Higher Education for Free: What a Concept!

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This week, the faculty union at my alma mater, the University of Manitoba, warned its members that certain websites are posting lecture notes in potential violation of professors’ intellectual property rights. The same week, MIT announced that it is providing free access to its entire collection of online courses. More importantly, it will provide a certificate of mastery for those that complete the course in good standing.

This nexus between intellectual rights and open access (essentially a new form of open admissions) is now a hot-button issue. On one side, and with reason, faculty members are questioning how their information—their intellectual capital—is being used. What is their ROI for time, effort, and expertise? On the other, the further push for a new model of higher education, propelled by no insignificant manner by one of the topic private universities in the world; one with annual student charges averaging over $50,000* per year. As Forbes magazine called it this week, this is “a curveball bound to scramble your worldview: a totally free college education regardless of your academic performance or background.”

MIT is taking a moral highground—a responsibility beyond its current students and faculty—akin to many of our nation’s philanthropers, such as the Fords, Astors, Rockefellers, and the more recent Gates and Buffetts. MIT President Susan Hockfield had this to say on Monday: “M.I.T. has long believed that anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage M.I.T. coursework should have the opportunity to attain the best M.I.T.-based educational experience that Internet technology enables.” This is a “wow” moment, ladies and gentlemen, because it is truly a gamechanger.

Over the next several years, we will have to come to terms with open courseware and the need to protect intellectual rights of faculty and other instructors. The reality, for many institutions, is that faculty members forfeit some intellectual capital via their payment of salary. To use a separate analogy, if a chemist at Bayer develops a new anti-bacterial ointment, who owns the “intellectual rights” to that ointment? Bayer does. Similarly, if an instructor at a public institution of higher education creates a syllabus AND materials for the course, who owns it? Arguably, the university. But we understand that this is a murky area, but it is probably more true that professors do not get to “own” their course materials, per se, because they are being paid to develop this content. This reduces their argument of intellectual property, for sure.

This argument is much different today than it will be in 5-10 years, when the open course arena is more fully developed. MIT has simply opened the door. Harvard, Stanford, and perhaps even Oxford and Kyoto, will likely follow suit in some manner, if not for philanthropic reasons, just so they won’t look so bad in comparison. I’ve written before about the future of iTunes U and the possibility that students can put together their own educational chart. Now it is happening.

Forbes had it right: this movement by MIT throws a curveball to our Weltanschauung of higher education order. How can higher education be free? As we continue to find that higher education grows exponentially in costs and in pricing for students, families, and taxpayers, what message should be taken when one of the most prestigious and expensive institutions in the world decides to give a free pass—to anyone—for any of their online courses? This is fascinating stuff.

This policy move by MIT has the potential to create a seismic shift in our thinking about how we create and produce higher education for the masses. Instead of thinking of greater infrastructure and more “seats,” we should be thinking of more knowledge and simplified dissemination and assessment processes that are not only less expensive, but a lot less expensive. How many course syllabi do we really need for intro physics? Or philosophy? Thousands? Not many, me thinks, but that is the system we have today. I’d rather see core courses created and administered en masse so that our faculty can focus on more focused, higher-level course work, whether graduate or other levels, instead of plodding somewhat unnecessarily through charted territory (and I can argue against this, too!).

So we should thank MIT for the very nice Christmas Gift. Or Solstice, or whatever you want to call it. This is a great gift to our society—not just because it helps open up those clandestine doors of exclusive education—but for initiating a dialogue about how we serve students—all students—especially those who cannot afford the tuition.


Happy Holidays from the Educational Policy Institute. See you in 2012!

*The 2010-11 tuition and fee charges at MIT were $39,212, plus $11,234 for room and board. Other expenses were estimated (by MIT) at $2,764, totaling $53,210. See http://web.mit.edu/facts/tuition.html for further details.

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A Fly on the Wall

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This coming Monday, President Obama is apparently hosting presidents from about 10 colleges and universities to have a discussion about college costs and affordability. I want to be in that room.

Being a natural cynic (the best researchers, I argue, are cynics, which is why we question everything!), I want to hear first what these presidents have to say and how they divert the real conversation; and second, what The President has to say, since he has really only the bully pulpit to play with on this issue.

I expect the presidents to talk about diminishing state and federal support and the fast rising “costs” of higher education which “force” them to raise tuition and fees. I expect that they won’t talk about tuition discounting, merit aid, and their new and glorious campus buildings that look more like Westin and Ritz Carlton Hotels than college buildings. They’ll stay away from that.

