges and universities.

But it is an important topic. And it is an issue that Levine seeks to speak on at the SxSWedu 2015 event. His session, Disruptive Change in Higher Education: Replace or Repair?, looks at these very issues, exploring how IHEs can “lead the change or become its victim.”

A fascinating topic. An entertaining and passionate speaker. What more can SxSWedu be looking for? Visit the SXSW PanelPicker now and give a thumbs up to Dr, Levine and a close look at whether we repair or replace or universities to meet 21st century needs and expectations. Give the big ol’ thumbs up right here: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/37380

(Full disclosure, Eduflack works for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and with Dr. Levine. But even if he didn’t, he’d still be giving this panel discussion a shout out.)

The Ineffectiveness of Spokes-Celebrities

If you’ve been in education advocacy or public engagement long enough, odds are you’ve had this conversation many times.

The discussion starts off with a question. How do we get (parents, teachers, leaders, anyone) to notice what we are doing? How do we really change minds?

Then someone offers up this “golden” solution. We need a celebrity to speak on our behalf. Like Bill Cosby. Or Oprah. Or … who’s that person?

And you venture down that rabbit hole to discuss those spokes-celebrities who could take on your cause. Someone respected. Someone known. Someone you don’t need to worry about being on TMZ in a month. And you usually someone somebody else knows through a friend of a college friend.

If you are lucky, the conversation ends there. If not, you spend weeks trying to get in touch with agents or friends of friends or their accountant’s college roommate’s cousin. Soon, you are back to the drawing board. No spokes-celebrity and just an advocacy effort that must rise or fall on its merits, on the strength of its evidence, and on your ability to convince folks its the right thing to do.

Why is this important? Last week, the Belfast Telegraph ran an article telling us the truth we choose to ignore. Celebrities are not effective in truly representinf non-profits and rallying the public to a cause.

This should really come as no surprise. When the special education movement had its most significant impact, it was because of grassroots efforts, not celebrities. You didn’t see movie stars touting NCLB, and you certainly don’t see pop stars or pseudo-celebs changing any minds when it comes to Common Core, either for or against.

And even while Campbell Brown is raising hackles over teacher tenure or Eduflack’s often cited doppelgänger Louis CK is harping on tests, they aren’t increasing public awareness or converting the unconverted. No, they are preaching to choirs and inspiring the opposition.

So before you go down the spokes-celebrity path, take the time and money and invest in some quality research. Or a solid public engagement campaign. Or a way to better translate complex education data to busy parents. Or even a way to get parents better involved, in a positive way, in their kids’ educations.

Unless you happen to be offering Katy Perry or Salma Hayek or or Gabriele Union or Tina Fey as your spokes-celebrity. Then I’m all for it, and Eduflack will be right there to help you out.