‘The Patient Is Sick’: Why So Many Colleges Continue To Struggle – Mudcreep


For my readers in the United States who celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I hope it was a day of meaningful reflection.

It’s long been one of my favorite days. As a child, I regularly participated in Washington, DC’s celebration of the day by accompanying my synagogue’s youth choir on the piano. When Bill Clinton attended as the president-elect in 1993, the celebration was broadcast on CSPAN from Howard University. It still lives on the Internet here (our performance begins at the 1-hour-and-27-minute mark):

1993 DC Celebration of MLK Day

My Class Disrupted cohost Diane Tavenner always marks MLK Day by reading King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I confess that the soaring rhetoric from the peroration of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has always held my imagination. That may be cliché, but for those who know me, it’s in keeping with my overly sentimental side.

I love how at the outset of the speech King pulls us back to Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and, implicitly, to the Gettysburg Address (“Five score years ago”)—and then through Lincoln reaches back not just to the U.S. Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence and its message of unalienable rights for all: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yes, it’s a “promissory note”—a check yet to be cashed for Black individuals. But as King says, “the magnificent words” were right, even if the country hasn’t yet reached the promised land.

It’s a message that is at once unsatisfied, hopeful, filled with the promise of progress, and allows each of us as individuals to see ourselves in that promise. It’s a vision in which, as the Daily Stoic newsletter wrote recently, “everyone is playing a part, that we’re all involved in the same big, messy project that is the world.” We all have a stake because the vision King articulated that day is fundamentally positive sum, not zero sum. It’s a world in which all individuals can build their passions, fulfill their human potential, and live a life of purpose. That’s a vision we continue to work toward here.

How Small Schools Can Thrive As Higher Ed Changes

On the latest episode of Future U., Jeff Selingo and I welcomed Lynn Perry Wooten, president of Simmons University. It’s a meaty episode filled with lots of insights. Here are four of the topics we touched upon:

  1. Lynn has led a push with the provost to be realistic about the University’s financial position and reimagine majors based on the data:

“John Simmons wanted women to be empowered for economic livelihood. And so we wanted to elevate our signature strengths but elevating our signature strengths in professional education also meant integrating the liberal arts. We weren’t throwing the liberal arts out… So once we looked at the data, we looked at where the students were, where our faculty were and what were our signature strengths. And then we started with this canvas about these are the departments. We’re wondering what does the future look like in those departments? … We were able to integrate some departments, we were able to reimagine some majors and at the end of it, there really were the three departments that we ended up having to shut down…. All the other departments, we were able to reimagine the major. … One example is Spanish is one that we’re going to retain… [and] we’re thinking about Spanish for the professions. Another example is how we’re thinking about the humanities. Instead of having 10 different small majors in humanities, we’re having an integrative humanities studies. Economics is going to be integrated more with business.”

  1. Lynn’s reflections on what it means to be a small undergrad college that only serves women was interesting. As she said, “unlike most small colleges who are in our strategic group, we are making our undergraduate numbers”—but it’s not enough to just think that their value proposition is in “being small.” “They have to focus on their student group” and know why Simmons exists.
  2. Lynn’s take on the role of the board overseeing universities was both interesting and timely. In her view, boards have 4 primary roles:
  • Fiduciary responsibility
  • Strategy and the metrics to see if the school is delivering
  • Generative innovation; “how are we regenerating? How are we using that strategy to innovate and ensuring that we’re moving at the pace?”
  • Marshal resources

4. Finally, Lynn noted that Simmons University was an early mover in online learning, but that’s no longer enough. That prompted some thoughts from me in the second half of the show. Here’s what I said:

“Seventy percent of students are taking at least one online class right now. Half of those are going to school full-time online. … What she’s doing is rethinking the design of it. How Simmons does online, not whether it does it.

And I don’t know that I have an opinion on this yet, but I just more want to raise it because the fact that they would revisit the decision they made when they went with 2U to be a synchronous online school and rethink, maybe we want to have asynchronous, I think is very interesting because the 2Us of the world have essentially made the argument that synchronous online learning is what equates to quality. Our friend, Ryan Craig says the very same thing. John Katzman says the very same thing… He just said it recently on another podcast, although interestingly enough, he then praises Paul Leblanc and Southern New Hampshire University in the very next breath. And the irony there is Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University, they are not synchronous, they are asynchronous.

And I think it points to this underlying tension for folks around the design of these learning experiences, which is if you want to go synchronous, that’s great but let’s be honest, it tends to attract a demographic that has more time and that their time is more predictable, their schedules. So they can be available for class sessions that are scheduled weeks, semesters in advance. And that generally does not work for students who are earning lower incomes and have historically struggled in college. Those individuals have time poverty, as Paul Leblanc calls it. They are afflicted by unpredictabilities in their schedules. So I guess my question has always been, is it that asynchronous is worse or that it’s serving a more challenging student?

