THE WEEKLY BLAB
Volume 8, Issue 17 – December 9, 2013
Almost Done for the Year
The term is rapidly approaching its end, with a full plate of end-of-year activities. The holiday parties have begun, with more to come this week. I’ve gotten a few Chanukkah cards, and the Christmas cards are starting to come in. I even got off my duff and bought tickets for the annual trip to Las Vegas to see my folks, who live there during the winter. I’m a notorious procrastinator when it comes to travel and one day I’ll get my comeuppance; but despite waiting until early December, once again I was able to get the tickets for when I wanted them at a reasonable price.
The Week in Review
On Wednesday morning, the Leadership Cobb group was on campus for their Education Day. Kit Trensch (Office of Institutional Advancement) is on their planning board, and had asked me to give the official welcome and tell them a little bit about our university, its mission, and how that mission is exemplified by our degree programs. After I spoke, Dr. Michael Hinojosa (Superintendent of the Cobb County Schools) spoke about some of the challenges and changes that the Cobb schools are facing. For the past several years, the school system has begun the year with almost a 10% deficit, and faced some difficult choices as to how to close it. His major point was that we can’t go on providing education in the same way as in the 1930’s, yet—that’s exactly what we’re doing. He talked about greater use of technology in educating students and being open to other kinds of reform, instead of having a knee-jerk mentality against them. Following Dr. Hinojosa’s remarks, the participants took a tour of the Computer Gaming Lab, led by Jon Preston (CSSWE) and by students from the Brumby Elementary School, who partner with us in developing educational games.
Also Wednesday, at 10:00 AM, it was time for a meeting of the Shared Services Committee, which I attended online using GoToMeeting. One of the topics that was discussed was how the back office consolidations had gone for the previous university mergers. The bottom line was that it was more difficult than anticipated—an 8 or 9 on a scale of 10—but ultimately the job got done and lessons were learned. They believe that when KSU and SPSU merge their back office functions, it will go more smoothly due to this experience.
The ALC met at 2:00 PM, and Allison Perez of the Education Advisory Board gave a presentation on the kinds of research the EAB can do for us as part of our membership. We also had a presentation from Lee Webster about what the results from UITS’s classroom technology usage survey indicated. Our ultimate goal is to have a much greater standardization of classroom technology, so that faculty will be assigned to classrooms with the technology they need, and instantly know how to it. Julie Newell gave a review of the first meeting of the Consolidation Implementation Committee, which had taken place earlier that morning. She felt upbeat about the meeting, which focused on the opportunities for creating a new university that was different from, but utilized the strengths of, the two universities being consolidated. The first major task for the Committee will be creating a new mission statement. Han Reichgelt (Dean of CSE) gave a review of the work that had been done in his school using Cognos and Web Reports to try to improve graduation rates. They first focused on problems in CSE, and found that there were a few bottleneck courses to be addressed (those with a lower than 80% success rate). In each case, they tried to determine if the problem was inappropriate prerequisites, a need for improved instruction, or some other reason. In at least one of the courses, the professor concluded that part of the problem was in how he was teaching the course. After making some adjustments to make the course more relevant to what graduates would actually be doing, the results improved significantly. CSE is now looking at courses outside their school, and considering implementing some changes (including bringing in at least one outside course into the school) to improve success rates.
The University Holiday Party was on Thursday afternoon, and the Social and Community Building Committee did a wonderful job in decorating the Ballroom for it. Everyone was commenting on how this was pretty much the first time that the Ballroom actually looked like a ballroom, complete with a chandelier in the center. The party was well attended and the food was great. President Rossbacher’s annual poem was very well received.
After the poem, I joined Rich Halstead-Nussloch and we drove to Stone Mountain for Jim Ramsey’s funeral. Jim Ramsey, the beloved husband for 43 years of our own Dawn Ramsey (Director of the Office of Faculty Growth and Development), was a fine man who I had the privilege of meeting on a few occasions, most recently at an ALC meeting on Jekyll Island. Jim was a devoted family man and a proud Kentuckian, and it was incredibly touching to hear the words spoken by two of his sons and by Dawn about what he meant to them. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him. Those who wish to send cards and condolences should send them to Dawn Ramsey, 5382 Lanford Springs Ct. SW, Lilburn, GA, 30047-6553.
