autonomy, Imagineering, and the student experience

Here in the big state public universities, transfer and articulation have traditionally trumped coherence. A few experiments around the CSU are trying to remedy that – Associate Degrees for Transfer, or GE pathways on interdisciplinary themes – and restore some connective tissue to what otherwise looks like a random heap of disconnected (but portable!) courses.

Those are promising developments, but to be honest a lot more than our courses need alignment.   In fact, the student who comes to State of the Art U will also encounter residential life, career services, a health center, a food court, a business office, a center for community engagement, and opportunities for undergraduate research.

And that full spectrum of experiences is what prepares our students for life after graduation. This realization is new. A couple of generations ago, most of the explicit educational value resided in courses, and the rest was clearly auxiliary. But in a world of free and ubiquitous content knowledge and heightened demands for teamwork and interpersonal connections, the significance is more evenly distributed. Our grads are likelier than their parents to apply what they learned from student government, or the group presentation in ethnic studies, or from organizing the arts walk fundraiser.

When education is course-centric and your students sedentary, you can imply coherence with catalog copy. Students look up their majors, see a list of courses in ascending order of complexity, and get at least the impression that there’s a purpose here.

That setup wasn’t great but it was good enough, and impressively cheap to maintain. Among its virtues: whole academic departments could consist of people who weren’t on speaking terms.

But now we find ourselves at a disadvantage, when the learning seeps beyond the traditional curriculum and the students move around. In this world creating purpose and coherence demands more than a list of courses: educators (faculty and otherwise) need to talk, routinely and civilly, about how these different experiences will affect students, how they combine to cause learning, and how we know.

Two facets of our current context make that hard:

Presumption of autonomy. People my age and older (a dwindling population, but really when was it not?) experienced college as a succession of soloists. Some of my friends came into the academy precisely for that independence. If we change our expectations now, then some will feel shorted.

Absence of coordinating time. When I was a chair I wrote class schedules, assigning faculty and adjuncts to what they taught and when. The object was to maximize facilities use and options for students. This made it hard for me to serve my other role as chair, calling meetings. There wasn’t a time when everyone was available, and I had only myself to blame.

On that second facet: many departments and some entire universities schedule deliberate fallow periods during the week, to avoid the problem I’d created for myself. But few would say those time slots are put to good use: department meetings are often just rundowns of administrivia like reporting deadlines and the new code for the copy machine.

48c64d948c7ba80d019c00c741a74738I had such meetings in mind a few weeks ago, when my wife and I had dinner with a friend from graduate school. He now has one of the coolest jobs ever, producing the rides at Disneyland. No kidding. And by “ride” I don’t mean the strollers: he does the massive, headline-making, highly narrative attractions people have in mind when they decide to go. To Disneyland.

Much of what he told us was in confidence, but this much I can share. It’s all about the meetings. He said that in developing the sequence of discoveries and interactions the guest will encounter during a given ride, international teams meet at least weekly, for years. Connections are made in person and virtually, sometimes early in the morning or late at night to accommodate all the time zones.

Depending on the phase of the project, as many as 140 separate disciplines may be involved. Yes, 140, and yes, he used the word “disciplines” – to cover costumers, designers, audio techs, mechanical engineers, dancers, animators, sculptors, electricians, art directors, meeting in different combinations of maybe a dozen at a time. If these people aren’t working together from the start, you can run into nasty surprises late in the game: plumbing and carpentry don’t line up, or the rider sees a seam.

Like university faculty, these are people with very different persuasions and backgrounds, who need to translate their own vernacular for the sake of their colleagues. The meetings only work – only make sense at all – because attendees share the goal of optimizing the rider experience.

avatar16I will concede that earning a degree in nursing is materially different from riding Star Tours. But listening to my friend the Imagineer made me feel how very much ground higher ed still needs to cover. The last decade or two have seen eye-popping insights into how and why people learn: putting those discoveries to work in any concerted way – optimizing the student experience – would take seismic changes in how we operate. So instead we’re in a world where the math and the econ don’t quite fit together, and student sees the seams.

