news from New Hampshire

Last month I joined the Teagle Assessment Scholars at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire. I’m new to this group but it’s been around for more than a decade, drawing applicants from all over the country. Many participants work at private liberal arts colleges, a lot like Franklin Pierce itself.


Over the course of the meeting, I was repeatedly impressed by how urgent assessment is for colleges like Franklin Pierce. They need to explain, quantify, and demonstrate learning not just for quality control and accreditation, but also to protect their very survival.

I’m as pained as anyone by the broken higher education business model, but cushioned by working in the public sector, on tax money, in a blue state. My job is relatively secure.

web1_Franklin-Pierce-CollegeBut for most of my colleagues last month, that’s not the case. Their institutions are on shakier fiscal ground. Three weeks after we met, Marygrove College in Michigan announced it was closing its undergraduate programs, for many of the same, entirely financial reasons.

First, there’s pricing. The smaller privates charge tuition lower than their headline-making counterparts in the Ivy League, but fees are still high and rising fast. So even though they’re relative bargains, few families can afford the sticker price. And so, to stay in business, these less-famous privates cut further, offering deep discounts to the majority of their students.

Demographics can make this worse. Most colleges are regional, and some parts of the country face a dwindling pool of college-age recruits. Along with New Hampshire, we had colleagues from the states of New York, Maine, and – yes – Michigan. In these places, purveyors of baccalaureate education undercut each other to maintain a viable share of a shrinking market.

On the cost side, they face the same pressures as other businesses whose raw material is people: rising cost of labor, rising health and retirement obligations, and a product – personally facilitated intellectual development – that just doesn’t lend itself to automation or outsourcing.

Against this background, about 20 of us gathered for a two-day exercise imagining a financially sane college of the future.

Organized by the Wabash Center of Inquiry, the meeting had as its centerpiece a diabolical Excel spreadsheet, whose elegantly linked and cross-referencing formulas enforced a framework for solvency. There were credit hours connected to salary, class sizes and admission profiles connected to graduation rates, and fluid assignments of workload to staff and faculty.

This really is a picture of it:


There were ways to make it all work, but as you’d expect, the default solution was to stick to the present business model, but make everyone work harder. You stuff more students into each classroom, you pile on the teaching load, and eventually you break kind of even.

At the places where I’ve been employed these strategies are already played out. For one, faculty are teaching an awful lot. For another, the hours left outside of the classroom are also put to valuable use, in research, advising, and the kind of service that runs the university. Such work may not be monetized, but it does have value.


About a month after we met, the Council of Independent Colleges released a TIAA-funded report called The Financial Resilience of Independent Colleges and Universities. Its mostly upbeat tone leads with this statistic: despite the headlines, 67% of all small- and medium-sized colleges are doing fine financially.

I’m not sure I’d find that consoling. It’s a little like getting compelled to play Russian Roulette with two bullets, but told to relax because four rounds are missing.

At the Teagle workshop, the best solutions departed from the current business model more adventurously. There was a lot of interest in prior learning assessment, for example, as an alternative to offering expensive classes in things students already know.

One of the best models proposed higher ed outposts embedded with employers and businesses throughout the community, extensions of the home campus that would make it easier for non-traditional students to fit us into the crevices in their lives – for example, middle-aged learners checking in at a local storefront study hall as part of their broader retooling. No one familiar with community colleges would call these approaches new, but the marriage to liberal arts colleges is.

These private colleges are old institutions, designed to do more life preparation than job training. Keeping them in business will mean offering that transformational, versatile growth in a format that’s available, accessible, and fiscally sustainable.

And doing that means stepping back from our current business model, while counting on the assessment of student learning to keep us honest.

Image credit: Dennis Mires; Spring Mall, Malaysia


Toward a HIPs Community of Practice

title slideThis is a presentation I’m giving today for the Student Success Summit of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. You can get a copy by clicking on the image here.

(We now interrupt this blog for a public service announcement.)

High-Impact Practices, or HIPs, are educationally powerful experiences like learning communities, service learning, and undergraduate research. They take different forms but share some intriguing properties: they put college learning into real-world settings, highlighting its relevance and value. They vary the cues and demands on students, improving the chances that they’ll be able to transfer what they learn with us into different situations after they graduate.

And over the past ten years they’ve been shown to boost student success, both by raising overall graduation rates, and by closing the difference in those rates across different populations, such as ethnic minorities, students on financial aid, or the first in their families to attend college.

It all sounds pretty win-win, until you realize that hardly any of our inherited administrative tools – things like the transcript, the syllabus, the units of course credit – are set up to deliver these, let alone pay for them. Instead the default structure is all read-listen-remember-repeat, and high-impact practices eke out their survival on the fringes.

