Practice Problem-Solving

A new version of a traditional course at the U. of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education trains soon-to-be higher education leaders with real-time problems. 

December 19, 2014
Teams brainstorm suggestions during the final case study in a graduate-level higher education course at the University of Pennsylvania.

At Dillard University, students routinely wait until the last minute to pay their tuition bills. The students aren’t prone to procrastination, and they’re not deficient at financial planning.

But for many of Dillard's students, 80 percent of whom are eligible for federal Pell Grants, a family illness or car troubles over winter break can be the difference between having the money for classes come January or having to withdraw.

Meeting early bill due dates is a challenge at the historically black university. The university, though, needs some indication of how many students will be on campus in order to plan courses effectively. In the past, administrators purged the schedules of students who hadn’t paid their tuition by certain deadlines.

As Dillard President Walter Kimbrough puts it: “How do you balance the need for some kind of stability to plan with your sense of humanity to help students who really want to be in school?”

That’s the question students in Professor Shaun Harper’s class at the University of Pennsylvania tackled one week this semester.

"Case Studies in Higher Education Administration" is a core course in the curriculum for Penn's higher education master's degree. But in his first time teaching it, Harper ditched the curricular standby of using hypothetical cases for students to practice their problem-solving skills and instead assigned them actual problems that specific colleges are dealing with this year.

The course flips the traditional class design on its head in a variety of ways. Students take on the role of consultants, working in teams to propose solutions for individual campuses.

Harper, meanwhile, takes a back seat during a significant chunk of class time. He turns the reins over to the high-ranking administrators from the campuses that submitted the problems to the class. Through video, they offer feedback on each solution, telling students what could work and what won’t, and why.

“It’s learning in unanticipated ways that you just couldn’t get from a fictitious or an expired case,” Harper said.

The course has been a rapid succession of case studies: one per week due each Sunday, with feedback from the executives each Tuesday in class.

“It’s unlike any class I’ve ever experienced, either in undergrad or graduate school,” said Alex Catalan, who worked for four years in university admissions before enrolling in the higher education graduate program. “Every week is a new employer that you’re working for.”

Those “employers” have asked students for their ideas on marketing online education, removing obstacles that contribute to low completion rates for low-income and minority students, or designing a plan to institute merit-based raises for faculty who aren’t doing research. Institutions ranged from a community college to a large public university to a highly selective elite university.

'Problems and Possibilities'

The course is best summed up by Harper himself, in one sentence on his syllabus.

“This course is about problems and possibilities in higher education.”

By that he means the types of problems that the 20 master’s-degree students will encounter for themselves when they take new jobs after graduation this summer, and the kind of possibilities they’ll need to devise if they want to be effective in those roles.

The way Harper has designed the course gives students a safe way to take a stab at some of the challenges facing higher education without having to experience everything as trial by fire on the job, Kimbrough said.

The course also reinforces the benefit of bringing in outside voices to look for ways to solve campus struggles.

“A lot of times at an institution, you get caught up in the day-to-day, and you don’t have the time to take a step back and look at something with a fresh set of eyes.” Kimbrough said.

Harper contacted administrators he’d worked with before and asked if they’d be willing to write a one-page case study for students, evaluate students’ proposed solutions, and sit in on a class to offer feedback. The only requirement was that the case be a current problem facing the college.

He acknowledges that he was lucky with the breadth of issues administrators sent him.

One case he found surprising was that of Moorpark College. The community college in an affluent part of California was looking for suggestions to boost enrollment and earnings at an on-campus daycare center.

Not once in Harper’s 12 years as a professor had he seen a higher education course offer instruction on the auxiliary services college administrators have to worry about. But transportation, bookstores and food services are all huge parts of a campus budget, Harper said.

One of the popular solutions for that issue was to offer bilingual education for the young students, since many families in the middle- to upper-class neighborhood may like the idea of teaching their children a second language from a young age.

“The dean was floored by that, in a good way. As in, he never would have thought of that.” Harper said. “We heard that week after week after week from executives.”

McPherson College President Michael Schneider said as much.

He asked students to help draft a five-year strategic plan for his private Kansas college to help increase enrollment, focusing specifically on factoring in athletes, a large and growing segment of the college’s population.

Each of the five Penn teams’ solutions had quality ideas, including suggestions to partner with feeder high schools whose students would be a good fit for McPherson and to highlight McPherson’s diverse campus to attract some of the growing numbers of Latino students in Kansas. 

There were, of course, some less practical ideas. One suggested growing enrollment on the international front. Theoretically, there’s a big market for that and significant student interest, Schneider said. But McPherson, with 700 students, has a limited endowment and students who come from modest backgrounds. The college doesn't have the money to build a robust international program or recruit foreign students.

Schneider actually designed an online platform similar to the outline Harper used in this course, in which companies would submit business problems for students to try to solve.

The format allows students to compare and contrast what they’ve learned in theory with the way things are done in practice, Schneider said. But there’s a risk involved, in that the instructor loses some control over content and is reliant on others for the class to succeed.

The model is only effective if an executive is engaged enough to deliver a challenging problem for students and spend the time to think about their feedback, he said.

Eyes on the Prize

In Harper’s case, the risk paid off. Involving a cadre of deans and presidents pushed the students to take the assignments seriously in a manner that a simple desire for a good grade would not have, Harper said.

“If you know you’re performing for a college president, you’re going to put more into it,” he said.

Harper created other motivations to work hard, as well. Namely, he designed the class as a competition, where the administrator chooses one of the five teams as the winner each week based on the team’s solution.

The team that racked up with most wins over the semester is flying to Florida in January to work on one final case study for Miami Dade College. The contest for the trip came down to the final weeks, and was decided in a tie-breaker on the last case study. (The trip is being funded by a donor Harper knows through the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, which he directs.)

Apart from the game format Harper designed, he tried to make the course as comparable to a work setting as possible. The solutions were limited to 1,000 words, for example, because the more senior an administrator becomes, the less time he or she has to read through lengthy documents, Harper said.

Likewise, on two occasions when groups turned in work still in a draft format, they were automatically disqualified.

Joi Baker, a student in the class, said her team members quickly realized they had no idea what to expect week to week from each administrator. The course pushed Baker, who wants to work in student services, to improve her research skills and find data to back up her points.

She has also learned a lot about the inner workings of different departments on campus, and has come to realize that knowing the politics of a particular campus is just as important as knowing about the issue that the campus is dealing with.

In some cases, students disagreed with the direction the administrators chose to go – such as when Catalan, a Chicago native, opposed a decision by an administrator at a university there about how to encourage low-income commuter students to come to class.

Still, the talks with the administrators revealed the way different presidents think, said Catalan, who’s interested in enrollment and admissions.

“Wherever I go work next, I’ll have a much better understanding of the issues at play,” he said.  

When Catalan took a trip back to his alma mater and former employer, Beloit College, he encouraged an education professor to mimic Harper’s model.

“Whether or not it’s at their institutions or another institution, students have a unique vision of higher education,” he said. “This course gives us a chance to express that.”


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