This 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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
On 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?
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.
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.
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.
What 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.
My 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.
This is a keynote presentation I made to the Directors of Educational Technology, California Higher Education (DET/CHE) at today’s conference.
Visitors are welcome to comment here on the presentation, or download a copy for your own use by right-clicking on the image at the left.
This is a presentation I made in San Diego last weekend, at a meeting organized by the Council of Undergraduate Research. You can download a copy by clicking on the title image, to the right. It’s a large file and may take a while.
Since it uses animations, it’s easiest to view in Slide Show mode. Use Notes Page view to see what I said. Please use, cite, or cannibalize any of the ideas you find useful in here — I don’t claim authorship, but you should credit anyone I did.
This week I’ve been getting ready for two days of strategic planning with one of the CSU’s disciplinary affinity groups, reading faculty responses to surveys of where their field is heading, and how their community of practice might respond. It makes for a compelling look at one frontier of knowledge, and it calls to mind some other things I’ve been reading.
On the publication of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson recently addressed a group of investors who were eager to inform their next bets. Here’s how the Washington Post quoted his advice:
“The real value creation, especially in the technological revolution, is not just from the engineers but the people who connect the humanities to technology, or the arts to science,” he said. “That has been the theme so far of the digital revolution,” he said.
The Post article goes on to report that “Isaacson called on those who study the sciences and humanities to pursue knowledge of the others’ discipline, and to come together to develop the transformative technologies of the future,” paraphrasing an observation he’s made elsewhere recently. As Isaacson said, “One of the conclusions I came to was it wasn’t just lone visionaries who made this happen.”
He put it more starkly last month, in an interview for Harvard Gazette:
Those of us who write biographies know that to some extent we distort history. We make it seem like somebody in a garage or in a garret has a ‘light-bulb moment’ and the world changes, when in fact creativity is a collaborative endeavor and a team sport.
These ideas aren’t new. Around a century ago Shaw wrote this in the preface to his play Major Barbara:
“If there is such a thing on the philosophic plane as a matter of course, it is that no individual can make more than a minute contribution to it. In fact, the conception of clever persons parthenogenetically bringing forth complete original cosmogonies by dint of sheer ‘brilliancy’ is part of that ignorant credulity which is the despair of the honest philosopher, and the opportunity of the religious impostor.”
So, same ideas, differently (but always wonderfully) expressed.
You can see that same humility in these dispatches from CSU faculty at the bleeding edge of one discipline – a hunger to build on the understanding of others. Except these survey responses have a new wrinkle, amid the chronic pleas for money, staff, equipment, and release time: they want help conducting interdisciplinary research.
Until very recently, we organized the production of knowledge in isolated departments, leaving any connections to emerge on their own:
In that world, whose assumptions shaped ours, the premium was on sustained focus and individual reputation within the discipline, as established by sole or leading credit for publication reviewed by peers – that is, by other experts in the same field. It sounds a little incestuous, and can be. (A friend of mine in a private non-profit university calls it “the quarterly journal of You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours.”) But for generations, this system served us pretty well.
Looking ahead, we want to add support for the interdisciplinary production of knowledge, filling in the buffer zone around disciplines:
That is, we’ll want to foster learning that’s not just collective, but contiguous.
And in this emerging world, the new premium is on openness to exogenous ideas, on lucid communication crafted for educated outsiders, and on getting along. We could see tenure decisions based not only on contributions to fields in isolation, but also, maybe even mostly, on the candidate’s ability to help other people apply those contributions to their own work.
Behind the scenes, universities and the informal learning communities that flourish inside them should stop leaving those interdepartmental connections to chance. Instead, we can add value by cultivating the boundaries, the interfaces between ways of knowing.
This occurred to me as I was reading a Steven Pinker book on good writing, called The Sense of Style. As a language junkie I’m a pushover for such stuff, but Pinker’s angle is especially intriguing: a psychologist, he draws his advice from concepts like working memory, the human attention span, and cognitive load. The result is equal parts utilitarian and beautiful, a grammar book that puts purpose above tradition.
But there’s also something fundamental in here, bigger than sentence structure and central to the way we share our ideas.
Repeatedly he comes to the chief failing of those who don’t communicate well, what he calls the “Curse of Knowledge.” As he puts it:
The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.
One whole chapter deconstructs typically bad academic writing, of the kind that Pinker and the rest of us run into regularly. At the end he summarizes the diagnosis:
“Most of the problem comes down to the very expertise that made [the author] so qualified to write his books . . . after a lifetime of scholarship he was so laden with erudition that his ideas came avalanching down faster than he could organize them.”
I think there’s a reason this theory-of-mind argument recurs in a psych-based grammar book: understanding the other is essential to the negotiation of space between consciousness, to filling in those gaps between us, and between our academic departments. Listening carefully, evaluating how much your audience already knows, and then sequencing the new information for optimal understanding, is a growing part of the job. We seem to be running out of ways to make progress without it.
This leaves me wondering if we’ll see a new set of organizing principles shape our intra-system learning communities, along with our journals of faculty research, our student research competitions, and, I guess eventually, our colleges and departments.
They’d all be better suited to the work ahead if they promoted interpersonal and interdisciplinary communication, bringing people together on the basis not of where they came from (the way we do now), but of where they want to go.