Current Issues

Rethinking Higher ED…Part 1

Posted on September 12, 2009

Earlier this week I was part of a panel discussion entitled A New Era in Higher Education Reform?in Washing ton, DC.  Sponsored by EducationSector, an independent think tank, and supported by the Lumina Foundation, the panel brought together:

  • Jeff Selingo, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education;
  • Paul Glastris, editor of The Washington Monthly (and a former Clinton speechwriter);
  • Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector;
  • Ben Wildavsky, senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation;
  • Bob Shireman, Deputy Undersecretary of Education;
  • and me, the one university president in the group.

In the audience were educators, policy makers, media representatives, and foundation staff.  Jamie Merisotis, President of Lumina, did the opening and welcome.

The springboard question was “Can the United States achieve President Obama’s goal of having 60% of Americans holding post-secondary degrees by 2025 (from a current 40% level), yes or no?  And if yes, what will it take?  If no, why not?”

As you might imagine, most of the panel answered yes, but then listed a daunting array of hurdles that all added up to essentially saying that we can get there, but only with major re-engineering of higher education.  The base definition of success, as offered by Merisotis, was educating more Americans such that they have better pathways to meaningful employment and/or ongoing study and learning. 

As Shireman pointed out, we could get a long way towards achieving the goal if we simply improved our graduation rates, pointing out that we do not have a problem admitting enough students into post-secondary study.  His comments found strong support with this week’s release of Crossing the Finish Line,  the scathing study of completion rates in higher education by Bill Bowen and Mathew Chingos ((  The study focuses on public institutions where four-year graduation rates are as low as 26% and 33% depending on the sector (Phoenix U, by the way, is in that same abysmal range).

SNHU fares somewhat better,  but we are hardly a beacon of success.  Our six-year graduation rate has hovered around the low 50th percentile, though we are making good progress on our first to second year retention rate.  The problem with the fixation on completion rates is that they beg the question of who we serve.  Harvard might have a 98% completion rate, but it takes the top 1% of all high school graduates.  Those kids, driven to success, will graduate from any institution they attend and Harvard can claim very little credit.

Community colleges have the lowest completion rates, but look at who they serve.  The real test would be to measure the progress that students make from the time they enter to the time they graduate, a measurement we have not yet worked out.  Asking all schools to report completion rates is a little like asking people if they are married or not — it conveys the most basic fact, but little useful information.  Happily married?  Thirty years of misery?  No, but widowed?  Yes, but for the third time? 

Indeed, there will now be less incentive to take a chance on a student who has underperformed in high school.  Fundamentally, institutions that can afford to be more selective always chose to be so, and therein lies one of the many links between money and completion rates.  Kids who come from more modest backgrounds often go to more poorly funded public schools and thus come to us more poorly prepared (and worse, often disengaged as learners) and thus withdraw at higher rates.  Is that so complicated?

That critique aside, I must uncomfortably posit that higher education as an industry does not much care about access and affordability.  We talk a good game, but in reality our status, rewards, and recognition systems reinforce a focus on the upper levels of education (our disciplines or majors and upper level study, preferably graduate).  We build wonderful buildings that encourage a kind of architectural excess (see last week’s Globearticle on BU’s luxury dorm or our more modest $16m dining hall that won’t improve access or affordability, or education for that matter, one little bit).  We invest millions into sports programs that make alumni happy, but divert money from hiring more writing faculty.  We support a lot of scholarship and research for which the public cares very little about, unless it’s in medicine and some sciences.  Our general education programs, which should be designed to remediate the shortcomings of our largely mediocre and often poor public schools, are more often a carving up of disciplinary territory.  Sadly, we are more complicit in the underperformance of our industry than we’d like admit.