They won’t talk about their multimillion dollar coaches and athletic programs. Especially not little boys and girls. Nor will they talk about how the public largely subsidizes many professors and their cottage industries, where they make thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars on the side while the public pays their salary. And this goes for private, non-profit institutions too, where public money indirectly subsidies institutions through Pell and other grants as well as federal research dollars.

They won’t talk about financial management issues and budgeting, because that would force them to talk about how the focus is on a bigger revenue target, not trying to align costs and expenses. Just more. They won’t talk about how they really don’t know how to run these institutions; they just know how to fundraise. I heard this week that the University of Toronto is over $900 million in their “silent” capital campaign, working toward $2 billion. Not bad for a government organization.

President Obama, for his part, will say that this is unacceptable, citing research, perhaps mine (I know, I know: it’s all about me), which says that this trend in costs and prices in untenable (because it is) and that if they don’t do something about it, Congress will. In theory, that is largely true, but in the end, the Congress that can’t agree on health care or tax increases on the middle class and tax cuts for the affluent won’t be able to agree on anything regarding college costs. It’s been done before, by the Republicans in the late 1990s, and they came up with nada. What are they going to do? A value added approach? On what measure? Cut Pell eligibility to institutions because they are serving too many poor kids? Cut research money to institutions because they serve too many wealthy kids? Huh?

I want on that wall. I want to see if there is any possibility that these (P)residents could change the conversation. Actually make it about students. Wouldn’t that be refreshing. And maybe they’ll still have time to meet with their K Street lobbyists (and yes, every land grant and major private colleges has at least one, if not an actual DC office) and see who else they can get money from.


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Measuring Learning

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This week’s InsideHigherEd.com article, CLA as ‘Catalyst for Change,’ talks about the seven-year project by the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) to use the CLA, or the Collegiate Learning Assessment, to measure learning in a test-bed of its member institutions. The purpose of the project is to help “propel” reform on campus through its findings and comparisons.

It is a noble idea. But it won’t work.

The CLA, created by contractor RAND Corporation, is a tool designed to measure what students have learned, on average, at institutions of higher education. So, think for a moment—given the grandeur of the American Higher Education System (corp?), the massive variation between colleges and universities, departments, satellites, and more—how can one instrument tell us the “value added” of students in higher education?

It can’t, and that’s the problem.

The CLA was created to measure value added before and after going to college. The problem is, naturally, the variance in institutions and programs is so wide, and the experiences so distant—even within one institution—one measure like the CLA is almost meaningless. There is no “average” learning effect in higher education, because everyone takes a different set of courses, from a different set of instructors, using different sets of resources. There is no “average” learning. And the CLA can’t pretend to be a measure of this learning.

If the CLA measures writing, for instance, the only way writing improves for students is by doing a lot of writing. And I mean a lot of writing with expert instruction. I became a good writer by writing a lot. I mean—a lot. My writing improved greatly over the course of about 10 years. But it improved very little during my undergraduate program (didn’t have to write much), and not much in my master’s program (same). It wasn’t until my doctoral work that I really started writing. It didn’t hurt that I was writing reports in an internship. I was a below-average writer who became an above average writer. All by writing. Thus, I am more concerned about what the CLA measures and the policies that could be created by limited-value data. How much one writes depends on what program you are enrolled within. How much math—well, the same thing.

If we really want to know how students are learning, and perhaps how colleges are doing, we need to keep it at a department level. Let chemistry provide value added outcomes for chemistry. Same with mathematics, physics, political science, history, and so on and so on. The learning is way too specific to address in the CLA or any other measure that is meant for the institution “at large.”

We should get away from this understanding of “institutional” value. Institutions are not created equal, and most certainly nor are their parts. An institution may have great value in one department of college, but be crap in another. In fact, that would be the rule, not the exception.

Even the report seems to suggest that little impact has come of the CLA, even though the report boasts effectiveness. It’s probably because the measure is broad and policies, in the end, need to be on a surgical level.

If you really want to know what “value added” an institution has on a student, we need to talk about a national (or international) standard of learning: common standards for common courses, with common assessments. Then we would know. Almost a NAEP-style of testing, but it needs to be content specific.

It is that simple. Better colleges will have better results. The antithesis will prove true, too.

Have a nice weekend.

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By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

Back in May I commented on the NCAA and what I see as exploitation of college students for the financial benefit of institutions (see my May 6, 2011 column). The recent discussion about Penn State and child abuse gives me another reason to revisit this issue and the role of the NCAA in the academic arena.

