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Higher education part 3: Opportunity of this crisis

October 18, 2009

To me, higher education is the spirit and soul of our state’s love of learning. It is the core of our society, the essence of what it takes to create an educated community with engaged citizens with intellectual curiosity as our foundation. It is the driver of our ability to help people get access to opportunity to learn a trade and feed their families. In Torah, we learn that education is the greatest honor and obligation of all. It is, perhaps, the central reason why the tiny, insignificant tribe of Jewish people have been so unique in terms of survival across thousands of difficult years of history. A relentless passion for education is part of the very DNA of my experience personally and professionally. It is how I found my journey as the only child of a single mother who spent years on public assistance to a husband, father, technology entrepreneur and citizen legislator with a master’s degree from Harvard.

Serving as a representative of the people of the 36th Legislative District is an honor and I treasure the work. It is especially intimidating and meaningful to me to succeed the extraordinary Rep. Helen Sommers who held higher education deep in her heart.

As a new legislator I have reflected upon where we stand as a state yet do not pretend, for a moment, to have answers. I am neither qualified nor elightened enough to propose real answers. Yet I can sense a growing realization in our state that we must embrace a new approach to higher education. I cannot do this job without being honest–I hope courageously so–about my belief that we must embrace systems change. That doesn’t mean it must be complete tomorrow but we must not cease from the work of genuine reform itself. We do have a wonderful system in the larger structural context of yesterday. We treasure our institutions of learning. But with that respect and admiration comes a need to push, prod and agitate for meaningful approaches to the future that push the limits of yesterday’s model. It is why we have a citizen legislature and not a professional class of elected officials in Olympia: To agitate for improvement even when it seems we’re moving along just fine. It is always–always–easy to argue that the status quo is doing fine. There are many reports, task forces and commissions to confirm this conclusion.

The world is changing and transformation of how people learn does not yield. Old models of political organizing are not serving our needs.

Like all institutions the internal infrastructure of government talks of change, courage and the future but acts timidly and cautiously. That is not always a bad thing, of course. Fear, uncertainty and doubt hover above us all during these changing times in our world history. The internal politics of academia rival the great battles of our political history and I, like most others, just try and keep my head low.

The September 2009 Higher Education Coordinating Board newsletter outlines everything we need to know about higher education but we’re afraid to act upon. Take a look here. I encourage you to read the entire outline of the information presented.

Don Heller, professor of education and Director of the Center for Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University, made a compelling presentation before the panel. Two other presentations offered equally useful insight into the need for new approaches to higher education in America. Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, and Jane Wellman, executive director, Delta Cost Project.

First, some paraphrased definition around the problem from the presentations by Heller, Jones and Wellman:

‘As a nation we need to increase degree attainment by 5% annually to deal with the massive retirement wave of the baby boomers who boost our education level dramatically or we’re headed for a crash in the education level of our entire nation. We have a train wreck coming where we will experience a massive slide in the educational level. We have a huge race/ethnic educational gap between whites/Asians and blacks/Hispanics. The U.S. spends the highest percentage of its GDP on higher education in the world but other countries get more bang for the buck. (Sound familiar friends of health care?) The federal stimulus money helped bail out our last budget but that dog won’t hunt for the next one. We aren’t going to go back to the old days. Federal, state and tuition funding won’t get us out of this structural change. We need a coordinated approach to make cost management work, private sources, tuition policies linked together with local/private/state/federal aid, and state and federal direct support. We face the biggest faculty turnover in history yet we don’t have a robust strategy to address it. About 25% of the cost of a bachelor’s degree can be described as credits in excess of those necessary to achieve a degree.’

You get the idea.

In other words, the societal cost of the status quo–the pain of making excuses that bold change isn’t possible–the unwillingness to acknowledge the need to get our own family house in order in terms of value and not just price–the implications of drinking our own kool aid compared to other states–is too great for us to thrive in a 21st Century global community. This economic shakeout is the equivalent of a wake up call into reality. The mortgage bubble has burst. Our credit cards are due and every other cliche you can think of regarding ‘wake up to reality.’ While we are convinced we’re doing well tactically in our state, our strategic challenges remain substantial.

We need, simply, to educate more people to higher levels. Many more people. This has been the mantra and agenda of our state leaders. The answer in the old days was more money for the same institutional structures of yesterday. The answer now is different.

Now, we face an extraordinary, once-in-a-generation opportunity in this larger economic crisis confronting our country. Do we have the moral courage to embrace it with courage and conviction here at home? It’s time to look at internal systems reform and bold progress not as a surface, cost cutting, anti-government exercise but from a progressive, thoughtful, fiduciary role of getting more value for students and our future. Just as in health care, we are paying for inputs not outputs, process not results, back end systems not front end services. We don’t reward or penalize the K-12 system for sending ill prepared students to higher education we just accept whatever comes along. We don’t put real money behind our idea of rewarding successful outcomes for higher education instead we retreat, year after year, into the same broken model of paying everything up front when a student enrolls regardless of other factors. We have failed, in short, to have the courageous honesty to acknowledge that our current model is based upon a 19th Century structure.

