Around this time every year, as colleges and universities begin to spring back to life, I am reminded of my years working within central administration and the excitement in watching the sea of people full of promise come spilling back onto the campus. I remember the familiar faces of returning students, beaming with the fresh potential of a new year, who dropped by just to declare themselves back again or share goals for the year hatched over the summer.
But I also remember just as clearly the faces of the students who didn’t return. Those we lost somewhere along the way to graduation.
Many of those students still haunt me today. I remember one freshman I met when I was working as vice chancellor and chief of staff at UNC Greensboro. She came into my office at the end of the spring semester in tears. A straight-A student through high school, she arrived on our campus full of confidence. But that confidence was shattered when her professors told her that she was a terrible writer. She struggled through the year in silence, determined to improve. But she never got the help she needed. The tears rolled down that young woman’s face as she learned that she’d been placed on academic probation and would lose her scholarship. It was too late. We were too late.
There are thousands more stories like this young woman’s -- of students from low-income families who could have made it farther than their parents did but whom we somehow failed along the way.
We used to blame our students: their poverty, their underpreparation, the extra burdens they carry. It turns out, though, that it’s a lot about us. Yes, poverty and preparation matter. But the choices we make matter, too. Some institutions are simply doing a much better job of graduating their students than other institutions serving exactly the same kinds of students.
As we begin a new academic year, this can be a moment for improvement-minded institutional leaders to engage campus communities in honest, data-driven conversations about what we might do better. How can we more fully understand the journeys our students take on the way to the degree, noting where those journeys are speeded and guided, and where they derail? How can we renew our collective commitment to expand what's working and to confront -- and address -- what’s not?
To assist institutional leaders in their reflection and planning, The Education Trust has sought to identify and broadly share the high-impact practices of institutional leaders who have driven impressive improvement in completion rates, particularly for students who have gone historically underrepresented -- and underserved -- on our campuses: low-income and first-generation students and students of color. Most recently we’ve examined practices at Florida State University, San Diego State University, the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and Georgia State University.
While each of these institutions is distinct in their mission, and each set of leaders distinct in their style, at the core of their improvement efforts are common practices and qualities -- many of them steeped in honest analysis of data. Those practices and qualities are:
Courage. When then San Diego State President Stephen Weber addressed his Faculty Senate, applauding the many ways in which the faculty had worked toward -- and attained -- excellence over the years, he went on to issue a challenge that would spark a decade-long improvement effort: “But a great university doesn’t lose almost two-thirds of its Latino freshmen along the road toward graduation.” Like Weber, all of the leaders at the campuses we’ve been learning from are clear-eyed, intentional and dogged in their approaches to institutional improvement. They roll up their sleeves alongside staff and faculty and ask hard questions of the data on student matriculation and success. They zero in on areas of strength and weakness to draw out promising practices and needed interventions.
Shared commitment. These leaders are keenly aware that, while they have a strong role to play in leading change, staff and faculty members operating closest to their students are the ones who enact that change. Using data, leaders at University of Wisconsin Eau Claire engaged departments as partners and problem solvers. Said one senior leader on campus, “We give them the data … we’re not telling them where the problem is; they identify the problem and we encourage them to solve the problem.”
In examining their data, they found that, while their six-year graduation rate was relatively high, the four-year graduation rate was extremely low at just 18 percent. To address that pattern, faculty and staff members identified course bottlenecks and acted to remove them.
At each of the institutions we’ve studied, leaders draw together partners at every level -- senior administrators, department heads, faculty members, student-affairs professionals -- to engage in data analysis and problem solving. And they arrive not with answers, but with questions, trusting that those assembled in the room have much to contribute to improvement efforts.
Timely data for targeted interventions. These leaders understand that their students struggle in real time -- and that those working closest to them need information to intervene in real time. Further, they know from disaggregating data that all students don’t struggle at the same time with the same obstacles or need the same supports. They take time to parse data to understand the needs of all their students -- first generation, transfer, black, Latino, immigrant and many others. They identify benchmarks and warning indicators to ensure that no student is left to languish and disappear at any point in their educational journey without real supports to turn the situation around.
