This is from 2013 | 21 minute read

Stop Chasing Scale in Higher Education

A Million Dollar Carrot?

It's a fairly well documented and supported fact that people with a bachelor's degree make more on average in lifetime earnings than those with only a high school diploma. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau's report called "The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings" describes that those with a bachelor's degree earn on average $2.1 million in lifetime earningsBureau, 2002.

On average, it costs $35,572 to complete a 4-year degree at a state university, and $120,376 to complete a 4-year private degree. Collegeboard, 2013-14 The median household income in the US in 2012 was $51,371, Noss, 2013, and a 4-year degree is the most expensive thing many Americans will ever purchase. Yet we've historically accepted this expenditure as "good debt", encouraging families and young people to consider their college education an investment in their future. Economics professors explain that "a college education pays off over a lifetime, which is why paying for it over a long horizon makes senseDynarski, 2012." It's a reasonable way of thinking. If there's an expectation that a student will earn millions more in lifetime earnings, debt of tens or a hundred thousand dollars can be easily paid off over twenty or thirty years.

But built into and upon this argument is an assumption: that a bachelor's degree leads to these millions more in lifetime earnings. It is this assumption of causality that has created a cult-like sense of urgency for young people to pursue an undergraduate degree and receive the coveted document describing their baccalaureate success, and I fear that the same assumption of causality is now feeding (and, as we'll see below, has historically fed) a naive pursuit of technological solutions to problems of scale and access.

A Coin-Flip

There's another fact about higher education that's well documented and supported by strong data and evidence. 4-year colleges graduate 53% of students in 6 years. Put another way, 47% of students don't receive their bachelor's degree at all, or take longer than 6 years to complete it. As a point of reference, that same 4-year in-state tuition would cost $53,358 over 6 years, and the 4-year private degree over 6 years would cost $180,564.

Nearly one out of two students fail to complete their degree, the degree that supposedly guarantees them financial stability for the rest of their life. Why are graduation rates so poor? This is actually a tremendously well-researched aspect of college life, with a rich body of historical data, longitudinal studies, and qualitative research to draw from. And the data points to several main reasons why students fail to complete their undergraduate study and fail to attain their bachelor's degree.

  1. Students don't have time for school, because they are working... to pay for school.

    A report by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation identified that 60% of students in community college work 20+ hours per week in addition to pursuing their studies. 35% of students feel that balancing work and school is too stressful, and 62% of all college students who drop out are responsible for paying for their own education. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

  2. Students change their school or major, requiring them to extend the length of their studies.

    When a freshman enters college at 18, there's little reason to expect them to know exactly what they want to study. But many academic programs require a student to declare a major prior to matriculating. "At Penn State, 80 percent of freshmen—even those who have declared a major—say they are uncertain about their major, and half will change their minds after they declare, sometimes more than once.Simon, 2012"

    Our own qualitative research at MyEdu indicates students often make their initial major decisions for poor, irrational reasons. Consider Marissa, a 21 year old Engineering Major, who explained to us that "I didn't even want to do MechE; I wanted to do biomedical engineering. When I got to UTSA, it wasn't available. So I randomly picked mechanical engineering because I had a lot of mechanical engineering friends." It's no surprise that a student like Marissa would change her major later in her academic journey, causing her to stay longer to complete her degree. Even a casual interaction with most teenagers will show that don't have a definitive idea of what they want to do "for the rest of their life", and why should they? In their short life, they've had few opportunities to explore the menu of career choices, and little time to realize their own interests and aptitudes.

  3. Students can't get into required courses, essentially blocking forward progress.

    Academic programs have gating classes that are often difficult to get into, due to limited capacity and increased demand. These classes "unlock" additional required courses, and without completing the gating course, a student must add themselves to the wait list and take other courses or defer their forward academic progress. At the California Community College System, 472,300 of the 2.4 million students were on waiting lists for classes Fall 2012—an average of about 7,150 per campusCommunity colleges crisis slows students progress to a crawl. Savvy students may be able to work the system to get a course exemption or have a pre-requisite waved, but some students don't realize that curriculum rules are often flexible.

    This supply and demand problem is troubling enough without the added "excess credit surcharge" that schools like those in the University of Wisconsin System are adding, which doubles a student's tuition once they accumulate more credits than are necessary to graduateRonan, 2005. Students who are unable to get into required classes are financially rewarded to take a semester or a year off rather than take courses that don't count for graduation. This slows or completely eliminates valuable forward momentum on the path to degree completion.

