Interview with Higher Education Management Group member, Mike Offerman.

Dr. Michael J. Offerman is Vice-Chairman and President Emeritus of Capella University, and author of the highly regarded blog, The Other 85 Percent.

Dr. Offerman’s full bio.

“Quality” in higher education remains linked to exclusivity (admissions) and costs (tuition).  Are we making any progress in redefining quality?  What are the obstacles to progress on this front?

The idea that the most exclusive colleges represent quality actually begs the question of the real value added by colleges that take only the best and the brightest.  The idea that cost equals quality is just as questionable.  Exclusivity and cost have served as proxies for quality because higher education has argued that it is just not possible to measure learning.  I find this argument to be ridiculous.  To think that organizations designed to teach and prepare researchers cannot figure out how to assess their own work borders on the absurd.  But this belief (or defensive strategy) has been so vehemently stated so frequently by very smart people that it is simply taken for granted inside the academy.

This is a very valuable position to take if you are in an exclusive and expensive school.  As long as you can claim quality simply because you take in only the best and charge them a lot of money, you are in a very lucrative position.  And, many if not most American colleges or universities are focused on climbing up the reputational ladder with hopes that they, too, can live in that exalted and lucrative spot.  Unfortunately, just as there is exclusivity in student admissions, there is also exclusivity in the institutions that are allowed into the club.  Nonetheless, hope springs eternal and the mantra continues that learning is complicated, can only be comprehended by the select few and certainly cannot be measured. Indeed, measuring it would be reductionist, would result in a dumbing-down of the curriculum.

This self-congratulatory, self-righteous and self-serving viewpoint is the real obstacle to progress.  Nonetheless, progress is being made.  Slowly.

I think there is a real and irreversible move to look at learning outcomes as the measure of quality.  While there are transitional measures being used, rather than actual measures of learning, it is only a matter of time until learning outcomes will provide the basis for quality assessment.  The transitional measures that are being used include completion rates, student engagement, student satisfaction, alumni surveys, and some measures of core learning (writing, critical thinking and analytical reasoning).  All of these are very important and should be measured.  But producing more completions could occur because learning quality is decreased.  Students can be engaged and satisfied but not be learning.  Alumni may be tickled to have earned a degree so easily.  And, while the core areas are very, very important and do indicate learning has occurred, they are not enough.  This is a step in the right direction but not sufficient.  We also need to measure whether students have learned in their major or program area.  It can be done, and done in ways that are not reductionist and do not overlook the soft skills.

The problem we have with measuring program level learning outcomes is that every institution claims that their outcomes are differentiated from every other institution.  That means we cannot easily compare “apples to apples.”  Yet, we need to start, as we have done with Transparency by Design, by having institutions clearly articulate intended outcomes for a program, explain in simple terms how these are measured and then report the results of our assessments of graduating students.  As we get experience doing this, we will be able to tell just how differentiated one institution’s program is from others.  I suspect that there won’t be five clearly differentiated programs in accounting, for example.  Hopefully, the high cost school would only be able to justify the high cost if they produced the best learning outcomes and provided the best experience for their students.  I think that quality has to be based on those two factors:  are students learning the intended outcomes and what kind of experience did they have while learning. And I think it is inevitable that information about these two factors will be demanded by prospective students.  Hopefully sooner rather than later.

How will the current and long term financial challenges facing American colleges influence our capacity (and willingness) to meet the needs of “non-traditional” learners?

I am very concerned about the financial challenges facing American colleges and universities and just wrote about the reduced number of students that the California State University schools will serve next year.  When you combine this year’s and next year’s reductions, the total is over 50,000 students, just in that one system.  That would be the equivalent of closing the University of Texas-Austin.

This is part of a larger issue — a growing capacity crisis in American higher education.  There is demand for more higher education access than the traditional institutions can accommodate.  So, at least in the short run, it will not only be the underserved and so-called non-traditional students who will not be served, but also the traditional students coming to college directly from high school, hoping to study full-time

Indeed, it is possible that this population may end up being in a relatively better position than the traditional college students.  That is because these students are increasingly being served by several segments of American higher education that are able to expand capacity, even in the face of an economic crisis.  These institutions include those that specialize in serving adults, often using online delivery, and community colleges.  If you look at the student demographics of the adult online schools and community colleges you will find students who are older, more ethnically diverse and more likely to attend part-time than those at traditional, campus-based comprehensive and research universities.  It is this group of students that I write and speak about in my blog, The Other 85 Percent.

