A roundtable discussion on “New Models for Higher Education” was among the festivities celebrating the inauguration of Alison Byerly as the 17th president of Lafayette College Oct. 4. It was moderated by Wendy Hill, provost and dean of the faculty. The following is a transcript:
Wendy Hill: What I would like to do is first is introduce the three panelists, and then we will start with remarks.
Sitting immediately to my left is Stephen Poskanzer, the president of Carleton College. He is Carleton College’s 11th president and assumed the post in August 2010. He is a scholar of higher education law with a broad range of administrative experience at both public and private universities and colleges. He came to Carleton from the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he served as president for nine years. President Poskanzer received his A.B. degree, cum laude, from Princeton, and his J.D. degree from Harvard. After briefly practicing law in Washington D.C., President Poskanzer decided to devote his career to academia, and I would say higher education is better for it.
Seated to Steve’s left is Elizabeth Boylan. She is the director of STEM programs at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Dr. Boylan joined the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in July 2011, and directs its STEM education programs, including those for underrepresented groups and student retention. She also works with other program directors on developing grants for the foundation’s Civic Initiatives program. Dr. Boylan came to the Sloan Foundation from Barnard College, where she served as provost, dean of the faculty, and professor of biological sciences for 16 years. And as provost-to-provost, I’m impressed: 16 years! Dr. Boylan earned a Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell University and a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Wellesley College. She was a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry and oncology at the University of Rochester.
And our third speaker is Jeffrey J. Selingo, the editor at large for The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the book College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. An author, reporter, columnist, and leading authority on higher education, Mr. Selingo has spent his journalism career covering colleges and universities worldwide. In addition to his position at The Chronicle of Higher Education, he is also a senior fellow at Education Sector, and independent education think-tank in Washington D.C. Mr. Selingo’s work has been honored with prestigious awards from numerous organizations, and many of them are listed in your program for this roundtable. Mr. Selingo received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ithaca College, a small, private, residential liberal arts college, and a master’s degree in government from The Johns Hopkins University.
Before I ask our first panelist, Steve Poskanzer, to begin, let me just give you a sense of how we are going to organize this roundtable. I’ve asked each speaker to present remarks for about 10 minutes, after which we hope to have some dialogue about the remarks. I will moderate with some questions that I will pose, but I have also asked the panelists to jot down notes that they can also pose questions. Lastly, I did ask for members of the Lafayette community to send questions to me that I might also weave into this roundtable, and I hope to dovetail with some of those questions as well. We will begin with President Poskanzer.
Steven Poskanzer: Thanks a lot. The classic residential college experience is a beloved, nostalgia-drenched, coming-of-age ritual in America; as well as an often-parodied interlude of friendships, faculty mentors, football weekends, fraternity parties, and finding oneself (and maybe even a mate). At this moment I should be cueing in background music – ideally, “Bright College Years” – as the eponymous hero of Stover of Yale rhapsodizes about his joy “when he swung amid the torches and the cheers, past the magic battlements of the college, one in the class consecrated to one another to four years of mutual understanding that would form an imperishable bond wherever on the face of the globe they should later scatter.”
It’s undeniable that millions of high school students and their parents still dream of this experience, but as online education becomes widespread – especially as pressure to award competency-based degrees grows – we must recognize that these new models call into question the significance of a residential college. They compel us to consider how we can rigorously counter claims of inefficiency or obsolescence. This afternoon, as we inaugurate the new president of one of America’s finest residential colleges, I would like to share some still-crystallizing thoughts about the value of this particular flavor of education. Why is the residential college so cherished? Should it be? And, even if it is especially worthwhile, how much of this wonderful thing is enough? Are there diminishing marginal returns from a residential college experience? Just how fast do they diminish?
I will begin by discussing why this is a successful educational model. Justifications of why to go to college fall into three broad categories, and each of these desirable outcomes, in my view, is enhanced by the residential college experience. First, students go to college to acquire and burnish essential practical skills. Beyond specific disciplinary knowledge needed for jobs or admission to graduate or professional schools, there are life-enhancing and career-enhancing skills and talents that are best developed in a residential setting. For instance, how to encounter, navigate, and appreciate diversity. In our increasingly global economy, one major attraction of a residential college is the sustained opportunity it provides to engage deeply with and to learn from other students, especially those who come from very different backgrounds or hold very different values. This growth follows from coursework that confronts cultural distinction, but also from more mundane experiences, like roommates who are forced to negotiate sleeping and study habits and even conflicting standards of cleanliness. At residential colleges students also learn how to assume responsibility and accept accountability. A college isn’t the only place to learn this, but the lesson takes deeper root when, unlike a job where you just punch in and punch out, you simply can’t avoid face-to-face encounters with community members who depend on you, whom you have hurt or wronged, or who have previously wronged you.