I like to think that we at SNHU are better than the dismal picture that I have just painted, but our graduation rate suggests otherwise.  We do not talk enough about retention.  No one is sole champion of the general education program (the way we have Deans and VPs and Department Chairs for every other area).  We have a cohesive strategy and staffing model for getting students in, but none for keeping them.  Everyone asks “How are the numbers for fall?”, but no one asks “How are the numbers for May?”.  We have faculty who teach only graduate courses and we tacitly acknowledge that they would be poor teachers of undergraduates, never mind entering students.  The course distribution for any student is heavily weighted towards the major and the school basic core, when we know our students would benefit most by more writing courses, more math and critical thinking courses. 

It raises a set of compelling questions for me:

  • Should we have a College of General Education with its own Dean and its own faculty?
  • Should work with that population be more rewarded, perhaps with a more reasonable course load (since these are more taxing courses to teach) and better salaries?
  • Should we have a “retention center” like our enrollment center in Denver, a group that does proactive outreach to students on a very regular basis?
  • Should the school cores and major requirements be pared back and should we expand the general education core?
  • Should we hire differently?  Would we favor a high school or community college teacher with only an MA but exemplary teaching assessments and a passion for working with academically under prepared students over a PhD with a strong research background and a grudging willingness to teach two gateway courses per year? 

We would be well served to have that conversation.  I am convinced that we will see policy and compliance pressures to improve our retention rates.  We are also seeing a shrinking of our market demographically and perhaps economically.  For good business reasons we need to keep more of the students we admit.  More importantly, our ethical imperative as educators should be to make sure that students complete.  Otherwise, we leave far too many students and their families with thousands of dollars of debt for what turns out to be an expensive and failed experiment that leaves them in worse position along that pathway to meaningful work or continued study.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Higher ED…Part 1

  1. Vicky Teo says:

    I read with great interest on your thoughts on this matter…especially the part about retaining students.

    When I was with SIT(our Malaysian partner), we had the same discussion with the management team. More emphasis was placed on recruiting new students….and not enough efforts were spent on retaining them. In fact, it cost at least 4 times more to recruit new students than it was to retain the exisiting ones. And revenue is calculated based on total student population. So it pays to retain students. Becos when you lose one student, it takes more cost and effort to recruit a new student to take the place, than it is to keep that existing student from leaving.

    We did a study on the factors that affected student retention. Services offered by the college, academic reputation, image (whether the student is in a “hip ” college), activities offered, MIS services, etc, etc. There were variables that were within the college’s control (like those just listed) and there were variables that were not within the control (like economic situation that forced the students to drop out).

    The Marketing department was in charge of bringing in new students. But once the student was in the college, it was the responsibility of the Program Head to retain the student. So the Heads were measured against the retention rate. I am happy to say that when I was program head of the American program, we had the highest retention rate of any programs in SIT. But I must say that this measurement was not entirely fair on the Head. While I was able to control the academic quality, I had no control over student services, MIS, maintenance…etc as they did not report to me but to the VP of Administration. When a student leaves the college becos of accommodation issues (or others), then it is not fair to measure the Head against that. So you can imagine the heated arguments the Heads would have with the various support depts. We wanted these depts to be held “responsible” for the loss of the students if it was due to their lack of service.
    So we designed the Exit Interview Form. The Head of Dept will interview the student and seek a reason why he/she was leaving. We sometimes might not get the true picture of why the student was leaving but it at least gave us an idea why and which dept was not pulling its weight.
    Of course, the process will only work if the implementation and committment from the top management was there. It did work for a while, but somehow, the top mgmt reverted back to it emphasis on recruiting new students.

    Just to share some thoughts on this issue since you are writing about them.

  2. Kathleen Lundgren says:

    Here is an interesting report that I came upon inadvertently while searching something else yesterday. It is the 2009 Report on General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nations Leading Colleges and Universities published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (an organization previously unfamiliar to me). My eyebrows were raised; my interest was piqued. It was not what I was expecting to read. Thought you might want to have a look if you haven’t seen it.

    I have several thoughts that I would like to discuss with you. I earned my MS/TEFL at SNHU and am currently an adjunct GLS instructor in the ILE. My son is also an alumnus. I have a lot of observations that might interest you.

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