Leadership & Governance

Top U.S. Higher-Education Official Says Innovation Will Best Serve the ‘New Normal’ Students

August 19, 2016

Produced by Arielle Martinez and Carmen Mendoza

Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education and the top higher-education official at the U.S. Department of Education, talks often about the need for colleges to innovate so they can better serve adults, working people, and others he calls the “new normal students” of today.

Under his tenure, the department has encouraged experiments that involve technology-aided solutions and private companies — like the Equip program, whose first participants were announced this week — and he says he welcomes a seeming shift by the ed-tech industry in recent years away from “gizmos” and toward data-based products.

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Mr. Mitchell also oversaw the department’s creation of the College Scorecard, which he calls one of the “greatest victories” for the department and the Obama administration, as well as the adoption new policies aimed at holding colleges accountable for student outcomes.

Mr. Mitchell visited The Chronicle’s newsroom this week to talk about the department’s role in promoting innovation and change, and ways the legacy of that work could endure once the administration ends.


GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Hi. We're here today with Ted Mitchell, under secretary of education from the Department of Education. Ted, thanks for joining us.

TED MITCHELL: Goldie, thank you for having me.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: First off, I know you came to this job at the Education Department from the world of venture philanthropy. And I guess I'm wondering what you brought from that world to the job of the Education Department. How did that influence what you're doing there today?

TED MITCHELL: Yeah, great question. I think one of the things that has motivated the Obama administration from the beginning has been a recognition that in order to achieve our goals as a country and in order to support individuals in their striving for better lives, we have to understand that the college student of today is not the college student of my generation or your generation. The 18-year-old who got dropped off in the minivan at State U. is not a majority anymore. It's the 24-year-old returning veteran. It's the 36-year-old single mom. It's the person who's fully employed trying to up skill.

And in order to achieve our goals as a country and the administration's goals, we need to do things differently. We need to innovate. We're not going to be able to reach the new normal student by a fundamentally residential, live-away-from-work opportunity. We're going to have to change. And I think that the work that the New Schools venture fund and other venture philanthropies and foundations have done in doing some experimentation is valuable in that conversation.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: One of the things we all have seen is there's a lot of money flowing into the ed-tech world right now. You've seen that as well. I guess I'm wondering: Are there some places where some of that money is going where you think it's not as useful? Some of it's just going to things that might not really move the needle as much as it should?

TED MITCHELL: Yeah, it's been very interesting to see the change in the last three years — I would say where three years ago we were thinking that there were going to be gizmos or content totally delivered online that was going to revolutionize everything in higher education. I think that people have taken a step back, whether those are the learning scientists or the sociologists who are looking at interactions on campuses. And the step back has allowed all of us to understand that the best technology is one that's used in tandem with great person-to-person interaction.

And I think that that switch has created an opportunity for a new generation of education technology, less gizmo-based and more data-based, where places like Georgia State are using big data to create predictive analytics about what pathways are going to work for students who have a certain profile on their transcript. And that then is informing conversations that people are having. So it's not replacing people. It's really deepening the engagement that people are having with their students.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Earlier this summer, the department held an Innovation Summit here in Washington. And you implored the crowd to think a little bit about what was missing in the ecosystem and also who was missing from the ecosystem. I think you looked out at that room and said it was awfully white in that room.

TED MITCHELL: I did say that.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: So from your perspective, what is missing, and who is missing?

TED MITCHELL: So what Secretary [Arne] Duncan used to always say is that the best ideas don't come from Washington. They come from the field. And I think that that's true about innovation ideas as well. And so we need the people who are on the ground, we need the new normal students, and we need their representatives to be in the room designing programs for them. You'll remember that at that event, where we were, there was a terrific panel, a virtual panel, of students who didn't look a lot like me, who had some really great ideas about how to move forward.

So those are the voices, those are the people we need. And I look forward to the department figuring out ways to support them, whether it's in grant programs like First in the World or other programs where we can support the development of new talent into the system.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: This week the department rolled out its Equip winners. This is the program that's going to let alternative providers get some access to federal student-aid money in collaboration with colleges and universities. You've described it as a carefully considered program with a lot of safeguards in it. But right now, it's a pretty small program — eight partnerships. I guess I'm wondering, if this idea really scales up, is the department, is the system that we have right now, really equipped to handle the potential for abuse in this? Obviously, we've seen a lot of abuses when financial aid was expanded to the for-profit-college sector.

TED MITCHELL: So I think we need to think about Equip in the context of the administration's efforts over the last several years to really focus on student outcomes. And I think a lot of what opened an opportunity to waste, fraud, and abuse was less of a focus on outcome and more of a focus on inputs and processes.

So we think that the combination of our gainful-employment regulations that really create solid expectations for what career colleges are going to do for their students, creation of our enforcement unit that enables us to make much more rapid decisions about bad performers in the space, and a general conversation that we're having with states and accreditors about focusing on outcomes is certainly narrowing the space in which people can get away with ruining students' lives.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: But for the Equip program, I mean, are there any concerns that this is really just going to be opening the barn door, and in five or 10 years, when there's not such focus, the program succeeds, but there's not so much focused attention on the outcomes and the quality assurance?