First, let’s be clear: what happened at Penn State wasn’t the NCAA’s fault—directly. The sickness of what has occurred at Penn State, which has an almost cult-like love affair with their Nittany Lions football team (not unlike many other colleges, including Ohio State, Oklahoma, Michigan, Texas, Boise State, and at least several other dozen places), can be placed on many people, but certainly resides squarely on the shoulders of Coach Sandusky*, Coach Paterno, and the President of Penn State. Sandusky will likely go to jail for the rest of his life by the time this is all sewn up, and Coach Paterno and President Spanier have already been relieved of their duties. One or both could end up with criminal records—depending on what the state is prepared to do—but it is unlikely.

But here is what is wrong with the NCAA. They have created a professional-level league that it is so driven by money that people are willing to turn the other cheek regardless of how sick the behavior is. The people at Penn Statedozens of themknew what was going on with Sandusky for years. This isn’t new information, only new to us on the outside. The fact that Paterno did originally notify school administrators of what was going on does not release him from his responsibility because it was serious enough (yes, giving falacio to a 10-year-old, for starters, in the team’s dressing room!) that he should have followed up on it. This isn’t watching porn on a university computer. This isn’t even watching child-porn on a university computer (or any computer). This is child porn live, in the dressing room, and in dozens of other places on and off campus.

Cover-ups occur only when there is a lot riding on the outcome. Yes, I’m sure those in the know thought of Sandusky and what it would do to him. But they seemed to care much less about the kids involved in this vicious game. Why? Millions of NCAA-related dollars. Money colors everything, and the NCAA has gotten far too big for its britches. And while they weren’t directly involved, they provided the catalyst for this situation to happen.

No other nation, in my knowledge, has a system like the NCAA. The closest is Canada, but the system is so small—the dollars so small—that there is no real comparison. No one cares that much about college athletics in Canada (at least in comparison). In fact, most Canadians who follow sports at all, watch (and bet on) NCAA!

Other countries have club systems. Even when I played both football and team handball in Canada, I played on a club system, separate from high school and college. It was a club team. I am an avid follower of sports, especially hockey and football. But I firmly believe that, with the exception of intermural sports or at least low-stakes intramural sports, that college is for academics and club teams are for sports. The two can coexist and college students can play club sports. It is even possible to still have scholarships through a club system, but athletics should be run by a club and academics by a college.

Let’s call this for what it is: the NCAA, at least for football, basketball, and hockey (to a slight degree), are semi-pro. And in the aftermath of the Ohio State fiasco, we should absolutely allow college players to be paid, because they are earning millions for their colleges. They are pro athletes for every reason except that they go to college.

As long as we have millions involved, there will be people trying to game the NCAA system. This is college, ladies and gentlemen. College. It is about learning first and playing second (or third or fourth). Students shouldn’t be going to college if all they want is to play football or basketball. They should be playing in their respective club teams. Those who really want to learn can go to college as well. I am not naïve enough to believe that this can happen: there is simply too much money on the table for colleges and universities. But it should. As the quality of our higher education continues to recede (IMHO), we should be focusing on improving our institutions of higher education. As much pride as college sports brings many, it also takes our eye of the prize.

For what its worth.

*To be fair, Sandusky is only accused at this time and his guilt is not proven until trial. Interesting, though, that Penn State apparently had enough information within to proceed with the firings of Paterna and Spanier.

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Doesn’t Anybody Get This?

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This week I had the privilege of presenting with my colleagues Jay Goff of Saint Louis University and Kim Landis of EPI at the AACRAO SEM Conference in San Diego. In preparation for the 3.5-hour workshop, I updated my retention and student success slides. In particular, I spent considerable time re-upping my tuition and fee forecast originally created in 2006 for my Retention 101 workshops. This revision was predicated, in part, by last week’s release of the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing, a publication I used to co-author with Larry Gladieux in a prior life.

I will quickly cut to the chase and then document my thoughts and caveats about the meaning of these data. Bottom line: after adjusting for inflation (big caveat coming…), tuition and fee charges at public four-year universities will double from $8,244 to over $16,000 by 2029-30, or in 18 years. At public two-year colleges, tuition and fee charges will double from $2,963 to about $6,000 by 2033-34, or 22 years. And the $28,500 average tuition and fee charges of 2011-12 will double in 21 years (2032-33) to over $56,000 (see below). These numbers all come at the very same time that the Project on Student Debt announced that the average loan debt of college seniors rose to over $25,000, up 5 percent from the previous year.

Following is my brief Q&A with myself.

Question 1: But Scott, how can you possibly forecast something as volatile and politically-charged as tuition and fee charges?

