Making Opportunity Affordable

May 15, 2011 | Blog

In recent days, an NBP proponent accused me of hoping to “McDonaldize” UW-Madison. He made this accusation because I dared suggest that the university is not operating as productively as it could be. Our per-pupil spending is lower than at many of our peers, and especially lower than privates, he says. Sure, that’s true. But frankly, it’s about as relevant as my son proclaiming that he should have two desserts after dinner just because other kids at preschool regularly have three or four! Mistakes made by other institutions don’t justify our own. We can, and must, do better.

Lately our attention has been drawn to one particular trend in higher education– the disinvestment of the state from higher education. Let me add to that three others: (1) time-to-degree is up at the majority of public colleges and universities, (2) socioeconomic gaps in college completion rates are stagnant, and (3) most students are not registering any learning gains over four years of college attendance.

So while students and their families are being asked to pay more for college, it seems like they aren’t actually getting anything additional for their money. That means productivity is declining, pure and simple. The fact that a college degree still brings a large wage premium is nice, but that appears at least partly (or even largely) attributable to employers’ willingness to accept a diploma as a proxy for learning. Too bad for many universities: researchers are blowing apart that assumption as we speak.

But fear not: improving productivity does not mean reducing quality. Anyone who claims otherwise is ignoring the latest learning science studies. And lest you think that I’m pushing an agenda that aims to demolish the traditional institutions in favor of for-profit models, well, ask around– nothing could be further from the truth. I focus on enhancing productivity because making gains in this domain is truly the only politically viable way of making opportunity affordable.

High-caliber institutions like Carnegie Mellon are pursuing new ways to educate and support undergraduates that are more productive– and thus more cost-effective– than older models. Some colleges and universities feel threatened by this, and loudly proclaim their current practices “work” and are “cheaper.” But the culture of evidence in higher education administration is notoriously weak, and thus program impacts are rarely if ever measured in meaningful ways. Absent an approach that considers impacts relative to costs, there’s no basis for protecting “business-as-usual.”

With that in mind, I’m going to begin to quickly highlight on this blog some key initiatives that appear to be cost-effective, highly impactful ways of educating the kinds of students like those UW-Madison serves. If the basic idea of each intrigues you, I’m giving you links to read more. My intent is to get a serious conversation started– a conversation about refocusing on our core mission: providing a high-quality affordable education to the Wisconsin residents we serve. (We’d join many other states in this important conversation, for example read about Oregon.)

Initiative #1: Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon.

Students need effective instruction that incorporates regular assessment and supplements with tutoring as needed. Technology can assist professors in accomplishing this.

OLI courses are developed by teams composed of faculty, learning scientists, human-computer interaction experts, and software engineers in order to make the best use of multidisciplinary knowledge for designing effective learning environments. The OLI design team articulates an initial set of student-centered, measurable learning objectives and designs the instructional environment to support students in achieving them.The instructional activities in OLI courses contain small amounts of explanatory text and many activities that capitalize on the computer’s capability to display digital images and simulations and to promote interaction. Many of the courses also include virtual lab environments that encourage flexible and authentic exploration. Perhaps the most salient feature of OLI course design is the embedding of quasi-intelligent tutors—or “mini-tutors”—within the learning activities throughout the course… An intelligent tutor is a computerized learning environment whose design is based on cognitive principles and whose interaction with students is like those of a human tutor—making comments when students err, answering questions about what to do next, and maintaining a low profile when they are performing well. This approach differs from traditional computer-aided instruction, which gives didactic feedback to students on their final answers; the OLI tutors provide context-specific assistance throughout the problem-solving process.”

Read more about OLI in a White House commissioned paper here.

Initiative #2: Inside Track

Persisting in college does not equate with making timely progress towards a degree, or even enjoying the academic experience at all. Mentoring can help. The Inside Track student coaching model assigns an executive coach to needy students, at a cost of just $500 for 6 months. It is an increasingly popular program at public universities, including Florida State. An extensive randomized evaluation indicates a 10-15 percentage point increase in retention rates.

POSTSCRIPT:

It’s worth noting that UW-Madison has begun participating in the Delaware Study of Instructional Costs and Productivity. This allows us to benchmark instructional spending at the department level against those at other participating institutions (e.g. Ohio State University, SUNY – University at Buffalo, University of Arizona, University of Colorado – Boulder, University of Kansas, University of Missouri – Columbia , University of Nebraska – Lincoln, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, University of Oregon ,University of Texas at Austin). (These aren’t the best comparisons but they are all that’s given, and at least one of my readers is demanding comparisons no matter what.) The most recent year of our data indicates that our direct instructional expenditures per student credit hour are on the high side–not appalling high, but higher than average– and importantly that there is widespread variation by discipline and department. Of possible concern are departments where the number of student credit hours per instructional faculty (e.g. the volume) is much lower than that of the comparison group of institutions, while the expenditures per credit hour (the costs) are much higher. Those need to be examined, as I’m sure they are being, for whether the quality produced justifies those numbers. At the same time, the data indicate some very productive areas– such as law– where faculty are clearly doing more work at a lower cost. This is a good step for Madison, and hopefully leads to more such conversations–with significant faculty involvement.

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