Monday, March 31, 2014

The Cost of Replacing Proprietary Colleges

What are we to make of the new study published by Nexus, "Do Proprietary Institutions of Higher Education Generate Savings for States?"  I had a number of takeaways.

First, its authors are the real deal. Jorge Klor de Alva and Mark Schneider are respected members of the policy and research community.  Second, the reviewers, with people like Pat Callan, David Longanecker, Darcie Harvey, and Chris Bustamente, are a respected and thoughtful group.

Third, as a non-researcher, I thought that the question the study was assessing (what would the cost shift be if proprietary colleges closed) had already been tested in real time in California. The authors predict that the price tag for unmet demand would be in the billions of dollars, but we already know the answer to the "what if this happened" question.  4-5 years ago, tens of thousands of learners were denied access to the community college system in California when the legislature did not fund the existing demand. So the answer is that the learners would be out of luck if these colleges were closed.

Finally, the study suggests that this whole discussion of proprietary institutions as a single class of institutions that is to be suspected, is masking a larger and important reality — namely, that the situation we face and the issues that lie behind it are far more nuanced and complex than some people want to make them.

Let me state my bias that as a former community college and state university president, I strongly support the tradition of taxpayer-funded public higher education, with tiers of subsidy at the three levels: community colleges, state colleges and universities, and land grant universities. The diversity of access and price that result are as American as apple pie.

Beyond that, however, I see plenty of room for private non-profit and proprietary institutions to fill out the opportunity picture with higher prices, in some cases, and no state institutional subsidy. It strikes me that the very diversity suggested by this institutional variety is symbolic of what makes our country strong and durable.  This being said, I agree with study author David Longanecker's cautionary comment, "Don’t wish for these to go away."

Now is the time for the thoughtful development of appropriate policies to assess the effectiveness of  proprietary colleges in even-handed ways.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Impact on Institutions

What’s a college to do when all the resources that it used to control, that made it unique, become free or very cheap and readily available to the general public? Think about free courses (edX), low cost or free assessments (CLA+), on-line labs (MIT OCW), books available online or printed on demand (EspressoBook Machine), socially-networked learning support (OpenStudy), Career Advice (AARP-Life Reimagined), and a complete lower division curriculum (StraighterLine), just to name a few.

Added to this burgeoning array of competing instructional, assessment, and learning support services is the fact that for traditional institutions, our 18 year old population is declining as far as the eye can see into the future. Remember, all the 18 year olds in 2030 have already been born.  So we know that number and all the numbers in between. This steady decline is not only bad news for Social Security.  It’s bad news for traditional higher education as well.

We are approaching the mother of all mash-ups as traditional institutions are pulled one way by demographics (declining youth population and increasing focus on flexible lifelong learning) and torqued another way by services which duplicate their basic offerings at a level of price and quality that most cannot compete with.  I believe that in the post-traditional world, the relationships between campuses, learners, and employers will change dramatically, with the balance of power shifting in most cases to favor learners and employers.

Colleges need to ask this fundamental question: how can we add value to learners’ lives in this emerging post-traditional world? The answer will lie in truly responding to the learners’ needs, great learning support and mentoring, great assessments, and making every aspect of the experience adult-friendly. Institutions’ organizational cultures will need to become learning-centric, not teaching-centric, supported by the intelligent use of big data and IT to personalize the learning experience, thus reducing time and cost to degree dramatically.

At the ACE Annual Meeting last week in San Diego, I heard Candace Thille say that the barriers between non-profit institutions and for-profit vendors and services need to come down. I think she was saying that the days are over when, for most of us, one college or university can control all the resources needed to survive and prosper in a learning-centric world. Partnerships are the way of the future.

Of course, no one can predict the future, but I believe that institutions that simply try to “stay the course,” extending the traditional model, will be in for a rough ride.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Needed: A Learning/Career Concierge Service

For the individual learner, regardless of age, the digital dimension is not something that you can just walk across a bridge and enter, by buying or developing access to a computer. Two critical barriers face learners entering the digital dimension.

First, increasingly, you don’t have a choice of whether to enter the digital dimension or not. Put one way, the penalties for not accessing this world are growing every day. The opportunities for both academic and economic advancement are rapidly shifting to the world with the digital dimension. This means that even when the digital divide is conquered, learners with access to computers and the internet still face serious and enduring obstacles to maximizing their potential.