Answer: Forecasting is tricky business and it can only be taken as a possible future. When I first cast these data, I did three various scenarios to show low-, mid-, and high-forecasts. But that just confused people and 25-years out it was such a wide gap it didn’t seem meaningful. Using an “average,” hoping that people know it is just that—an average that can be lower or higher than reality—was my way to go. Understand, however, that to conduct this forecast, I took 25-years of historical data to determine the average annual increase, beyond inflation, and used those to forecast the following 25 years. Simple calculations, but it is the best we can do. True, we cannot say what state and federal policies will do in the future, nor what markets and sectors will do. We never can. Averages seem to be as sound as anything else.  There is no indefinite integral that will be more accurate.

Question: But your forecast doesn’t really take into account the skewing by large increases over the past few years?

Answer: Well, yes it does, and readers should note that we had just as high increases in (a) the early 80s and (b) early 90s. In fact, this seems to be decade cyclical: we’ve seen this the past three decades almost like clockwork, where tuition and fee increases hit double digits (before inflation) before declining.

Question: But this won’t last forever. There has to be a bubble hit or something, right?

Answer: I love this question, and I had two fairly prominent people say this to me in San Diego. Surely we can’t have $16,000/year tuition and fees for public four-year universities within the next two decades. No way! Well, way. For those who think this trend cannot go on, I ask this: how has it gone along for the past 40 years? People said in the 70s, then the 80s, and then the 90s that it couldn’t go on. It does. And will. Dave Breneman, former Dean of Education at UVa and well-known economist, always told me that higher education will always rise well higher than CPI because it is a much more expensive commodity to develop. The only way this cycle of increases is contained is if we massively alter (a) what higher education “is” and (b) how we deliver it. Prices will not come down (or even modestly be curtailed) if costs are not controlled.

Economists are now talking about a bubble bursting in higher education, just like in the housing market. I don’t think so, and here is why. The housing bubble collapsed because of large federal policies aimed at massifying the market. Investors (and investment companies) played with these policies and created side products that were borderline illegal (but not illegal!!!!) that effectively created a bubble situation. Higher education has no policy or set of policies that will dramatically alter the supply and demand curve of college and university. At least not now. Currently, we have two very large foundations plus the US Department of Education pushing for more and more college graduates. They are effectively pushing the demand curve higher, therefore simultaneously pushing the supply curve. The bubble will not burst with such present demand, and there are no policies similar to that of the housing market ready to implode.

Question: So, what do you think this means?

Answer: I think we’re in trouble. I think this is incredibly serious and I am continuously flabbergasted that no one seems to take this seriously. I know, plenty of people, no less students and parents, are concerned about the “price” of college, but there is no real dialogue about college costs and pricing. We had a federal commission almost 15 years ago. We have had “blue ribbon” panels about college opportunity. And Congress has had hearings on college costs and prices. But nothing happens. Absolutely nothing happens, with the exception of continued push for higher Pell Grants and more loan availability to allow for even future increases. Yes, there is something true about Art Hauptman’s tuition spiral argument. If you keep creating policies and programs to pay for the current increases in tuition and fee charges, then there is no lack of impetus for the higher education industry to continue increasing prices (and that industry includes state governments). State governments take this SO seriously (please note the sarcasm) that they keep on raping higher education budgets and forcing, to an extent, public colleges and universities to raise tuition and fee charges on students and families. The schools themselves keep building more infrastructure which is seemingly unsustainable, thus making education more expensive. And, of course, we as consumers keep demanding more of higher education, too, also pushing up the cost.  We are all to blame.

This trend is untenable. We keep building a more and more expensive higher education system when we should be producing a less-expensive system. We completely have this wrong and no one seems to get it. Listen, prices will continue to go up, and for those who do not believe it is sustainable, guess what? You’re wrong. It is completely sustainable because we’ve designed the perfect system for sustainability of increased pricing. We have this organism that just wants to keep growing. There is enough penis-envy in the higher education world that every president wants to keep catching his or her competitors. That’s the game. They want to be someone else. Talk about mission creep. All it does is create a vicious AND sustainable cycle.

Wake up, everyone. This is serious. We are forcing people, through laudable outcries that if you don’t go to college you are worthless to our society, and then tacking on their back huge amounts of debt that will only increase. Student loans, like mortgages in England (and soon the US), could be passed on to future family members because they become too large to repay. That or we grossly modify the income-contingent loan program (and it is interesting that the president did tinker with ICLs last week).

And this dialogue has not even dealt with cost of attendance: only tuition and fee charges. What will the COA be at a public four-year college in 18-years from now? Try $34,000, in TODAY’S dollars. Yes, that’s like pulling out $34,000 of your hard-earned money for one year of college. Public college.

Get it together, people.