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18).
Colleges Can Still Save Themselves. Here’s How
Ever since the recent recession, there have been a huge number of articles published about how higher education is in crisis and needs some massive reforms. One of the latest appeared in the December 2 Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Colleges Can Still Save Themselves. Here’s How”, by Jeffrey Selingo, a professor of practice at Arizona State University.
Selingo starts with the familiar stories of Blockbuster, Circuit City, and Tower Records, each of which was once a major national retailing success story, but have now gone out of business, victims of changing customer preferences due to the ease of shopping online and video-on-demand. He notes that many see this technological disruption as one that will also affect universities: “Traditional colleges, particularly the many that are in the middle of the pack but charge high prices, will lose out to nimbler, cheaper competitors offering degrees on flexible timelines, either in hybrid format (in-person and online) or fully online.”
He notes that Clayton M. Christensen (a Harvard Business School professor) and Michael B. Horn (executive director for education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation) wrote in a New York Times essay (available here) that the bottom 25% of every tier of colleges will go out of business in the next 10-15 years. More pessimistic still is Andrew S. Rosen (chairman and chief executive of Kaplan Inc.), who predicts that only 600 traditional colleges will survive the next few decades. Moody’s Investors Service has reported that net-tuition revenue (tuition minus financial aid) is flat or declining at 75% of public colleges and 60% of private colleges. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s survey of 400 small private and regional public universities found that almost half had missed their enrollment or revenue targets for the year. It’s all pretty pessimistic stuff.
Selingo notes that colleges have two common (but inappropriate) responses to these dismal statistics: they either conclude that it’s all over and that we should give up, or that it’s a tempest in a teacup and the good days will return in a while. Both of these views make it impossible to implement necessary changes. The big question is: will colleges quicken the pace of change to lower costs and better serve their students before it’s too late?
He suggests a number of things colleges need to do to survive:
- Form academic alliances with other institutions, across town or across the country, sharing courses (physically or online), paring non-critical academic departments, making a few degree programs distinctive while leaving the rest to their partners. The combined brand might thus be stronger than any of its individual institutions.
- Have a more flexible workforce, by putting a time limit on tenure—perhaps 20-30 years, followed by 1-year contracts.
- Stop offering financial aid to wealthy students under the guise of merit aid. He argues that this increases the sticker-price at the expense of low-income students.
- Stop providing ever-fancier amenities to students (the proverbial climbing wall)
- Move away from a one-size fits all system of calendar and curriculum, where everyone goes for four years (or more) to accumulate 120 credits. Offer a variety of degree paths (3-year, low residency, hybrid and online courses, co-op).
- Root decisions in data, not anecdotes and intuition.
Seligo ends the article by saying that the collapse of higher education’s business model has been predicted many times before, yet more colleges have opened in the past 50 years than have closed. On the other hand, in the years before the Civil War, more than 700 colleges closed for economic reasons and this can happen again, whether we like it or not.
Seligo’s analysis seems compelling, given current economic times, and I think there’s no question that a “do what we’ve always done” approach will not work in the new normal. While Seligo’s proposed solutions seem to make common sense in general, I think that some of them have some serious flaws and a couple need a closer look. I’ll take each one in turn.
Suggestion 1, about forming alliances, makes sense in a limited way. It’s not a good idea to try to be all things to all people in any business and this rule applies to colleges as well. A university’s programs should fit a well-defined mission, that being the best path to making them distinctive. Forming alliances with other universities to give students access to courses in areas that don’t fit into the mission makes sense. This is the path we’ve followed at SPSU—we have a strong mission and have added programs well suited to it. We don’t try to do things that are outside our mission—we leave that to others in the USG, and our students can access them as transients.
I don’t think that it’s a good idea to pare non-distinctive or low productivity departments, at least not as a first or even second step—it is difficult to cut one’s way to health. A better path is to search for ways to fit the department more tightly into the college’s mission. This can often be done by developing interdisciplinary links to more successful programs. At my previous college, rather than eliminating the Philosophy program (an easy target at many colleges), I worked with them to form links to the business and criminal justice programs through their offering of ethics courses focused on those disciplines. We also worked to modify their introductory courses to also fit one of the college’s mission-focused rubrics, human rights. The result was a better fit with the mission, increased enrollments, and consequently, lower overall costs.