  4. Students become emotionally overwhelmed, and feel alone.

    We've known for close to twenty years that issues of emotional and social adjustment predict attrition "as well or better than academic adjustment items", indicating that for many students, feelings of loneliness or anxiety cause them to drop outGerdes, 1994.

    Yet we continue to understaff and underfund advisors, counselors, and other non-academic support structures at major universities. A study in Massachusetts identified that 17 percent of the full-time students who entered one of the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts in 2003 earned a degree or certificate by 2010; the study aimed fault directly at the lack of emotional advising and support. "'We believe that too many students are falling through the cracks, in part because they don't have the guidance they need,' said MTA's Elizabeth Shevlin, the report's primary author. 'As recently as 2007 a state task force recommended increasing student advising services by increasing full-time faculty. Unfortunately, since then percentage of the faculty that works full time has actually declined.Flannery, 2013'"

  5. They fail out, likely because they never learned how to learn.

    Students in MyEdu's qualitative research study indicated that the emotional stresses of school were often accompanied by actual failure of course contentMyEdu, 2013. One student explained to us that "I was supposed to do a chest x-ray, and I was super anxious and froze. I did it wrong, so I failed that lab test, which meant I failed the program. It was very strict—they said you fail the program, and no matter how far you are you have to start all over again. I just got anxious and freaked out over this one lab test."

    These students that fail out are typically poorly prepared for the autonomy and rigor of college. In a seminal paper examining two longitudinal studies of college students, researchers found that "For community college students... declines in college preparation account for almost 90 percent of the total drop in completion rates.Bound, Lovenheim, & Turner, 2009" This makes sense: if a student in high school never acquired strategies and techniques for learning, they would be poorly prepared for the independence and self-direction necessary to succeed in college. This is unfortunately ironic, because research also indicates that "students who got more education than they otherwise would have actually benefitted more than their peers.Hout, 2012" Counter-intuitively, schools might provide the most benefit by retaining students who experience failure, rather than systematically removing them.

In many ways, we've established the most precarious path for a new undergraduate. At the end of the journey lies a dream of financial stability, a dream that is nearly guaranteed in the rhetoric used by trusted adult figures like guidance counselors and parents. The dream requires a dramatic up-front cost of entry, with a debt burden that's inescapable through bankruptcy. The path to achieve the dream is emotionally overwhelming and logistically complicated. And along the way, almost half of students drop out.

Technology Will Save Us

For years, popular media has been telling us that technology will fix the broken state of education. In 1999, Popular Science stated that "students in schools that integrate technology into the traditional curriculum have higher attendance and lower dropout rates, which leads to greater academic results... "Fisher, 1999, while in 1967, Life Magazine offered that "Young pioneers in an educational revolution are being taught by electronic schoolmarms—machines that are making an eerie and promising impact at all levels of learning... "The Computer as Tutor, 1967 The US government also advocates for technology in education, as evidenced by the 2000 report from congress that championed the use of the Internet in education, and outlined a national agenda to promote e-learning. Senator Bob Kerrey led the web-based education commission in making sweeping decrees of the internet as a force of democratization and positive change; time gives us the perspective of watching Senator Kerrey later take the job of executive chairman at the for-profit online education venture called Minerva. In 2000, in spite of first recognizing that "the Internet is not a panacea for every problem in education", Kerrey's recommendations were seven core points, all focusing on funding and supporting educational technology at all levels of education.

In fact, the popular rhetoric of education technology from the last twenty years has indeed painted technology as a panacea, with sources falling over one another with superalatives. The New York Times declared 2012 the "Year of the MOOC"Pappano, 2012, and Scientific America decreed that MOOCs "transform higher learning"Waldrop, 2012. TIME declared that "College is Dead" as a result of "a new breed of online megacourses"Ripley, 2012, while Fast Company offered "10 ways that mobile learning will revolutionize education. LaBarre, 2012" In fact, popular articles have crowed that "mobile tech"Stetler, 2013, "machines"Pelletier, 2012, "etextbooks"Chapman, 2011, and "QR codes"Chu, 2011 are all going to "revolutionize education".

Apple alone seems to garner the most optimism, as College Insider describes how "Apple could be set to revolutionize education. College Insider, 2012" Each new Apple device holds the promise of an educational revolution; according to various popular sources, the iPodCowles, 2008, iPhoneCox, 2010, iPadBonington, 2013, iPad MiniWildstrom, 2012, iPad 4Englar, 2012, and iBook2Convergence, 2013 have all been poised to revolutionize our broken education system.