The second reason that students go to college is to prepare for citizenship. As Amy Gutmann argued in her book Democratic Education, “Learning how to think carefully and critically about political problems, to articulate one’s views and defend them before people with whom one disagrees, is a form of moral education to which young adults are more receptive and for which universities are well-suited.” A superb Lafayette-style residential education teaches students how to engage in this type of serious discourse. You develop this ability through heated debates in class, of course, but also through unhurried, freewheeling, and thus all the more rare and memorable conversations walking across the quad, over dinner, or in late-night bull sessions in the dorms. It’s these latter, and sometimes lower-stakes, settings in which we most safely learn how to retreat from outrageous positions, how to employ humor to puncture pretension, how to politely shred somebody else’s argument, and how not to take it personally when your own argument is the one that’s being shredded.
Extracurricular activities and service learning offer students superb venues to develop the ability to lead others, to follow as part of a team, to sublimate one’s goals to a larger objective, and to value the contributions made by others. All of these, I believe, are essential to a genuinely healthy democracy. A further word on this notion of valuing others’ contributions. One of the most powerful ways in which students in a residential setting learn this lesson is by noting the work ethic and achievement of college staff – groundskeepers who shovel the paths before anybody else wakes up, secretaries who are not just institutional memory but actually the soul of academic departments, and food-service workers will offer smiles and encouragement alongside portions of shrimp tempura or vegan lasagna.
Finally, students go to college in order to equip themselves to live lives of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. Here too residential colleges offer profound lessons and provide benefits not easily, if ever, replicated in other educational settings. At such schools students can learn what matters most to you. Andrew Delbanco, in his book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, argues that college is a place and a time where students “have the capacity to embrace the precious chance to think and reflect before life engulfs them.” He celebrates an education purely for enjoyment’s sake that is among the invaluable experiences of the fulfilled life. At residential colleges, students learn how to carve out your identity or niche within a broader community. These institutions purposefully construct a safe and nurturing environment for young people at the very moment when, developmentally speaking, they are defining themselves, becoming comfortable with independence, and trying out new personae. Our colleges empower students to reassess their values and background, viewing them in a broader intellectual, moral, and emotional context.
Finally, under this rubric of self-fulfillment, residential colleges enable their graduates to learn how to make your way in the world. Much of this last point rests on the enhanced opportunity as a residential college to forge bonds with professors, both in and outside of class, developing mentors who will be a source of counsel, help, and encouragement across future decades.
Our impressionistic sense of the benefits of a residential college experience is confirmed by research. George Kuh’s 2005 study documenting effective educational practice case studies, found that students are more likely to flourish in small settings where they are known and valued as individuals than in settings in which they feel anonymous. Such findings are very much a piece of Blimling’s 1993 studies, which indicate that residential students, as opposed to commuter students, participate in more extracurricular activities, report more positive perceptions of campus social climate, tend to be more satisfied with their college experience, report more personal growth and development, and engage in more frequent interactions with peers and faculty members. The evidence in both the study and elsewhere indicates that these involvements and changes have a very positive influence on student persistence.
However, we increasingly hear arguments that a four-year residential college experience should be curtailed or eliminated. Some of this pressure arises from a straightforward desire to cut costs. If a four-year residential college is perceived as too expensive – either by families who are footing the bill or politicians who are eager to further reduce budgets – it’s very appealing to suggest that we simply cut college costs by 25 percent by moving to a three-year bachelor’s degree. Some of this pressure on the residential liberal arts model stems from the desire to tailor one’s education to specific interests and immediate needs. From this more instrumental perspective, the self-exploratory, reflective nature of a residential college – and even the soft skills it consciously develops – are at best an unnecessary luxury and at worst, a diversion from the pressing business of getting a high-paying job right now.
This tension between utilitarian and self-actualizing education is not new. It regularly rears its head in parlous economic times like the present. What is a novel line of attack on residential colleges right now is the current fascination, hope, desire, even certitude that online learning will prove so effective and so efficient that residential learning will become obsolete. It’s important to know that some of the most ardent promoters of online learning and proponents of disruptive innovation in higher education remain fiercely committed to residential learning. For example, Rafael Reif, the president of MIT, whom I greatly respect, is committed to ensuring that his university’s forays into online pedagogy also improve the quality of the instruction that’s offered in Cambridge. But even as he acknowledges the enduring value of face-to-face educational communities, Reif muses that distance learning might make it feasible to substantially reduce the time spent in a residential setting. He has posed a provocative question – “If we understand the magic of what we do, how many years do we need? And could we do it in three years – doing one year online, while the learner is doing something somewhere else?”
As much as I treasure the four-year residential learning experience that MIT, Carleton, Williams, Lafayette, and others provide – we need to acknowledge that there may be some merit to the claim that there is nothing sacrosanct about four years. And if four years are essential, we are going to have to do a much better job of demonstrating with hard evidence the marginal value of additional time spent in such learning communities. In many sophisticated higher-education systems across the globe, a baccalaureate degree is earned in less than four years. Thus Oxford and Cambridge offer three-year bachelors; the Bologna Process has largely standardized a three-year baccalaureate in continental Europe, and it typically just takes three years to acquire a B.A. in India. Of course there are major differences in secondary education systems and cultural reasons behind America’s traditional model. But an insistence upon spending four years of college in one place may become increasingly idiosyncratic.