Institutions that increasingly serve this audience include for-profit universities such as Capella, American Public and Kaplan.  But there are also private not-for-profit colleges and universities such as Western Governors, Franklin, Regis, Excelsior and others.  And there are even some public colleges and universities, such as Charter Oak, Rio Salado and University of Maryland University College.  These schools focus on the non-traditional students, usually adults, and have increasingly enrolled African-American, Hispanic and Native American students.

But, they share something beyond student demographics.  They have learned how to expand capacity.  They do that by achieving a level of productivity that allows them to offer certificate and degree programs, relying only on the revenue generated by the program.  They do not depend on state subsidies or endowments to cover the costs of expanded capacity.

The fact is that America needs to increase access for underserved and non-traditional students if we are to find our way out of the economic recession.  The Obama administration and several prominent foundations have set goals for America to lead the world in degree attainment over the next 10 to 15 years.  Analysts have indicated that the high school to college pipeline cannot get us to that goal.  In fact, about 70% of the new degree production will have to come from adults.

Despite this reality, American public policy still is driven by an outdated, romanticized view of college and the college student.  Policy talk is about high school students and their parents choosing a school where the child can live, study full-time and engage in the culture of the campus.  That is a wonderful view.  It is just not what the average college student experiences.  The overwhelming majority of college students are older, and/or study part-time, and/or work more than twenty hours a week and don’t live on a campus.

Perhaps the economic recession may actually help drive a better understanding by policy makers about college and college students.  It is possible that the California State Universities and their peers will have to focus available resources on the traditional students and allow community colleges and the specialized, adult and online schools to continue to expand capacity to serve the underserved and non-traditional students.  If that is to occur, there needs to be a serious re-thinking of federal and state policies so that they not only recognize the service being provided by the “non-traditional” schools but also to remove policy barriers and create incentives for adults, part-timers and other students to utilize these institutions.

What role does increased access to data on institutional performance and student learning play in higher ed reform?

I believe that access to data can play a decisive role in higher education reform.  It is not yet happening because most of higher education is not using the data that exists and fails to understand the power of converting data to actionable information.  It was access to data that drove the creation of Transparency by Design.  We realized that the online delivery format generates huge amounts of data.  Unprecedented data—data on every interaction in the learning exchange, including data about demonstrations of learning outcomes.  But, most of us were not looking at the data in any coherent manner.

Regardless of delivery mode, there is an emerging movement, known as action analytics (see http://donaldmnorris.blogspot.com/2009_09_01_archive.html ), to rapidly convert data to actionable information that can be made available not only to institutional leaders, but also to faculty, advisors, students and others.  One element of this effort is to liberate the data so that it is available to folks other than the usual “power-users.”  Data can be shared rapidly without special reports generated by institutional research staff.  The implications for improvement and, I believe reform, are considerable.

The transformative power of the available data is only realized when there is a good deal of transparency involved.  To simply generate data or information and only share it with institutional leadership is not very helpful.  The leaders have limited time to spend with the information; overall, they have not shown much interest in using data to drive improvement or change, and they may not understand the kinds of change that the information might support.  It is when information is provided to students and faculty that it takes on real power.  One example of putting information into students’ hands is Purdue University’s Signals program (http://www.purdue.edu/UNS/x/2009b/090827ArnoldSignals.html ), which gets information to students about how they are doing academically while there is still time for the student to take any necessary steps to change.  That is just one example of the conversion of data to actionable information that can help in student learning, persistence and completion.  But, the most interesting aspect of a program like Signals is that once students start to receive that type of information, they want more.  And, I expect that as they demand and receive more information, they will begin to define and demand the changes that they see might help them.  This is just the beginning of the student/customer becoming more actively engaged in their higher education.  I think it will lead to demands for improvement, service and change that makes their education and their institution better.

Data analysis can also provide rapid, deep understanding about how various parts of the university are performing.  And, when I say various parts, I am not thinking about operating structure but some much more fundamental aspects of the university.  For example, once curriculum maps are made to show how learning activities progressively lead up to intended program level learning outcomes and assessments of learning are embedded across the map, from concept to competency to outcome, whole new opportunities for analysis open up.  It is then possible to see which pieces of the curriculum are producing the best learning outcomes; where students are struggling with concepts, competencies or outcomes; which faculty are producing the best learning outcomes and more.  That knowledge allows for corrective action.  And the process can lead to a more lean curriculum without the considerable and unnecessary repetition of learning that exists in many programs.  This level of analysis not only allows for better understanding about whether and where learning is occurring, but also allows for productivity gains.  Those types of gains can lead to better cost management and ultimately to better prices for students.

Obviously, what I have described is anathema to many involved in higher education.  But, once the information becomes transparent, becomes democratized, the demand for improvement and/or reform becomes substantially empowered.  At that point, change and decision-making is not data-based but is literally data-driven.

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