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January-February 2013

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Editorial: Productivity

Several years ago, we decided not to organize Change around themes, since readers not interested in an issue's theme would find nothing in it to read. But there's a certain synchronicity in the topics that tend to come up—I'll often get two or three articles on the same or similar topics at once.

This signals, I think, that a moment has become ripe for discussion of some issue—usually a particularly thorny problem. Why, for instance, did Academically Adrift (2011) get an enormous amount of attention while the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (2003), with a lot of the same bad news about college graduates' learning, did not? Because we were ready collectively to confront an unpleasant truth that we had shied away from before.

We have been discussing productivity in higher education policy circles for decades (some of you will remember Bruce Johnson's theory of “learning productivity” from the 1990s). But now that what people see as an increasingly essential good is slipping out of the hands of many citizens because of rising costs and prices, some of our most respected researchers are taking on the task of determining how we might measure our productivity. It's in our own self-interest that our best minds work on this problem, since they are sensitive to the different missions and student populations in the sprawling system of colleges and universities in this country.

In this issue, two groups report on the collective wisdom of our colleagues regarding the measurement of productivity in higher education. Nate Johnson summarizes the work of Context for Success, a group of researchers and policymakers led by HCM Strategists and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who were charged with developing a set of “input-adjusted” measurements of higher education's productivity and recommending how they should be used in policymaking. While acknowledging that different audiences will have different definitions of input adjustment, they make a number of observations about what doing so will both require and enable, and they offer cautions about which are the tough nuts to crack.

Meanwhile, in 2009 the National Research Council of the National Academies, with support from the Lumina Foundation, convened an eminent panel to take on the same task. After providing a set of cautions about the trip wires involved in addressing a policy imperative so fraught with significance, the member of the panel concluded that we could and should measure our productivity, then showed how to do so using available data.

That, of course, is the rub. As William Massy, Teresa Sullivan, and Chris Mackie observe, “Our bottom line was that reliance upon quality assurance is a sufficient bulwark against a race to the bottom.” The core problem, though, is that such measurements run up against the paucity of comparable and transparent information on the quality of higher education's chief outcome, learning. Absent that key information, they caution that “the measures should be used only to assess broad trends, not for accountability purposes.”

There are two classic ways to become more productive. One is to substitute cheap labor for expensive (the route we have chosen so far, as reflected in our use of poorly paid adjunct faculty). But the second, more powerful strategy is to substitute capital for labor. Burck Smith argues that the traditional model of higher education cannot, in fact, be efficient, and he predicts that it will soon be swamped by the new models that are emerging as we exploit the possibilities that those technologies open up.

But capital in the form of technology is not the sole province of outside providers. Elizabeth Phillips offers an intriguing example of how we can use it to become more productive (i.e., get better results with the same or diminished investment) even on traditional campuses. Advising is one service with which students are perennially dissatisfied. But computers can store information that slips through our brains and organize it such that advisors and students can talk about what really matters: what students want out of their education.

Our pride in our artisan approach to education is sometimes misplaced. I really prefer that my shoes not be made by the local cobbler. But certainly, there are things that we can do in human interactions that can't be done any other way. We might want to take Smith's advice to heart when he recommends that we “abandon the ‘class’ as the organizational unit” and replace it with “‘meet-ups,’ capstone projects, internships and other valuable activities that can't be easily offered in a standardized online environment.” A prime example of such a reconceived classroom experience is Judith Shapiro's description of teaching a Reacting to the Past course—a pedagogical wonder in the way that it engages learners' amygdales.

Navigating these shoals will require serious leadership—the kind proposed by Richard Legon for boards and Gary Rhoades for faculty in their article in this issue. Presidential leadership is crucial too. John Lombardi's view of the career president is rather too cynical for my taste, given the effective and dedicated presidents I have known. But I do think he's right about what a challenge it is to be such a president. And he also repeatedly suggests that one mark of these leaders is their reliance on data to drive efficient decisions—data made available and usable by technology.

We need not only leadership but a general sense of civic stewardship—in higher education, to be sure, but also more generally. The recent presidential election and the failure of leaders in Washington to address even relatively straightforward issues (never mind the ones that that threaten to swamp us as a species) should make clear that this is in too short supply. They should also make it clear how badly we need to address the imperative to educate a more civic-minded citizenry, as recommended by Martha Kanter and Carol Schneider.

So how should we do this? I suggest we do so by letting computers do what they do best—for example, present information—and leaving it to faculty and student services staff to foster the kind of passion and commitment to political awareness and action that is a necessary condition for the exercise of citizenship.

The imperative that higher education produce more and better learning at lower cost clearly extends past our borders. The level of the challenge facing American colleges and universities in doing this is nothing compared to the hard task ahead for the countries that Clara Lovett surveys. To begin with, teaching in the nether regions of China, which Keith Kerr describes, puts into clear relief the luxuries enjoyed by those on American campuses.

But ambitious countries such as China, as both Lovett and Brian Coppola remind us, know that their rise depends on their capacity to educate as many of their young as well as possible. And they will both adopt American models and do us one better in order to do that as efficiently and effectively as possible.

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