As we proudly – and, I think, accurately – trumpet the benefits of international study, at some level we has ceded the point that the ideal residential experience should last four years. For many students, the broadening, disorienting experience of immersion in a foreign culture outweighs the extra time that could beneficially be spent on campus. At many institutions, a majority of undergraduates already spend three and a half or fewer years in our distinctive communities. Indeed, at Carleton 74 percent of students participate in at least one sustained off-campus experience already. Many of our schools also promote internships, externships, and service learning in preference to additional semesters on campus. Further, when we accept significant numbers of transfer students – especially graduates from community colleges – we are willing, for good reason, to reduce the length and reduce the intensity of the residential experience. In short, we are already encouraging and already implementing many blended models of residential learning. So we should guard against self-righteously setting very tight boundaries on how long a residential experience should last.
In this era of here-to-stay and ought-to-be-embraced accountability, we should collect and scrutinize data on what a third and fourth year in residence offers – or should offer – to enhance the value of one’s education. Are there leadership roles that students disproportionally assume in a final fourth year? Do our curricula coalesce or peak in four years in ways that they couldn’t over three? What do our students’ arc of social development and maturation dictate about the ideal duration in residence?
Even if there is no sanctity to the four-year paradigm, we must not lose sight that something profound is accomplished in this setting, something that must be cherished and protected and promoted and celebrated. As my fellow panelist, Jeff Selingo, has wondered, with an unbound but highly personalized college experience, “will students discover subjects they never knew existed? If a computer is telling them where to sit for classroom discussion, will they make those random connections that lead to lifelong friends? Will they be able to develop friendships and find mentors?”
I close by cautioning that the best residential colleges shouldn’t too easily let go of this on-site experience or allow it to become overly diluted. At the very moment the four-year residential model is being questioned, fuller development of the benefits of this model and the demonstrated realization of those benefits may in fact be the best way to secure a future of bright years for our colleges. Rather than retreating from the residential model, our market niche may be in fact to reinforce it. Thank you.
Hill: Elizabeth. . . .
Elizabeth Boylan: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s really a wonderful honor to be here. Wendy and I served as fellow provosts for a number of years, and of course that’s how I came to know Alison, when she was a provost at Middlebury. It’s really wonderful to be here and be part of the celebration.
I want to talk about institutional collaborations and give two examples. One is from the years when I was provost and dean of faculty, and in this endeavor Alison and I were on the coordinating committee that led this large collaboration. And then one that I’m going to talk about is a grant that I gave last year to another group of institutions.
Opportunities and challenges – as hard as it is to run a single college, it is also extremely hard to run a useful and effective collaboration among them. The first one I want to talk about is now called AALAC, the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges. The story of how this came to be is an interesting one. The Mellon Foundation sank a lot of money and interest in groups of liberal arts colleges; Barnard was one. There were matches made by Pat McPherson, who was the program officer at the time. We were actually paired with Wellesley and a number of other colleges. Over the years, 23 campuses came into this group of colleges that had gotten support. The deans were having such a wonderful time getting together and learning from each other across these very different institutions that we asked for and got $1 million from the Mellon Foundation to support this collaborative faculty career enhancement set of activities that we could design.
We came up with ideas about faculty-initiated workshops and themed convenings, and over the course of five or six years, we spent down that $1 million. I signed off on the final report to Mellon just a few months ago. Some of the issues that came up in making sure that these activities went forward and were as valuable as they possibly could be – some of the challenges – were: How did we govern these 23 different campuses, all the way from Middlebury out to Pomona? How did we assess our own activities? How did we find meaning and provide assurances to Mellon and ourselves that we were getting a good value from all of this activity? When I started thinking about the challenges and the lessons learned, I came up with this list of four things: (1) Sustaining the vision and continuity of leadership as a challenge; (2) Plans, and then there is what actually happens; (3) data collection, analysis, dissemination, and archiving – and at what price; and (4) audit cultures, and intended and unintended consequences. Then I realized there’s no way I can address all of those, so I’m just going to go to audit cultures.
This particular framing, this phrase, was brought to me by one of my honored colleagues, whose name is Paige West. We spent a lot of time as a coordinating committee, and this is where Alison and Susie Bourque, who was the provost at Smith College, tried to figure out what these 23 colleges needed to do, what kind of data we wanted to collect about our activities, and the both qualitative and quantitative data that we would need to continue to make the case to ourselves that this collaborative activity had value, had sufficient value against all of the costs and the centrifugal forces when you are one institution and trying to do your day job as well as these collaborative activities, which we did believe that a great deal of extra value.
I want to thank publicly Alison and Susie for their leadership on this coordinating committee, where they really tried to develop many complementary ways to ask the questions about what value was attached to the activities that we were undergoing. I’m happy to say that, as a result of that $1 million grant, these colleges – virtually all of them – have decided to self-fund that the activities that were found most valuable, and now are going forward under this name of AALAC.
