The biggest problem in higher education isn’t funding or student loans-It’s Misalignment
There is plenty to discuss when it comes to higher education—is there a student loan bubble? What about where the funding will come from for President Obama’s proposal for free tuition in community college? My argument is those two issues are systemic to the real issue plaguing higher education—misalignment. Misalignment occurs when your organization cannot open itself to change and adapt to disruptive markets.
Peter Senge wrote a classic management book called The Fifth Discipline. In the Fifth Discipline, Senge explains silos as fiefdom built around successful managers, entrepreneurs, or revenue streams. When you believe your success made you smarter and less susceptible to competition, your silo walls get taller and more impenetrable. The higher the silo walls, the less adaptable your organization becomes. These silos resist change. The successful firms without direct competition are the most likely to create silos
The more success you experienced in the past, the more likely you will believe your success will continue. Innovation and experimentation with other areas of the company cease. You protect the cash cows and reduce experimentation. Learning is considered “proprietary” by each division. These divisions won’t share or openly discuss their “research” with colleagues in other areas for fear it will be used by others without lending credit to the originators.
Senge’s research proved the silo mentality can kill a company, its learning culture, and the revenue streams it was created to protect. Silos lead to misalignment for educational institutions. Misalignment leads to more college dropouts; less effective preparation for graduates joining the workforce, and disenfranchised faculty.
Academia is the classic test case for what a learning organization is and what it isn’t. I falsely assumed higher education was the ideal model for innovation and knowledge dissemination when I started working full-time in academia in 2001. Ironically for me, Senge, and most recently, Clayton Christensen argued that educators and most institutions of higher learning are the least innovative organizations because of strong silos and what Christensen calls the “Harvardization Factor”. (Note to myself: be careful what you wish for)
The Harvardization Factor is the attempt by every institution of higher learning to model their strategy and program after Harvard University. Despite Harvard’s preeminence, Christensen argues that a distinctive university strategy for each institution makes more sense and lead to more innovation, learning, adaptability and marketplace success.
Learning organizations pride themselves on sharing their learning freely. They effectively manage the process by which their people are trained and nutured. Openness to learning new methods, and being adaptable to external constraints is taught to all employees, and shared with, vendors, customers and other stakeholders. Senge stressed the importance of cross department communication and alignment of organizational goals as a way to engender collaboration and innovate (Senge, 1990).
Faculty in large institutions tend to function as a disparate group of independent departments and individual contractors. Senge worries that chemists won’t share or work with social scientists, business faculty, or philosophers and artists because of the silo mentality and the value they place in being understood and emulated.
Change becomes a particularly difficult process in institutions without a “culture” of trust or the willingness to be curious and learn about things you know little about. Faculty are usually the smartest women (or men) in the room from a IQ standpoint, so admitting you know nothing about how learning organizations thrive or the management of students who do not want to go to graduate school is humbling for the best of us. In academia, increased expectations from students and parents in the area of services (make me great food, put me in a hotel-like dorm, provide me with weekly physiological counseling, find me a job) puts incredible pressure on universities to hire more staff to deliver of these expectations versus investments in more qualified faculty and their research.
Faculty point out that more staff and fancy facilities are problematic because it drives up the tuition cost and expectations for institutions of higher learning. Can we “push the reset button” in terms of how the public evaluates colleges and universities? Student success is the ultimate measure of a higher educational institution’s effectiveness, right? I believe when faculty and administrator’s goals are aligned towards student success, higher education can change people’s lives and improve their local communities. Cumulatively, student success improves the competitiveness of US corporations and workers in the international marketplace.
As opposed the idea from the book Academically Adrift, where the study concludes that the US 4-year college experience does little to enable those ill-prepared in high school for the challenges of a tech firm or corporations, my experience at both Monmouth College and Jacksonville University over 15 years taught me differently. Even average students I taught changed their aptitude and propensity to succeed in today’s corporation and became successful in international cities such as Chicago, New York, or even Tokyo. Those who came from rural high schools with little academic opportunity (or were B- students from suburban high schools) flourished when motivated by better-prepared co-eds and engaged faculty. In other words, these students, who were willing to pay or borrow $30,000-$100,000 in tuition (after a 40%+ discount) over 4 years to earn their degree were successful. The math is simple. Over the 10 years post-graduation these workers earned two to three times the annual income of their peers from their same high school who went straight to work at 18 years-old.
Many grads did much better than three times and now make over $150,000 annually. In other the words, the delta or change for making the decision to go to college and major in business or accounting created a return on investment 10-20 times more than their original investment in tuition.
If the ultimate measure of the efficacy and societal benefit of higher education is student success, success must be defined better and explained by all of us in higher education. Is success really just the graduate rate or persistence? Certainly we all want to reduce the indebtedness, but quality and competency matters too.
Alternatively, Is competency in certain basic or technical skills worth granting credit or even a degree? Imagining the possibility for more enlightened higher education, I propose that return on investment be one key performance indicator (KPI) we compare when determining the value of investing in higher education. Another KPI should be evaluating the intellectual curiosity factor and task orientation of each student. Can they perform and be willing to accept criticism for less than satisfactory work? Do these same students show improvement based on the feedback they received? If these students can also meet the minimum requirements, they should be conferred degrees by institutions of higher learning. It is not the end of their education, but the foundation for more disciplined inquiry in the future.
When the objectives and culture of university leaders are out of alignment with the goals and norms of senior members of the faculty, problems arise. The dysfunctional behavior of faculty leaders in many institutions rule the day because the process for change is often tied to shared governance. Faculty and administrators who came up through the academy created the shared governance model. Faculty created the shared governance system to protect the status quo and manage the pace of change.
I believe a shared governance system works when there are common goals and objectives. Shared governance is not just faculty control , but a spirit of sharing, collaboration, and teamwork with staff and administration. In other words, it works when the silos come down and the institution becomes a learning community. Many senior faculty won’t understand or agree with the need for change because they are heavily invested in their own silo. These investments create “lines in the sand” which can become cultural fights for the “soul” of an institution. Any change in this situation taxes the university’s resources and time. Initiatives such as changing the general education requirements or the criteria and limits for tenure form the battle line against greater inter-disciplinary integration and the learning enterprise. Misalignment ultimately hurts student learning and their employment preparation which impacts ROI and graduation rates. That is why I believe this misalignment is the real problem.
Why does misalignment happen?
Answer: The institution’s goal for student success, through quality teaching and improved student scholarship, runs out of alignment with how faculty are rewarded, promoted and recognized by their peers. In most cases of misalignment, the university fails to provide the faculty incentives and the vision for why the student success goals benefit everyone. This misalignment in higher education can be fixed. But it will take committed faculty and administrative leaders who can call the right signals, provide evidence for their recommendations, and rally faculty department’s heads into line with the overall good of the university.