By Doug Ward

The University of Kansas has made many gains in its recruitment of minority students, who now make up 20.6 percent of the student body. By at least one measure, though, the university still has considerable work to do.

According to an analysis by The Hechinger Report, there is a substantial disparity in the number of Latino students who enroll at KU compared with the number who graduate from state high schools. Hechinger looked at enrollment rates for Latino and black students at public flagship universities in each state. KU had the 15th largest gap in Latino students.

Here’s what that means: About 16 percent of Kansas high school graduates in the spring of 2015 were Latino. That fall, 8 percent of KU’s freshman class was Latino, a figure that rose to 8.7 percent by Fall 2017.

The university fared better in a comparison of black enrollment, ranking 31st among the states (a lower ranking was better). About 7 percent of high school graduates in the spring of 2015 were black, while blacks made up 4.3 percent of the university’s freshman class that fall. (That fell to 3.9 percent among freshmen who started in Fall 2017.)

The highest disparities between the number of black high school graduates and blacks enrolling in flagship universities were primarily in the South, Hechinger said, with Mississippi showing the largest gap. Black students made up more than 50 percent of Mississippi high school graduates in the spring of 2015 but only about 10 percent of the freshman class at the University of Mississippi that year.

Among Latino students, the largest disparities were in the west: California, Texas, Nevada and Colorado. For instance, Latinos made up more than 50 percent of high school graduates but only about 12 percent of the freshman class at the University of California, Berkeley.

This graph from The Hechinger Report shows the percentage of high school graduates who were Latino and the percentage of Latinos among the freshman class at state flagship universities.

An Amazon move worth watching

Inside Higher Ed speculates that Amazon may be preparing for a move into higher education. That’s because the company has hired the Stanford researcher Candace Thill, who has taken a leave of absence from the university to become Amazon’s director of learning science and engineering. Amazon and Thill had little to say beyond that.

Thill was a founding director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon before moving to Stanford. She has helped create online learning materials based on findings from learning science, arguing that such materials can tailor feedback to individual needs, thus speeding up learning and leading to better scaling of classes.

The Open Learning Initiative is a competency-based system, meaning students work at their own pace, moving into new material only after demonstrating their understanding of previous material. The online system provides data to instructors and course designers, helping them improve course design and make better use of class time.

Using online learning to scale classes and reduce costs has been a dream of administrators and educational technology companies for years. Results have been mixed at best, with tech companies proclaiming grand breakthroughs even as instructors find that high-quality online teaching often takes more time than in-person teaching.

Higher education still sees digital technology as an important means of innovation and transformation, Jim Hundrieser, associate managing principal at AGB Institutional Strategies, said last month at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Colleges are struggling to find a sustainable business model, he said, and that could lead to a hard fall, much as publishing, textiles, music, steel, trucking, telecommunications and other industries have taken.

Hundrieser predicted that the number of online courses would continue to grow, especially because of their ability to reach students in remote areas, make learning more convenient, and allow for collaboration across time and space.

He’s right, although universities can’t simply toss out lackluster materials online and expect students to respond enthusiastically. Good online teaching requires a rethinking of pedagogy, course structure, student interaction, and learning itself. Universities still have some time to improve and expand their online offerings, but that time is drawing short as competition increases. If Amazon puts its enormous resources and brainpower behind educational technology and online learning, they had better be ready.

Colorado’s fee experiment

Course fees add hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the cost of a college degree. They are calculated separately from tuition, so they can hit hard when students’ bills come due each semester.

Starting this fall, the University of Colorado will eliminate most of those fees. Students will still pay fees for such things as the university bus system, recreation center and health center, but they will no longer pay course fees that range from $1 a credit hour to $1,255 a semester. That will save students $8.4 million a year, the university said.

The university is also spending $1 million on a pilot program that will provide open online textbooks to students at a fraction of the cost of publisher-created books.