Now let me get to the point about audit cultures. As I said, Paige West recommended this book to me during a time when there was very heated debate on the Barnard campus about the assessment of student learning and how we were going to try to measure it. I suspect that on this campus here and at Middlebury and lots of others, there have been equally frank and energized discussions. This book, Audit Cultures, came from a conference in 1998 in England, and I want to read you just a couple of sentences from Chapter 2, which is called “Coercive Accountability: The Rise of the Audit Culture in Higher Education.”
If, as anthropologists argue, culture is constantly being invented and reinvented, nowhere is this becoming more evident than in the university sector. Our analysis underlines the fact that audit technologies are being introduced into higher education, and they are not simply innocuously neutral, legal, rational practices. Rather they are instruments of new forms of governance in power. They embody a new rationality and morality and are designed to engender among academic staff new norms of conduct and professional behavior. In short, they are agents for the creation of new kinds of subjectivity, self-managing individuals who render themselves auditable.
And making reference to Michael Power, who is at the London School of Economics, the authors go on, “As Power points out, audits do as much to construct definitions of quality and performance as to monitor them.”
That was back in 1998, and in England – with the development of league tables and quantification of almost every part of their society, including universities – there’s a lot that’s happened, and this whole conversation about accountability is a very active one. There are pressures for financial accountability, and pressures for effectiveness; and certainly the United States is in the midst of these discussions as well.
I believe that it is a matter of finding the right balance between valuing what is measurable easily and cheaply – which are particular challenges – and measuring and valuing that which is only manifest over a long period of a person’s life, these complex parts of our existence, and the development of attitudes and habits of mind of an educated person.
So one thing I hope that we will be able to do here – and that Lafayette certainly will continue to do, I know – is to be in conversation about this, to be part of this debate about the future of liberal arts colleges and about the future of higher education in the United States.
The second institutional collaboration I want to bring to your attention is one that I funded last year in my capacity as director of the STEM higher education program, whose tagline is “to improve the quality and increase the diversity of higher education and the STEM fields.” This particular collaboration is now called the Bay View Alliance. This is a collaboration of seven very large universities. It’s led by the former provost of the University of British Columbia, who really wants to take a look at an attempt to make a change in service to better student learning. But to take it not just at the level of changing a single course or a single part of a course, but to change the conditions and the culture at an institution so that the conditions are there to improve student learning in STEM fields – primarily in STEM fields – in this case. What we have funded is to support the research hub, a group of people that will help the teams on the campuses interact with each other as research-action clusters, to have very specific research questions that they want to be the experimenters and controls for, and, as Lauren Whitehead says, to try things, observe, compare, learn, and repeat. So it’s very much a research enterprise, using their own institutions as the sites of this experimentation at a level above a course – at least at the department level, if not the university level.
So, while every grant that the Sloan Foundation or any foundation gives is a risk, I think this is a high-risk move. There was nothing there before this idea. Trying to get seven large institutions across North America to work together effectively is certainly a challenge. They will be facing some of these same issues that I posed for the earlier example – sustaining a vision and making plans and also thinking about the kinds of data that they want to collect and both the intended and unintended consequences of the work that they do.
As I thought about this particular example – and in my role of program director for STEM higher education, one of the particular parts of my portfolio are the grants in support of the education and professional advancement of underrepresented groups – so making sure that the diversity in STEM is always part of the conversation is part of my job. I wanted to read you a couple of words from a person that I met for the first time just last week at a conference down in Washington sponsored by the American Society for Engineering Education. His name is Eric Jolly. He is the president of the Science Museum of Minnesota. The conference was on surmounting the barriers, ethnic diversity in engineering education. The way he framed this is as follows: “The questions you ask structure the answers you get. We have to frame the questions differently. We need to change the people who are asking the questions.” Then he went on to make the point, which I definitely agree with, that we need people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives to work at all levels of assessment of whatever we do. Who are the people who are asked what the problems are? Who frames the context and sets the questions? Who does the work and does the analysis? Who benefits from the work? There are certainly no easy answers for this. We are all part of this and we all have a lot to do. It’s important and challenging work, and there are high stakes, not only for Lafayette, but the rest of higher education and the country in making sure that we do a good job on this.
The last thing I want to do is give a little gift of a poem to Alison and to you. I’m really honored to be here. This is a poem by Rita Dove called “This Life.”
My grandmother told me there would be good days
to counter the dark ones,
with blue skies in the heart as far
as the soul could see. She said
you could measure a life in as many ways
as there were to bake a pound cake,
but you needed real butter and eggs
for a good one – pound cake that is,
but I knew what she meant. She was always
talking around corners like that;
she knew words carried their treasures
like a grape clusters around its own juice.
She loved words; she thought a book
was a monument to the glory of creation
and a library . . . well, sometimes
just trying to describe jubilation
will get you a bit tongue, so let’s
leave it at that. But my grandmother
was nobody’s fool, and she’d tell anybody
smart enough to listen: Don’t let a little pain
stop you; try as hard as you can
every minute you’re given, or else
sit down and shut up – though in her opinion,
keeping quiet in noisy times was a sin
against everything God and democracy
intended us for.
