Author discusses his new book, ‘a field guide for improving higher education'
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Author discusses his new book, ‘a field guide for improving higher education'

Stephen C. Ehrmann has been a part of numerous efforts to improve higher education. As the former vice provost for teaching and learning at the George Washington University and associate director for research and evaluation at the Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation at the University System of Maryland, he is convinced the right policies can make a real difference. He explores those policies in Pursuing Quality, Access and Affordability: A Field Guide to Improving Higher Education (Stylus), which is a mix of ideas and reports from specific institutions.

He responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: Why are the three factors you write about (quality, access and affordability) so crucial right now?

A: Let’s take those three goals one at a time. I was an undergraduate over 50 years ago. Back then, institutional quality was defined in terms of inputs to the educational process. The SAT scores of entering students, for example, and the qualifications of faculty, along with physical facilities such as the number of books in the library. SAT scores were important because student aptitudes (let’s say their intellectual capabilities) were assumed to be fixed, at least by the time they entered college. A first-year student would be good at math, or not, depending solely on those aptitudes. For many (but not all) faculty, educating students was a matter of providing content. Learning was the responsibility of the student, not the faculty member or institution.

In contrast, in the last two or three decades, the definition of quality has shifted toward learning as a result of many faculty, some only under the students’ control, others under the institution’s control. This is a difference that makes a difference. Most importantly, it gives universities, public or private, the fiduciary responsibility to understand how their programs are influencing student learning and to decide whether and how to do better. There are a number of lines of research that point to similar conclusions: faculty have a sense of what a college-educated student’s capabilities ought to be. So do employers. And so do students. But students tend to overestimate their capabilities, while faculty and employers seem to agree that a majority of graduating seniors fall short and fall short in the same capabilities.

To repeat, there’s now plenty of research that shows that a) how colleges and universities organize learning influences what all students learn, and b) those same designs for learning can give students from underserved groups a real opportunity to excel. To put it bluntly, at institutions where students from underserved groups are dropping out more, progressing more slowly and graduating in fewer numbers, [the institutions] need to shoulder some of that blame themselves, as institutions. Other institutions are organizing learning differently, and with better outcomes.

As for affordability, that’s probably the goal being talked about most these last few years. Usually the public conversation has been confined to prices, but we need to think about costs as well.

Q: Your book represents a major shift in how many academics today think about whether and how to improve quality, access and affordability. What are some of the most important differences between what you learned from your institutions versus more conventional thinking?

A: There’s no “iron triangle” preventing institutions from improving their quality of learning, equitable access and affordability, simultaneously. If that’s what they want, it can be done. These six case histories [in the book] each illustrate somewhat different ways to develop the capacity to pursue such threefold gains.

Over many years, the institutions in my book created their own sets of mutually reinforcing, sustainable programs and practices. The elements -- longtime institutional features and recent reforms -- intentionally reinforce one another. To put it in social science terms, the constellation should be the unit of analysis in studying improving institutional quality, access and affordability.

Q: Assembling such a constellation sounds like a big lift, especially during a pandemic.

A: None of this happened overnight, or within the short time horizon of a typical grant (two to five years).

When I asked people to tell the story of how their institution had developed the capacity to improve its outcomes this way, they often began their stories 15 or 20 years earlier. But the people 15 to 20 years earlier didn’t see their actions as the beginning of such a grand campaign. Instead, they were just trying to remedy problems and seize opportunities. It may have taken five to 10 years for enough people at the institution to realize that larger goals were coming within reach. At that point, the institution usually took some critical steps to speed up the pace. Over 20 years, lots can happen, including pandemics and recessions. These institutions didn’t put reform aside "until things get back to normal." They kept pushing ahead, pulled along by possibility of further improvements in outcomes.

Q: What drew your attention to Governors State University?

A: I was thinking of Elaine Maimon in this connection, even before I began thinking of the university of which she was then president. The early research on college composition, in which Elaine was involved, convinced me long ago that while colleges can help students develop important, lasting capabilities like academic writing, it’s impossible to accomplish this in a single course. So I was looking for an institution that designed its academic programs to help students develop certain capabilities by the time they graduated. I’d brought with me the conviction that a quality institution would be doing that.

When I started looking into Governors State, I saw that its recent history exhibited that feature but that it also was marked in two other important ways. First, Governors State’s state budget had been cut every year during the period I studied, and they’d figured out ways to keep moving forward regardless. Second, over a period of years, Governors State and a network of nearby community colleges had developed a healthy, effective journey for students that could start at community college or at Governors State and then end with graduation from Governors State. I was already seeing at other institutions how important cross-institutional collaborations could be in pursuing threefold gains.

Q: Similarly, what drew you to the University of Central Oklahoma?

A: Maybe the first thing I noticed was that it was developing a complementary transcript, one which documented the development of student capabilities toward six important learning goals. Then I got even more excited to learn that the learning was from both formal and informal experiences. Also, UCO was a great example of what I was seeing elsewhere. In 2019, you could look backward and chart a 20-year journey that led to the institution’s current gains in quality, access and affordability. But, for the people involved, they’d become conscious of the possibilities and intentionality in their work only 10 to 15 years ago. Earlier they’d done a number of things that individually made sense. Only later did they come to see those as part of a larger pattern. I use the term “constellation” to describe a large set of mutually supportive institutional attributes and initiatives; it’s the constellation, more than any one or two initiatives or technologies, that achieves the threefold gains.

Q: Public Institutions that you write about, and others, have taken a hit during the pandemic. How can they regain momentum?

A: The pandemic has happened since I finished writing the book. But it’s not my impression that their progress toward threefold gains was stymied. The kinds of changes we’re talking about can make an institution more nimble. In other words, even during a pandemic, you can still take steps forward if you keep in mind where you want to go.

Q: You write about public colleges. Are privates not in the equation?

A: My guess is that the framework applies to private institutions as much, or even more than, it applies to publics. That’s because the framework assumes institutions are capable of improving their own outcomes. Privates have even more control over their programs, organization and budgets than public institutions do.

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