And secondly, an observation, which is that in some ways, synchronous has something going for it that makes it easier which is that in a seat time synchronous system, I can just show up online, fire up my Zoom, sit through the class and get credit for it regardless of how well I do or how much effort I put in. But with an asynchronous class, you actually have to do the work to progress, which can make it harder. Plus, let’s be honest, the designs of these asynchronous programs, they are not all equal either. Some are pretty awful. They’re static PDFs put online that are fricking hard to get through. Whereas Western Governors University, it’s a very active learning experience. They have a lot of coaching and so forth, so it’s a very different game.”

Listen to the full episode here.

Bringing Disruptive Innovations to Education

Finally, I also joined Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health, on her podcast WorkforceRX. We covered a wide array of topics in a short amount of time together, from the role of technology in learning to K-12 education and my next book on helping people find their next job! Here are a few highlights:

“If I looked at higher education writ large, as we’ve traditionally defined it, I’d say that the patient is sick right now,” I said on the show.

“I think there’s problems from the demand side, what students and employers are looking for, and from the supply side, from the colleges themselves. So I guess I’d say in brief, I think what we see right now for students is that they’re really looking for value, right? They’re looking for credentials and skills that help them make progress in their lives that often have a workforce orientation on it, but not always, and they’re looking for it in a way that’s commensurate with the value so that what they’re paying is something like what they’re getting out of it. Employers, obviously, are looking for something relevant, and I think both students and employers are sort of looking at the current state of higher ed and saying, wow, it’s gotten expensive. It’s not like the outcomes have gotten much better in terms of graduation rates and things like that. And so there’s this sort of mismatch. Then on the supplier side, a lot of the traditional colleges and universities were built with a cost structure that has just gone up and up and up and it’s harder for them to be sustainable. There’s upstarts like you all out there that are coming from underneath and sort of offering a different value proposition, and then there’s this demographic crunch that’s facing a lot of traditional institutions.”

We talked about some of the research from Choosing College, specifically my observation that guided pathways—which have worked better on average for students—don’t work well in certain circumstances. And that we can identify those segments ahead of time:

“The problem was though, if you’re a learner who’s enrolling in a community college just to get away and escape from what you’re currently doing, a guided pathway program is not a good fit because it assumes you know what you want to do next, and those learners plainly don’t know what they want to do next. You almost need to construct a program that just gives them a series of quick apprenticeships maybe, or quick sets of projects in different fields or something like that just so that they can learn about what they want to do next and then jump on the guided-pathway program. So, in terms of how it should change, I think sometimes we need to do a better job understanding people’s ‘whys’ and then helping them segment accordingly so that they have the right set of choices given whatever stage they’re at in their own personal lives.”

Finally, I spoke about how some of what’s driving learners to choose alternative education programs rather than go to college may be anxiety, informed once again from the Jobs to Be Done theory and the research in Choosing College:

“Something we see from our model of choice is that people only make a choice or switch behavior when the push and the pull of their situation—meaning why it’s not good enough and what they could be moving toward—when it overcomes their habits of the present…what they’re currently doing and their anxieties about making a choice. My sense is that the anxieties around making a choice are just sky high at the moment, and it’s sort of causing people to struggle to make that jump. I think that’s part of it, and I think the other part of it is, frankly, alternative options. They have a lot less anxiety around them, they have a lot less friction, they cost a lot less. The thinking goes, ‘They may not always work, but I feel like it’s less of a risk, and I’m willing to make a jump.’ Because the other thing that we saw during the pandemic was, and still today, people are really hesitant about taking a degree-based experience, but short-term credentials went through the roof in terms of enrollment. I think it’s just that people said, ‘Well, I’m not ready to eat the whole Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, but I’ll take a nibble.’ They had this sense that I’d like to keep making progress, but the anxieties about the downside of that degree option just feel too big. Even a community college, which is very low cost to the student felt that way, because I think the time factor maybe felt like a bridge too far for some learners. I think that’s why we saw so much hesitancy around going back to school for a degree. But we saw a lot of learners say, oh, there’s all these new options. That’s a new kind of pull. It’s low cost, it’s quicker. I can see if it’s for me. I think I’ll try that. So, I think that’s why we’ve seen this… I don’t know if it’s anti-college as much as small-step learning that has driven a lot of individuals.”

Check out the whole podcast here. And send me your thoughts!

As always, thank you for reading, writing, and listening.



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