I know she’d like
where I’m standing right now. She’d say
a woman who could measure her life in deeds
was larger inside than the vessel that carried her;
she’d say she was a cluster of grapes.
My grandmother was only four feet ten
but when she entered a room
even the books came to attention.
Giants come in all sizes:
Sometimes a moment is a monument;
sometimes an institution breathes – like a library.
Like this halcyon inauguration day.
Thank you, and thank you Alison.
Hill: Jeff. . . .
Jeff Selingo: Thank you. And thanks for the invite, Alison, it’s great to be here at Lafayette. I was commenting this morning that I grew up only about an hour or so away in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and I had never been here before, so it’s great to be here.
I want to start with two disclosures. One is that, unlike my other panelists, I have never worked on a college campus, so my observations about higher education come from 16 years of covering higher education from the outside, as a journalist. That’s the second disclosure – I’m a journalist, not a researcher. I now say this because I spoke to a higher ed audience a couple months ago, and during the question-and-answer period, a faculty member in the back got up and asked me about my research methods for my book. I told her that in journalism if you meet three people you have a trend, so all you need is three anecdotes. I have a little bit more than that for the book, but if you ever wonder about a trend story in the New York Times, they met three people who had that trend.
What I want to do today is briefly talk about why I think change is coming to higher education, and in some cases why it’s really needed. And then, very briefly, I will talk about what I see as the higher education ecosystem in the future. Just as a preview, it includes institutions like this – residential colleges. I am unlike some of the other futurists who are talking about the future of higher education, who say that 50 percent of colleges or more will go out of business in the next 10 years. I just don’t believe that.
Why don’t we start about why now? First of all, this is a deliberate choice of this photo for this title slide because this is the original distance education at colleges and universities because somebody always had to sit in the back of those courses. Trust me, the type of learning that happened in these classes I don’t think was very good all the time. So, why now? I think part of the problem we are facing now is not only does college tuition continue to go up – in some cases I think colleges, particularly in the past couple of years, have done a very good job of holding their prices down – but we are seeing in this country flat and declining income. Back in 2001, it took less than 25 percent of the average family income in the United States to pay average tuition in the United States. Today it takes almost 40 percent of average family income to pay average tuition.
Part of that is because tuition has gone up, obviously, but part of it is because since 2001, average family income in the U.S. has actually dropped. As a result, colleges and universities across the country are looking for more students who can pay the bill. They are going, as a result, not only around the country, but around the world. I talk about this in my book and talked about it in a New York Times piece a couple of months ago, an analysis that was done of a small private college in the Northeast (not here). They looked at the total number of 18-year-olds in 2009, which was about 4.3 million. The board at this particular college wanted to know how many people could really afford to pay the bill and have high academic standards to come here. Obviously about 25 percent of those students never graduated from high school, so they were thrown out of this analysis. Not everyone intends to enroll in college. Not everyone wants to attend a four-year college, had high SAT scores, came from families making over $200,000, wanted to attend a private college, a small private college in the Northeast, etc. At the end of the day, they figured that fewer than 1000 students – about 997 to be exact – fit the profile of the type of student that they were looking for. And by the way, they were not the only college looking for the students. So were dozens of other colleges. And the trustees at that this particular institution discovered that it is not a winning strategy to continue to look for students who can pay the full bill.
At the same time, I think that we are starting to talk a lot about value of higher education. I know if you look at any survey out there, Americans understand that higher education is valuable, particularly from an economic standpoint. They know the figures: you’re going to make $800,000 or $1 million more over the course of your life if you have a college degree than if you don’t. Increasingly now I think is a conversation I hear families having as I talk to them: is every college worth that cost? I think the last decade was marked by this idea of going to any college at any cost. I think the future is really going to be about value and picking colleges based on this value conversation.
It’s interesting that last year – the last two years – the Chronicle and Pew and the Carnegie Foundation and Time magazine have asked college presidents and American families who have kids in college the same question: What do you think about the value of the college education you’re providing (if you’re president) or you’re getting (if you’re a family) for the money spent? It’s really interesting that 57 percent of the public said fair or good, but among presidents, the people leading institutions, 76 percent said excellent or good. It’s interesting. The Chronicle just last week published a study of 1,200 faculty members at colleges and universities. We asked the same question of faculty. Where do you think the faculty ended up? Closer to the public than to the presidents. Even the folks teaching at our colleges and universities are starting to question the value for the money spent.
Obviously places like this and a few other hundred institutions in this country are providing great value. But the problem is that 90 percent of the students in this country go elsewhere. They go to those institutions that I don’t think are a high value for the money spent. In fact, four in five students report to researchers that they are drifting through college, that they don’t know quite why they are there. A third of students now transfer at least once before earning a bachelor’s degree, and 400,000 students drop out of college every year. Some of them never go back. Increasingly, some of them are leaving with college debt.