Yet in spite of the relentless optimism around technology as the main solution to our educational problems, there was at least one man who didn't see technology as an educational wonder-drug: Steve Jobs. In a 1996 interview with Wired Magazine, Jobs explained that,

"I used to think that technology could help education. I've probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I've had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent. Wolf, 1996"

Jobs is factually correct: the technology we've been throwing at the problem of education hasn't made a dent, at least not to completion and retention rates. The percentage of four-year college students who earn a degree within five years of entry has remained fixed at approximately 53% since 1992. While cost has changed, and the repercussions of dropping out may now feel more insurmountable, the actual rate of completion has been poor for over twenty years ACT, 2013. This dropout rate should have been viewed as an indicator of larger, systemic issues with education, and should have alerted policy makers, administrators, and parents to fundamental problems in the service design of higher education. Instead, it seemed to have been viewed exclusively as opportunity for education technology, as if the problem of attrition is simply wanting a more refined algorithm or user interface.

It is easy to embrace technology as an answer to our problem, because technology simplifies and clarifies the problem—it makes the problem one with neat edges. A MOOC describes the problem of education as one of scale and access, and solves for scale and access effectively. A tablet describes the problem of education as one of engagement, and solves for engagement neatly. But the problem of completion is not neat and tidy, and is not exclusively one of scale or engagement. This problem is both more obtuse and more nuanced.

Education technology fixes neither the rate of completion nor the larger issues implicit in the service delivery model of higher education. Online tools make it easy for an educator to track objective growth, but nearly impossible to track emotional growth—there is no online tool that alerts a professor that a student is irritated, nervous, or scared, and these are real qualities that arrest educational growth and completion. While educational tools and platforms could help identify students in need of individualized help and attention so as to encourage a personal human to human interaction, they typically don't.

Education technology assumes students are motivated, but undergraduate students often lack emotional maturity and drive. They may never have learned how to learn, and educational technology places the burden of use squarely on the user. Online tools assume students understand how to think critically, compare and contrast, explore an idea from multiple perspectives, practice, identify alternative problem solving techniques, externalize their process, and ask for help when necessary. As "rock star" educator Sebastian Thrun described in a recent Fast Company article, Udacity—one of the most vocal and well funded MOOCs—simply doesn't work well for students on the wrong side of the digital divide. "These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives... It's a group for which this medium is not a good fit. Chafkin, 2013"

Yet as easy as it is to embrace technology, it is just as easy to blame it. Technology is not the solution, and technology is also not the problem. Technology is simply a large, expensive distraction.

The Problem, and Opportunity, Lies With Scale.

We began with a basic assumption held by many people: a bachelor's degree leads to $1 million more on average in lifetime earnings. This implies that we should encourage young people to get these bachelor's degrees, which often means taking on large quantities of debt. And somehow, through a mix of well-intentioned policy, popular media, the urge to simplify problems and solutions, and corporate interests, we've arrived at the assumption that technology will help us offer more bachelor's degrees to more students, so they can benefit from increased earning potential over the course of their lifetime.

But a basic premise of scientific research is that correlation does not equal causality—that two things can be related to one-another, without one of those things directly predicting the other. While those who have a bachelor's degree most certainly benefit from increased lifetime earning potential, there's no real reason to believe that a bachelor's degree causes increased lifetime earning potential, and an astute observer of society will realize that it's just as likely to think that growing up in a good home, in a nice neighborhood with good high schools and supportive parents causes increased rates of undergraduate completion and simultaneously causes earning potential to increase.

If we imagine isolating a single magic variable that acts as a root-cause of both college completion and lifetime earning potential, it's likely to be something related to socioeconomic status: access to good schools, good parenting, reading to children when they are young, eating a balanced diet, participating in extracurricular activities, civic engagement. And through this lens, it's obvious that there are two distinct populations of students—those with access to the magic variable, and those without. As much as we'd like to believe everyone's getting a fair shot, the reality is that low-income students who had been performing at a high level in 8th grade still have less than a one-third chance of completing college.Roy, 2005

If group B—students who grow up without the magic variable, in poor neighborhoods or with poor parenting—are statistically less likely to complete college, and if the link between college completion and earning potential is not causally related, and if there's little expectation that these students can repay the massive amount of debt that they'll need to take on in order to pursue an undergraduate degree, it would be a tremendous disservice to them and to society to systematically encourage these students to attend a four-year university. Yet that's exactly what we're doing. Our focus on MOOCs and educational technology as a cure for attrition is an attempt to scale undergraduate education, so we can continue encouraging entire generations to pursue the bachelor's-to-earnings bonanza. But a bachelor's degree does not guarantee higher earnings, and it's time we recognized that the pursuit of that degree is harmful for those who have little hope of completing it.