This is the second barrier. The digital dimension is a world learners need to understand and know how to navigate. It has multiple dimensions and innumerable opportunities. But not everyone, and certainly not every learner who enters the digital dimension, is going to be able to navigate without a map. So even before we look at the impact of the digital dimension on jobs and employment, we need to think about how learners can put the digital dimension to work for themselves, to meet their learning and career needs. 

As they struggle to make personal sense out of thousands of courses, modules, assessments, and other learning resources, the impact of abundant information on individual learners is a dizzying experience. And, indeed, if they actually find the MOOC or the service that they want, how can learners get a reliable long-term relationship that is learner-centric, that assures them successful performance will be rewarded with appropriate recognition academically, and also lets them tie the learning they are doing to the career they envision? Put another way, how can an individual learner select and organize those resources in a way that is personally useful for their learning and career plan?

Needed: A Learning/Career Concierge Service

We all are familiar with the hotel concierge. S/he helps us understand the bewildering options available in a large metropolitan area – entertainment, historical sites, athletic and cultural events, and, of course restaurants. The concierge cannot guarantee our happiness or satisfaction, but s/he can help us map out our personal visitation plan.

Although some believe that the digital dimension will allow for an extension of the traditional model, — where the institution knows best, organizes the information, and the learners consume the curriculum — I believe that its value and power far exceed that visible horizon.

Imagine a free Learner/Career Concierge Service that helps individual learners think through the right MOOC, the right college, the right career fit, the right scholarships, and the right assessment of their prior learning, both formal and experiential. (For a look at an early version, visit the pages for StudentAdvisor and LRC100:Documenting Your Experience for College Credit)

The Learner/Career Concierge Service helps the learners decide for themselves what their right path might be, educationally and economically, instead of trying to anticipate their needs and mass produce the response. From mass production to mass personalization, if you will. Stay tuned

Friday, March 14, 2014

Barbarians at the Gate?

As a recovering politician and the founder of both an innovative community college and state university, I am no stranger to argumentation, criticism, or controversy.  I have also, however, found that reasonable people can disagree on specifics within a larger issue, while simultaneously agreeing with each other on its other aspects.

Such is the case with my views on the New York Times opinion post, “College, the Great Unleveler” by Suzanne Mettler.  I believe Mettler is right on several points.  From her perch, high above Cayuga’s waters at Cornell, she identifies that there is a caste system in American higher education.  It isolates poorer and historically marginalized learners of all ages, usually in innovative, post-traditional, and non-elite institutions.  Mettler’s caste system is vertical, with the wealthier people and institutions at the top. Conversely, the post-traditional higher education world, both non-profit and for-profit, aims to lay that vertical “pecking order” on its side, making it horizontal. With this approach, choosing a school has fewer negative status consequences and there is a more positive focus on quality redefined: learning outcomes, personal growth, development, and opportunities for employment.

But Mettler’s post attacks these new forms of education, particularly proprietary colleges.  All new forms of institutions are suspect by the elites precisely because they serve under-served populations in new and different ways.  In many cases these alternative forms of education are the only way these students will be able to pursue higher education.  For example, the pioneering students who enrolled at the Community College of Vermont could not get to or afford the State Colleges. Nor would they have been admitted had they applied.

This “Barbarians at the Gate” argument has been made since the Morrill Land Grant Act was passed 150 years ago. As far as the elites were concerned, land grant colleges were going to destroy higher education by democratizing it. This same argument was later made against the G.I Bill and community colleges.  Now it appears to be students in the proprietary sector’s time “at the gate.”

Unfortunately, this reasoning threatens marginalized learners whose predominant option is the newer institutional forms which serve them.  It is post-traditional and proprietary institutions, along with community colleges, that serve the under-served.  In fact, the vast majority of adult learners who attend and graduate from proprietary colleges carry as many or more risk factors as those attending community colleges.  At the end of the day, marginalized learners attend colleges they have access to, can afford, and where they feel comfortable.

Now, what about Mettler’s alleged “bad actors”? Are we really to believe that quality is defined by governance structure, with proprietary schools living on the dark side and non-profits of all stripes living in the light? Is a non-profit college that does not pay local property taxes, or a public institution that receives state appropriations any less responsible for graduating its students than a tax-paying, for-profit institution? Are major universities, where undergraduate tuition is inflated to subsidize graduate programs and research, somehow more virtuous than institutions that focus on teaching and learning?

Taking anyone’s money – the taxpayer’s or the learner’s – and failing to deliver on the promise of a quality and meaningful education is serious business. But serving high-risk students should be a reason for commendation, not a rationale for punitive measures. Educating to high standards should be the objective of all policy, not simply policies aimed at the proprietary sector. All institutions of higher learning should measure up. But a yardstick that fails to account for the different types of students served by different types of institutions is a calibrator of false status. 