The university system’s chancellor, Phil DeStefano, said in a university address that CU hoped to increase graduation rates by reducing educational costs.

Both the elimination of course fees and the investment in open educational resources are excellent moves. Of course, the university will have to absorb the costs, essentially cutting its income by $8.4 million a year. This is at a university system that ranks near the bottom nationally in state funding.

So how can it do that? The university cited rising enrollment and retention rates. CU expects 40,000 applicants (up from 37,000 in 2017) for this fall’s freshman class of 6,500. In contrast, KU has about 15,000 applicants each year. It accepts more than 90 percent of those students, but only about 4,000 eventually enroll.

More students are also transferring to CU, the Daily Camera of Boulder reports, and the university has increased its freshman retention rate to 87.5 percent, from 84 percent a few years ago. Those two things alone account for a substantial increase in revenue. Growth almost always makes budgeting easier.

CU also charges nearly $28,000 a year in tuition for in-state students and $52,000 a year for out-of-state students. In contrast, in-state residents pay $19,600 a year at KU; those from outside the state pay about $25,500.

It doesn’t hurt that the Denver to Boulder corridor is one of the country’s fastest-growing technology and biotechnology hubs, bringing employers and research dollars to the area. And then there are the mountains and the, uh-hum, weed.

For every Colorado, though, there is an Illinois, which lost more than 19,000 students to other states in 2016, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. The University of Illinois system has frozen tuition to try to keep more students in the state, but the number has risen for five consecutive years.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

American higher education has taken a beating over the last 40-plus years.

Many of those blows came from the outside. Many others were self-inflicted. I won’t rehash those here, other than to say that higher education has done a poor job of fighting back. Much of the time, it has seen itself as above the fray. Its arrogance not only blinded it to its own shortcomings but let critics paint an unflattering portrait that has lingered in the minds of millions of Americans.

A board at the AAC&U meeting asked participants to share their thoughts about higher education. The theme of the meeting was “Can Higher Education Recapture the Elusive American Dream?”

Thankfully, colleges and universities have awakened from their slumber and started to realize that they must live within the broader society, not separate from it, and that they must make a case that higher education plays a vital role in democracy and the American dream. Yes, that sounds lofty. But it is crucial if we hope to maintain our colleges and universities as places of knowledge, aspiration, and above all, hope.

That sentiment was clearly evident last week in Washington, D.C., at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Speakers were alternately determined, defiant, pragmatic, searching, and hopeful. Like so many others, I came away energized by conversations with colleagues who are determined to reinvigorate higher education, and by sessions that focused on the core elements of AAC&U’s new strategic plan:

  • Championing sustainable models for high-quality undergraduate education
  • Advancing equity
  • Articulating the value of liberal education
  • Pushing for innovative approaches to change higher education

Speakers at the conference’s opening plenary were blunt about the problems that higher education faces. The United States used to be the world leader in degree holders, Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U, told participants. It now ranks 15th. Public higher education was once a truly public venture financed mostly by taxpayer dollars. Now it is public in name only as colleges and universities rely increasingly on private fundraising, tuition dollars, and grants to pay the bills. That, in turn, pushes institutions to obsess about rankings, which pushes them to seek students with higher test scores, which pushes them to build luxury facilities, which forces universities to seek private financing and push up tuition costs, which puts college further out of reach for more and more families.

That chain of events has led to both a financial and moral crisis in higher education, said Linda Martin Alcoff, a professor at City University of New York. Privatization has turned students and faculty into “human capital,” she said. Rankings have “infected” every faculty search as departments seek out stars who can improve rankings, Alcoff said. Faculty achieve star status by attracting private grant money, which has deteriorated the civic nature of higher education, she said.

“We’ve become beggars at the table,” Alcoff said. “Every time there’s a search, our chairs are beggars at the table with deans and provosts for positions that are ultimately decided by corporate boards of trustees and ranking mechanisms. … We’re all quite aware of the problem, but we have been lulled into quietude.”

