KCH: Critics such as Derek Bok, former President of Harvard, have lamented the lack of attention paid in higher education to learning outcomes. However, the trend in North America – even among less-research intensive institutions – is toward an even greater emphasis on research. How do we ensure that both teaching and research obtain the attention and resources they need? What role can American Public University play in addressing this problem?
APUS has been active for years in assessing the learning outcomes of our students. In fact, through a website available to the public since 2004, we present the evidence to students, potential students and casual visitors. Just this month, we announced that we have joined with other adult-serving colleges and universities to launch an initiative, Transparency by Design, and a Web site, to offer adult learners information on program-level learning outcomes, how outcomes are measured and how students performed on these measures.
It’s my belief that all colleges and universities – whether for- or not-for-profit, private or public, online or face-to-face, should make such information available. For all of us, our students are our customers – customers who have invested (and/or whose relatives have invested) significantly in their educations. As president of an open enrollment institution, I believe that our customers should know what we’ve done for them – and how they have fared academically beyond the grades that they have received from each course completion. A focus on learning outcomes at the post-secondary level allows us to measure the distance travelled and the results of our efforts.
In my opinion, an emphasis on research in any university should be used neither as an excuse nor a diversion from a focus on learning outcomes. Research is an important, even essential, element of any university community, but research and teaching should not be considered mutually exclusive. In fact, given the continuing availability of information on the internet, all colleges should provide their students with the fundamentals of being able to research topics and which sources are more authoritative than others. While the fundamentals of reading and writing are important general education objectives, critical thinking and a desire for lifelong learning are abetted by providing basic research skills to undergraduates. At the Masters’ level, most programs require formal research papers and theses. While most masters’ graduates will not pursue a doctorate degree, these skills are transferrable to a society more dependent on the acquisition and transfer of knowledge.
At American Public University System, we have focused on learning ways to improve our online teaching knowing that improved teaching will generate improved student outcomes and student retention. Over the past few years, we have begun to conduct more research relevant to our programs and to our students. We view this additional research as a natural transition for a growing university seeking to determine if the addition of doctoral degrees to its curriculum are appropriate to our culture and mission. An example of one of our self-funded research grants is a project undertaken by Dr. James Smith, one of our full-time faculty in the APUS Emergency and Disaster Management program. Dr. Smith, who has a Ph.D. in environmental studies from Virginia Tech University, received research grants from APUS in both 2007 and 2008. He used that funding to conduct a major study on the preparedness of 37 airports nationwide to respond to non-aviation emergencies and disasters. His work, which has received national attention and which continues today, is available here.
KCH: The Obama administration has set very ambitious targets for post-secondary participation. What do you see as the single most important factor in generating higher levels of participation and completion in U.S. colleges and universities?
Two related factors are going to drive higher levels of participation and completion of post-secondary degree programs: affordability and accessibility. I frequently write about this topic on my blog, “Wallace Boston”.
In terms of affordability, all higher education institutions must listen to the market, a market which is increasingly telling us that annual and continual tuition and fee hikes are simply unacceptable. Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and my dissertation committee chair there, has written about higher education and its need to pay attention to the markets AND align its pursuits with its institutional missions. In his forthcoming book, Making Reform Work: the Case for Transforming Higher Education, he proposes that it might take a dislodging event to transform higher education and suggests a few scenarios in which this might occur. I believe the current financial recession is a dislodging event. While many of our publicly funded colleges and universities are forced to cut costs due to state budget crises, they have not cut tuitions. Neither have private colleges responding to decreases in their endowments and contributions from donors. The early verdict is that students are shopping down to lower cost alternatives, moving from private colleges to state universities and state universities to community colleges. At one point in time, it appeared that the college consumer attributed the quality of an education to the tuition cost to attend college. I think we have achieved that dislodging event and that consumers are convinced that the return on investment may not be evident at the higher priced institutions. I am concerned that this dislodging event will restrict access and note that California’s community college system is reportedly denying access to 300,000 students this year. That will not assist President Obama in achieving his goals. Community colleges currently educate approximately 40 percent of all students in the American higher education system and half of all students in the public higher education system. Access and affordability have been their basic tenets, but budgetary pressures are causing them to increase class size, cut classes, and cut programs. I am not sure that the $12 billion program funded by the administration will offset the state and local government funding cuts.