The Point: Not Less, But Smaller

This is explicitly not a call for less education: it's a call for smaller education. Study after study shows that the size of the educational unit (classroom or college) matters: the principal structural variables inhibiting degree completion include large institution size and low selectivity of student bodyOseguera, 2005; institution size is negatively correlated to student outcomesBailey, 2005; institutions that experienced high graduation rates also have lower student/faculty ratiosWalker, 2005. We need to destigmatize smaller programs (which are often certificate, credential, or skills and practitioner programs), and realize that there is no shame in pursuing alternative forms of education that don't result in a degree.

This is precisely the conclusion reached by researchers Owen and Sawhill in their paper "Should Everyone Go To College?" As they describe, "It may be that for a student with poor grades who is on the fence about enrolling in a four-year program, the most bang-for-the-buck will come from a vocationally-oriented associate's degree or career-specific technical training... policymakers should encourage these alternatives at the high school as well as the postsecondary level, with a focus on high-demand occupations and high-growth sectors. Owen & Sawhill, 2013"

Recognizing that a heterogeneous approach to education is beneficial changes the conversation of program structure and alters our expectation of education technology:

  • We collectively no longer need to focus on scale for scale sake—as if education was a commodity to be mass produced and mass distributed. It no longer becomes necessary to trade off educational quality for throughput.
  • Academic institutions can focus on building lower-cost, small headcount, non-degree based programs that fit into the work-schedules of the increasing quantity of "non-traditional students."
  • We can encourage national policy decisions that incentivize the creation of and attendance at small, niche educational certificate programs rather than pursuing a national agenda of undergraduate attendance and completion.
  • Educators and administrators in smaller programs can focus on educational experience rather than content-delivery, tailoring learning to match the student.
  • Programs can charge tuition costs that better reflect the true cost of learning, rather than costs inflated by administrative overhead necessary to manage growth and scale.

In fact, there's already something of a sea-change occurring in the spaces of design and software development, with small, certificate programs cropping up all over the United States. Consider Austin Center for Design—a small school that I run, and that was featured as part of Fast Company's $10,000 Design Degree—in the context of Be Social Change, the 60-Day MBA, Hacker School, the Amani Institute, TechChange, and The Unreasonable Institute. All of these programs are unaccredited, yet all are thriving and delivering quality education to small groups of dedicated, highly non-traditional students.

Dennis Littky's work at Big Picture Learning exemplifies this model of "small and focused" at a high school level. Littky seeks out the lowest socio-economic level of students, students with poor statistical likelihood of graduating from high school. His mentors work as a learning team with these students to build curriculum that maps directly to the students' interests. And through this smallness comes success: he boasts a high school graduation rate of 92%. The secret to his success is simple: one student at a time. "The philosophy of educating one student at a time expands beyond "academic" work and involves looking at and working with each student holistically. Each student's work is documented on an individual learning plan created and updated each quarter (or trimester) with the learning team (the student, parent(s), advisor, and whenever possible, internship mentor) in a learning plan meeting. Big Picture Learning, 2008" It may be claimed that this is ineffective because it doesn't scale. In fact, it's effective precisely because it doesn't scale, and it's fundamental that we question our need to take proven models and commoditize them. Littky began an effort to leverage this model at a college level in 2008, with promising results.

We need to stop trying to scale a homogenous education paradigm, and stop assuming that an undergraduate degree is the right path for all students. This means a direct change in the popular rhetoric, so that students feel empowered to explore alternative education without stigma. Entrepreneurs and administrators need to build more exploratory program structures, designed to deliver skills related to niche career outcomes or unique vocations. We need national policy initiatives and incentives for smaller local programs, programs that can't claim accreditation because they don't result in degrees. And we need to stop throwing technology at a problem that is clearly one of student motivation, equality and class, and mentorship.

Small programs, small classes, and individualized attention hold the answer. As much as we might wish technology to solve our educational problems, there are no shortcuts.

Works Cited

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Kolko, Jon (2013), "Stop Chasing Scale in Higher Education". December, 2013.

Followup: I wrote this in 2013. It's December of 2022 now, and for fun, I googled the phrase "will revolutionize education"; I'm sarcastically pleased to see that nothing has changed. According to The Internet, and in no particular order, AI, immersive learning experiences, VR, connected schools, social intelligence, blockchain, mobile learning, games, web-based education, tablets, chatGPT, machine learning, and, somewhat amusingly, Generation Z, will all revolutionize eduction. Can't wait...

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