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The President and the Elephant (and college costs)

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This week, President Obama unveiled new programs to alleviate the debt burden on college and university students. The first program allows students to consolidate all their college loans into one, US Department of Education Direct Loan. Although the Department is the only originator of student loans in the US since 2010, there are still millions of loans that are owned and serviced by private banks from the FFEL (pre-July 1 2010) days. Obama is offering students a chance to bring them all together under the federal government, saving taxpayers money and also reducing the complexity of student loans for students. As an incentive, the loan interest rate will be reduced by up to half a percent.

Second, Obama is proposing lowering the percentage of discretionary income required of borrowers from 15 percent to 10 percent for graduates enrolled in an income-contingent repayment program. Thus, graduates with student loans only would have to pay up to 10 percent of their discretionary earnings toward their loans. After 25 years, if the student still has loan debt, it will be forgiven by the federal government.

Both of these are positive policy moves. The first allows for greater savings in the student loan industry, and the second provides a better option for students with high debt in low-earning jobs.

However, none of these policies change the affordability game. Student loans are a necessary evil for college-going students, and data continue to suggest that taking a loan and going to college is the best option for student’s career and social growth. But tinkering with the loan rates and repayment options does not change the long-term problems associated with college costs.

There are many critics who suggest that it is important to provide low-interest rates with zero interest payments while in school to make loans and college going more affordable for students. I don’t disagree that this is important. But all of this is going on without thought of the elephant in the room: the cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at America’s colleges and universities. While we continue to fight over interest rates, Direct and FFEL loans (well, that fight is over…), and repayment, consolidation, and default options, the cost of college continues to increase at 7-8 percent per year.

This week, The College Board released their annual Trends series on Student Aid and College Prices.  Tuition and fee prices for 2011-12 rose 8.3 percent from the previous year, or 6.0 when adjusted for inflation. Over the past decade, annual tuition increases were 5.6 percent BEYOND THE RATE OF INFLATION.  By the way, 10-year annual rate for private, non-for-profit institutions was only 2.6 percent (inflation adjusted).

This elephant is standing right in front of us, ladies and gentlemen. The average tuition, fees, and room and board at a public four-year institution in 2011-12 is $17,131 (in-state), up 6.0 percent above inflation from 2010-11. The total charge for out-of-state students is $29,657.

If a student who started college this year completes his or her degree in four-years (a big if, unfortunately), they, and/or their parents, will pay $74,942 in today’s dollar. And that’s the average, meaning that 50 percent of students will pay more; 50 percent less. That is still a lot of money, no matter how anyone cuts it.

We can argue whether it is too much or not enough (but I would love to have that argument!). However, the issue is that it is definitely getting too high by any means or imagination. By the fall of 2021, the inflation-adjusted annual cost of attendance at a public four-year institution will be over $32,000 (yes, that would be in today’s dollars!), and two years later will have doubled from today’s cost (2023-24: $34,470).

Sit back and imagine right now. This isn’t about you. This is about your son or daughter who, for arguments sake, just had a child this fall. If everything goes to plan, little Britney (sorry that your kid named their child that; take it out of their inheritance) will enter a four-year public institution at 18 years of age in fall 2029. Her annual cost of attendance will be $48,898 a year. Let’s be clear: that is in today’s dollars. By her fourth year, the annual burden will be $58,238. In total, if she is prudent, works hard, and doesn’t drop a slew of classes, the total, four-year cost of attendance will be $201,801, at a public institution of higher education.

Then consider this. Your son or daughter, of course, has done well enough that they do not qualify for federal grants, and certainly not zero-interest loans. And scholarships? Good luck. Britney is smart, but there are a lot of smart and talented people out there. She’s a middler.

But incomes are not increasing. There is an increase by age, of course, but incomes continue to stagnant and even decrease in some fields. Let’s really hope your child isn’t unemployed, because then it may come back to you, Grandpa or Grandma. Watch those retirement savings now…

Think $50,000/year now. In today’s dollars. That’s the elephant in front of us. It’s comfortable sitting in your living room. And it has no plans to go anywhere. None. Because no one is tacking this issue of rising college costs.

The President’s efforts this week are laudable. But they tinker. We need a sea change in how we think of higher education, dear readers. The current system is broken. It just doesn’t compute anymore. Cost of attendance of $75,000 or $200,000 isn’t play money anymore. That’s a lot of coin to send your kid to campus for beer bashes. Yes, it is personal growth, but the cost is so darn high now.

Well, enjoy your weekend. You and your pet elephant.

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The Financial Woes of Higher Education

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

While I typically write about the affordability problems related to higher education, this week I am tackling the other side of the dilemma: the infrastructure and financial problems facing institutions and systems of higher education in the United States.