New pressures on a college degree

Tamara Draut, a vice president at the public policy organization Demos, said that we in higher education must work to “unleash that era of possibility” that allowed so many people to get through college without enormous debt. Debt has poisoned higher education by creating an obsession with rankings and a need to recruit increasing numbers of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher tuition.

“There’s a lot of perversion that has happened in the academy because it has become connected to debt,” Draut said. “It has put pressure on a college degree to do something it was never supposed to do, which is show some ROI for the degree you get.”

She gave the example of a young woman who called in to an NPR show that Draut participated in. The young woman, who had an art degree and was working at a community center teaching art to children, was having a difficult time paying off her college debt. The next caller ranted about the young woman for “daring to get an art degree” rather than an engineering or technical degree.

Debt, Draut said, is “putting all kinds of burdens on institutions and on degrees that they were never meant to carry. And it’s making us devalue the learning and the doing that are the high marks of civilization: art, music, philosophy, education, doing good for others. That is what we should be lifting up. But the reality is, if you get an art degree and can’t pay back your student loans, we are saying to people that you did something bad and you should have studied something different.”

AAC&U members clearly took an inclusive view of higher education, as they should. College was once only the purview of the elite, and the rising cost of attending is clearly pushing it that way again.

“What happens is a lot of working class and poor people hear us saying you need to go to college,” Draut said. “The reason you are struggling is because you didn’t go to college. You made bad choices.”

That either/or narrative only sours people on higher education, she said. College is important, she said, but it is not a solution to poverty, prejudice or the growing gap between the ultrawealthy and everyone else.

“Higher ed is great, but it’s not all we have to do to fix society’s economic and racial inequality,” Draut said.

The importance of access

Panelists throughout the conference issued a call for educators to push for policies that provide broader access to higher education but also help re-establish a broad middle class.

“Teaching the poor should not be a niche market in higher education, but that’s what it has become,” Alcoff said.

She added: “The goal should be social justice for all so that those who engage in any kind of labor can have financial security.”

Wes Moore of the Robin Hood Foundation urged educators and alumni to tell their stories about the importance of higher education. Statistics can be helpful, he said, but they can also be manipulated.

“Make sure people understand the human implications of what we do,” Moore said. “It’s important to remind people not just what we are talking about but who we are talking about.”

Alcoff offered a similar point, saying that we must espouse the importance of higher education without alienating those who choose not to – or can’t – get a degree. By linking a college education to social mobility, we leave out a large portion of the American population.

“The goal of social mobility is the wrong goal in the United States today,” she said. “The goal should be social justice for all so that those who engage in manual labor – or any kind of labor – can have lives of dignity, can own a home, can send their kids to a good state university, and can have financial security.”

We must also make room for less-than-perfect students who aspire to the intellectual challenges of college, Alcoff said. With what she described as a “checkered past,” she never would have made it through college in today’s environment, she said. She was on her own financially at age 16, earned a GED, dropped out of college, found her way back, and eventually graduated. College is no longer forgiving for such students, she said, especially with costs that weigh on students for years.

Naomi Barry-Pérez, director of the civil rights center for the Justice Department, tied decreased funding of higher education and many social programs to a backlash against the civil rights and women’s movements in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Government programs aimed at making society fairer were demonized once women and people of color gained more power, she said. We are the richest nation on earth, she said, but we life in a perpetual state of austerity.

“We have to be champions of reinvesting in ourselves,” she said.

Conflicting ideals

As passionate as the speakers were, they offered few solutions to entrenched problems that have been exacerbated by polarized politics. In most cases, there are no clear answers.

In the closing plenary, the author William Deresiewicz told conference-goers that higher education had been in crisis “since the beginning, perhaps since 1636.” The problems have changed, though, with the biggest today being the decline in education funding.