The job of fixing that is both enormous and urgent. We’ve gotten pretty good at the campus welcome mat – students from all backgrounds seem, finally, to believe they deserve college. But once we get them here the gaps quickly reappear, perpetuating inequity and, not incidentally, putting us on the wrong side of demographic trends.

HIPs can help with that, but only if we offer them differently. As long as they remain a tiny and unwritten part of the curriculum, they will be available mostly to the insiders and the privileged.

In the ten years since the HIP literature first appeared, colleges and universities have been trying to act on the implications, bringing their best educational practices into the administrative mainstream, easing them onto transcripts, taking good work to scale, and even making students aware they need to seek out these experiences, by name and on purpose.

So it seems like a good time to connect these campuses to each other, especially places whose mission is broad access, affordability, and a way up into the middle class for people of all backgrounds. We operate without much slack, and it’s now on us to get the academic recognition and the funding to follow the things that work. Doing it together could accelerate the learning – and improve the chances that whatever we cook up will work for transfer students, policy makers, and the public.

If your state is a member of NASH then join TS3. Whether you’re in NASH or not, join the community of practice email list, and stay tuned via the CSU Dominguez Hills web page for the national model and laboratory for student success, open to all who are interested: csudh/laboratory.

conference flier

Click the image above to go straight to the page, and bookmark it.

And plan to join us next February in Southern California, where you can be virtuous and warm at the same time.

We now return to our regularly scheduled blog. Up next, the humanities.

academic affairs and temps

The trade publication Inside Higher Education recently praised the California State University system, where I work, for boosting the gender diversity of our presidents. Of our 23 universities, 11 are now run by women. A year ago the number was six.

I think the praise is warranted, the progress intentional. And our presidents wield considerable and growing clout; the whole system will benefit from the examples set on these five campuses.

But for those system-level benefits, some campuses have paid more than others.executive.corner

The farm league for campus presidents is the provost, sometimes called a VP for academic affairs or a chief academic officer, and effectively the campus COO.

Many of our campuses have recently lost their provosts, some to these presidential slots, others to jobs elsewhere. The pace of the turnover is breathtaking, especially at some of our smallest and most vulnerable campuses, where all relationships are personal.

And as I’ve posted ad nauseam, higher education is a line of work that depends entirely on networks of social relationships for its effectiveness. Empty corner offices, or even ones with temporary occupants, present serious and under-recognized challenges to our faculty and students.

You can also see the converse: those institutions around my system and others that flourish are the ones with stable leadership, and long-term provosts are a part of that. Believe it or not, in a world where the average tenure is less than three years there are provosts who’ve been on the job a decade or more, and the benefits show.

I’m not advocating for stasis, and I certainly don’t regret any of the recent promotions that won us the national praise. They were all hard-earned, and these former provosts are now positioned to do considerably more good than they could a year ago.

But to those campuses whose outsized sacrifices got us here, I offer sympathy and some hope. Provost searches, unlike those for presidents, are typically campus based. In your next hire you have the ability to compare your long-term expectations with those of your finalists, and prioritize accordingly.

Image credit:

join our band

explore_BBBand_P_6_65lrgMy office is hiring a leader for our new project to improve the first two years of college for majors in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

Details and an application are available here, from the CSU Office of the Chancellor.  Let’s make music together.  But hurry:  the deadline is soon, and the metronome’s ticking.

institutional integration

Lately I’ve been wondering about how our colleges and universities might be organized to foster more of the learning our students need.  At the right you can download today’s presentation on this, made to a town hall meeting at CSU Los Angeles.

The occasion was the management team’s last meeting under this president, James Rosser, whose long tenure is distinguished by the way his campus welcomed all students, including those whom higher education usually fails to serve.  We saw a set of interviews from seven students conveying their sense of genuine belonging, despite strikingly diverse backgrounds.

So how to build on that?  How to take that remarkable head start and get it to the bottom line?  For all the warm and fuzzy, six-year grad rates at CSU LA have been in the 30 percents.  In other words, students love it there, but few get what they came for.

It’s a tricky subject, relating to more than one facet of higher education.  But I believe institutional integration toward a unified sense of purpose, may be it.  But that’s tentative, in part because the upshot is a little strange looking.  But here it goes.

1.  Start with the learning.

If it’s fifty years ago, then industry and knowledge are advancing by specialization.  You get good at your own thing, and your social connections are mostly to people in your own field.  In the same way, your personal life is weirdly proscribed, by class, custom, Jim Crow, habit, or just the high price of phone calls.  That was the world before everything was connected to everything else.