Just yesterday, two articles appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education regarding financial issues. The first about the 180 private colleges and universities on the US Department of Education’s Financial Responsibility list. The second about the failing infrastructure of our two-year public institutions.

Both issues have implications for the future of higher education, because both will increase the financial strain of the system, putting even more fiscal pressure on students. The 180 private colleges and universities who failed the financial measures of the Department—150 of which are non-profit institutions—should send a signal that perhaps our institutions of higher education (IHEs) are not meeting the level of fiscal responsibility that we need. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) is arguing that the measures are imprudent and unfair, and, who knows, maybe they are, but the fact that 180 private institutions are failing this measure, and my belief that many of the public institutions probably are, too, is disturbing. We have over 4,000 public and private two- and four-year institutions in the US. Too many in my books. But it is what it is. We massified in a big way, and now we have to deal with it. However, the cost of expansion and the increased cost of trying to educate more and more students (the access issue) using a format that is becoming prohibitively expensive should make us look seriously at the future of IHEs.

This of course, links with the second issue: infrastructure. As we continue to build more and more buildings, let alone colleges, we run into the same problem that our nation’s highways, roads, and bridges are currently in: they are falling apart. The bricks and mortar cost of US higher education is astonishing. As many of these colleges get older, we will continue to spend more money fixing windows, roofs, HVAC systems, and grounds at astronomical rates.  Fixing some of these old buildings is extraordinarily expensive, but is still less expensive than razing them.

You get my point. The cost of providing education is increasing exponentially. Infrastructure costs are rising and causing significant financial strains for IHEs. And the financial conditions for higher education have perhaps never been worse at any time in our history. All of this with less state support, on a per student basis, compared to the funding requires of students and parents, which, as a percentage, is higher than ever.

It seems that technology could help alleviate many of these issues. While we may require, and want, traditional higher education taught in bricks and mortar, the future of college access will depend largely on virtual learning opportunities. This, in turn, will help reduce some of the issues related to the number of “seats” available (understanding that there are still significant costs to virtual education) and reduce our reliance on building permanent infrastructure.

That’s all I have time for this week, but interested in your thoughts. Check out the articles and make your own mind up.

Have a great weekend.

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Why Steve Jobs Matters

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, EPI International/Educational Policy Institute

As I sit in front of my iMac 27”, which sits on my workplace next to my MacBook Air 13”, my iPad 2, and my iPhone 4, I realize that Steve Jobs has had unbelievable influence on my life. I figure I have bought about 25 Apple hardware products over the last 10 years. Each of my three kids has had at least one iPod or iTouch. My youngest will get my iPhone 4 in a few weeks, since I have already ordered my new iPhone 4S.

I admit. I am an Apple junkie, and I guess I have been since the late 1980s when I used Apple IIe and Macintosh “Classics” to teach graphic arts in Winnipeg.

Suffice it to say, like many people around the world, I felt a deep sadness on the news of Steve Jobs passing, which, of course, I read on my iPhone. And, like most, I didn’t know too much about him other than he could be a first-level ass as a boss. But I knew enough about him and his accomplishments to have reverence for what he achieved in 56 years. Heck, I have reverence for what he had achieved by only 21.

Jobs has left an indelible stamp on communications and technology in a global fashion. All phones want to be iPhones. All MP3 players want to be iPods or iTouches. And all tablets want to be iPads. Steve Jobs made things cool.

And he did it without a college degree. 

It is interesting to understand that the two biggest names in computers—Steve Jobs and Bill Gates—both dropped out of college. They were both obviously brilliant people, as they were very college able: Jobs dropped out from the uber-liberal Reed College and Gates from Harvard. Gates dropped out because he knew what he wanted to do. Jobs dropped out because it was costing his family all their life savings. In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Jobs said the following:

“I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

This is from a man whose estate is currently valued at about $6 billion. A man whose company was, for a brief period this year, the most valuable company in the world. A company whose retail sales have the highest revenue per square foot of any store in the world. And also a man who took a salary of $1/year.

But another lesson learned from Steve Jobs talks about the formidable barrier to success because of college costs. Perhaps he didn’t need college, as he proved, but he learned from it and he wanted to go to college. He just couldn’t see spending his parents’ hard-earned cash on a higher education. So he found another way. Most students can’t do what Jobs did. He was an anomaly. So before anyone suggests we should all be like Steve, let’s be real. He was so far off the grid in terms of normalcy, so far off the normal distribution in his brilliance and drive, that his peer set is probably a few handfuls of people in the entire world. One of the few other affinity groups we can compare him to is that who dropped out of college because they couldn’t afford it, or because they felt so guilty for eating up their parents’ life funds.

