WASHINGTON -- Higher education researchers collectively lamented the barriers to real innovation at colleges and universities here Thursday, while acknowledging that precious few agreed-upon strategies for transformational change have gained any real foothold within the “industry.”
Gathered at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research , panelists provided a litany of familiar reasons why colleges fall short of graduating students in sufficient numbers and often lack a real plan for dealing with diminishing resources. As is often the case, they suggested that colleges have failed to improve learning outcomes and productivity because they are resistant to change, underfunded and married to a process of shared governance that is at times cripplingly deliberative. But some panelists went further Thursday, arguing that there’s simply a dearth of shared ideas that a critical mass of institutions can rally around.
For those hoping to control costs and improve learning outcomes, a persistent fan base exists for the National Center for Academic Transformation , or NCAT.
Carol Twigg, NCAT’s president and chief executive officer, encourages colleges to transform courses, often relying on the use of technology to replace standard lectures and promoting the use of low-stakes tests to help students master material. Suzanne Walsh, a senior consultant for strategy and innovation with Benchstrength, lamented that NCAT remains among the few go-to examples in any conversation about changing how colleges deliver course content.
“While NCAT is a fabulous, fabulous example, is it the only innovation we have in higher ed? Where else can we find pockets of innovation that can help us?” said Walsh, formerly of the Lumina Foundation for Education.
Indeed, the numerous presentations covered in a full day of sessions left the impression that problems in higher education remain far more readily identified than are solutions.
That’s not to say, however, that theories -- even controversial ones -- weren’t put forward. In a discussion of improving completion rates at community colleges, for instance, the former president of Montgomery College, in Maryland, said she had reluctantly accepted that helping some nontraditional students would necessarily mean abandoning others.
Community colleges will have to require -- not encourage -- at-risk students to seek additional support services, and there are some whose family and work obligations simply won’t allow that, said Charlene R. Nunley, Montgomery's former president and now a professor at the University of Maryland University College.
“I would lean toward losing some of the students who can't comply,” said Nunley, program director of the doctor of management in community college policy and administration and a former member of Margaret Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education.
Nunley said she had spent years as a college president defending completion rates that she eventually found indefensible, ultimately recognizing that community colleges would have to require of students what they have until now merely recommended.
“One day I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Charlene Nunley, this [completion rate] sucks,’ ” she recalled.
Who is Thwarting Innovation?
While Thursday’s exchanges remained cordial, clear frictions emerged among a group that included administrators, faculty members, accreditors, and for-profit education proponents -- and skeptics. Indeed, implicit in any criticism of the lack of innovation in higher education is the suggestion that someone or something is standing in the way of transformation.
Dominic Brewer, associate dean for research and faculty affairs at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, suggested that a number of organizations -- many of which were represented in the room -- were holding higher education back. In a paper Brewer co-wrote  for the conference, he took aim at accrediting agencies, higher education lobbyists and legislative funding models that reward enrollment numbers instead of learning outcomes.
In their paper, Brewer and William G. Tierney, director of Southern California’s Center for Higher Education Policy and Analysis, took particular aim at the American Council on Education (ACE) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), among other advocacy groups.
“Given their emphasis on preservation, these groups are unlikely to push for innovation or the entrance of new providers; on the contrary, their job is often to fight any changes that seek to alter current arrangements,” they argued in the paper, "Barriers to Innovation in U.S. Higher Education."
“… ACE, for example, has a history of working actively against the interests of for-profit institutions; the AAUP has worked with their member campuses on legislation that would privilege institutions that employ full-time faculty as opposed to contingent labor.” (All of the papers from the conference are available here. )
Brewer didn’t call out either organization by name in his presentation. When asked about the criticism, however, ACE's president, Molly Corbett Broad, shrugged it off and said the candid discussion was “healthy.” She added that ACE’s role delivering the General Education Development test is critical in educating the adult learners who must earn degrees if the country is to meet President Obama’s goal  of achieving the world’s highest graduation rate by 2020.
Broad cited other endeavors at ACE as well, including the organization’s work with veterans, as innovative.
“We’re taking on really big initiatives, trying to serve our members,” she said. “These are the kinds of strategic initiatives that are not just modest steps.”
AEI’s conference devoted considerable focus to for-profit colleges, the fastest growing sector of higher education. Andrew Rosen, chairman and chief executive officer of Kaplan, Inc., said market forces give the for-profits a strong incentive to deliver superior educational outcomes.
“At the price [students are] paying, they better get value,” he said.
Conversely, Rosen was quick to paint some of his nonprofit counterparts as Luddites.
“I think most have pretty much thrown in the towel on improving education,” he said.
Paul Osterman, professor of human resources and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took issue with any suggestion that financial incentives necessarily create a good product.
“We know there are crappy schools out there that rip students off,” he said, “and the market is not forcing them to be good.”