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Key Ideas from the NYT Higher Ed Leaders Forum

July 5, 2018

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As we approach accreditation and gain formal recognition as a post-secondary institution, it's important for us to open our ears to the leaders of industry. We'll need to be thoughtful on which ideas we choose to align with and which we choose to shed as we straddle the world of institutional academia and the forward thinking tech industry.

The NYT Higher Ed Leaders Forum served as an opportunity to hear from university presidents, provosts, chancellors along with policy makers and thought leaders. The conference was intimate - 150 attendees, all holding rank at traditional institutions - providing opportunities for dialog.

Perhaps most surprising was how un-radical the ideas and viewpoints we hold at Make School are, even among administrators of institutions struggling to find relevance in the 21st century. Viewpoints that may have felt antagonistic to academics 4 years ago have been internalized by leaders. Our uniqueness today is not in our vision of what a new model of higher education looks like, but our nimbleness, our ability to design an institution on these principles from the ground up, and - most importantly - our ability to execute on a forward thinking vision.

The speakers at the forum included Michael Bloomberg (read his speech), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn., chairman of the HELP committee), Ruth Simmons (President of Prairie View A&M, former president of Brown), Alan Golston (President of the U.S. arm of the Gates Foundation), Eloy Ortiz Oakley (Chancellor of California Community Colleges), and more. The videos are available here.

These are the ideas that stood out:

Liberal arts education is more important than ever
The rise of ubiquitous technology in the past decade - and promise of increasingly rapid change - has introduced two great challenges for society. First, how can we thoughtfully design technology to work for society rather than against it. Second, how can we continually adapt our skills to augment the work that will soon be automated. These challenges are driving an increased sentiment that a liberal arts education is a necessary cornerstone of college to instill an understanding of (among others) ethics, sociology, and critical thinking techniques.

Institutions need to admit that most students go to college for jobs
Though the liberal arts are increasingly relevant, they can be supplemented with skills development leading to employability. Surveys of students from all institutions indicate career outcomes are top on their list of concerns, perhaps born from a generation growing up in a recession. Institutions should not fall victim to the false choice between providing a broad based education and teaching employable skills. Institutions should be transparent about their long term career outcomes in an effort to better educate students to make a college choice.

More students should attend college and more should attend vocational schools
The media paints a combative narrative between the value of a college versus vocational schools. Presently, the ROI of college is positive as is the ROI of vocational schools; so we should encourage greater enrollment in both. Instead of looking at these categories as opposing forces, we should view at them as complimentary pieces of a larger education system. Our society will see more success, equity, and progress if more of our youth are educated through whichever category suits them and their needs best.

Elitism propagated by universities (and media) is dividing the country
Universities share responsibility for exacerbating a cultural and political divide in America through promotion of intellectual elitism and exclusivity. Individuals who are refused admission to top institutions walk away feeling inadequate, indirectly told by the system that they are not smart enough, not hard working enough, and lacking in potential. Even those who find great success through vocational training are seen as inferior (and implicitly lower class) to those holding a bachelor's degree. It's unsurprising that many of these individuals hold disdain for the intellectual elite along with the culture and values they stand for, especially when those born into well educated, wealthy families have disproportionate access to top institutions. Changing the narrative with which institutions and the media portray higher education and redefining admissions could help bridge our unsustainable cultural divide.

Institutional incentives have deteriorated educational quality and optionality
US News higher ed rankings - a key driver of enrollment - have become the de facto metric on which institutions measure their quality and evaluate long term success. Over the past few decades, the only true impact on rankings has come from success in athletics or in research. Most investment - in form of money or attention - from university leadership has been put towards impacting rankings rather than improving education quality or student experience. Institutions should look to design new systems of incentives to promote investments in faculty development and improve teaching and pedagogy. They should establish unique identities - rather than chasing a singular research university ideal - and create a differentiated experience focused on educating their demographic of students. 

Reduced government funding does not justify reduced quality
Concerns around reducing or reshaping federal aid programs are creating an existential threat to many institutions. In response, institutions should look internally and evaluate how to improve operational efficiency. Increased focus on core - educating and supporting students - will enable dollars to stretch further and ensure long term sustainability.

Institutions and accreditors should support faster and flexible degree paths
Fewer than 50% of pell-eligible students graduate within 6 years. The traditional 4 year model with summer breaks isn't working well for low income students due to lack of access to internships and family or financial needs that occur when staying out of the workforce for an extended period. Bipartison legislation approved availability of pell grants for summer terms (effective this summer), yet few institutions have embraced accelerated 3 year degrees. Accreditors have also been hesitant - due both to federal regulation and internal resistance - to experimenting with flexible degree paths. As student demographics continue to broaden, institutions and accreditors should look to better meet student needs.

Institutions need better support for low income students
As tuition and living costs have increased in recent years, financial aid packages often no longer cover the full cost of living for students. 36% of college students experience food insecurity throughout their education, while 14% of community college students experience homelessness. These factors are major drivers of poor academic performance and low graduation rates. However, financially supporting low income students is not enough to close the achievement gap. These students often lack strong career guidance, mentorship, and mental health support from family and friends. Providing support outside the classroom - in form of coaching, mentorship, and counseling - can substantially improve graduation rates and long term career success.

Diversity of viewpoints is missing from academia
Institutions are being increasingly challenged by the paradox of providing intellectual diversity neccessary for personal growth and providing safe campuses neccessary for academic achievement. Speakers with radical - and often uninclusive or borderline hateful - viewpoints are drawing large protests from both students and faculty. Affluent universities have resources to provide security around such events and protests, but for most this comes at a cost of other expenditures. Do institutions have responsibility to encourage diverse thought? How do you draw the line between diverse thought and hate speech absent of intellectual merit? Should institutions have the right to censor speakers who student groups invite onto campus? Should these principles be communicated to students prior to selecting an institution? The only strong viewpoint expressed on this issue was from Senator Lamar Alexander: the party in control of the executive and legislative feels wholly alienated by higher education; if institutions don't allow for diverse viewpoints they risk pissing off their biggest donor.


Higher education faces broad challenges over the next decades, with key issues surrounding relevance, accessibility, sustainability, and inclusiveness. The conference left me inspired and hopeful for the future, due both to the opportunity ahead of us to build a new institutional model and to the caliber of leaders at other institutions working towards our common goals.

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