College is a lot more expensive than it was back in the early 1970s. It is a bigger problem than ever. For all of the “Steve Jobs” who are out there in our world, how many get lost in the higher education shuffle? People who are poor but brilliant. Smart but unrefined, perhaps. Think of the thousands of students who don’t get there and don’t find their way the way Jobs or Gates did.

While most of our associations and special interest groups worry about how low-income students get to college (including us at EPI), I am particularly interested in those who are on the high-end of the academic charts who never to or through college. Analysis of BPS data clearly show that even high achieving low-income students, as well as high-achieving Hispanic and Black students, graduate from college at rates 20-30 percentage points below White and Asian students. These are smart, skilled students. But they go to and graduate from college at much lower rates than their peers. My colleague Scott Miller wrote about this back in 1997 in An American Imperative: Accelerating Minority Educational Achievement. This is nothing new to us in education. And regardless of the low-income levers we have created, including the Pell Grant and Stafford Loan system, we lose students. We lose them before college and we lose them during college. And we all lose.

Steve Jobs legacy will undoubtedly be him impact on communication, and certainly on style. For decades to come, people and corporations will still being emulating what Apple has done over the past three-plus decades.

Perhaps his legacy can also be about reengineering how we educate students in America (and beyond). What we do with the brightest, and how we get more students to be bright.

Steve Jobs is an example for us not to forget.

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Private Higher Education in Europe

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

I write this morning from Warsaw, Poland at a conference on private higher education organized by my good friend and colleague, Jan Sadlak, the former Director of the European Centre for Higher Education – UNESCO-CEPES and currently President of IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence in Warsaw. I was privileged to sit on a panel with Wojciech Bieńkowski, Dean of the Department of Economics and Management, Lazarski University, Warsaw, and Liviu Matei, Senior Vice-President, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.

Our focus was the increasing and emerging role of private higher education in Europe. While the United States has had a long association with private, not-for-profit higher education, the sector is relatively new in Europe. Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, was started with core funds from George Soros and is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Harvard, by comparison, is 375 years old.

The first question is: why does private higher education matter? In Europe especially, before the fall of the Wall, there was virtually no private higher education as described above. This growth is surprising if given the history of higher education in Europe and former Iron Curtain countries. But the global demand for higher degrees has pushed the development of additional supply given that the public systems in many countries have been pushed to their breaking point. It was interesting to hear this morning that Hungary is reducing their subsidy of public higher education in an effort to decrease the number of students because the government does not see the need for expansion. This, in turn, is likely to fuel additional private higher education, although a solution that will force more costs on the students themselves.

A second question discussed the role of private versus public education. This varies greatly by country. For instance, in the US, private higher education is associated with higher quality, even if the metrics for measuring quality remain limited. In Puerto Rico, public institutions are very highly regarded, while private institutions have reputational issues. The same is occurring, to a degree, in Europe, where private institutions have to fight for prestige in comparison to the fairly high-brow public universities. Professor Andrezej Kozminski, President of Kozminski University in Warsaw, was surprised that these public institutions have not yet installed gold handles in the bathrooms, a comment on the high level and wasteful public funding provided for the public sector.

Many of the institutions, and states, are unable or unwilling to increase the number of student seats at the public institutions of higher education. An answer to this is to allow the creation of private (not to be confused with for-profit) institutions to augment the public institution. These, of course, have a tuition charge associated with attendance, which is a completely different mindset from a society that embraced free public university education.

Arguably, private higher education is a necessary commodity in a global society, and expansion of this sector is necessary in many countries to meet the demand by users and business. The benefits accorded to the private sector include a quicker response to changes in the employment market than public institutions, and tailored programs more closely associated with market needs. Anatolli Adola, the First Vice Rector of the Ukraine, noted that the goal of private institutions is to “offer educational services of the highest quality that their consumers would prefer to get for money, rather than the ones of poor quality for free.” Thus, people will pay for services of quality that are unavailable elsewhere, or that are perceived better quality than other available commodities.

In the end, governments must create priorities on education and create the policies that best meet the needs of their economy and society. In Europe, as in many other countries, private higher education is an important vehicle to meet the new demand for higher education.

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A Post-Hoc Analysis of the 2006 Spellings Commission Report on Higher Education

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This morning, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on The Spellings Commission of five years ago, noting, in former North Carolina Governor James Hunt’s words: “One of the most important reports in the educational and economic history of our country-if we act on it.”

Five years later, little has been done to acted on the Commission’s recommendations, mostly because the suggestions from the Commission generally cost money and Congress and states have been too busy cutting, rather than adding, money from budgets. That makes it pretty hard to act on a Commission Report with two counter-active realities.

