Thursday, February 25, 2021

Slow Learning

If we have learned anything from cooking shows like Chopped or Iron Chef, it is that it takes time to develop flavors. It’s easy to throw together a meal, but to develop rich, complex flavors requires skill, care, and time. This is the hallmark of the slow food movement, which has risen up in stark contrast to the zapping of ready-made, industrial “cuisine.”


The same can be said of learning. Facts and fundamental techniques can be delivered quickly and en masse, but deep understanding requires time and nurturing.


Last month, at the President’s meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges, Robert Zemsky, one of our best experts on higher-education leadership provided a thoughtful and stimulating presentation on the contemporary challenges confronting the traditional business model of higher education.


During the talk he shared two ideas that I found to be in conflict with each other. They were fundamentally 1) a need to graduate students faster to get them into the workplace, and 2) the need to develop intellectual capacity over time. I think this cognitive dissonance is one of the great conundra facing our collective relationship with higher education today.


In his talk, Zemsky shared that years ago he had floated the idea of shifting to a three-year bachelor’s degree, including a commensurate reduction in credit hours, which would allow students to save a year of tuition and enter the workforce sooner. He noted that at our current inflection point, that idea was beginning to attract attention.


For so many of our students, they and their families are making remarkable sacrifices to change the student’s life trajectory. More and more, that trajectory is being defined by earnings, and far too often the focus favors starting salaries over lifetime earnings.


Another comment Zemsky made was that if he were an English professor, he wouldn’t teach Shakespeare until the senior year, because students need to amass a foundation of knowledge and broad understanding to adequately grapple with the complexities of the human experience that are at the heart of the Bard’s plays.


When a student tells me, “My degree will make it possible for me to move my mom and sisters to a better neighborhood,” I want to do everything I can to help make that happen as soon as possible. At the same time, I signed on to my role at Susquehanna to zealously advocate for our mission to educate students for productive, creative, and reflective lives of achievement, leadership, and service in a diverse, dynamic, and interdependent world.


I want to help that student change the lives of her mother and siblings, but I also want to empower her to become a change maker so that her immediate goals can become the lived reality of the entire next generation. That takes wisdom and courage, which require scaffolding and cultivation.


In 2012, universities in Hong Kong moved from a three-year baccalaureate to a four-year model, and they used the additional course time to enrich their curricula with “liberal-arts” content.


Scott Jaschik wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “While many observers in the United States are calling for American higher education to become more vocational in orientation, the changes here are motivated by a sense that students need more general education if they are truly to become leaders in Hong Kong and China.”


I had the privilege of attending a conference of higher-education leaders from around the world in Hong Kong during the summer of 2012, and the administrators of the local universities told me that their graduates had been well-prepared for their first jobs, but ill-suited to adapt in the evermore rapidly changing world of work. They recognized that the nimbleness and soft skills they were lacking could be found in abundance among graduates of American liberal-arts colleges.


We have an obligation to prepare students to be lifelong learners. We need to be sure that they not only know how to do things, but understand why they should or shouldn’t do them. Developing the wisdom to discern the why comes from learning in community, and it requires time.


Life expectancies have grown considerably, and people are retiring later. This means our graduates are about to enter careers that will last longer than those of previous generations. We must be sure we prepare them to make that time a rewarding path of self-discovery and meaning, not a life sentence.


As we plan for the next iteration of higher education, we need to keep in mind both the immediate needs of our students and their families to transform their lives for the better, and we need to be careful that they and we don’t settle for that alone. Our goal must remain preparing students for lives well lived. Our strategies need to include making it possible for slow learning to retain its invaluable place on our campuses.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Effective Reform for the Finances of College Students

College funding and student debt have emerged as critical topics in political and, now, policy arenas of the U.S.


There are few, if any, investments that have a greater impact on our nation, our economy, and our fellow citizens than providing an affordable pathway to higher education for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.


Stump speeches and soundbites calling for “free college” are easy to understand and driven by the best of intentions, but they replace one set of inequities with another. Leveling the playing field for all meritorious students requires adjusting the details, not moving the goal line for all players.


While many developed countries have nationally subsidized higher-education systems, they are available to a much smaller percentage of their populations. Whereas, the U.S. benefits from the world’s most diverse higher-education offerings.


Contrary to popular belief, internal financial aid programs make many private institutions more affordable than public ones. For example, after aid, on average, students at Susquehanna pay $5,700 less per year than they would at our state flagship university, but for many that is not enough.


With the possible exception of the GI Bill, the Pell Grant program has been the most transformative federal investment in education in our nation’s history. These grants are available to students who are financially in the lowest 20% of the population to help them attend public or private universities. Were we to double the award, the possibility of completing a degree would be within reach.


Furthermore, if we added an award equal to the current Pell allotment to the next economic quintile of the U.S. population, attainment of a college degree would be within reach of all academically qualified Americans. This tactical approach—within an already proven system—provides a sustainable model that is scaled to students’ demonstrated needs.


Another tactical approach is needed to address what has been called the student-debt crisis. There is a crisis, but the elements that are lifted up in the banter of pundits distract the public and our leaders from the specific problems that need to be fixed.


Americans hold a cumulative student-loan debt of over $1.5 trillion, but it isn’t that simple. Over 40% of all student loans and half of federal student loans go to graduate students. In each of the last 10 years, American undergraduate students have borrowed less than the year before—equating to a decade-total decline of over 20%. During that same period, graduate-school borrowing has increased 7%.


Over one-third of all student debt is held by only 7% of borrowers, and the supermajority of them have completed a graduate degree. These are graduates well positioned to pay back the investment of their lenders.


On the flip side, over one-third of all borrowers hold just 5% of the total student debt, but that group is most likely to default. This is, in part, because many of them took out loans to begin degrees, but did not complete them, missing out on the earnings advantages a degree conveys. For that reason, a college graduate is far more likely to pay off a substantial student loan than someone with a small debt who did not complete a degree.


Moving all student loans to income-based repayment plans, including a quantifiable forgiveness program, is a smart solution. For the majority of education borrowers whose lifetime earnings are enhanced many times the amount they borrowed, the lender’s investment is rightfully repaid.


Perhaps more importantly, this approach protects low earners—most often those who did not complete their degrees—from being paralyzed by even small student loans, which can be forgiven after a fixed period if the borrower’s income did not meet the sustained threshold to generate repayment.


Expanding the Pell Grant system may not grab attention like “free college,” but feasibly it makes more sense. Pell and income-based repayment plans have proven their merits over decades. Expanding them is the most cost-effective and efficient approach to make a positive transformation of the economics of earning a college degree.


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