It’s Not The Salmon: Rethinking The Jobs To Be Done On Campus. Part II – Forbes - Freelance Rack

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Saturday, July 4, 2020

It’s Not The Salmon: Rethinking The Jobs To Be Done On Campus. Part II – Forbes

The onset of the pandemic, the hasty shift to remote learning, and the struggle to re-open campuses in the fall have made clear that students and parents think of tuition as one price for two very different functions of the residential university. The first function or job-to-be-done is the attainment of degree, which makes possible a meaningful and rewarding career. The second is a rich “coming of age” experience for students, one in which they live on a splendid campus, offering a range of enriching opportunities and enjoyable amenities. Students expect to pay for both of those functions, but they value them differently.

The student backlash against paying full tuition for online or remote learning is a rude reminder that the academic program of any institution is a given for students and there is a limit to how much value and willingness to pay they attach to it. We go to restaurants to eat, a given, but what we are willing to pay has far more to do with things other than the food, as pointed out in my previous essay. 

MORE FROM FORBESIt’s Not The Salmon: Understanding What Students Value

If one goes on a typical college tour, there are a handful of questions about the academic program, but many more about the coming of age experience offered by the campus. 

Why? When it comes to discerning academic quality or fit, students don’t typically know what to ask and we are not very good at meaningful definitions of quality. Thus the outsize impact of rankings and other problematic markers of status, such as Division I football, signature buildings, and price tag. Prospective students on tour look around, see the trappings of a campus, and mostly conclude that the academic program is fine. They do not need much more reassurance than those faulty signals of quality – some grand buildings that look far better than their high schools, a good size stadium, and leafy quads. 

This observation is not a critique of students. In many ways, they should feel safe giving us the benefit of the doubt on our academic offerings.  Our colleges and universities generally work hard to ensure the integrity of their academic programs and the great majority of faculty members I know care deeply about their courses and their students. The best of them play an important role in the coming of age experience of their students as well, often as mentors and role models who convey care and respect for their students.  If I return to my restaurant analogy, even in expensive restaurants the food only has to be very good, and yes some chefs will take it to memorable levels, but we generally assume they have integrity and care in the preparation of our food and that allows us to focus on everything else that entices us to pay for a high priced meal. Students generally trust us on the academics, but really want to understand everything else before they commit to paying tuition and taking out large loans.

The pandemic reminds us of that fact and invites us (or has forced us) to unbundle the two primary jobs of residential campus-based higher education and rethink how we perform them. As we look at the first, our academic programs and what is most important about them, might we ask:

·        Is the best use of our faculty in classrooms delivering content, in a world where content is abundant and increasingly free, or in deep, meaningful relationships with our learners in some other more impactful form?

·        In a world of search and instant access to content, how do we rethink learning and assessment and what is most important?

·        Is it time to rethink specialized accreditations that tend to reify traditional notions of teaching and learning and do more to protect the discipline than improve the student experience?

·        What credentials matter in our faculty? By extension, what is the role scholarship and research should play in institutions that are really focused on teaching?

·        Why is four years the default for a bachelors degree (much of Europe requires three years) and why do we measure learning by how long students sit instead of demonstrated mastery?

If we are willing to revisit these items which we have largely taken for granted, there may be an opportunity to bring the cost of our academic programs into better alignment with student ability and willingness to pay, while actually improving the quality of learning.

In like fashion, we can look at the campus experience and the coming of age job it is designed to do and ask similarly important questions:

·        Is four years excessive in terms of that function? 

·        For students without the means to live on campus four years, can we offer some of that experience in ways that might still get the job done?

·        Can we imagine a model in which students live on campus and have that enriching experience, while getting their education in a way that is untethered to the physical campus?

·        Does the recognition that a DI football program has nothing to do with the academic program allow us a more honest conversation about athletics and their role, excesses, and treatment of players?

·        How has our industry’s drive for status and the rolexification of campus life exacerbated deep inequities in our system of higher education?

When we conflate the two primary functions of residential campus higher education, we make it much harder to improve either and we often mask our inefficiencies and misplaced priorities. 

Indeed, oftentimes the public discourse around high education suffers from our failure to identify which higher education we mean. The coming of age job we perform on our campus has little meaning to a 30-year-old learner with a full-time job, two kids, and finishing a degree online. That learner has had all the coming of age she can handle – she knows what she’s about. While the education of undergraduates may not require instructors with PhDs (many readers will vehemently disagree), there is a research higher education that most assuredly does and which requires more of our support. Community colleges, which are on-ramps to millions of learners, are often left out of the larger higher education conversation and think more about food and housing insecurity than concierge desks in dormitories.

Understanding the various jobs we ask higher education to do, and what is really required to perform each, means we can rethink our work and do each of those jobs better than we do today. And perhaps more affordably in an industry whose cost increases have been double those of health care since 1980 – -yes, we may be the one industry that makes health care look good. It allows us to have more meaningful discussions of what is most important in any given institution, to honor our missions and values while rethinking how we deliver on them, and to re-imagine a higher education system that is broken in so many ways.

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