I think this is a big sector as a result that is about to undergo a major change. The change I think is one that moves from a one-size-fits-all system. We talk a lot about the diversity of American higher education. Sure, we have small liberal arts colleges like this, “in the middle of nowhere,” as Jay Parini said earlier. We have large public universities. But for the most part, they all start in September, and in May, 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree, it’s a four-year experience. We talk about the diversity of the American higher education system, but for the most part I think it’s very much the same. I see the future being one that is a little bit more unbound from the bound system we have today, one that moves from this one-size-fits-all to more of an à la carte menu, where students and families can pick from an educational buffet.
In some ways, I see happening what we all saw happen to other industries over the last 10 or 12 years – whether it was the newspaper industry, the music industry, the book industry, or the publishing industry. What we saw there is that the only necessary people in those processes now are the writer and the reader, or the musician and the listener of music. I start to wonder, are the really necessary people here the teacher and the student, and that everyone comes between them – that includes the institution – has both risk and opportunity That doesn’t mean they all have risk. There are definitely opportunities there, but I’m starting to think that there are a lot of parallels between what’s happening in higher education and what happened over the last decade in these other sectors.
I met a lot of students in the reporting for the book over the past two years. Some of them – like José James – are swirling through college. These are some of the pathways I think you can see students moving through in the future: he went to three different institutions to get his bachelor’s degree. We are increasingly now seeing families – especially high-income families – think of community colleges first. You have 23 percent now of community college students that come from households that earning $100,000 plus a year. We also see students mixing course types. Jennifer Black was at the University of Central Florida, where she took a quarter of her classes online or in a hybrid format, which allowed her to do internships, study abroad, and have the flexibility she didn’t have if she had to take all of her classes face-to-face and finishing in four years. We are also seeing, as we spoke earlier, about this idea of the competency-based education model. Cheryl Shoe was a student that I met who went to Western Governors University, where learning is based on what you know rather than how much time you spend in a seat. Her shortest class was two weeks; her longest class was 14 weeks. She finished her degree in two and a half years and paid $18,000. We see now more traditional universities developing these plans and launching competency-based degrees. For all the talk about MOOCs and online education as the future of higher education, I actually think competency-based education as a piece of the model has a chance to really change the cost curve that we are talking about in higher education.
At the same time, I think that there are these transition points. This is again going back to this idea of college as a four-year experience. I think there are these transition points between high school and college and college to the workforce where we are losing a lot of students. Students are struggling to launch after high school, after college. They are dropping out in their first semester of their first year of college because they are having trouble transitioning there. I’m starting to see a lot of outside entities – places like Enstitute, which is this New York startup that is offering apprenticeships to students and builds a curriculum around it; Teach for America, which we all know; Venture for America, which models itself after Teach for America – there are all these outside entities which I think are taking a piece of what college is supposed to be about and helping students with the transitions into college and out of college. Again, I can see students in the future picking from all of these.
So how do 18-year-olds do this? We know they need structure. I started to think about this recently with the MOOCs. One of the interesting things about the MOOC platforms – where Princeton and Stanford and Michigan and Penn, for example, are cooperating on something from Coursera – is the idea of cooperation among institutions that normally compete with each other. I started to think about the airline alliances, where you can make one reservation and fly many airlines just on one ticket. I’m starting to think, could this be the future of higher ed, where we don’t have mergers or colleges going out of business, but we have much deeper alliances, where students can have admission to one institution, but actually travel through many colleges – either face-to-face or virtually – and in that time, collect all of their assets and have a transcript or portfolio that shows the learning experiences that they have. By the way, this could be through institutions, it could be through experiential learning, it could be through study abroad. But this idea, where we are not trapped on a college campus for four years and think that is what a higher education is.
What does this mean for the residential experience? I don’t think, as I said, it’s going to go away. Clay Christensen talks about 50 percent of colleges in the U.S. are going to go out of business in the next 10 or 15 years. I don’t believe that’s going to happen. One of the things I did when I was reporting the book – every single person I talked to, I asked them the same question: “If you went to a residential college, what was the most valuable thing that happened there that you couldn’t do in a virtual world?” Many of them said things I can’t repeat in mixed company. But the rest of the things they told me, I fit into four buckets. The first was this idea of passionate faculty and mentors that you can’t easily get online. The idea of undergraduate research – I can’t believe how many people talk to me about undergraduate research experiences that they had where they learn to work in teams. Number four really came into play – where they learned how to take risks and learn how to fail. And this idea of fostering non-cognitive skills. Two weeks ago I was out in Silicon Valley, spent a day with folks at Coursera, which is one of the big MOOC providers. It was interesting how all of them in the room talked about how they will never be able to replicate the idea of non-cognitive skills in the classroom or on a college campus.
I think this is just some of what I see happening in the next five or 10 years. Somebody always asks me, when is this going to happen? One of the things I’ve discovered in researching the book is that we tend to overestimate the time that it takes for change. We sometimes say that this is going to happen in two years, and it actually takes 10. We tend to underestimate the depth of change. It tends to be more than we ever expected it to be.
I look forward to the conversation and thank you for your time today.
