Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New York Post op ed says degrees aren't worth it


Not the most well reasoned or argued article I’ve ever read (I know it’s just the Post, but the blogs I read are typically better written than this) and I don’t agree with his prescribed fix, but he hits on 2 big issues I think are vital to the future of higher ed.

  1. We're too slow.
  2. We have no accountability.

We’re too slow.

Someone has to decide to go to college, then apply for admissions, then apply for financial aid (which may spoil the deal if not enough is available), then wait around for registration to open, then pray the classes they want/need get enough people to “make” but not enough people to fill up, then wait around for classes to start. It’s a lot of hoops for the students to jump through that have very little to do with the core value we offer them. Some of it is necessary, even beneficial, but the benefit isn't immediately apparent to the “end user”. I think in the next 10 years we'll be able to greatly streamline this process and make it much more student centered. If we don't, someone else will, and we may find ourselves obsolete.

Hough balances this with the abundance of cheap or even free quality educational resources available thanks to stuff like Open CourseWare and iTunes U. “Today's student who decides to learn at 1 a.m. should be doing it by 1:30. A process that makes him wait 18 months is not an education system. It's a barrier to education.” I don’t think it’s as bad as an 18 month wait, especially not here (we're a 2 year school were students can literally walk in the day before classes start and leave with a schedule for the coming semester, which I think is awesome), but I agree with the spirit of what he’s saying.

We have no accountability.

His focus is more on the ivy leagues, who seem to play a game of recruiting the brightest students who leave with a degree, still bright, but not much more so. Hough compares Harvard to a hospital who turns away the least healthy 92% of its patients and then takes credit for the health and longevity of the patients it treats. A degree is supposed to certify a graduate has met a certain standard of learning and competency, but everyone just has to take our word for it (“our” meaning the higher ed industry as a whole). Grade inflation and downright degree milling are eroding employers' faith in our authority to make such claims about our graduates.

He calls for government regulation enforced by standardized testing. I think that's horribly short sighted. But maybe we need something like the Bureau of Labor Statistics but for the long term impact of education. If longitudinal data was collected and made publically available in a standardized format, we’d have no choice but to get some accountability. Even with newspapers failing, there will always be someone out there willing to take us to task over statistics.

The hypothetical example Hough uses sets the groundwork for the type of data that could be collected. Median income 1 year after graduation, 5 years after, 10, 25, etc. Median education related debt at graduation with interest rates. We'd have to correct for outside influences such as social-economic status. Maybe comparing graduate incomes to the incomes of their own parents? Someone better at statistics than me could tackle that problem. Schools shouldn't be punished simply for servicing a poor area (although we all now they already are).

Other fuzzy areas would be attempt to collect data on productivity and employer satisfaction. Standardized testing could play a role in measuring things like value added. If there was a way to compare GRE scores to ACT/SAT scores, or maybe create a new test that's taken on the way in and on the way out to establish how much was actually learned. I think a large percentage of what is learned in a college or university experience would be hard to test for, so the results would have to be tampered with other data.

There's also the type of research that goes into works such as Colleges That Change Lives. That has very little to do with economic issues such as debt and income and much more to do with civic engagement and overall satisfaction with ones own life. Hough would probably disagree with me there, since colleges that change lives tend to spend a lot of time on “frivolous” but engaging topics like gender studies.

I also agree with Hough that we have an over reliance on the degree model. But Hough seems ready to completely abandon the degree model. I think it works quite well in some areas, but not as well in others. I think we're ready to see the rise of several different models, each suiting certain educational goals better than others. There will of course be a transitional period where square pegs are pounded into new round holes, but eventually each model will focus on its own strengths and attract students with the proper kind of attitudes and learning styles. I also think this will help us move away from viewing graduation as a culminating event and seek out models for life long learning.

That may be horribly idealistic of me, but I also realize this won't happen over night. My kids will probably be the square pegs being pounded into round holes. And by the time my grandkids are ready for college, there will be a fresh crop of issues to address. I expect evolution and improvement, not utopia.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

.Edu websites and brand perception

I’ve been a member of a site called EduStyle since right after I took this job. It’s a gallery site for higher ed redesigns. I’ve been consistently blown away by the innovations, both visually and technologically, coming out of small, private colleges and universities compared to the standard 4-years.

In regards to technology, Douglas Adams said:

  1. Everything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal;
  2. anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
  3. anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

The modern web was “born” in 1993. We can go with the release of Mosaic and say April 22, in which case the web is now old enough to drive. Or we can move a little later in the year with the Eternal September in which case the web is still stuck with a learner’s permit. Either way, it’s old enough to be shopping around online and planning for its academic future. Our personified web will be a traditional starting freshman come Fall 2011.

A .edu website communicates a lot about the brand of the institution. If we're horribly behind the times in technology that our primary recruiting demographic considers part of the natural order of things, we will suffer for it. I’ve observed a gap developing over the past couple of years, and I admit that our site is on the wrong end of that gap. But I'm trying to catch up.

Compare Yale and Columbia to Denver Seminary and Biola Undergraduate Admissions. I’m picking on the Ivy League and perhaps a bit unfairly. Cornell’s design is good enough that it’s inspired many other redesigns, including our own. But it’s possible that the University of Southern California inspired Cornell.

The reason I single out the Ivy Leagues is because today’s potential students have an innate, subconscious ability to judge us based on our web presence even if they lack the prior knowledge to understand things like published research and accreditation. Does anyone go to the University of Phoenix because of the great research they produce? I highly doubt it. But their website feels more up to date than MIT. We can delude ourselves and pretend that somehow our students are too smart to fall for such marketing gimmicks. But it ain’t just gimmicks to them.

I think it’s easy for us to forget what it’s like to be a teenager shopping for a school. We’ve turned academics into a career, so we forget how alien a world it can be to an outsiders. And let’s be honest, the vast majority of our potential students are outsiders.

I’ve been at the top of my class throughout my entire academic career. I was recommended for West Point and was encouraged to apply to lots of prestigious schools. I didn’t pursue those options because I wanted to stay in Tennessee and I didn’t think I could afford Vandy. I don’t regret those decisions, but I admit I may have chosen differently had I been equipped with a better understanding of financial aid. I didn’t know who SACS was until my alma mater went through their own accreditation review while I was a student. I still don’t know the exact different between a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science. If I ever need to list my degrees, I’ve gotta go look that up. I didn’t know my degree from Pellisiippi was an Associates of Applied Science until I literally had the piece of paper in my hand. All I knew was that it was a degree that could advance my chosen career path. I had no reason to care about the academic nomenclature. I doubt today’s students are much different.

Managing and protecting our online brand perception is a big part of my job. As much as I loathe jargon, I can't really think of a better way to say it. I’m lucky to be working on a campus that understands that concept (if not in all the gory technical detail) in spite of the rarity of an administrator who was under 30 in 1993. :)