One challenge is how hard it is for us to schedule such meetings. But really even if we could, I’m not sure we’d know what to do with them.


CSU HIPs Leadership Retreat

CSU HIPs Leadership RetreatThis is the opening presentation from today’s meeting in San Diego for CSU leadership involved in high-impact practices.  We planned it to coincide with and complement the Diversity, Learning, and Student Success conference of the AAC&U.

Right-click on the image here and choose “Save As” to download a copy of the PowerPoint.  You can see the narration in Notes Page view, or the animations in Slide Show.  Feel free to appropriate whatever you like.

line segments

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education, in San Francisco. It was a good meeting for many reasons, but one image in particular has stuck with me:

01 ball at top

Foundation president Anthony Bryk used it to illustrate the kind of patience required for turning hunches into genuine changes at scale, in either behavior or culture. If you want the ball at the top – the end state you’re going for – then the temptation at first is to just put it there. But usually what happens is people reject it as alien, and the ball gets a quick and easy nudge downhill.

What you discover is that really you need to start small, at the bottom. Then as you build support you get other people’s help moving the ball upward, and they even change and improve it along the way. Work like that, and by the time you get to the top there’s no way it’s falling back down.

02 ball in motion

That rang true for many in his audience, who live this stuff. But it also cast a harsh light on our context: we seldom get that much time. In my version of his diagram, that long red hill might last a decade.

In my experience coordinating a string of state universities, the impetus for change has come in one of three flavors:

  • you get a grant (three years to spend it, tops)
  • someone passes a law (to be fully implemented in eighteen months or less)
  • the state economy changes (quick: which half of your programs do you eliminate? or quick: spend $50 million in unexpected revenue before it’s swept!)

This world doesn’t lend itself to the patient rolling of balls.

So then what’s the well-meaning wonk to do? Cause Tony’s right: use that grant or tax windfall to drop a big ball on a hill, and it will not stay there. But walking away from a short-term opportunity is bad management, and in the case of legislation and the economy, not even an option.

I’ve decided the answer is to think of the hill as a sequence of line segments. One segment might be a grant, the next one a law, or the boss’s whim, and so on:

03 segments

The object of the game – maybe the only one – is to know where you are along the hill, and then to take each short term exigency as a chance to edge higher.

As I’ve been picturing that, it’s occurred to me that it’s also not a bad metaphor for the individual lifespan, in the context my friend Alice Perez calls the “long experience of the human family.”

04 lifespan

Really, that’s all we get.

CSU High-Impact Practices and Their Role in Advocacy

HIPs and advocacy title slideThis is a presentation I made at today’s California Higher Education Student Summit (“CHESS“).  The conference brings together leadership in student government from around the state for professional development and to share ideas.  You can download a copy by right-clicking on the title image to the left and choosing “Save As.”  My remarks are visible in Notes Page view.

meeting demand

If higher education is a business, then are students our customers or our products? Well, it depends on when you’re considering them. As applicants for admission and continuing enrollees, they’re the ones we’re here to serve, whether we call them customers, clients, or little hellions.

But as interns, graduates, and alumni, they’re the product we offer up to society and employers. Later, as they advance in their careers and make hires of their own, they become our customers again.

Let’s look at how we in the academy are meeting demand, or rather, how well we’re pacing the conveyor belt.


Go too slow, and the backpacks will pile up at the front door, while at the back door society starves for graduates. Go too fast and at the front door we scrounge for enrollments – effectively, admitting the underqualified – while risking a glut out the other end. (In fact it’s a negligible risk: when we admit the underqualified they don’t come out the back end, and the result is waste rather than glut.)

So, given that we’re aiming for the Goldilocks speed of “just right,” are we there? Yes and no.

