Submitted by Ryan Craig on August 31, 2012 - 2:59am
“The United States has, overall, the most effective system of higher education the world has ever known.”
-- Clark Kerr
From a global perspective, the most distinctive characteristic of American higher education is its heterogeneity. While higher education in almost every other country is public and fairly homogeneous across institutions, private institutions are much more widely represented in the U.S., and among public colleges and universities, a high degree of heterogeneity has been tolerated. Clark Kerr’s master plan for the University of California is the archetype for American public higher education, with the UC schools charged with enrolling the top eighth of high school graduates, the CSU system enrolling the remainder of the top third, and community colleges providing access to everyone else. As Arthur Levine remarked in his preface to Higher Learning in America, 1980-2000: “The importance of the California Master Plan was that it stopped the stampede toward a single, homogeneous model of higher education. Excellence, in many purposes was chosen over mediocrity... .”
Over the next 50 years, the rest of the world looked at American colleges and universities with envy. As John Godfrey, former president of University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, noted with an analogy fellow Canadians undoubtedly understood: “Wayne Gretzky belongs to the elite of hockey players. He is the best. I am also a hockey player. I am not the best... Nevertheless, I would really enjoy playing hockey for the Edmonton Oilers, given half a chance. I suppose the issue here is accessibility versus elitism in professional hockey. Otherwise stated, the proposition might be phrased: ‘Are we here to play hockey or just fool around?’ ”
American higher education has not shied away from elitism. The social bargain, of course, was that an unequal system, with a level of inequality of inputs across institutions far outpacing any other country, would somehow manage to reduce social inequality, i.e., students coming out of the system would be less unequal than they were coming in.
This certainly seemed to be the case through the 1980s, as a wave of merit-based upward social mobility in higher education allowed colleges to be viewed as key contributors to social equality. But while it was still possible to hold on to this guiding fiction up to the Great Recession, it is no longer. The statistics are damning; we are failing to live up to our end of the social bargain:
67 percent of entering freshmen in the class of 2010 at the 200 most selective colleges came from the top income quartile; only 15 percent came from the bottom half.
The gap in SAT scores between low-income and high-income students has widened about 40 percent in the past 40 years and is now double the gap between black and white students.
The share of students from the bottom income quartile at the 200 most selective colleges has been stuck at less than 5 percent for the past 20 years.
41 percent of low-income students entering a four-year college managed to graduate within five years, but 66 percent of high-income students did. This gap has been growing.
Only 22 percent of students at flagship universities receive Pell Grants compared to 35 percent across all colleges and universities. And among minority students, only 12 percent at flagship universities are Pell recipients compared to 24 percent across all institutions. The University of Virginia has a lower proportion of Pell recipients than Yale (11 percent vs. 13 percent).
According to Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “Our postsecondary system has become highly segregated by class, by race and by ethnicity. It is more and more the case that the four-year college system is whiter and more affluent, [while] the two-year system is browner and blacker and more working class and some poor. In the end, the system is predictably reflecting the advantaged in the society.”
The outputs at two-year institutions are well-known, with graduation and transfer rates typically in the 10-20 percent range despite 75 percent or more of entering students expressing a desire to earn a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, the key input of spending per student at two-year institutions averaged $13,000 in 2009, while private four-year colleges spent over five times more ($67,000).
Research over the past decade has demonstrated that state policies to sustain heterogeneous systems are increasing social inequality as students are matched to institutions based on their level of preparation. And the situation seems to be deteriorating as non-elite institutions have raised tuition to the extent necessary to offset declines in state support, while elite institutions have raised tuition to increase per student spending.
Higher education is receiving increasing attention as a major source of the increase in inequality and decline in social and economic mobility. Sixty-two percent of Americans raised in the top 20 percent in terms of income now remain in the top 40 percent for their entire lives, while 65 percent raised in the bottom 20 percent remain in the bottom 40 percent. So while we continue to have a merit-based system of higher education, “merit” is increasingly passed down from one generation to the next.
Elite universities -- where the Wayne Gretzkys of academe convene -- have come to recognize that this is a major problem. It has taken a while. A study by William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, found that, controlling for test scores, low-income students had no better chance of admission to 19 elite colleges than high-income students. But in the past few years, our wealthiest universities have taken action: “We need to recognize that the most serious domestic problem in the United States today is the widening gap between the children of the rich and the children of the poor," said Larry Summers when he served as president of Harvard. The context for this statement, and President Summers’ initiative, was to announce that Harvard would give full scholarships to all its lowest-income students.
