When the queen sacrifice isn’t enough, a campus resigns

Today a fine college, a splendid campus where many of my friends work, announced it will close.  Sweet Briar College, founded in 1901, will cease operations at the end of this year.  As its president states, “the class of 2015 will be our last.”  Coming up next: “winding down our academic operations.”

Before I go further, let me express my sorrow and sympathy for Sweet Briar’s students, staff, and faculty.  This is a terribly hard blow, and starts a dark time for a lot of people.  I hope the academic community will support you all.

So what happened?  Listen to the reasons SBC leadership gives.

President James Jones leads off his announcement by naming “insurmountable financial challenges”.  Then the college’s board of directors (trustees) chair) gets more specific.  Paul Rice names several trends, “intractable issues”: Continue reading

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We can’t graduate enough nurses

NursesWe need a lot of nurses, but American universities just can’t make enough of them, according to a new Georgetown study (pdf).  This supports my Health Care Nation scenario, where medical fields become the dominant economic and cultural engine of the United States.

We project that there will be 1.6 million job openings for nurses through 2020. Of these,
• 700,000 will be newly created opportunities, and
• 880,000 will be replacements for retiring baby boomer nurses

There’s more.  Campuses are already expanding the number of nurses, but it’s not going to be enough:

[W]e project that the active supply of nursing professionals will increase steadily from the current 3.5 million nursing professionals to 3.95 million by 2020, including over 3.2 million RNs and 703,000 LPNs/LVNs. Yet, this substantial growth in supply will not be enough to meet the demand for nursing professionals, which will be around 4.14 million by 2020.

As a GenX academic, I’m naturally leery of future career promises built on boomer retirements.  I remember those 1990s ideas of wide-open job spaces. But this report still seems plausible, especially given nurse burnout rates.
For example,

The growing and aging U.S. population, increased healthcare coverage, rising disposable incomes, and changing healthcare delivery models all have contributed to the steady growth in demand for nursing services.  Moreover, an aging workforce, a demanding job environment, and inconsistent wages and wage increases have contributed to many qualified nurses exiting the profession. In addition, recruitment, training, and retention continue to be significant challenges. As a result, in rural areas, especially in western and southwestern states, nursing shortages continue to be a challenge for employers and patients.

What does this mean for higher education?  First, we may see a construction boom, both in buildings and academic programs, since the nursing shortage owes much to this:

the lack of enough educational facilities to accept all qualified students and, more importantly, the lack of enough faculty and clinical placement sites.

That will include closer academic-medical collaboration, as my scenario indicates.

Second, we could see some geographical settling, as several big states (California, Texas, New York) both produce and employ the largest numbers of nurses.  Interestingly, Southern health care tends to use more nurses than do other regions.  So we might see campuses in those states making the biggest play for nursing education.

Third, if the need for nurses remains that great, this should be a massive area for online education to experiment and invest.

I’d love to hear thoughts from people working in and around the medial education world.

(historical photo by State Library of Victoria)

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Elmhurst College makes a queen sacrifice

Elmhurst College logoElmhurst College is the latest member of higher education to make a queen sacrifice. The Chicago-area private liberal arts institution faces financial pressures and has launched a plan involving staff and faculty cuts.

Financial pressure seems to come from growing expenses, rather than declining tuition. According to the student newspaper, Elmhurst’s president reports having to draw more heavily on their endowment than anticipated – not for extraordinary costs, but “to pay for operating expenses.”

The managing director of public affairs went further according to a local news site: “Although revenue from student tuition has remained stable at the college, operational costs, salaries and inflation have grown.”

Cuts include closing a day care center and ending mid-year commencement.  Plus cutting faculty and staff:

Of the 41 college employees leaving, 17 are faculty members – six of these professors were laid off, six accepted voluntary retirement packages, and five resigned after [Interim President Larry] Braskamp’s Dec. 5 announcement.

Additionally, three professors accepted phased retirement offers, meaning they will leave EC within five years.

I can’t determine which programs have been hit, but the campus leadership seems to be making a classic queen sacrifice calculation:

“We were looking for [layoffs] where fewer students would be affected or smaller programs would not be affected,” [Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Alzada] Tipton said. “Our primary consideration was to do as little damage as possible to students and their ability to study what they want to study and graduate in a timely manner.”

Elmhurst’s leadership offers a detailed, sober, and seemingly transparent view of what will come next:

Tipton believes departments will have to make up for losses by relying more on adjunct faculty and their current full-time professors.