For help estimating the output side of demand, many of us like the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. In a seminal 2010 report called Help Wanted, the Center predicted that by 2018 45% of all jobs would require an associate degree or higher. That’s what you get by summing the three shades of blue on the far right column:

Georgetown chart

We are not meeting that demand. With a couple of years still to go on Georgetown’s deadline, the U.S. Census Bureau says the supply of the U.S. population with an associate degree or higher is more like 35%.

And according to some economists, down that ten-point gap between supply and demand has fallen the middle class.

They argue that the “wage premium” – the additional pay you can expect as a college graduate – is going up, further evidence of degree-holder scarcity. The thinking goes, if we could better supply the market with graduates, then employers wouldn’t have to pay so much extra to hire one, and we’d see significant improvements in both socioeconomic equity and total wealth. (One of the clearest and most convincing summaries of this thinking is available in this working paper from economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz.)

So: put together these different reports and appears we could solve some of our ills if we could hit a 45% rate of degree attainment out the back door, instead of 35%. Goldilocks.

What about the front door? Does 45% of the population even want a college degree?  Well, there’s something funny going on here. Per the National Center for Education Statistics, college-going rates among our target population of 18- to 24-year-olds have been going mostly up:

enrollment growth

And get a load of the current enrollment rate – it looks a lot like the degree attainment rate we’re aiming for out the back. This suggests that the public has accurately appraised the worth of the degree.

However, that almost spooky synchronization goes arrhythmic when you turn from enrollments to graduates, because not all of our students make it out the back door with a diploma.

Now, the six-year graduation rate for public universities is typically reported at around 50% — significantly off, because it excludes those who transfer, or leave and come back, or take longer than six years. But whatever the real number, all parties agree it’s lower than it should be.  And we already have enough backpacks coming in to change the output from this:

factory output half



To this:

factory output full



That is, without recruiting or admitting a single additional student, existing enrollment would almost precisely match employer demand — both numbers inside that 42-45% zone — if we just graduated the students who come in.

Cool, huh?

A word of warning: the researchers behind these various analyses used different methodologies, population samples, and historical periods to hit their numbers. They didn’t expect a system-office wonk with some clip art to draw shaky connections and then blog about it, and might be appalled at my conclusion that it’s all about retention.

But I bet they’d agree it’s mostly about retention.

So then what should we conclude? A few things:

  1. The public knows what it’s doing. Whether we think of them as customers, clients, or widgets, we’re apparently on safe ground listening to our students and their networks of supporters. They do indeed need college, and want it in numbers that come uncannily close to those independently calculated by Ivy League economists.
  2. Applicants don’t come to universities for “some college.” At state universities all our students want to earn degrees, and we have failed to meet demand, at both doors of the factory, when they leave without one.
  3. We need better graduation metrics or we can’t even diagnose the problem. The student who took seven years because of a stop-out to care for family, work overseas, or save a community center isn’t a failure but a win. The ones who transfer to get a degree elsewhere shouldn’t be counted as a loss on one side, a win on the other, and a wash for society. They are wins. A few different players are working on better ways to keep score.  They can’t get us there soon enough.

Because demand at both ends of the conveyor belt will continue rise, driven by the increasing complexity of work, multiple careers and college enrollments over a lifetime, and a growing number of students bent on customizing their learning, and getting what they need, one way or the other.

narrative, learning, and play

Gone GirlOn a road trip over the Christmas break my wife Cyndi and I listened to the 19-hour Audible production of Gone Girl. One half going out, and then a week and a half later the rest on the drive home. Between those installments we renewed family relationships with about a dozen people, I read some things for work, and there were movies and television. But when we got back to Gone Girl, we remembered pretty much every word.

From an educational perspective, that feat of recollection was noteworthy. And it was effortless.

It’s hard not to be impressed by how people can do that, stringing bits of information together to remember them. Even when it’s not really justified by the facts, we seem to like applying chronology and cause & effect to things that happen, making meaning as we go along.