Of course, even if Ivy League schools were an accurate reflection of national income distribution, it wouldn’t reverse the overall trend. In any event, this isn’t going to happen; in the rankings-driven arms race, no institution is prepared to unilaterally disarm by admitting large numbers of low-income students with lower SAT scores. Indeed, this is how some colleges have climbed the rankings ladder over the past decade: reducing the percentage of low-income students. So despite generous grant programs from our most elite institutions, it is as true as ever that diversity at top institutions means putting a rich kid from California in the same room as a rich kid from New York.
Replacing loans with grants is not how the social bargain will be remade. The most likely candidate to do so is technology. Using innovative technologies to significantly lower costs while delivering measurably excellent outcomes to students (albeit in very different ways from elite, residential institutions) is the best hope for remaking the social bargain and retaining public support for heterogeneity in American higher education.
In a world where online courses are largely text-based and priced at the same level as on-ground courses, this may seem like a distant hope. But reading the Ithaka S&R report released in May on "Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education" -- a report co-written by Bowen and Larry Bacow, the former president of Tufts University -- it’s clear that “machine-guided learning” is emerging. According to Bowen and Bacow, machine-guided learning has the potential “to greatly expand the reach of the nation’s colleges and universities to populations currently not served, while at the same time helping to bend the cost curve in higher education... It also has the potential to benefit students by allowing them to have more targeted and personalized learning experiences.”
This is why the recent tsunami of elite university interest in massive open online courses (MOOCs) is so interesting, and yet so maddening. On the one hand, many of the technologies that are and will be deployed by companies like Coursera and edX will be instrumental in helping to test and prove the concept of machine-guided learning. On the other hand, their application in non-degree, not-for-credit courses indicates these institutions either fail to recognize or have no interest in solving the problem.
It is absolutely in the interest of elite colleges and universities to pave the highway so that, if this promise is realized, digital community colleges and state university systems will have the opportunity to drive unprecedented student outcomes for millions of students at all income levels. To do so, elite institutions need to demonstrate new technologies like adaptive learning in the context of degree programs, thereby gaining acceptance from accreditors, regulators, and prospective students.
If we continue to “fool around” with MOOCs rather than “play hockey,” the U.S. system may continue to be the most effective. But it won’t be viewed as just. And therefore either federal support for higher education will go the way of state support, or continued federal support will be linked to new policies that will increase the homogeneity of our colleges and universities. Neither are good options for elite universities.
So rather than using MOOCs to reach “needy” lifelong learners, employed professionals and alumni, much better to blaze the trail so that, through innovative applications of learning technologies, large public institutions have the opportunity to re-instill faith in the notion that continued government support for higher education is a pro- (not anti-) social enterprise.
Ryan Craig is a partner at University Ventures, a fund focused on innovation from within higher education.
The University of Texas at Austin is in negotiations about joining two prominent organizations that offer MOOCs (or massive open online courses), The Texas Tribune reported. The two are Coursera and edX. Texas officials said that the outcome of the negotiations could be announced in a few weeks.
There's a new kind of massive open online course (MOOC), and it lacks an instructor, The New York Times reported. The course will combine existing materials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology OpenCoureware project, quizzes from Codeacademy and study groups from Open Study, and will be coordinated by Peer 2 Peer University. With those services, organizers said, an instructor (while central to other MOOC offerings) won't be necessary. The first offering will be on a computer programming language and is called "A Gentle Introduction to Python."
Coursera, the company that provides support and Web hosting for massive open online courses at top universities, announced Thursday that more than 1 million students have registered for its courses. The company now serves as a MOOC platform for 16 universities and lists 116 courses, most of which have not started yet. The students registering for the courses are increasingly from the United States. Coursera told Inside Higher Ed earlier this summer that about 25 percent of its students hailed from the United States; that figure now stands at 38.5 percent, or about 385,000 students. Brazil, India and China follow, with between 40,000 to 60,000 registrants each. U.S. students cannot easily get formal credit through Coursera or its partners institutions, but some universities abroad reportedly have awarded credit to students who have taken the free courses.
Online teacher education is growing rapidly, according to an analysis published by USA Today. The newspaper found that four large universities (three of them for-profit) have become the largest teacher education institutions in the country, measured by degrees awarded. In the top spot is the University of Phoenix Online, which awarded 5,976 education degrees in 2011, up from 72 a decade before. The top four institutions awarded 1 in 16 bachelor's degree and post-graduate certificates in education in 2011, and 1 in 11 master's and doctoral degrees.