I’m encouraged by some of the measures I’m seeing institutions implement to gain control of rising costs. Among them are three-year bachelor degree programs, the creation of “low frills/no frills” institutions, the closing down of unprofitable or low enrollment programs, and the expansion in the utilization of online courses and programs. It will take a few years to determine if any of these are successful in lowering the cost to attend college. A key question in my mind is how scalable are these programs and how many will benefit from them?
Technology and online programs are also important to enhancing accessibility as well. Only 58 percent of all full-time freshmen today will graduate from college in six years. We can surmise that the other 42 percent either take longer, or drop out, because of work and professional-related commitments. Having a greater opportunity to study and complete some degree requirements online would, no doubt, be of tremendous help and benefit. I think it’s time for the Department of Education to seek an alternate measurement of student graduation given the length of time that many adult students take to earn their degree while working. Those of us serving adult students find it interesting that many of our students are “off the radar screen” because of their non-full-time and non-first-time student status.
The proprietary/for-profit sector of higher education doesn’t have all the answers, but our dependency on tuition as our sole revenue source has caused us to pay attention to the basic economics and the higher education market. We were also quicker to see the advantages of on-line education and that is evident in the disparity between our overall market share of higher education (9 percent) and our market share of online higher education (34 percent).
KCH: You held a number of leadership positions in the healthcare field before moving to higher education. Are the challenges in healthcare comparable to what we are currently experiencing in higher education?
There are certainly parallels between healthcare and higher education. First, both are highly regulated with the edge in regulations to healthcare. Second, the inflation rates in both are higher than the general consumer price index for at least the past 30 years with higher education probably edging out healthcare. The biggest difference between the two is that the access and affordability of healthcare impacts all of us at all ages whereas the access and affordability of higher education takes a longer time before we realize its economic impact due to the drop in our nation’s global competitiveness. From the perspective of individual consumers and families, healthcare and higher education rank at the very top of our concerns. For too many years we’ve taken it as an article of faith that costs and prices of healthcare and college education would always rise – and they certainly have done that.
It can be argued that the costs in healthcare did not begin to accelerate until the Medicare and Medicaid programs were implemented in the 1960’s. Implementing programs to provide for the care of our nation’s elderly and poor was a good idea and very affordable at the time when the population was much younger. As those programs have grown, the government’s efforts on controlling prices have driven the market in many ways. Insurers and companies self-insuring have found creative ways to control costs of healthcare for their employees given the lack of a program for all citizens versus just the elderly and the poor. As consumers have had to pay for more healthcare costs out of pocket, they have generated political calls for an overhaul of the system. In many ways, higher education is similar. Everyone acknowledges the impact of the original GI Bill (1944) in encouraging the middle class to attend college. As we expanded our higher education capacity, we continually found students to fill the capacity and customers who would pay the costs (tuition, state contributions, federal aid, etc.). The difference has been that higher education did not have cost controls similar to those enacted for medical stays and procedures under the Medicare and Medicaid programs. As a result, either students and their families borrowed more or state governments contributed more to the cost of educating its citizens. When the economy was continuing to grow and jobs were plentiful, this issue was not as evident as it is now.
Despite a lot of hand-wringing, very little is said about how higher education must control or reduce costs. If you look at how many public institutions/systems have dealt with budget cuts in their states, you can see a wide range of solutions, not all of which are pleasing to the legislators who fund those institutions or the voters who send their children to those institutions. Our current economic problem, however, may be changing all of that – and we may begin to see some of the same pressures applied to colleges and universities that are being applied to pharmaceutical companies, healthcare professionals and hospitals: to make some serious and potentially painful decisions to begin to slow or stop the cost increases that have wreaked havoc on family finances, budgets and debt.
I, for one, hope that all of us in higher education find ways to ensure we keep a university education affordable and accessible for our students, regardless of their age, the stage of their careers, or their station in life.