I believe that a wide array of approaches is needed to serve the needs of our increasingly diverse populations more effectively.  For-profit and post-traditional colleges should be welcome at the table and held accountable for the outcomes they produce with the learners they serve.  Their results deserve scrutiny, like all institutions of higher education, but let’s make apples-to-apples comparisons.   Otherwise, we are only cementing the caste system, which, as Mettler so correctly observes, “unlevels” opportunity in the American college experience.

Under-served populations and the institutions which serve them aren't the "barbarians at the gate."  They are real people whose real needs have been ignored for too long.  And the post-traditional, proprietary, and community college sectors are a big part of the answer to their needs.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Learning in the Post-traditional Education World: An Emerging Alternative to Traditional Classroom Education

For an institution to survive, it has to provide a service that people cannot get better or at a lower cost some other way. And that is the role that traditional campus-based colleges have played. They organized scarce resources – books, labs, faculty – in a place – the campus – where students came to learn. And by extension, campuses had to limit the number of students they served to accommodate the resources they had. Similarly, certificates and degrees were prepared by the faculty who decided what it was that students needed to successfully learn in order to graduate. In the information-scarce society, campuses were oases of teaching and learning in an information desert.

Now, however, the digital age and abundant information are turning the traditional world of higher education upside down. The traditional oases are surrounded by new green spaces where learning can happen anytime, anywhere, for anyone. This series of blogs will address learning in the post-traditional world and the problems, needs, and opportunities for new types of programs and services that respond to the realities of the digital age.  

Post-traditional education (PTE) is not a term that I coined. I first heard it used by Dr. John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, who leads the Presidents’ Forum, of which I am honored to be a member. The Forum is a group of post-traditional educators who meet regularly to discuss the emerging post-traditional world and related issues of policy and practice.

“Post-traditional” might not be the smoothest phrase from a marketing perspective, but it makes a critically important distinction. The PTE age we are entering with its myriad new practices and organizational models is not an extension of traditional practice as many previous innovations have been. In fact, many of its components bear no resemblance to the core assumptions of traditional academia. PTE focuses on learning and assessment, not teaching and academic research. It also harnesses technology and big data to respond to the needs of learners and help them identify and achieve their personal learning goals.

One excellent example of the power of merging technology and assessment is a course  Kaplan University has developed called “LRC 100:Documenting Your Experience for College Credit.” This Learning Recognition Course (LRC) is self-paced, free, and the first of its kind to be recommended for three undergraduate credits by the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT). LRC 100 opens the door for adult learners to collect their experiential learning, prior non-campus formal learning (think military and corporate), and transcripted collegiate learning in an e-portfolio and assign course equivalents to it all. This form of evidence-based advanced standing is welcome at many post-traditional colleges, including Charter Oaks State College, Excelsior College, and Mount Washington College. With LRC 100, now your lived experience and learning becomes the foundation on which you stand to complete your formal education.

Over the next few months, I will address multiple issues and share additional examples of new practices and services that characterize PTE’s nature and potential as an alternative to traditional classroom learning. I hope that these blogs will contribute to the post-traditional education conversation as it responds to and evolves with the changing world in which we live.

Monday, March 10, 2014

I'm Back!

For the last year, I have been deeply engaged in creating a series of services that help adult learners “make sense” out of the digital, socially networked world we (they) increasingly live in. For me, it has been thrilling to gain an initial understanding of what the next five years might hold for online, socially networked learning in all its combinations and permutations.  Put another way, as I think about my last book, Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning, I have been immersed in that new ecology real-time for the last 18-24 months. As a result, I have not been writing as much because I did not have a framework to understand what I was experiencing and what it was telling me.

Now, it is time to try and write about the framework(s) I see dimly through the haze of rapid change, with the hope that others will help me think through the emerging far horizon in education more thoroughly. Thus I would like to explore several conceptual areas:
  • The post-traditional educational world we live in and what its services and forms might look like,
  • The meaning and consequences of living in a digital dimension in which digitization is like the air we breathe,
  • And, on a more personal level, stories about my own personal learning and reflections on turning points in my life.
I will start this week with blogs about Open Education Week and the decision by the American Council of Education (ACE) to recommend three undergraduate credits for Kaplan University’s  free, online learning recognition course, "Documenting Your Experiences for College" credit, an exciting new course helps adult learners complete college on their terms.

I hope you will jump into these discussions with both feet.