I've published print articles and also ranted here for several years on the fraternal-twin themes of productivity and performance as they apply to higher education, where they have long been two "P" concepts non gratae. The Spellings Commission certainly brought more attention to them than I ever did. Now the Lumina Foundation's Making Opportunity Affordable (MOA) grant program is working to make "productivity" a word grata in the U.S.nonprofit higher education community.
From the 37 states that submitted letters of interest to MOA at the end of 2007, eleven were selected to participate in a planning process designed to generate proposals for multi-year implementation grants. The implementation grants will help fund major efforts (in 5 of the 11 states) to improve statewide productivity in higher education.
What, you may wonder, is the meaning of productivity in the MOA community of states? Informed by my participation in the MOA National Advisory Group but with no intent to speak for MOA leaders, I’ll describe what I believe to be MOA’s interpretation of productivity. By thinking in national terms to avoid state-by-state contextual differences in demographic trends and economic development needs, my description proceeds as follows:
To increase productivity in U.S.nonprofit higher education is to:
- Improve the competitiveness of the workforce: Increase the percentage of postsecondary degree holders in the overall U.S. adult population.
- Improve degree attainment rates. Increase the average rate of graduation within the nation's collective postsecondary degree-seeking "student body."
- Reduce degree production costs. Decrease the national average of per-degree-granted annual operating costs (per-degree production costs).
Why these three performance imperatives? In the same order and with some connective comments, the answer can be summarized as follows:
- According to research results from the Spellings Commission and numerous other national study groups, national competitiveness in the global economy will increasingly require a more highly educated adult population (as described in the first performance improvement above). National demographic trends reveal, moreover, that this goal cannot be achieved unless the diversity of the student body is reshaped to align more closely with diversity trends in the overall population along dimensions of culture, race/ethnicity, educational preparation, family income, and age. Demographic trends also reveal why the first goal (proportionally more postsecondary degree-holders in the population) does not necessarily follow from the second goal on graduation rates. Graduation rates, after all, can be improved by selecting for the best prepared students while ignoring diversity/opportunity issues.
- An expedient path to increasing the proportion of postsecondary-degree holders in the population would attempt not only to enroll more degree-seeking students in absolute terms, but also to increase the percentage of those who graduate. The graduation-rate goal would then likely be a consequence of the first and third performance improvements. In any case, it deserves its own statement because improving graduation rates implies the need for recruitment, enrollment, and retention/persistence strategies reflective of the new diversity-of-enrollment demographics implied by goal one above.
- Reducing per-degree operating costs helps assure the affordability of per-degree pricing to degree seekers and their public and private benefactors. The enrollment demographic trends cited above underscore the importance of affordability to degree seekers and their private benefactors, while downward trends in per-student public subsidies cry out for attention to unit costs, such as per-degree-granted operating costs.
The MOA grant program focuses on states because they are the major source of public funding for higher education in the U.S. The three highlighted performance improvement goals can easily be translated and refined into statewide goals after adjusting for population demographics and economic development needs on a state-by-state basis. Indeed, the three goals translate via context into institutional, regional, national (non-U.S.), and inter-nation performance goals (think Bologna Process). Like the inter-nation Bologna Process, any statewide MOA process faces the complexity of balancing academic cultural traditions against legislative and executive policy making, state economic conditions, public financing mechanisms, and multiple governance "systems" for public higher education.
Unlike the Bologna Process, the MOA process does not require direct evidence of learning accountability. My post of June 17 that immediately preceded this one offers a recipe for independently assessing learning accountability (in the limited but core area of basic fluencies and critical thinking skills). That customizable recipe may be worthy of consideration by the eleven MOA state teams. The MOA challenge, whether expanded to include learning accountability or not, is how to improve performance and productivity simultaneously and account for them.
Improving productivity in the inter-dependent national and global economies has for some years now depended primarily on the use of technology to enable innovation and business/organizational process redesign. This observation and the technology-enabled empowerment of “experts” to demand employment and/or contracts that minimize any obligations to collocate with an employing or contracting organization are the key points in Thomas Friedman’s “flat-world” book. Higher education cannot remain an exception to these “givens” about productivity.
Higher education’s initial productivity challenge is to recognize that the student-to-instructor ratio (or degree-to-instructor ratio), while being an excellent direct proxy for per-student (or per-degree) annual operating expenses, need not be an inverse proxy for academic quality (the higher the ratio, the lower the quality). Over the past ten years, three IT-enabled strategies for academic program redesign have emerged to help academic leaders and their institutions meet this challenge:
- Flex Program and Service Redesign Strategy: Use technology to maximize high-tech (asynchronous) self-service, while providing on-demand high-touch expert assistance.
Applied to academic programs and all administrative and student support services, this strategy is based on three core premises:
- Instructors matter! Few students can learn without guidance from content experts (faculty members and other instructors). That’s why universities invest in a faculty, rather than investing only in a library and sending all students to the library to “self-acquire” their education. Students also need the services of librarians, advisors, and others who help with the learning specifics at hand and with the larger, integrative student-service context in which specific learning should be situated.