For example, practitioners at Georgia State University noted, “Four or five years ago, we had nothing consistent in our system that would help us track students.” Today, an impressive online data repository gives faculty and staff members immediate access to 130 screens of the most requested data on student progression and success. Through their Graduation and Progression Success advising system, which tracks more than 700 markers of student success, nightly feeds generate lists of which students have missed which markers. That information enables advisers to reach out immediately with targeted support for students who stumble.
Continuing evaluation of the data. Leaders at these institutions always come back to the data. A longtime campus leader at Florida State University described the cultural change ushered in by former provost Lawrence G. Abele: “When he came in, there was a huge shift in culture. It was no longer OK to just do things you thought were right; you needed data to support new ideas and also to assess, evaluate and improve current programs.”
For instance, when campus leaders analyzed their dropout patterns, they found that while white students were most at risk of dropping out in their first year, black male students were more likely to leave after the second, third or even fifth year. They realized that their retention efforts needed to stretch beyond freshman year to guide students through the entire undergraduate trajectory. Like Abele, leaders at these fast-improving institutions convene their teams regularly to monitor and review the data and to make midcourse corrections to ensure that their efforts, energies and resources are directed where they are most needed.
The lessons these leaders offer provide real insight from within successful college and university change efforts. They remind all of us in higher education that “success for some” is no great institution’s epitaph -- that institutional success will be measured not by how well some students are served but by how well all groups of students are served. If institutional leaders and those of us working alongside them don’t have the courage to confront the reality of what’s happening on our campuses in the narratives of all students, whether on commencement lists or dropout rolls, we are merely comforting ourselves with a half-true story that plays on repeat each year.
Bonita J. Brown is director of higher education practice at The Education Trust. She most recently served as vice chancellor and chief of staff at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, has become the third Canadian university to be accredited by an American accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Officials went through a seven-year process for Simon Fraser to become accredited. They said that they believed the move would enhance the university's reputation and allow its athletics program to participate in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Other Canadian universities accredited by American accreditors are Athabasca University and Capilano University. (This item has been updated to reflect the correct number of Canadian universities with this status.)
Technology think tank says standardized testing by outside groups and alternative forms of credentialing could create helpful competitive pressure on higher education and the traditional college degree.
The current existential threat to many law schools represents the canary in the coal mine for higher education.
Law schools have typically long enjoyed budget surpluses, and the universities in which they sit have benefited. But over the last few years, the financial situation of most law schools has reversed. Facing multiple years of declining enrollment and public support, alongside increasing costs and tuition discounting, law schools often are no longer a source of surplus revenue. Many law schools now are relying on financial support from their universities to stay afloat. This reversal is a harbinger for the rest of higher education, which is beginning to face some of the same challenges.
The steps law schools are taking -- in the hope they can survive just long enough for precrisis status quo conditions to return -- represent a doubling down on their traditional strategies. What’s so punishing is that because the precrisis status quo is gone forever, they are only worsening the overall outlook for the sector.
As we write in our new research paper published by the Clayton Christensen Institute, “Disrupting Law School: How Disruptive Innovation Will Revolutionize the Legal World,” the precrisis status quo is gone in large part because of the disruption of the traditional business model for the provision of legal services. Simply put, disruption is lessening the need for lawyers, which means law schools are producing too many lawyers for positions that increasingly do not exist.
Disruptions are bringing three significant changes in the legal services market.
First, from LegalZoom to Rocket Lawyer, more affordable, standardized and commoditized services now exist in an industry long dominated by opaque, highly customized and expensive offerings only accessible on a regular basis to a limited part of the population.
Second, from ROSS to the Practical Law Company, to e-discovery and predictive coding, disruptive innovations are allowing traditional law firms and general counsel’s offices to boost their productivity and perform the same amount of work with fewer lawyers. New technologies are able to do tasks that lawyers -- particularly entry-level lawyers -- performed traditionally. This is hollowing out the job market for newly minted lawyers.