The fundamental public policy challenge facing our state in higher education, in my view, is how we can together engage in a more meaningful dialogue with all of the stakeholders–students, faculty, administrators, legislators, governors, trustees, unions, industry– about embracing the opportunity of this crisis. Will higher education enjoy its 15 minutes of fame to capture the attention of our state’s leadership? I don’t know. But it should move forward anyway with those changes and improvements that it knows should be accomplished.

We need the institutional infrastructure of higher education and our political establishment to wake up to a new reality of action where the status quo model is imploding. The lack of accountability for outcomes such as degree production is not sustainable. If the numbers go down instead of up, if retention rates fall, if costs increase, if families can’t afford access to opportunity, who is held accountable today? No one, of course, and that’s how we seem to like it politically. And so costs rise and rise and access to opportunity is reduced and little changes. We ask the HECB–a loose federation of higher education allies really–to issue reports, study the issues, argue for lower tuition, link the two and four year systems, etc. but they have no formal role over money and no role beyond strategic planning. We ask the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges to coordinate the money but not commodity back end administrative systems between 34 colleges. We ask individual colleges and universities to focus on retention and outcomes but we don’t link money to this central philosophical goal because it’s inconsistent with our age-old idea of decentralized power in Washington. And so we issue reports year after year that say the same thing.

Of course, by way of context, we’re operating in a state where we have nine statewide elected officials as a reaction during the progressive era of the late 1880s against centralized power of rail, timber and industrial money and power. Our history is one of trying to keep the rich–or the government in Olympia– from becoming even more powerful over us regular folks. It plays out in higher education historically so that we like each college to be in charge of everything because it fits our idea of decentralized authority. Even when that means wasting money by not even coordinating the purchase of commodities from pencils to servers to textbooks. We are extremists on the side of radical decentralization even when it borders on the absurd. And wastes millions.

Most of all, we live in a political fantasy world where we pretend that we are an egalitarian state of higher education where everyone is treated equally (by tuition, full time equivalent funding, infrastructure, etc.) and so we are trapped under a common, low ceiling of expectations. The truth of the matter is much more complicated, uncomfortable and it shatters myths. The truth is we do have differential models. We just don’t acknowledge it very openly.

Let me be clear: I’m not arguing for concentration of power, money, authority. I am arguing for a bolder approach to a statewide strategy of higher education with more teeth than reports, studies, commissions and presentations that all seem to lead in the same general direction. I’m arguing for a model where presentations about our challenges, and recommendations, turn into action. I’m arguing for courageous honesty about what works and what does not. I’m arguing that we should move toward customization, localization and personalization of learning to make a step forward in our student progress.

We have a differentiated system of higher education despite pretending that we don’t. It impacts students, faculty, parents, administrators and legislators and local businesses. It is time to ask questions about the role of different types of institutions instead of pretending that every institution can be everything to all people. In essence we expect a 30 year old single mother student who drives 75 miles to attend a training course at Walla Walla Community College to live by the same general rules and regulations as an 18 year old student at the University of Washington in Seattle. We erect artificial barriers to prevent healthy, vigorous competition between colleges. We charge the same for tuition and regulate institutions the same from Grays Harbor to Spokane, Bellingham to Cheney, Seattle to Pullman. One size fits all government is old, stale and very expensive. Let’s move on.

There are a lot of ‘problem statements’ here and not many answers. I’ve only been in the Legislature 10 months and I couldn’t map out a comprehensive strategy if I tried. But I know that we need to come together in a new way and engage together in many of these structural, systems questions. I know that our institutions of higher education need to embrace the idea of servant leadership: Where ideas are presented not pushing from the top to the bottom, but reengaging in student lives bottom up.

In essence, I do not believe that a heavily regulated, Olympia-centric model of higher education can work in the 21st Century. I believe we need to use the marketplace of ideas more aggressively to meet student and society’s needs in a transformational time. I believe we need to ask the questions raised by this three part blog series: If we had the courage to design a system today to educate more people to higher levels, what would it look like? For real.

A very few specific, random (strategic and tactical) thoughts from here:

We should free the University of Washington to embrace their own tuition, capital and private sector partnership policies while protecting the core public mission of the institution. There are those who fear a ‘high tuition, high aid’ model’ for sticker shock on the poor but I argue that the cost of a low tuition aid model is not sustainable and we are subsidizing the wrong people at the wrong levels under our current system. Let’s start with high aid and prove we mean it. I do not support the immediate release of all state rules and regulations for all institutions of higher education, but let us begin with the UW and monitor, learn and assess the implications for public policy. And we should also embrace a bolder conversation about the role of the branch campuses in Tacoma and Bothell for the UW. They are second class citizens of our four year institutions and it’s not sustainable or efficient. We should expect more of the UW and WSU, our state’s premier institutions of learning, both in terms of internal reforms and in how the money flows. We need them to be entrepreneurs of innovation in higher education and the elite thinkers in systems change for all the world to see. To those whom much is given, much is expected.

