3 EdTech Hypotheses to Help Explain Small College Financial Resilience

Research questions inspired by a new report from the Council of Independent Colleges.

August 21, 2017

Earlier this month the Council of Independent Colleges released a report on The Financial Resilience of Independent Colleges and Universities. (See IHE's coverage of the report here).

The conclusions of the report run directly counter to the dominant sky is falling meme that characterizes many discussions of the future of liberal arts institutions. 

It turns out that colleges that focus on teaching, small classes, and experiential learning are not as fragile as many imagine. In fact, the researchers were able to demonstrate using a variety measures (aggregated into a Composite Financial Index - CFI) that the majority of liberal arts schools have improved their financial positions since the end of the 2007-2009 recession.

The report hypothesizes that the reasons for improved levels of financial resilience amongst small colleges are functions of both strong leadership and active efforts to reign in costs. Efforts to enhance revenues include: the creation of new graduate and undergraduate programs, the move to offer online programs and courses, a focus on international student recruitment, and shifting fundraising strategies. On the cost reduction side, efforts mentioned in the report include: freezes in faculty and staff hiring and salaries, and closing low-enrollment programs.

I have some alternative hypotheses to explain variation in financial resilience of small colleges.   These hypotheses focus on the role of technology - and technology and learning leadership - in explaining the economic health of an institution.

Hypothesis #1 - The Inclusion of Campus Technology Leaders in Strategic Planning and Decision Making:

This hypothesis is that institutional financial resilience can be significantly predicted by the degree to which technology leaders are part of campus wide strategic planning and decision making. In short, I hypothesize that at schools where the CIO (chief information officer) has a direct strategic leadership role in areas across the institution that the school will demonstrate greater economic strength. Specifically, I’d look for area of leadership and influence outside of the traditional areas of technological domains that CIO’s are sometimes constrained.

The reason for this hypothesis is the observation that technology is strategic, and that every institutional innovation will nowadays have a digital component. Campus technology leaders must be at the table in developing plans for both new programs and cost savings - rather than be brought in to execute someone else’s vision. A technologists mind in proactively addressing institutional challenges is as important as including a perspectives from other leadership areas.

Hypothesis #2 - The Leveraging of Online Programs for Institutional Advancement:

The second explanatory variable that I’d look for in predicting small college resilience is a measure of the integration of online education into the core mission of the institution. My hypothesis is that the important element of online education is not the revenue that it can produce - although new revenues are always welcome. Rather, I view online education as a catalyst for institutional change. Through online programs a school can invest in areas of strength, focus on faculty development, and develop new methods to improve core residential programs.

Creating an autonomous online unit may seem appealing, as separate online units can move with greater agility free from the dominant institutional culture and structures. In the long run, however, I think that separating online and residential learning is a mistake. Separation will eliminate opportunities to learn from experiments in online teaching to improve residential learning. Face-to-face residential classes will continue to be the core of the liberal arts experience. We should be taking any opportunity that presents itself to evolve and invest in our residential courses - and paradoxically online education is amongst the best way to do so.

Hypothesis #3 -  Investments in Instructional Designers and Centers for Teaching and Learning:

The final predictive variable that I’d like to test is the institutional investment in instructional designers and/or centers for teaching and learning (CTLs). Both the hiring of instructional designers and the growth of the CTL are both signals of an institutional commitment to advancing learning.  Instructional designers partner directly with faculty to develop strategies to meet their teaching goals. Sometimes these strategies involve technology, but not always. Instructional designers are experts in the science of learning, and are trained to leverage technological platforms and tools to align course design to the research on how people learn.

CTLs are safe places where faculty and non-faculty educators can form a community of practice around advancing learning. Increasingly, centers for teaching and learning are leading initiatives to invest in faculty teaching and student learning - such as experiential and digital learning programs. There is increasing overlap between the roles of instructional designers and campus CTLs, with many schools moving towards more formal or informal integration of these services. Any investigation of the impact of campus technologies, including instructional designers, should include the work of the campus CTL.

My hope is that organizations such as EDUCAUSE, OLC, and UPCEA/National Council for Online Education will consider working with organizations like the CIC to conduct the sort of research where hypotheses such as these can be tested.

What questions - or hypotheses - did the The Financial Resilience of Independent Colleges and Universities inspire for you?



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