7053902-black-1950-s-pay-phone-on-a-white-backgroundPreparing students for that meant steeping them in the traditions, knowledge, and modes of inquiry particular to one discipline, or one industry.  And with less need for interdisciplinarity comes a lower bar for socialization:  I can devote less energy to empathizing with others, when they mostly think and act like I do.

So we organize postsecondary learning around a mostly-knowledge curriculum, funneling students from breadth at entry toward narrowness at exit.  Choose your major at the halfway mark, and don’t look back.

For their part, colleges and departments survived in either of only two ways:  recruit majors to your tip of the funnel, or persuade all your colleagues that you belong at the wide end, as part of the “general education” that all students should have.

If instead you are an unpopular specialization failing to make the case for universal need, then your enrollments and funding dry up, and you go the way of astrology and Esperanto.

That was then.

By contrast the current age subjects our graduates to relentless churning, to urgent demands of cross-cultural team-forming in pursuit of the one-off goal.  When there’s less time to work out the hierarchical org chart, reporting structures get murky.  Your effectiveness depends more on your ability to understand and persuade others, whose backgrounds, expectations, and training may not be like yours.

These proficiencies – flexibility, drive, interpersonal efficacy – might result from college, but we’ve hidden them.  Our departments and disciplines have been ruthlessly winnowed by natural selection,  surviving only if they could assert their differentness to recruit majors or to claim their essentialness, as purveyors mostly of content knowledge.

The other, dispositional proficiencies haven’t been touted much in academic affairs.  Their visibility is instead in student affairs, in co-curriculars, clubs, and residence halls.   The “extra” in extracurricular didn’t mean “bonus,” it meant “outside of.”  As in, deliberately segregated from curriculum.  Can you imagine?  Institutional redlining.

It gets worse:  further down the pecking order are the time management coaches and itinerant tutors, who pick up what others won’t do.  Imagine our chagrin to wake up in the 21st century and discover they’re serving up what our students most need.

So that’s the learning.

2.  The experiences that foster the learning we want.

On  this the jury is in:  a suite of high-impact practices like service learning, learning communities, undergraduate research, international experiences, and civic engagement  get the hyper-specialized 20th-century learning out of its compartments, and reunite dispositional skills with the content in the curriculum.

Students can only get through these high-impact practices by  working together, innovating and problem solving, forming temporary teams in pursuit of tangible goals.  In other words, such experiences prepare them for their own lives, instead of their grandparents’.

student-group-presenting-electronics-linda-nathanThat advantage, of course, isn’t lost on the students.  Put them into these things and they recognize the relevance and value of the whole baccalaureate.  Grad rates rise, and gaps narrow.

The challenge is that we are not even remotely set up to deliver these experiences universally, or even consistently.  They’re expensive and labor intensive, when compared to hiring a solo academic to get up and explain his field to an auditorium.  Private and selective public institutions pull this off, but until we can get this to the rest – like say, 23 large-scale regional comprehensives in the Pacific Time Zone – we’re confronted by some troubling inequity for individuals.  And for society, we’re not developing all the human capital we should.

So that’s the learning, and those are the experiences.

The question is, how do we de-specialize, and get mass higher education from here to there?

3.  Three interventions that put dispositions into the curriculum.

  • CSU Chico’s Public Sphere Pedagogy:  first-year students select topics of pressing national concern, conduct research and develop recommendations as teams, and then organize and present the upshot at massive year-end conferences.
  • Participatory Design curriculum at Utah State University:  student teams act as outside consultants to their own university, interviewing administrators, faculty and staff at all levels and developing concrete recommendations to improve the student experience.
  • Campus as a Living Lab:  undergraduate research, peer mentoring, and service learning are brought on-site to improve sustainability at the university, develop an understanding of a complex social and technological ecosystem, and — not incidentally — bring high-impact practices within reach of part-time and commuter students.

What I find strange about this – suspiciously symmetrical – is that with all three of these interventions, the organization itself models the multifaceted thinking we want from our students.  If we want them integrating everything, then we have to do it first.

Does we have to?  Really?

That feels like sloppy thinking to me, an error of displacement.  One analogy is to weight loss:  the pop culture wisdom in the early 1990s was that eating fat makes you fat.  So we thought things without fat — like bread – must be fine.  Bagel shops proliferated, carbs were consumed, and guts grew.  These days we’re likelier to distrust the carbs and seek the proteins, even if they come marbled with a little fat, and we seem better off.  It turned out that assuming the input would equal the output was a red herring, because there’s a metabolism in between.

In the same way, I find it fishy to conclude that if we want our students learning content, skills, and attitudes all at the same time, then we need to deliver that kind of education with a consortium of departments, programs, coaches, and community partners all working seamlessly together.

In other words, is institutional integration really the only path to integrated learning?  Got me.  But we seem inclined to figure it out.