“The most obvious solution for [making up the lost faculty] is to hire more adjunct faculty to replace their courses,” she said. “I think some of the full-time faculty work beyond just teaching will have to be shouldered by other full-time faculty in the departments.”

Furthermore, the loss of so many staff and faculty members will force the college to redefine the roles and responsibilities of employees in departments and offices on-campus, Braskamp said at a Feb. 13 faculty meeting.

I’m impressed Elmhurst keeps up the number of students (and hence tuition), given its location in a declining youth population area (the Midwest).

To sum up: yet another American campus cuts faculty and staff, negatively impacting the school’s academic mission.  The queen sacrifice seems to be spreading across the country, despite the national economy being in some form of recovery.

(via Recession Realities)

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Picking on great education and technology myths

Today I gave a webinar on a new theme, “Great .edu myths of our time”. TurnItIn.com hosted the event, and Jason Chu over there inspired the topic.

Identifying and busting myths sounded like fun, so I picked five, ranked from least controversial to most challenging. Discussion was very lively and appreciated. Here’s the short slideshow:

Myth 5: virtual worlds are the next big thing.  This was uncontroversial for the audience, who didn’t seem to include any Second Life die-hards.  I picked the topic as a clear example of a myth that soared high and crashed hard.  It’s also one far enough away in time that we could generate some perspective.  Then I asked participants to think about lessons learned from puncturing that myth.

Myth 4: MOOCS will transform everything.  And they fizzled.  This elicited the first pushback, as some people wrote in to celebrate their use of MOOCs for personal professional development.  One chimed in with admiration for the Modern Poetry MOOC.

Myth 3:the LMS is about innovative teaching.  Actually, profs use them primarily to share documents.  This also garnered some complaints, although nobody challenged my myth-busting argument.  These defenders thought LMSes had untapped potential.  Give them more time, urged a participant.

Myth 2:higher education reduces inequality.  But higher ed actually reinscribes, supports, and even enhances inequality.  There was much unanimity on this score, with nobody (!!) leaping in to defend academia as an American Dream pillar.  Debate did ensue about why this was, and what to do about it.  Nobody mentioned Thomas Piketty.

Myth 1: technology isolates people. Actually, we tend to use tech to connect with each other.  Although I used historical images to set this up (from the 1930s and 1960s), I expected the audience to jump in with references to Sherry Turkle, Jaron Lanier, etc. One did mention Nicholas Carr.  Many people agreed with my social model of tech.  Others sought more nuanced perspectives – i.e., it depends on the use, there’s a question of balance, etc.

After this we discussed other myths and what we learn from thinking this way.  Here are some of the latter thoughts:

  • Some developments aren’t obviously in parallel, but end up competing.  So gaming beat virtual worlds, and at least one person saw competency-based learning trumping MOOCs.
  • Usability is crucial, especially for non-techie users.
  • Faculty time is a powerful determinant.  Folks mentioned adjuncts.
  • IT resources are finite and in heavy demand.  Lack of them can doom new things.
  • Our human tendency to resist change.
  • The digital divide.  This came up at nearly every point in the discussion.
  • We need to think in the long term.
  • We should question assumptions, both our own and others’.
  • We still need to improve our ability to transition into the digital world.

Overall, a fun, thoughtful, and engaging hour.  Any myths we should tackle next?

EDITED TO ADD: a video recording of the session is now up on Vimeo.

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Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day. This is potentially a huge step in academic labor relations, as a deeply exploited population attempts to make its voice heard.

Here’s one fine overview.  You can also check Google News for journalistic updates.

NAWD Stand poster

It’s too early to assess how the action has fared (it’s 8:39 am eastern time as I write this), but we can wish the activist adjuncts well in what is a daring, risky move.  After all, adjuncts are at-will hires, lacking the political protection tenure affords some other faculty, and activism isn’t always popular.

Some stray observations from this fraught dawn:

  • This is another case of social media playing an important organizing role in politics.   The NAWD Facebook page has been crucial in bringing people together and sharing information, as is Twitter.   There’s even a Tumblr site. I wonder how many adjuncts are using platforms supported by campus IT for this – local WordPress installs, for example.
  • What organizations are actively assisting the adjuncts in organizing?  Primarily the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).  As one Chronicle commentator notes, that’s an interesting detail, given that education already has some organizing entities.  “It is not accidental that the SEIU — rather than the AAUP and the teachers’ unions — is taking the lead in their organizing, for adjuncts are “service workers” in the academy, well below the students in ‘rank.'”  Perhaps we’ll see some criticism of outside agitation.
  • It’s even harder to get campuses to devote more resources to adjuncts when enormous, bipartisan, and sustained pressure exists to bring tuition prices down. The leading cost for colleges and universities is human resources – i.e. compensating faculty and staff. Check out some of the comments on this Chronicle piece for examples of people criticizing some of the economics.