We should consider linking the Workforce Development Board and the State Board for Community and Technical College system more tightly. Not all workforce challenges are community college issues but many are. We need a stronger and more coordinated approach that is judged on the economic impact of the work. The lack of accountability in the workforce system calls out for attention. Now more than ever in recent times as people are so desperate for quality programs and retraining and access to lifelong learning to get a job and feed their family. We are failing those who are struggling to hold on especially low income, immigrants, Hispanics and many other people of color, foster children and so many others.

We should consider embarking on a forceful faculty recruitment, training and modernization program where we focus on our instructors from top to bottom in the context of how students learn in the 21st Century. That means less reliance on part-time faculty at our two years systems but higher standards for those full time faculty who are selected. It also means an honest look at issues related to how we reward faculty.

We should consider a new approach between higher education and industry. So many companies continue to struggle to get the right people trained in the right skill sets to perform the right jobs. Our lack of coordination and customer service relationships with industry is unacceptable and we are not doing as well as we pretend in this area. We have built a system where there is no real accountability if we serve the need of companies to fill jobs or not, and workers and our economy suffers. That must change.

We should to ask questions about the role of the comprehensive institutions relative to mission. Where are we still under serving students by area and why? What about those universities–Central Washington University and Eastern Washington in particular–that struggle to grow, scale and serve more students at a time when our needs are so high? Something is not working if they don’t have the pipeline of students beating down the doors at a time when so many need access to opportunity. What can we do better? Is there a compelling and unique public interest in the Evergreen State College being public versus private?

What of our partners in the private universities who operate under the public radar but perform such a vital function in our state? We need to bring them under the tent of expectations and public role in a meaningful way based upon partnerships. Why do we hesitate to embrace them so (such as in our financial aid policies) when they contribute in such a positive fashion to our goal of educating more people to higher levels? They struggle with many of the same issues, of course, but do so with greater flexibility.

The anxiety from the four year institutions about the two year system offering bachelor degrees is based on fear not a larger promise of educating more people to higher levels. There is more than enough access to opportunity to go around if we think holistically and not in silos. Bellevue College is not competition for the University of Washington, one of the premier institutions in the world. They should be cheering the state’s desire to thoughtfully and carefully increase access to appropriate baccalaureate facilities. As in the Tao of leadership, the UW must learn the paradox that by being selfless, the leader enhances self.

We need a new approach to our P-20 strategy and dialogues. The organizational structures, commissions, studies, task forces of the P-20 system are questionable at best. The current silos and players in early learning, K-12, CTC and four year institutions have no interest in a coordinated approach that touches anyone’s money. I get that and I don’t blame them. But real students living real lives are people first and they don’t fit nicely into government silos. Just a thought.

The questions about the political power of the two versus the four year system need to be put openly on the table. Let’s have a transparent conversation together as a system working together. Imagine the social, economic and political impact if we truly and genuinely COMBINED the political influence of the two systems together? We are one team and our intra-system battles belittle us all. It reduces the overall pie for higher education. And they take a huge intangible toll on our collective mission.

We should embark on a bold wave of strategic consolidation of BACK END technology, administrative and operational systems–financial aid, registration, transportation, public safety, maintenance, and so much more–to save hundreds of millions in duplicative COMMODITY services.

We should explore financial policies related to duel enrollment, distance learning and other ‘non traditional’ programs to ensure that MONEY FOLLOWS STUDENTS in tomorrow’s world and isn’t trapped in silos that serve everyone other than the student. We should tear down the ridiculous and harsh financial aid policies we’ve built that prevent so many from accessing opportunity. It’s almost as if we want, subconsciously, to ensure not too many people storm the admissions office demanding financial aid.

We should create a K-14 model where the state provides a funding role in two years of post secondary education of any and all sort to young people. It is, in the end, the way to unleash our nation’s potential in our 21st Century global community as our society ages, becomes more diverse and loses its educational skill level. We need radical, bold and meaningful systems change that could be driven by service. Perform two years of national and community service through AmeriCorps, Peace Corps or the military and we’ll give you two years of college in a 21st Century GI bill of rights.

We should acknowledge that for all of our studies, commissions and task forces, 98% of upper income young people go on to post secondary graduation. At lower income levels, less than half continue within two years of high school. Over three decades of work the institutions of higher education in our state and nation have not closed this gap.

We should not try and ride out this economic restructuring with our heads hung low but rather with them held high by new expectations for ourselves.

We should embrace policies and programs that value successful outcomes for real students living real lives. And the world we want to see in the 21st Century.

In the end, the economic, social and political challenge of educating more people to higher levels has become too serious and difficult for government to handle alone as a department down the hall. This challenge belongs to us all.

Yes we can.

Your partner in service, Reuven.

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