The time has come to ask the question: When will we see the complete digital transformation of higher education in the United States?
The need for the shift to digital are painfully clear: Grades are lagging, students aren’t graduating, and those who do earn a degree often don’t have the skills that employers want. While digital learning won’t solve all these problems, we need to find ways to drive students’ performance to help them recoup their college investment, and I believe that digital represents the fastest and best option.
With these needs in mind, I’m willing to put my stake in the ground.
As I see it, the publishing industry needs to do all it can to ensure that within 36 months, higher education in the U.S. will be completely digital. I’m not talking about a slight or even gradual increase in e-book adoptions or the use of adaptive learning. I’m talking about a total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems. Aside from the college library, you hopefully won’t be able to find a printed textbook on a college campus in three years. And if you are, we should all be disappointed.
To date, the rate of adoption of digital course materials has been slower than most would have expected. Only around 3 percent of students today purchase e-books over print, and less than half of my company’s customers come to us for digital.
There are a few reasons why I think we haven’t seen greater uptake. For one, education is a high-stakes endeavor for students, with important outcomes riding on it. While students may be willing to switch to digital in some aspects of their lives, when it comes to studying, they often want to stick with what they know. There’s also the fact that until recently, the user experience offered by e-books and other digital technology just hasn’t been very good. A glorified PDF of a printed page is not compelling to students. Finally, and I think most importantly, the value proposition of digital to students and institutions hasn’t been clear. Many students and colleges are unaware of how digital can enhance the learning experience beyond making it more portable and affordable – and provide real results.
For such a big transition — a leap forward, really — three years may seem like a short period of time. In today’s technology landscape, it’s an eon. Thirty-six months ago the iPad didn’t exist. Now, 65 million units later, it has changed the way we consume, create and share information. If that number isn’t big enough for you, try this one: 760 million — that is how many tablets Forrester expects will be in use by 2016.The adoption of these devices is happening at a lightning rate, and the inevitability of falling prices will make them even more accessible to students.
Student attitudes toward digital in the classroom are also evolving. Studies show that after using technology in an education setting for only a short time, students are realizing that they can’t live without it. As the design of digital education materials and technology continues to improve, students’ affinity for it will only grow.
It’s one thing for digital content and learning systems to offer a nice user experience and some interactive features. It’s another to help make meaningful gains in student performance.
Today’s digital technology already meets this challenge. Super-adaptive systems such as McGraw-Hill’s LearnSmart, a digital homework tutor that adapts to each student’s individual knowledge levels and creates custom study paths, are making a dramatic impact on student outcomes by scaling a personalized learning experience. An effectiveness study of LearnSmart showed that students using the program have seen significant improvements in pass rates, retention rates and increases in their overall academic performance. Results like these – whether they come from McGraw-Hill or other leading companies in our field – are something we just can’t afford to ignore, especially in light of the rising costs for higher education and falling student achievement.
If you want to get a sense of how confident we are in the effectiveness of this technology, take a look at a recent pay-for-performance partnership McGraw-Hill Education formed with Western Governors University. This partnership ties the fees we receive for learning materials to the grades of the students using those materials in class.
For professors – the foundation of our higher education system – digital provides an important collateral benefit. Working with students who come to class prepared and have an active interest in what they're learning allows them to spend less class time reviewing the basics and more time exploring advanced concepts. This is the type of teaching that leads to higher-order learning, and it’s the type of teaching that professors love doing the most.
When we talk about innovation, it’s usually in the context of technology. But where innovation is really shining through in education is in the models that learning companies are developing with colleges and universities to provide digital technology to students more affordably.
Colleges such as Indiana University and the University of Minnesota are partnering withlearning companies to ensure that all students have access to the learning materials for their courses at a price that’s substantially lower than what they’re used to paying – as much as 60 percent less than a print textbook. At a price that’s comparable with a used print book, students receive all of the benefits of going digital: portability, instant access to course material on the first day of class, and seamless integration with adaptive learning systems that provide personalized instruction.
While the transition to an all-digital learning materials experience may not always be comfortable, it’s one that is a necessary part of the solution. Technology isn’t just about improving access or engagement, it’s about achieving what should be the main goal of our higher education system today: improving student performance.
If my 36-month timeline sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. We have the tools to help solve one of the greatest challenges of our times – we just have to put them to use.
Brian Kibby is president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
When’s the last time an ice deliveryman visited your home? Have you ever talked to a telephone switchboard operator? Thanks to new technologies, these once-common occupations passed into history many years ago now. Bank tellers and travel agents are not completely obsolete, but substantially fewer people are employed in these lines of work than in the past for similar reasons.