TED MITCHELL: Well, if we don't keep the laser-like focus on outcomes, and if we don't continue to empower not only our accreditors, but this new group of quality-assurance entities — if we don't empower them, then we will run exactly that risk. This is all based on being able to identify strong student outcomes and to support that work, to identify weak student outcomes and either get those institutions or those programs to improve or get them out of the space.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: The department has been a very active department over the last several years. You mentioned gainful employment, Pell Grants for prisoners programs, obviously, the Equip program. I think you've got an app on your phone right now that counts down to the end of the administration, however.

TED MITCHELL: That's right.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: What do you think will keep some of these programs alive once the Obama administration's out of office? How do you keep any of this legacy going?

TED MITCHELL: Well, I think that the best way to secure a legacy is to build these into the common practice and the expectations of the field. So I'll give you a slightly different example. College Scorecard was born after lots of conversation, long development. And it's now a part of the conversation. It's a part of the conversation with my daughter's cohort, who are applying for college starting this fall. It's a part of the conversation among college counselors. Making these things a part of the landscape is the surest way for us to build a legacy.

So we'll have the first round of gainful data out in this space. And once that information is out, it's very difficult to take it back. And if you look across the whole arc of the administration's work, not only in higher education but in K-12, a lot of it is about getting information out, being transparent, putting information in the hands of people who need to make decisions about it.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I'm glad you mentioned the College Scorecard. I was thinking about that a little bit. It's probably one of the places where the department had perhaps its biggest defeat, or maybe you might consider it a retreat. We were originally envisioning the Scorecard as a tool for accountability. Obviously, a lot of colleges and a lot of other people opposed that idea. And it became a complicated process even to create the effective scorecard. What did you learn from that process?

TED MITCHELL: So I guess I would have a slightly different interpretation.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I would imagine.

TED MITCHELL: I think it was one of the department and the administration's greatest victories in two ways. First of all, we made an ambitious goal. We worked hard to get there. And as we got closer, we realized that the goal might be the wrong one and that the kind of accountability that we had talked about at the beginning of the process isn't the kind of accountability that we think really, actually does matter on the ground. The kind of ability — excuse me. I get so excited talking about Scorecard. The kind of accountability that matters on the ground is the kind of accountability that allows an individual user to identify what's important to them, to get reliable information about that, and then to make decisions about it.

We decided that it's better for students and parents and counselors and helpers to be able to ask the queries that they want to ask rather than to hear what the government thinks is rated A, B, or C. So I think we listened. We learned. And we came up with a product that's superior than what we started with.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: When I talk to people about the Obama administration and the legacy of the administration, a lot of people are pretty full of praise. One of the areas where even your biggest defenders raise issues is in the areas of student loans and oversight of the student-loan program in the broadest sense. I guess I'm wondering where we are in 2016. Does it still make sense for the Education Department to oversee the student-loan program? Or is that something that should maybe be at the Treasury Department or someplace else?

TED MITCHELL: I think it does. Let's remember. We have come an extraordinary distance in a very short period of time. The direct-loan program was really put in place early in the administration. And the FSA, Federal Student Aid, needed to build an infrastructure and an apparatus to take the weight of all of that. And they did an extraordinary job. They made that technological transition with barely a hiccup.

I would say that we're now in the second phase of bringing the direct-student-loan program to maturity. And we're, as you know, in the process of recompeting our student-loan contracts. And we think that much of what we've learned through the last several years, we're embodying in the RFP for that new contract.

I'll give you an example. We have a number of different loan servicers who work with borrowers. Each of them has a slightly different look and feel, a slightly different way of presenting options to people. And if students have more than one loan, they're going to be confused. And so we're trying to use this recompete to create a common platform with different service organizations plugging into that platform. But for the borrower, all of their correspondence between the Department of Education — it will all have one look and feel. And there'll be one phone number. And at the other end of the line will be someone who says, "U.S. Department of Education."

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: You've used the phrase, your department is sprinting to the tape on this thing. What's the highest priority for the next couple of months?

TED MITCHELL: Well, I think that the recompete is certainly a high priority. We have a number of regulatory packages that are on schedule to be completed before November 1. Borrower Defense is one of them. It's been an important place for the administration to work to make students who have been defrauded whole. And we want to get those regulations in place. And a whole range of regulations coming through the new ESSA law in the K-12 set.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I mean, I think some of our audience knows this. But before you came to the Education Department, you had also had a long career as an education professor and a college president. Having been at the department for these past several years, I guess I'm wondering now, what do you wish today's college presidents and today's college professors knew or know about American higher education.

TED MITCHELL: Well, I think that they know plenty. And they know it at a level of granularity that is really important for us to understand. And I think I would flip it the other way. I think there is a lot of learning that those of us who are in the department can gain from people in the field. I think that oftentimes, policy making doesn't take into account how it would impact people on the ground on a day-to-day basis. And I would hope that we could get better as a department at listening to and learning from the field.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Great. Thanks very much for coming by today.

TED MITCHELL: Thank you. Thank you.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.