Hill: Thank you for those stimulating remarks, all of you. Let me start the conversation, thinking about what Steve said, where in some ways you pose that we are already unbundling to some extent right now with the residential experience. Jeff, I would say that you started your talk actually giving some reinforcement to, “we’re doing it right here.” Where are we? I know it’s hard to make predictions, are we going to see more unbundling at liberal arts colleges?
Selingo: I think so. I’m not quite sure whether it will happen at a place like Lafayette immediately. I think it will happen at – I hate to use the word tier – but lower-tier and struggling liberal arts colleges that I don’t think can barely stay in business because their financial models are unworkable, and they are going to have to work with other institutions. I think, importantly, students are going to start demanding it. They are going to want to experience that matches together things. So it matches something that happens in the classroom to an internship or an apprenticeship, and a study-abroad experience, a research experience. Increasingly you’re going to see many more providers of this, not only traditional higher educational institutions, but others. Academe has been very resistant to allowing others to provide education. You see this in the whole transfer argument: “We are not going to take classes from even another institution.” I think students don’t quite understand that. They work in a world very different than even I grew up in 20 years ago when I went to college. I think they’re going to want an experience that allows them to pick and choose a little bit more.
Hill: So what is lost if there are those “piecemeals”? We often think of the gestalt of it – that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If it’s just pieced together, are we losing something with our educational model?
Poskanzer: I think there is a risk that you are. I think part of the challenge is – I think Jeff is right that you are going to see more unbundling, in part because this is what students want and expect, and we are in the business – like it or not – of responding at some level to student wishes (although it’s not exactly that straightforward because we are also telling them things that they need to know, as opposed to what they may want to know). But I think the real challenge is, if you go back to the list of those four things – a passionate faculty, the undergraduate residential piece, the non-cognitive skills, the place to be creative – all of those things are slow, personalized, and expensive. That makes the cost model – how you provide exactly what is special and distinctive and rare and isn’t going to be completely broken apart – how do you do that? What’s a sustainable financial model? That’s a real challenge.
Boylan: I totally agree. It’s a huge financial and cultural challenge. This is where I think alliances – I love the Star Alliance comparison – between and among liberal arts colleges and other institutions that have the same set of aspirations and missions. I think there really has to be an alignment because the panoply of higher education is so broad that it will be certainly easier and I think more effective if groups of colleges that have a common language, as residential liberal colleges do. Even if we just look at residential liberal arts colleges, it is hugely expensive to maintain the full range of academic disciplines. I just don’t see all of us being able to maintain the full set of choices. This is where technology and swapping of students and faculty and so forth – we have to come up with some creative choices. We cannot keep doing it all and doing it at the quality and cost curve that we have. I really think that these alliances have the potential for the students to maintain and enlarge the scope of the educational offerings. But I also want to remind everybody that the faculty are an important part of this equation, too. The faculty at liberal arts colleges, especially those plunked in the middle of nowhere – and this is relatively “somewhere” compared to some of them – they are isolated. We need to find better ways to support them. One of the reasons I chose that AALAC Mellon 23 example was the power that the faculty found to design the kind of learning workshops that they needed, and they got to choose what they wanted to study together, whether it was about their research area or about a teaching problem. They were able to invite whom they wanted to be part of this workshop. That kind of faculty support through this kind of alliance I think is just as powerful and just as needed as the ones that are oriented to the students.
Hill: Let me push that a little bit further because there has certainly been a lot of attention paid to collaborations – certainly the Sloan Foundation is doing that, Mellon is also pushing that as well. But collaborations are hard even when you talk about the Mellon project, just the challenge there. What if we pushed that model even further? I read recently in Inside Higher Ed about a group called – I think it’s National University System. It’s a group that’s bringing together private universities under one umbrella where they can essentially have one university, many branches, but they have the benefit of back-office operations being more streamlined, benefits of scale. What if we went to a national liberal arts college system, where we come together and have branch campuses on Lafayette, Carleton, Barnard so there’s not competition? There’s collaboration because we really are all part of one institution. Is that where we should head?
Poskanzer: It’s not easy to do. A bunch of liberal arts colleges in the South are trying to do a virtual classics department. It’s a struggle to make it work. We try to collaborate. In Northfield, Minnesota, there’s Carleton and St. Olaf. You have two liberal arts colleges in the same little town, and we are working hard to try to get them collaborating. We will go out and talk to people at the Five College Consortium or the Claremont Colleges, and the magnitude of trying to make the cultural things work when there are seven is overwhelming. How do you do it with 23? How deep could you get in terms of the real cultural stuff where people live?
Boylan: I think you have to go after what you can do with a consortium. This was a very thin slice. Mellon’s purpose in giving us this money and making these matches between and among us was about the faculty career, and – what it came to be at Barnard at least – was called the Life Cycle Project, the faculty lifecycle. What we were doing was studying what do faculty need at different transitions? We weren’t trying to do the back office, we certainly were trying to do the alumni networks and development. There were real challenges to the autonomy and the specialness of all of these places. But where you can find those sweet spots, I think we really ought to be pushing there and finding the right kinds of partners that you can trust and rely on, developing those relationships and then funding it yourself. It has to become a new normal.