You can follow NAWD’s progress via the Twitter hashtag.

(thanks to George Station for links)

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Thoughts on Kevin Carey’s University of Everywhere

Kevin Carey photoKevin Carey has a forthcoming book on the future of education, which I’m looking forward to.  The Washington Post offered a taste of it with an overview article, “One vision of tomorrow’s college: Cheap, and you get an education, not a degree“, which I’ll summarize here.

Carey envisions colleges and universities transformed primarily by distance learning (although he doesn’t call it that).   They will be joined by as-yet unformed, competitive nonprofits, including “start-up college[s].”  They will also be complemented by outsourced student life: “a thriving ecosystem of nonprofit and for-profit organizations will develop around the core education providers…”

The combination of free online course content (the article resists the “open education” term, curiously), MOOCs (also not named), the modular nature of digital media, and the demands of learners drives the creation of broken-down course bits, a/k/a unbundling. These course segments will be made by distributed teams and consist of rich multimedia.  Learners using them will rely on social media and video to collaborate in the learning process.  The result is the University of Everywhere.

Assessment will involve increasingly strong AI, open credentialing, and open badging, relying on a mix of texts and digital projects.  Proctoring will become a big business.

Costs will be lower than tuition prices now run, sometimes free, depending on the provider and service/content offered.  One business model: “free courses, inexpensive assessments”.  “The total cost of college for many students in the University of Everywhere will be a small fraction of the current market price of higher education.”  Funding will come from whichever entity wants to invest: “[p]rivate businesses might create these new learning organizations, or governments, or philanthropists.”

Face to face learning will occur, sometimes:

Imagine a small group of buildings or spaces run by people with a particular educational philosophy and open to anyone who’s interested in learning. The educators there focus on mentoring students and helping them form relationships with one another. There are places for people to work person-to-person, or to engage electronically with peers in other cities, states and countries. Some of the students live nearby and spend hours there every day, learning full-time. Others come in from their families and homes.

The book should have much more along these lines.  Without access to a copy, let me offer a few thoughts. Continue reading

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A Democratic party opportunity on higher education

This month has seen interesting signs of a potential partisan split on higher education.  That would be a major shift in American party politics, as both Democrats and Republicans have generally joined hands since 2008 in pressuring campuses to cut costs and reform academically.  We could be on the cusp of a strong party divide.

Here’s why.  A suite of Republican governors have suddenly attacked public funding for colleges and universities, most recently with Rauner of Illinois.  Their reasons vary, but they agree that tertiary education can bear massive financial cuts.

Bernie SandersThen from the far opposite side of the political spectrum came an antithetical call.  One of my state’s senators, avowed socialist (nominally independent, caucuses with Democrats) Bernie Sanders proposed that federal and state governments completely fund tuition and fees for every student in their first and second years while attending public institutions.

“We need a revolution in the way higher education is funded,” Sanders said at Johnson State College, a public school in Vermont, according to his office.

Sanders, who is mulling a 2016 White House run, said rising college costs are preventing young people from going to college and are leaving many students in debt. “This is absurd. This is absolutely counter-productive to our efforts to create a strong economy,” he said, adding that the United States is lagging behind other countries where college is free.

Sanders is an outlier in today’s Democratic party, obviously hard to its left. He’s not really a Democrat at all.

So why mention these disparate yet related public pronouncements?  Because they bracket the Democratic party.  The Democrats now have the perfect opportunity to take a partisan and probably popular stance.  They could call for not cuts, but increases in funding higher education.  The Dems could win over a generation of voters, grateful college students, and the grateful parents of many traditional-age students – possibly for life.

This could be a risky move.  It would entail backtracking from at least a decade of bipartisan education reform.  At the state level it would mean local Democrats reversing their tendency to cut public university funding.  At a broader level it would also return the Democrats to their pre-1990s, more liberal ways of supporting and expanding social programs, at least in this one instance.

Alternatively, the Democrats could remain silent and negotiate quietly for practical acceptance of smaller cuts.  That might maintain their allies in the 1%, especially in terms of campaign funding.  It would let them avoid charges of being too leftist, liberal, or socialist.

Thanks to these recent developments from the political right and left, the ball is in the Democratic party’s court.  How do you think they’ll play it?


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