Creative Destruction and Higher Ed

    One of my favorite things about teaching has always been learning, which can mean investigating new modes of instruction, or getting advice from friends and colleagues or the good old-fashioned reading of new books.  Since becoming first a provost and then president, I’ve been reading a good number of those books, mostly about higher education and management and business models.  So not always the greatest of page-turners!

    But “Dual Transformation: How to Reposition Today’s Business While Creating the Future” lives up to its title, even if it’s occasionally disconcerting.  The authors (who include the president of BYU-Idaho and two members of a highly respected consulting firm) talk about the “circle of disruption” that has been hitting all sectors of business and industry over the past decade—a disruption from which colleges and universities are in no way immune.  In fact, they start off by talking about the remarkable success of Kodak—introducing its first digital camera in 1990, becoming a leading digital image producer by 2000 and moving from selling film and old-fashioned cameras fully into the cloud platform of social networking by 2010.  

    Now, that last sentence is all fiction.  

    Kodak didn’t embrace digital technology (until too late), it never got in on cloud-based networking and it filed for bankruptcy in 2012.  In doing so, billions of dollars in capital were lost, pensions were wiped out, an entire city thrown into economic depression (Rochester, N.Y.) and one of the greatest of all legacy American businesses disappeared in a few short years.

In other words, Kodak didn’t adjust to—let alone embrace—disruption and, as a result, went the way of the dinosaurs. (If you want a happy ending story to disruption, by the way, think Netflix.)  

    Likewise, higher education is facing major disruptions, ones that lead to what economists like to call the “creative destruction” process of capitalism, which is continually creating and tearing down structures (google Joseph Schumpeter if you want more info).  These come in the form of calls for controlling tuition costs, ensuring that students can graduate in four years and that when they do graduate they have the skills necessary to earn jobs that pay their bills.  They also include our obligation to provide safe educational and living environments in a very challenging and divisive cultural clime, and rapidly shifting demographics, in which fewer and fewer people live in the Northeast and more and more in the Southwest.  And, most of all, colleges are faced with challenges to their traditional business model—or, basically, the way in which things have traditionally been done.

    And that sort of “creative destruction” is, in my view, a good thing.  For higher education had lost its way over the past three decades.

    Here’s a quote that underscores just how seriously it got lost:

Since 1982 a typical family income increased by 147%, more than inflation but significantly behind the huge increase in college costs.  College costs have been rising roughly at a rate of 7% per year for decades.  Since 1985, the overall consumer price index has risen 115% while the college education inflation rate has risen nearly 500%.  According to Gordon Wadsworth, author of The College Trap, “…if the cost of college tuition was $10,000 in 1986, it would now cost the same student over $21,500 if education had increased as much as the average inflation rate but instead education is $59,800 or over 2 ½ times the inflation rate.”  Blunting these increases is a rise in federal student aid including tax credits and deductions.  And nearly two thirds of undergraduates now receive some sort of grant aid and student loan borrowing is on the upswing.  But loans must be paid back so the pain of payment is only delayed. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/steveodland/2012/03/24/college-costs-are-soaring/#2c62a5da1f86)

    And this was written in 2012—it’s now far worse.  

    Some perspective: when I graduated from college in 1989, I owed $12,000 (from a private college that guaranteed that it would meet 100 percent of my parents’ financial need, which meant they paid about $4,000/year).  Today, students in Maine owe an average of nearly $30,000.  UMPI graduates actually owe the LEAST in all of Maine and even New England, below $20,000 in most cases.  But that’s still too much, as we all know.

    Basically, this means that between 1989 and 2018, the “business” of higher education lost sight of what should be its primary goal:  “We’re not here for the institution.  We’re here for the student.”  (Now, many colleges and universities individually fought against this—witness the UMaine System, which held tuition at the same level without increases for five years as one example.  But, as an aggregate, not so good…)

    This is why we are working so hard at UMPI to embrace this creative destruction as a means by which we can ensure we are always working toward one single motivation: to be here for the student, first and foremost, every single day.  We’ve held campus-wide workshops focusing on our “pledge” which is, quite simply, “Excellence, every day.”  And that’s a pledge meant for every staff member, faculty member, administrator (and student!) here at UMPI.

    We’ve started this process by ensuring that Maine students with federal financial eligibility will pay no out-of-pocket expenses for tuition and fees as of Fall 2018.  We’ve raised financial packages for families without such federal eligibility.  We’ve raised the level of our merit awards for institutional aid.  Thus, I’m fighting to get this institution back—and even exceed—the level of support my parents had in 1985 when I first went to college.

    We’ve ensured that every student has a pathway to a degree, detailing every course you need to take and when you need to take it, in four years (or less).  And two years or less if you’re in a two-year program.

    We’re committed to Teaching and Learning that puts an active and experiential education first and foremost; that provides clear and measurable learning outcomes, timely assessments and a clear and fair grading system in quid pro quo to your engagement, use of feedback for constant improvement and modeling of civility as a key principle of our campus culture.  (See the posters up in classrooms.)

    And we’re reaching new audiences with new ways of learning, ensuring that whoever and wherever you are, we can provide you the type of learning that best addresses your specific needs.

    We’ve just started this process.  And we have much more to do. “Excellence, every day,” after all, is a process, not a product.  It’s an action, not a noun.  And it will take hard work by this entire community to ensure that we meet the disruptive challenges before us and ensure that you graduate with as little debt as possible in as short a time frame as possible and are able to meet the goals that you’ve set for yourself.  Because, in the end, we are, indeed, here for you.