He said, though, that academics needed to delve more deeply into their own beliefs and actions. We talk about freedom, equality and justice, he said, but rarely think about the conflicts inherent in them. Equality often demands the diminishment of freedom, he said. We want to encourage creative expression, but at the same time, we have a need for all people to feel safe. That, in turn, often requires restrictions. Dealing with those conflicts is difficult and troubling, he said. Nobody wants to think about their own beliefs, values, and assumptions. At colleges and universities, that inaction silences voices and distances academia from the rest of society, he said.

“We live at a time when progressive opinion, which dominates most campuses, has hardened into something approaching religious dogma,” Deresiewicz said. “There’s a right way to think, and a right way to talk, and a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity occupy the center of discourse.”

There really is nothing to debate, he said, saying that he shared those beliefs, but “the fact that it’s inconceivable to think otherwise is precisely the problem.”

“The assumption on the left is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth,” Deresiewicz said. “We already know what’s good, what’s bad, what’s right, what’s wrong. There really is nothing to discuss, except how to put a belief into practice. Dogma makes for ideological consensus, and consensus is enforced through social means.”

He told of a recent experience in teaching a writing class for college juniors and seniors. All of the students were ill-prepared to read deeply, analyze others’ work, or to make strong arguments. These were smart students, he said, but they had learned only a technocratic form, one in which difficult question could be worked out in predictable ways. They also thought of writing as “something that just happened,” rather than as a process that requires persistent revision and questioning.

He pointed to several things he said were at the heart of the problem: social media and its fast-paced, anything goes mentality; grade inflation; adjunct instructors who can’t afford to spend time with student papers; and professors who lack incentives to take the time. If we spend all our time focusing on skills that can be scaffolded and measured, he said, we miss opportunities to delve into bigger questions like values, purpose and meaning that can transform students during their time in college. All too often, the humanities converts open-ended questions into things that can be assessed and tested, he said. As a result, students think fundamental questions about life and meaning have been settled. They learn to spout opinions, but recoil at the idea of public argument. They talk about things like patriarchy, intersectionality, trigger warnings, and microaggressions, but they are lost when they have to think outside those categories or are asked to examine what they mean or how others might feel differently.

“Big questions are big questions because no one has the answers,” Deresiewicz said.

What he failed to mention is that the dogma that afflicts the left also afflicts the right, making meaningful conversation and compromise even more difficult. Like other speakers at AAC&U, though, he was spot-on in calling for higher education to take a deep look inside itself. That’s the only way we will find a way forward.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The Kansas Legislature and governor often treat colleges and universities like deadbeat relatives they wish would just go away rather than partners in navigating the future.

That wasn’t always the case, but budget decisions over the past 15 years show waning support for higher education. Inflation-adjusted state dollars spent by the six Kansas Regents universities have fallen 22.2 percent since the 2002 fiscal year. State money for universities peaked that year at an inflation-adjusted amount of $559.6 million. By fiscal 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, that amount had fallen to $435.5 million (in 2002 dollars).

Those amounts represent the actual spending of state dollars that the universities report and that the regents post each year. (You can see more details in the interactive chart below.)

Actual appropriations for all of Kansas public higher education fell by 8.6 percent between fiscal 2008 and 2017, according to the regents. That was after a $30 million budget cut imposed by the Kansas Legislature and the governor. Those cuts were announced last week.

State universities have borne these cuts as enrollment has risen by 6.5 percent since the fall of 2004.

Making matters worse, the most recent state budget cuts $875,664 from student financial aid. By my estimates, that means that more than 400 fewer Kansas students will receive financial aid from the state in the coming year. I based that estimate on calculations using the average award in the 2015 fiscal year. (Most of the awards range from $1,000 to $3,500, and the average for the largest grant program was $2,026 per student.)  

That’s just my estimate. Breeze Richardson, the regents director of communications, said via email that the regents hadn’t decided which areas of financial aid would be cut.