Suggestion 2, limiting tenure, is a popular idea with many non-academics. Most occupations don’t have tenure and tenure protects deadwood, they argue. I’ve never thought much of this argument. Tenure is a benefit that has no cash cost—you need the same number of faculty either way. In fact, since tenure is hard to get, most faculty are reluctant to give it up unless they get a serious increase in pay—$10,000 or more, to my experience. Thus, tenure reduces the ability of colleges to raid each other’s faculty, thereby making faculty more stable (improving the chances for being able to develop distinctive programs) and lowering costs. The deadwood argument also doesn’t hold—tenure is not a protection against poor performance, and never has been. Clear standards are the best defense against deadwood. The argument for eliminating tenure after 20 years implies older faculty are less productive and that flexibility 20 years in the future has some value. A better solution is to have strong faculty development programs, so that all faculty have the opportunity to stay productive.
Suggestion 3, cutting financial aid to wealthier students, may sound good in theory but would be a disaster for many private colleges. Students and their families are pretty savvy about financial aid, and wealthier families are those in the best position to hire experts to help them navigate the college application process. The days when you could get wealthier students to pay the full private college tuition are gone, except for a small number of highly elite colleges. Offering these students limited financial aid does indeed raise the overall tuition, but wealthier students still pay a higher net tuition, with the difference used to subsidize the tuition of lower-income students.
Suggestion 4, cutting amenities, is probably true in a limited way. Campuses with poorer facilities than their competitors, however, are at a distinct disadvantage in recruiting. The key is to only add amenities that are highly desirable to significant numbers of prospective students.
Suggestion 5, providing multiple paths to graduation, is where the real strength of Seligo’s argument is. Offering courses in multiple or converged formats, in both traditional and accelerated timings, allows a college to serve a wider variety of students with its distinctive programs. Low residency and online programs allow adult students to participate, a huge potential market. Most colleges still offer their programs in the same way they did 50 years ago, an increasingly risky proposition. There is currently a move to examine the whole 120 accumulated credit concept, replacing it with mastery of specific skills and outcomes. This would be a truly radical change, but Seligo doesn’t raise the point.
Suggestion 6, use more data, is something that’s hard to argue against. All colleges need to develop strong business intelligence tools to better understand their students’ needs and to identify students who need help. Still, while it’s easy to gather data, knowing what it means and using it effectively are much more difficult, and often require a bit of the kind of intuition that only comes from experience.
Overall, the reason that SPSU has been able to buck the national enrollment trend and grow when most others are falling behind is that we have a strong sense of who we are, due to our distinctive mission. Our mission is both practical and applied, strongly in tune with today’s economy and society’s needs. Our degree programs fit our mission, and we offer them to a broadening range of markets in a widening set of formats. We effectively communicate our mission to our students and show them that they have a strong chance for success as a result of the applied nature of our programs. We have data that shows that this model works. In my view, colleges and universities who meet these criteria will continue to grow and flourish. Those that don’t will have increasing challenges.
Last Week’s Trivia Contest
Last time’s trivia challenge focused on westerns, and our winner was Tom Nelson (Dean of Arts & Sciences), who was the first to get all five correct. Others getting all five included Julie Newell and Mark Vickrey. Here are the correct answers:
- He rode a horse named Silver, and his gun fired silver bullets. The Lone Ranger.
- One of the first singing cowboys, he rode a horse named Champion. He later owned the California Angels. Gene Autrey.
- Lead character in Gunsmoke, he never married Miss Kitty. Matt Dillon.
- He first starred in The Rifleman, and later in Branded. Chuck Connors.
- Brett, Bart, and Brent. Beau was their cousin. The Maverick brothers.
This Week’s Trivia Challenge
Today’s trivia challenge focuses on words that begin with “poly”. No looking up the answers now! SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO firstname.lastname@example.org, since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them!
- Having more than one spouse.
- A figure with more than two sides.
- Islands of the South Pacific.
- Margarine is higher in these beneficial fats than butter is.
- Having more than one crystalline form.