I get it that this is useful; what’s surprising is that it’s also fun.  No one made us listen; we wanted to.


I think as brainy weaklings, we had to learn early to organize collective action, remembering who was trustworthy, perpetuating historical business arrangements, sequencing transactions, making meaning. This is our real labor. So then why on earth, at the end of a hard day leveraging relationships to gang up on the woolly mammoth, would we have looked forward to sagas around the fire? Swapping out life for vicarious life?

In a sense, doesn’t leaving the office for fiction – or interrupting professional relationships for personal ones over the holidays – amount to resting from work by doing more of it?

mammoth-huntersI think so. And I think one reason we’re such junkies for these strands of meaning is precisely because those cognitive functions have been so vital to our success.

Play for most animals bears a spooky resemblance to their work: it’s how we get our practice in. The bear cubs who grab each other’s feet grow up to fish better, and bear more bear cubs. And so we tune in to the next Homeland or Good Wife or Hunger Games to stay sharp, the way cats pretend to hunt their toys.

There’s some ferment these days about the gamification of education, trying to tap that obsessive focus and skill-burnishing of gamers for something more edifying than moving pixels. It’s intriguing, but I wonder if we’re pushing it far enough.

If we’re just adding badges and joysticks to intro chem, then we’ve lost the point of play.  But if we can also add goal orientation, collaboration, and the opportunity to contribute narrative – in a sense, to script the unscripted problem – then we’ve harnessed one of the real joys of learning.

what the United Nations can do for GE

In a couple of months, a group of educators who’ve been reforming California general education (“GE”) will meet at the state capital for a culminating conference.  As the summation of a six-year, multi-institutional project the experience will be a little poignant, but organizers Debra David and Julie Stein are avoiding the elegiac.  This’ll be mostly forward-looking.

One of the key ideas to persist after the grants run out:  thematic linkages across GE courses and disciplinary borders.

In reviewing the conference and publication materials, I keep finding my head returning to this idea, and a meeting I attended last August at — of all places — the United Nations.

UN audience

I was there at the invitation of Dawn Digrius, who leads a CSU project called STEM Collaboratives. She addressed the meeting on water and sustainability efforts in Central America, the focus of her research and teaching over the past several years.

Both her U.N. and CSU work are driven by Dawn’s belief in interdisciplinarity, and its critical role in addressing our most urgent “wicked” problems.

I’ve advocated for the use of wicked problems on mostly student engagement grounds: liberal learning and GE will feel less pointless if we can more explicitly connect them to the outside world.

UN jumbotronWhat stuck with me from the U.N. session was the higher sense of real-world stakes, of actual peril. From the planet’s perspective, whether or not California manages to educate more of the under-served barely matters; the world has some very big problems on its hands, and too few ideas for solutions.

And in the handful of cases where we have ideas, we lack collective will.

Too often I’ve been thinking of these topics as interesting fodder for undergraduate curriculum.  Here they’re red-hot and desperate; one participant was so angered by the proposed solutions that security had to escort him out.

I left Dawn’s session wondering how more of our students could get a sense of that passion, could understand first-hand that within their lifetimes will come a suite of interrelated crises whose solutions will be controversial, hard to effect, and utterly dependent on their generation’s boundary crossing, far‑sightedness, and, in fact, liberal learning.

UN STEM CollaborativesMy colleagues in California GE reform have periodically floated the idea of a statewide minor in one of various wicked problems: sustainability, food security, human health. The idea is that a student from any public college or university might select GE courses on an interdisciplinary theme, culminating in an upper‑division GE capstone in the same theme at a receiving public university. Same number of GE credits required, but more integrative choices made along the way, incentivized by the minor and noted on the transcript.

Dawn has suggested that as we think about such pathways, we peg them to the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. Leaving the meeting at the U.N., I was persuaded that it was not only sensible, but imperative.