The state provided more than $22 million in financial aid to nearly 12,000 Kansas students in the 2015 fiscal year. The regents oversee distribution of that money through 16 programs, including the Career Technical Workforce Grant, the Kansas State Scholarship Program, and the Kansas Ethnic Minority Scholarship. The money goes to students who attend both public and private institutions in the state.

The Kansas Comprehensive Grant accounts for the vast majority of state financial aid, and more than 10,000 students received that grant in fiscal 2015. Students at Kansas State ($1.93 million) received the most from that grant program that year, followed by students at KU ($1.3 million), Baker ($1.2 million), Friends ($1.1 million), and Wichita State ($1.1 million).

Like many other states, Kansas has slashed money for higher education since the 2008 recession. As a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences puts it, “public higher education is perceived as a relatively flexible budget item.”

The problem with that mindset is that it darkens the future of the state and its residents. By 2020, two-thirds of jobs will require some sort of training beyond high school, according to a recent report by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Colleges and universities will play an important role in that training.

Those institutions desperately need to change the way they think, act, and operate – a common theme in my posts on this blog – but to have any chance of success, they need stable operating budgets.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Innovation, meet frustration.

I’ve written frequently about how the lack of a reward system hampers (if not quashes) attempts to improve teaching and learning, especially at research universities.  A new survey only reinforces that short-sighted approach.

The survey was conducted by the consulting and research firm Ithaka S+R and involved a random sample of faculty members at U.S. universities in 2015. Ithaka has conducted the survey every three years since 2000.

The survey did offer reason for optimism: More than 60 percent of faculty members said they would like to use digital technology and new pedagogies to improve their teaching. The problem: Only 35 percent said their universities recognized or rewarded faculty for innovations in teaching.

The upshot: Most courses at most universities will remain mired in the past, failing to move beyond a curricular approach that emphasizes delivery and regurgitation of information over critical thinking, application, and adaptability. Only a small number of faculty members will be willing to risk the challenge of pedagogical innovation.

That’s especially unfortunate given another of the survey’s findings: More than 60 percent of faculty members in the humanities say that undergraduates do a poor job of finding and evaluating scholarly information. Those in the social sciences, sciences and medical fields are slightly more positive, but overall 54 percent of faculty members find students’ research skills lacking.

The United States has a larger number of colleges and universities relative to overall population than any other country. That provides more opportunities for more students, but it has also made it difficult for universities to distinguish themselves from one another. Research universities, especially, could do that by elevating the importance of teaching. Not only could students learn from top researchers and professionals, but they could learn in creative and innovative ways that would benefit them in the long run.

Or they could continue along the current path where teaching is treated as an afterthought, where one university pretty much looks like all universities, and where pedagogical innovation continually meets frustration.

Other findings from the survey:

  • Nearly 40 percent of faculty said open access materials were important to their teaching, but 25 percent said those types of resources were hard to find.
  • The percentage of faculty members looking to libraries to help undergraduates improve their research skills grew by 15 to 20 points between 2012 and 2015. The jump was largest among scientists.
  • The percentage of faculty who start their research at a physical library has dropped to nearly zero, though humanists are more likely than other disciplines to start at a library. Most start with either a general search engine or a specific database. A slightly smaller percentage start with a library catalog.

Financial challenges and hard questions

Recent statistics cast stark relief on the financial challenges that public colleges and universities face.

Between 1991 and 2008, enrollment at public colleges and universities grew 23 percent, although state support for those institutions rose only 13 percent. By 2010, enrollment rose an additional 8 percent while state support fell by 7 percent.

bar chart showing where research universities get their money
From ‘Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision: An Educational Compact for the 21st Century’

The statistics come from an analysis of federal data by Steven Brint and Charles Clotfelter. Their article “U.S. Higher Education Effectiveness” was published this month in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.

That declining state support has led to a growing reliance on part-time instructors. Non-tenure-track faculty now make up 37 percent of college and university faculty, up from 19 percent in 1970. Just as disturbing, the growth in spending on instruction has lagged that on student services and research. Actually, “lagged” isn’t quite the right word. Colleges and universities devoted two and a half times as much additional money to research (2.6 percent growth) as they did to teaching (1.1 percent), and nearly twice as much (2.2 percent) to student services.