- Instructors matter, but so do immediacy and convenience! All students today expect a blend of high-tech and high-touch instruction and support services. This is the idea partially expressed on many campuses around the theme of integrating academic programs and student services through an institutional portal. The idea of blending high tech and high touch, however, must be carried into the academic domain for competitive reasons, because all students appreciate online (asynchronous) self-service in their learning activities. Even the students who choose a residential academic experience appreciate the convenience of online self-service. At the other extreme, some students can only participate in an education that is free of (or nearly free of) requirements for scheduled real-time interactions with instructors, other students, and campus support personnel. From each of these extremes to the other, high-tech (asynchronous) online self-service must be complemented for all students by real-time or nearly real-time opportunities (some scheduled and some not) for individualized expert help with their learning and the other support services required for their success. These individualized (high-touch) services include a 24x365 technical help desk and a number of other toll-free services, along with business-hours or office-hours walk-in support and various forms of individualized synchronous and nearly synchronous online support.
- Redesign academic programs for both mission and market(s)! Public institutions typically have mission obligations not only to support educational access as a general societal and individual good, but also to help meet various economic and workforce/professional educational goals established by the states or communities in which they operate. Private institutions, however, are free to select the various academic and geographical markets in which they compete. To the extent to which they are tuition dependent, however, even private institutions must choose markets realistically on the basis of market research. By using IT to redesign all student services and some strong academic programs as though they must be delivered entirely (asynchronously) online to students who cannot come to campus or otherwise participate in regularly scheduled real-time interactions, an institution or consortium can then tailor related, necessary high-touch instruction and other services to the needs of the specific academic program markets chosen as target markets – from traditional residential, coming-of-age undergraduate markets to workforce/professional- and graduate-degree markets in which the convenience factor of flex delivery may be essential to success.
- Common Course Redesign Strategy: Use technology to redesign large-enrollment courses for both improved learning outcomes and reduced per-enrollment costs – as per the redesign strategies pioneered by the National Center for Academic Transformation and its client institutions.
By listing undergraduate courses in descending order of enrollments (aggregated for each course across all sections) and accumulating their percentage shares of all undergraduate enrollments (or credit hours), any institution (or system) will come to a cumulative subtotal enrollment percentage of approximately 40%-50% somewhere between the top 20-30 courses. The high-enrollment courses on the list are taught at almost every college and university in the nation – as common courses that at most institutions present significant capacity, enrollment management, and operating expense issues. Over the past seven years, the NCAT has worked with a number of institutions on these courses to demonstrate conclusively that IT-enabled redesign of faculty labor focused on student engagement and the measurable improvement of student learning can not only improve student learning and student and faculty satisfaction, but also reduce per-enrollment direct instructional and instructional support costs – for an average 40% offset in such costs. This strategy and its results can be further amplified when multiple campuses and non-residential support centers work together. Although this course redesign strategy and its results are counterintuitive to traditional academic culture, the time is right to focus blending high tech and high touch on the general education program – specifically on the cluster of 20-30 highest enrollment introductory courses in the basic fluencies and disciplines that are so central to mission goals of access and student success. A number of institutions are also applying the common course redesign strategy to developmental courses in support of retention and graduation.
- External Sourcing Strategy: Focus on unique internal academic program strengths and services, while selectively sourcing other programs and services from external partner organizations and businesses to reduce unit costs while simultaneously improving quality, nimbleness, and capacity.
In The World Is Flat 3.0, Friedman identifies eight “flattening forces” that derive from using technology to redesign organizational structures, business processes, and business models. He refers to these technology-enabled sourcing models as:
- Out-sourcing – as in externally sourcing a 24x365 technical help desk or online “coaching” service for all students
- In-sourcing – as in externally sourcing central IT leadership (CIO) and management/delivery, with the CIO serving as a cabinet member in the internal planning and decision-making process
- Work-flowing – as in using technology to redesign, streamline, and track, for example, institutional performance reporting and analytics processes, enrollment management processes, or institutional grant proposal and management processes
- Supply-chaining – as in externally sourcing marketing and student recruitment
- Open-sourcing – as in participating in an open-learning collaborative or in joining a community-sourced application software collaborative while also externally sourcing the application’s ongoing support
- Off-shoring – as in contracting for the online delivery via foreign adjuncts of teaching or tutoring services in baseline mathematics and other STEM introductory content areas
- In-forming – as in encouraging “Googling” for research and in externally sourcing online informational and learning resources (content, courses, programs, benchmarking data, etc.) from external partners for the benefit of the institution and its students
- Steroiding – as in migrating as many institutional services and alerts as possible to the student-owned mobile devices that have become part of the current generational communication and behavioral modalities
Various combinations of these three overlapping technology-enabled redesign strategies can be used to greatest effect in statewide collaborative efforts by systems and other consortia, such as in the 11 MOA statewide consortia. Unless these strategies are incorporated, for example, into the MOA statewide planning efforts, the MOA “movement” is not likely to reach meaningful productivity goals. That’s not to say that other efforts, such as statewide policy audits and changes, will not be essential to success. In any case, the "MOA Process" is our closest cousin to Europe's Bologna Process, and the eleven MOA states, the Lumina Foundation, and Jobs for the Future, which is managing the MOA Process for the Foundation, deserve the nation's gratitude for their investments of time and resources in the future of higher education in the U.S.