Selingo: I think these have to be very deep collaborations, some of which we have never seen before in higher education. If you collaborate, but both colleges, or all colleges, continue to have the same departments, for example, that’s not going to work because you are still going to have the same amount of cost. The only way for these deep collaborations to work is to say, “You know what? We have 20 departments, and these five are our strongest, and we’re going to collaborate with somebody for another five and another five and another five.” That’s how you create kind of this new college. In some ways, I think the sum there might be greater than the parts. In some ways, if somebody is able to pull this off, five weak colleges could suddenly become a much stronger institution that could become a new competitor to a place like Lafayette.
Poskanzer: The challenge is that the closer you get to the academic side, the harder this is going to get. . .
Selingo: The great thing about being a journalist is you can just write about this. You actually don’t have to do it. . .
Poskanzer: I will give an example, but admittedly a very politically crafted example, because I don’t want the tape of this to get back to my campus. . .
Hill: Okay, stop recording!
Poskanzer: Let’s imagine I have a department that teaches Swahili – something I don’t happen to have at Carleton. If the virtual way of doing this is to say “I’m not going to do Swahili anymore, and that my peer institution is instead,” is profoundly threatening to the faculty member who has been doing that, who now has to come to grips with the realization that when he or she retires there’s never going to be another professor on this campus who teaches Swahili. That’s not an easy cultural hurdle to get over.
Selingo: We also have accreditation issues, too, top of this.
Boylan: But what choices do we have?
Selingo: Where I think you’re going to see this first happening is institutions where it’s the only way to survive.
Hill: It sort of reminds me of some things that have been talked about with regard to shared governance, too, at institutions, which we could have many sessions about. A faculty member wrote in asking about whether that model is one that’s going to continue in the future. There have been skeptics who think that it’s broken and that it’s too slow and doesn’t have a nimble enough approach to the kinds of challenges that we face in higher education. Do you see that model changing over time? Is that part of the strength of small liberal arts colleges?
Selingo: I would love to know where shared governance is working, because unfortunately I think it’s broken in many places. I think we’ve come to a point now where – I know in a lot of the things that the Chronicle has covered just over the last couple years, it isn’t working and where, especially, everyone on campus feels that they should have a say in every single thing. The idea of shared governance was never this idea that every single person on campus should have a say over every single decision that’s made. I think that’s how some people do interpret it on some campuses where it hasn’t worked very well.
Hill: A faculty member wrote in – I’m going to start with Steve – you started your presentation talking about a football game. The faculty member wrote in about how – when you think about athletics as being part of a college campus and the environment, and you start to unbundle it, and looked at the book that Jeff wrote and noticed that athletics wasn’t mentioned at all.
Selingo: It’s the third rail. I don’t touch those things. And tenure – tenure, parking, and football.
Hill: We could do many sessions! Do you see the role of college athletics changing over time?
Poskanzer: Thanks for pushing me onto the third rail. It’s really good to be in Division III, I’ll start by saying that, where there are no scholarships and pressures like that. I think you really have to ask hard questions about what is the purpose of the intercollegiate athletic program that you have. If it’s designed to teach – if the Duke of Wellington was right and you learn things on the playing fields, then what are those things, and how do we know they are actually being learned? If the point of having an intercollegiate athletic program is to build community, then you better be able to demonstrate that it’s building community. If the point is to raise your profile with particular audiences to achieve certain ends, you better be able to demonstrate that. The data that you see out there would certainly demonstrate that lots of the biggest, most famous, highest NCAA-level programs lose money hand over fist, and probably aren’t achieving some of those goals that they are supposed to achieve. That should raise some really serious questions.
Hill: I think each of you talked about accountability and trying to measure the value. That seems to be a consistent pattern for each of you, even though you are coming at it from very different directions. We need to do a better job?
Poskanzer: It’s not going to go away.
Selingo: And because I think if you don’t do a better job, somebody else is going to do it for you. We see this at the government level, we see this in the private sector. Somebody is going to come up with new measurements. You think U.S. News & World Report rankings are a headache now? Just in 10 or 15 years with the data get so much better about measuring student outcomes in career fields, those are the new set of rankings that we are about to see. We might even see something from the government in the next 10 or 15 years.
Boylan: That’s where flipping from being the perennial grantee to the new grantor has been eye-opening for me. One of the things I think that Sloan does really well in working with our grantees is, upfront if they haven’t put in their grant proposal specific and very creative metrics and surrogate metrics for how they are going to measure their impact, we force them to. We have a conversation about it. It’s from some sort of dumb things, like how many hits on your webpage. We really also push them constantly to come up with measures of quality and impact – not just numbers, not things that you can easily count – that was one of the points I was making – but really qualitative assessments that give us some sense of the extent and the depth of that impact. I think assessment for accountability, but also assessment for effectiveness. That’s really going to be our challenge.
Poskanzer: And it has to be outcomes. Inputs are just not that helpful. You really have to demonstrate, over time, what have you achieved.
Hill: I want to thank our panelists, Steve Poskanzer, Elizabeth Boylan, and Jeff Selingo, for their insights.