That’s not bad on its own, but it is symbolic of how far too many universities view teaching. (See above.)

Another study, from an initiative of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, says that public flagship universities must adopt new financial models given the declining support from states. It called for states to increase their financing of public universities but said universities must reduce costs, seek out additional forms of revenue, and form new public-private partnerships.

In reviewing the state of public higher education, it asks some hard questions: “Is public higher education truly open to the public? Can high school graduates afford to attend their state’s postsecondary institutions?”

Those are pertinent questions given that the number of Americans with high-quality postsecondary credentials lags the needs of a digital-age economy.

One last question from the American Academy study should burn in the minds of all of us in academia: If students can afford to attend college, “what kind of education can they expect to receive?”

The future of higher education depends on how we answer that.

Briefly …

Faculty Focus offers a useful list of ways to deepen student learning. … A study of Chicago high schools found that students did considerably better in face-to-face courses than in similar courses online, NPR reports. … Schools that increasingly rely on digital resources also open themselves to risks of data breaches, PBS reports.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

The challenges, and meaning, of innovation

Innovation is generally difficult, but a new report says innovation in education is especially challenging because of a “high-stakes accountability culture that discourages risk-taking, rewards standardization and understandably eschews the notion of ‘experimenting’ on kids with unproven approaches.” As you can tell, the report was aimed at K-12 schools, but it easily applies to higher education. It was published by the Learning Accelerator, a not-for-profit group that promotes blended learning, and 2Revolutions, an organization that creates “future of learning models.” The report provides a framework for evaluating an organization and effecting change. It also says the term “innovation” is “overused and under-defined” and often means “something different depending on who you ask.” (That’s exactly right.) It provides a good working definition of the term:pi in numerals mirrored as pie spelled out

  •  leveraging new or unproven methods or tools to improve practice or solve persistent problems
  • identifying tools or practices from another field to be applied in a new context
  • often representing an entirely new way of thinking
  • having no rules; there is no “right” or “wrong ” way to innovate
  • always forcing important choices and trade-offs

One of the most important elements in that list is the idea that there are no right or wrong ways to innovate. That’s an important point for educators to keep in mind. To maintain good teaching, we must constantly innovate, reflect and revise. The list fails to mention another important element of innovation, though: risk of failure. All innovators take risks, fail and try again. Of course, if you want to innovate, you have to be willing to take that first step.

Questions about flipped courses

Maryellen Weimer raises good questions about colleges’ use of flipped courses. She applauds active learning, she says, but then asks: How do we know which students have the right study skills for flipped courses? Which students learn most in flipped courses? Do all courses work well in a flipped model? I’m a big proponent of flipped courses, but Weimer’s questions should linger in all our minds.

A bleak report on financing for higher education

Kansas’ funding per full-time equivalent college student dropped by nearly 13 percent, or $894, between 2008 and 2012, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. That’s a 12.77 percent cut, placing Kansas in the middle of the pack for state financing of public colleges and universities during that period. Arizona ranked last, slashing financing by nearly 43 percent. North Dakota topped the list, increasing per-student financing by 19 percent. To make college more affordable, the report recommends a new federal formula that encourages states to invest more in higher education but also sets goals for improving graduation rates and making transfer among institutions easier. Relatedly, John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, says that dwindling state financing has some institutions considering going private.

Briefly …

In an article for Edutopia, Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers offer ways to help students learn metacognition, or how to “drive their brains.” … In Educause Review, administrators from North Carolina State and the University of Pennsylvania write about the role that libraries can play in creating innovative teaching spaces. … A new report says that community colleges’ short-term certificates offer only small economic returns, especially when compared with degrees or other programs that require additional time to complete, according to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. Those certificates, which require less than a year of coursework, are growing in popularity.