On the Nature of Change in Higher Ed (Part III): Assessing the Costs

November 19, 2011, 12:09 pm

Students at UC-Berkeley marching on behalf of public education last week. Photo credit: Judith C. Brown.

We return to guest blogger, historian and former Zenith provost Judith C. Brown.  Her full biography and Part I of this series, which asks us to think about what modern higher education is, and can be viewed here. Part II, where she addressed the larger economic context for higher education, can be viewed here.  In this concluding post, she responds to the question: “What is to be done?”

Many who are impatient with the slow pace of change in higher education see the key to success in Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (2011). The authors’ main argument is that traditional colleges and universities have imitated the Harvard model so that even those that began with more limited aims have seen mission creep. The resulting complexities are unsustainably costly for most and don’t serve the needs of the variety of students seeking degrees, particularly now that disruptive online technologies, used largely by for-profit institutions, are giving traditional institutions a run for their money.

This argument is right to emphasize the need for a greater range of models to meet the educational and financial needs of different types of students, from 18-22 year olds wishing to attend liberal arts campuses to older working adults looking for online credential programs they can pursue part-time. It is also right on the need for traditional institutions to focus more sharply on the central aspects of their educational missions.

Yet the reason for mission creep has little to do with trying to imitate Harvard. Most colleges and universities are quite aware, and in many cases quite proud, of their differences. They do not have a star system, they have higher teaching loads, a greater focus on high quality teaching, and a reward system that recognizes teaching and institutional service as well as research.  They have either no graduate programs or smaller ones, located in select departments where they fulfill market demands or enhance the undergraduate research experience. Moreover, even among those elite institutions that place great emphasis on research, there is recognition of the qualitative difference that faculty who engage in research can make to undergraduate education. In my experience as a dean and a provost I was struck by the extent to which the best researchers in the faculty were also among the best and most devoted teachers. They offered students an exciting ride in the voyage of discovery and critical thinking.

Costly mission creep at traditional institutions has grown partly because of new educational demands, among them, to provide remedial support programs for the growing proportion of high school graduates who enroll lacking the educational background to succeed in college. Two-year institutions have been especially affected by this. At four-year institutions, non-educational factors have been equally or even more important. To meet the expectations of prospective students and their families, many traditional institutions have engaged in an arms race to provide costly on-campus facilities that sometimes resemble four-star hotels. This arms-race extends to costly athletic programs whose net revenues are almost always decidedly in the red (see Orszag and Israel, “The Empirical Effects of Collegiate Athletics” 2009), yet are championed by alumni, including those in state legislatures, who don’t see the contradiction in calling for cost containment while demanding winning teams at all costs. Last, but not least among the few factors mentioned here, are a host of other costs related to the liability of institutions. These range from providing more behavioral and physical health services in fulfillment of the in loco parentis expectations of families to settling legal disputes in an increasingly litigious society.

To contain the costs to society of higher education, whether traditional or digital, society as a whole will have to address more effectively the widely-known failures of K-12 education. To point out the obvious: it’s cheaper to address learning gaps during the first 3-5 years of a child’s education than to use scarce resources for remedial programs at community colleges, 4-year traditional colleges, or at for-profit institutions. In addition, traditional colleges and universities, and the public they serve, will have to decide which non-educational aspects of their activities they can do without and, as The Innovative University points out, which educational programs should be transformed, scaled back, or eliminated.

This last point raises the issue of what positive contributions the digital revolution can make to the quality and cost of higher education. Christensen and Eyring, I believe, are too optimistic and simplistic about the costs associated with the digital revolution. I say this though I’m a great fan of technology and have used it for pedagogical purposes, not just for course management. High quality online learning is more time-consuming and expensive to produce than most people think, though once created, course content is relatively cheaper to maintain, revise, and distribute within and across institutions. Moreover, judging from those enrolled at online for-profit institutions, many who are most likely to gravitate to the exclusively online world as a panacea are also least prepared educationally to benefit from it. Given current technologies, online learning may be best only for certain types of courses, learning styles, and students, though measuring the outcomes or the reasons for them is not easy [See the recent U.S. Department of Education’s metanalaysisof online learning studies.]. The key to the success of incorporating digital approaches is to know when and how to use them for pedagogical purposes rather than simply to lower costs.

Christensen and Eyring are right to note that every college and university will have to face the issue of change more urgently than before because of the new options available to students and the outside pressures to use them. Some colleges and universities will change and will help lead the way to new models; others will follow the road of those institutions that have already shut their doors in the last two decades; and yet others will survive as creaky institutions that will not attract, as they have in the past, the money, the public respect, or the quality of students they would like. In this process I believe that small liberal arts institutions, which have been the most removed from the pressures I’ve outlined, are the least prepared to make the necessary changes in a higher education landscape that, whether we like it or not, will transform all institutions, even those most seemingly insulated. The reason is that in this setting internal constituencies have had the most input creating the status quo, so the wish to preserve what they’ve created and to refrain from disrupting the internal social harmony of the institution is the strongest.

Essential for institutional success will be for administrators and faculty to develop models for change that will provide different types of high quality education at a lower cost per degree to students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. This does not mean that education should be free, but that it should be made affordable via financial aid to those who need it. Neither does it mean that we should exploit the faculty by paying $2,300 per course, as often happens for adjuncts at traditional institutions and for instructors at online for-profit institutions – a situation that can be remedied by reducing the overproduction of Ph.D.s in certain fields. It does mean that in addition to focusing on what each institution does best within its central educational mission, we should reduce administrative inefficiency and not waste reducational resources. This is important in and of itself, but is all the more pressing in an era when we will have to make do with less because legislators, reflecting certain segments of the public, believe they should reduce the overall funding for higher education.

One of the virtues of American higher education is the variety of models in it. For this reason, there shouldn’t be a one-model-fits-all for colleges and universities to follow in bringing about change. Yet their paths should have in common a collaborative embrace of change among their internal constituencies rather than fear of it. Change should be pursued, not for its own sake, but because the current models, despite the many strengths that led until recently to their world-wide imitation, are too rigid, inflexible, and costly to meet the needs of large segments of society and the willingness of the public to fund them. Many of us in academe know this. The public knows this. It is time for those of us who are inside higher education to take charge of the process while it’s still possible for us to do so.

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