Will new developments in Internet-based communications technology do similar things to college professors? Perhaps people like me will face the same trouble finding employment that newspaper reporters or piano tuners face nowadays. Or perhaps MOOCs will eliminate the need for professors almost entirely, allowing students to flock to courses offered by a smattering of "super-professors" while computers, graduate students and adjuncts do all the grading that once occupied so much of an analog instructor’s time.
I don’t know whether the Internet will make college professors obsolete, but then again nobody else does, either. Yet this fact has not prevented the rise of a cottage industry of pundits who gleefully suggest that faculty in every department of the modern university are somehow headed for the scrap heap. Some of these pundits seem to welcome that possibility because they expect that the cost of a college education will decrease with fewer professors collecting what they perceive to be hefty salaries, and they think that’s good for society. Some of these people seem to welcome this possibility because they just hate college professors. We are perceived as elitists, and everybody likes to watch elitists get their comeuppance, except the elitists themselves.
While countless people try to predict the future of higher education based on the technologies of the present, less interest exists about the effect of all these predictions on higher education today. While reading the online educational technology press for the sake of my blog, I sometimes feel like that old man in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" who has to tell the guy clearing out the bodies of plague victims that he’s not dead yet.
To my mind, this feeling is no accident. As the saga surrounding Teresa Sullivan’s presidency at the University of Virginia has clearly demonstrated, faculty are capable of mounting fierce resistance to unwanted technological changes under the right circumstances. The e-mails leading up to Sullivan’s initial firing demonstrate that U.Va.'s Board of Visitors was steeped in press clippings that treated the transition to online education as an inevitability. That attitude goes a long way toward explaining the board’s now legendary heavy-handedness. They wanted to ride the crest of a wave that supposedly well-informed people were all telling them is already coming.
For technology companies that stand to profit by disrupting higher education, treating the transition to an online future as a fait accompli serves as a very effective business strategy. By continually reinforcing the idea that traditional higher education is way behind the times, they gather public support for costly online initiatives that might not otherwise go forward. Equally importantly, this kind of rhetoric infects faculty with a sense of learned helplessness. Why try to fight the inevitable when we have so much else to worry about in our busy lives already?
Personally, I go back and forth between optimism and despair about the future of my profession. Sometimes I think that enough support exists on enough campuses that the kind of teaching I do now will persist well past my retirement because students will still value the personal touch that proximity makes possible. Sometimes I feel like I’m living inside of Frank Donoghue’s higher education classic, The Last Professors. Donoghue’s primary concern in that book was the corporate culture of the modern university. The jargon employed by U.Va. board members suggests how well the maturation of online education complements the destruction of traditions caused by that ideology in other aspects of campus life.
Perhaps my somewhat schizophrenic attitude toward the possibility of my own obsolescence comes from the fact that whether the Internet makes college professors a thing of the past doesn’t depend upon the professoriate. It depends upon students, and to an equal extent it depends upon society at large.
Nobody can dispute that online education has advanced far enough that it is now possible to learn a wide range of subjects at home in your pajamas through your computer. The question is whether this kind of learning will be acceptable to most students in the future, and perhaps more importantly whether it will be acceptable to the people who’ll employ them. I used to think that someone on the other end of a computer screen could never teach history as well as I can in person. I still think that’s true, but as Clayton Christensen has argued, an online education doesn’t have to be superior to the status quo in order to make my current job obsolete. The bad can drive out the good under certain circumstances, such as when the price of the higher-quality product is too expensive for most consumers to afford it.
Whether you’re an enthusiastic booster of online education or an informed skeptic like me, there is no question that faculty need to understand developments in the educational technology industry, if for no other reason than for their own self-preservation. If transformational change is indeed inevitable, faculty should assert their prerogative as teachers in order to make sure that the quality of higher education is not seriously degraded by this metamorphosis. By doing so, maybe they can carve out a place for themselves in a more efficient future. If transformational change is not inevitable, then for heaven’s sake don’t let the vultures who want to profit from picking at the corpse that was once your career destroy it without a fight.
I can tell you from personal experience that following developments in educational technology can be thoroughly exhausting. I’m sure plenty of you who’ve tried it yourselves would prefer to never encounter the word MOOC again in your entire lives. However, living in ignorance is probably the worst thing you could do. No matter how the Internet impacts higher education, we faculty need to play a role in the debate over its strengths and weaknesses for the sake of our students. If we happen to save our own jobs in the process of doing so, then that’s all for the better.