And third, disruptive innovations are breaking the traditional rationale for granting lawyers a monopoly on the practice of law. Just as disrupters like Southwest Airlines and Uber changed who could operate in highly regulated industries, if a nonlawyer aided by software can provide the same service as a lawyer, then it is not the public but the lawyers who are being protected by the legal profession’s monopoly on the provision of legal advice.
State regulators of bar licensure are taking note. Some states are beginning to experiment with providing non-J.D.s limited licenses to provide legal services that until now only J.D.s could provide. The state of Washington was the first to license legal technicians -- non-J.D.s who are specially trained to advise clients in a limited practice area, in this case family law. Akin to a nurse-practitioner, under new regulations, a limited license legal technician (LLLT) can perform many of the functions that J.D.s traditionally performed. Only two years old, this new model is already gaining traction outside of Washington; the bars in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Utah are each considering similar steps.
Because there are fewer jobs for lawyers, fewer people are seeking to enroll in law schools -- hence the crisis.
When disruption is afoot, incumbents typically remain tethered to their longstanding habits to sustain themselves. In the context of an increasingly competitive marketplace for law students, this is playing itself out in a quest to retain prestige in the legacy system for ranking law schools, the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Law schools continue to chase prestige by luring students whose LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point averages will help them move up the rankings. They are attracting students by offering tuition discounts -- during the 2013-14 school year just under 40 percent of law students paid full tuition.
But this push to retain prestige in turn reduces revenues and places the schools in a vicious cycle as the expenditures to remain competitive and improve continue to escalate, as has been true in all of higher education.
Lawsuits challenging the veracity of claims that law schools make around job placement are increasing, and if a verdict goes against a law school, the floodgates against them could open that much wider.
On top of all these challenges, higher education itself is, of course, seeing a variety of potential disrupters emerge, all powered at least in part through online learning.
To this point, disruptive innovators have not directly attacked law schools by offering new versions of a legal education. But were entities to emerge that paired online learning, with its flexibility and competency-based learning attributes, with place-based boot camp-type clinical experiences that trained students to practice law in a more affordable and practice-oriented fashion, the pressure on law schools would only increase.
We see four possible solutions for nonelite law schools.
First, launching an autonomous entity is a proven way to combat the impact of disruption. By harnessing an existing law school’s superior resources to pioneer the disruption and create enough separation so the parent entity’s existing processes and priorities do not stifle the new entity, a law school-based educational start-up could itself become the first disrupter.
Second, schools could use online learning technologies as a sustaining innovation to improve learning and control costs. By blending online learning with face-to-face instruction, law schools could incorporate more active learning and professional skills development into the existing three-year educational model.
Third, they could specialize by creating programs that allow J.D. students to focus deeply on a particular area of law. Students could learn core subjects through online, competency-based programs and their in-person experience would focus on extensive training in a particular area of law through experiential learning courses, live-client clinics, simulations, capstones, directed research and writing, moot court and trial advocacy exercises, and field placements.
And, finally, innovative law schools could build new, non-J.D. degree programs that specialize in training students for careers that combine elements from law, business and government -- in international trade, for example -- but do not fit neatly into existing law, business or government schools and are less time-consuming and expensive than, say, a joint J.D.-M.B.A. Or they could offer new credentials that prepare non-J.D.s for the many fields that intersect with the law but do not require a J.D. degree, such as regulatory compliance.
The future is coming for law schools; the question is whether law schools themselves will play a role in shaping that future or be shaped by the cascading circumstances surrounding them.
Michele R. Pistone is a professor of law at Villanova University's Charles Widger School of Law and an adjunct fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Michael B. Horn is a cofounder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute and a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions, which offers innovation services to higher education institutions.
The Education Department has released a new list of colleges and universities under heightened cash monitoring, which means that they are subject to far greater oversight than other colleges in federal student aid programs. A variety of compliance issues can land a college on the list. Most of the colleges on the list are for-profit institutions.
The latest list, which has 513 colleges on it, was current as of June 1 and may be found here. That total is down slightly from the 528 colleges on the March 1 list.