The second reason the recommendations have not been acted upon is that there is zero political will to do so. Higher education is simply not that important an issue in the face of the global economic collapse. Education is seen as one of the most important issues of society-until something else is. During election campaigns, education is always floated about as an important issue. However, “it’s the economy, stupid” reigns supreme in the electorate. Voters think of their pocketbooks first, their health and welfare second, and then comes the other things, like education, wars, and so on.

Over the next few weeks, I will present each of the Commission’s three areas of focus: access, affordability, and accountability, and discuss the challenges and solutions to improvement in these areas. The Commission offered five recommendations for each area.

This Week: ACCESS

Access has been the one key constant in federal policy for the past 150 years, starting with the Morrill Act of 1962, to and through the GI Bill, and the Pell Grant and other Title IV legislation. The challenge in access is that most of access policy is acting upon at the state and local levels. Many of the recommendations of the Commission are targeted with the design that they can be achieved. In theory, they can. But we need to also ask why or why not? Let’s look at the five recommendations under Access.

Align graduation standards for public schools with college and employer expectations.

This is one of the few recommendations that have actually made progress since 2006. The Common Core of Learning is the first true attempt to build a national curriculum, even though most in the loop would prefer not to call it that. But it does subscribe to what ought to be taught in the core subject areas, through to high school graduation and including “college readiness.” This has been long coming and much warranted. Still, the standards have a long way to go. Even well-intentioned standards to not ensure, nor assume, that learning will progress. We have standards in many subjects for years and seen SAT scores decline. The trick is to enforce standards with high-level teacher education, induction programs, and professional development. Add top-shelf infrastructure and community involvement and we might get somewhere. But it’s a start.

Perform early assessments to gauge students’ readiness for college.

I’m not sure what this means, because I don’t really know what “ready” for college means. Think about it, if high school graduation does not mean “college ready,” what does it mean? High school completion SHOULD mean college ready. Period. And the fact that we are dissecting these things is insane. Perhaps we need to go back and track students to “college ready” and those who are “not-college ready.” In Virginia, you can get the Standard Diploma or the Advanced Diploma. The latter is “four-year college ready.” Is that the way to go? The reality is that in many other industrial nations, students who are vocational in theory are more college ready than our students. They have a better foundation of learning. Even the slackers. We need to have a basic foundation of high-level learning for all students, even as much as we can for students with disabilities. Obviously, people learn differently (see Gardner’s multiple intelligences) and have different preferences, but our system needs to subscribe to this thought.

But how many assessments do we need? And what will the “college ready” assessment look like compared to current end-of-course assessments or college admissions tests? And someone please tell me what “college” looks like? It seems very different among our 2,000+ four-year institutions.

Expand early-college or dual-enrollment programs, as well as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

This discussion isn’t that different from the previous point. I want to know what “high school” is and what “college” is. If we can do so much college during high school, what does that make or say about high school? Conversely, what does it say about college? Either high school is a waste or college is too easy. By pushing a majority of people through dual enrollment, AP and IB (IB is a very different program….not course specific, but high school specific), it certainly waters down our essence of what high school “is.” Perhaps the push towards college-level courses is a push towards eliminating high school as we know it. I’ve argued many times that grade levels are arbitrary and outmoded. However, this would also push us toward early tracking. So pick your poison.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with AP or the other programs mentioned. The challenge is what the rest of high school looks like for non-university students. And do we need AP or similar courses, or do we just need a seamless set of courses for students from middle school on up to and through college? There’s a thought……

To improve access and reduce time-to-completion, revise standards for transfer of credit among higher-education institutions.

Credit transfer and associated articulation agreements is a major culprit of time-to-completion statistics, to be sure. More students are switching majors and leaving credits on the floor, typically because of a lack of articulation agreement that makes any sense. This is completely senseless and is not that difficult to improve. But it comes back to the issue of common standards in education, and not just for grade school, but for college, too. Especially for undergraduate school; especially for the first two years—there is no reason why a simple system of credit transfer is not allowable and available. Why not have systems of course accreditation so when College X initiates a new course it submits it to a national body for review and accreditation. At this stage it would be given certain status and alignment with other courses around the nation. This can be done.

Redesign the 12th-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress to measure a student’s readiness for college and the work force, and provide state by state reports.

This wasClinton’s idea back in the late 1990s. He wanted to use the NAEP as an exit exam much akin to what President George W. Bush did with mandatory voluntary tests (yes, you read that correctly). But this only works if NAEP is also restructured to mesh with the Common Core Standards. And if that happens, then it is likely that the NAEP will not provide trend data because the trend variables will be bucked. So, perhaps this would work, but I’m not sure how it does without being in synchronicity with the Core Standards.


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