Scale: A Powerful Competitive Edge

In my past post, I raised three concerns about the growing significance of for-profit universities: their ability to invest large amounts of capital upfront, the ability to pay high salaries and attract human talent, and their ability to wield political influence.  Yet I realized that my list of three was incomplete; I need to add a fourth concern, the issue of scale.

As the focus on learning outcomes become stronger, we face increasing scrutiny.  There is a growing expectation that we can demonstrate significant learning outcomes.  The problem with that expectation is that we have never paid enough attention to how students actually learn.  That sounds ironic, given that we are an industry more than a thousand years old.  But at many different levels – program, institution, state or national – we have not been systematic or rigorous enough about what are the most effective ways to increase student learning outcomes.  The reality is that we mostly have a large number of individual trials underway, in individual classrooms, with little in the ways of controls, experiments, or data about the effects of specific learning interventions, on specific populations of students, with certain materials, under certain circumstances.  In medicine, it would be akin to a series of physicians who try out certain approaches and medicines but never talk to anyone else, or have the slightest idea about what actually works, aside from their own idiosyncratic experiences.  So we are ill prepared (no pun intended) for the scrutiny that is coming our way about student learning outcomes.  We are also not prepared, should such a scrutiny reveal less than stellar gains, to how and what to change to improve outcomes.

But that situation may be about that change.  As the for-profit universities attract more and more students, and control of processes is available to them, scale starts to become possible for them in ways not possible for individual public institutions.   Bror Saxeberg, Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, Inc., reports that he told the president of Kaplan University when he was hired that he wanted to do experimentation on learning outcomes, using 1,000 randomized trials with at least 1,00 students in each trail, each year.  While he indicates that he’s not there yet, his goal is probably not farfetched, particularly with more than a million students enrolled in Kaplan courses worldwide.

The largest of the for-profit universities, like Kaplan with more than a million students, and the University of Phoenix with almost 500,000 students, have the enormous advantage of scale.  They can test learning outcomes using different strategies.  They can use different software programs and monitor results. They can aggregates results across individual courses. They can disaggregate data by student type.  And they can experiment and test in circumstances that are reasonably similar, as they control the curriculum and the teaching practices.

So how do individual AASCU institutions compete without the apparent advantage of scale?  Two ideas come quickly to mind.  The first is to develop scale by cross-institutional collaboration.  AAASCU schools in a state, in a system, or even in a region might work together to build scale.  The Red Balloon Project is seeking to develop scale by linking efforts of different campuses across the country, on different issues and topics, serving in effect as an intake and distribution center for data about student learning success.  That effort, while only just underway and in its infancy, could provide some larger insights and understanding of teaching learning processes.

Within that collaboration, we need to encourage much more research on what works and why.  Again, collaboration between and among institutions could facilitate such work.  Sadly, that idea has already been thought of, at least at the institutional level, a long time ago.  It simply wasn’t acted upon.  In l933, a committee of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) commented:  “…if even a small portion of the ingenuity and persistence which are now being expended on research of the usual type in American colleges and universities could be deflected . . . toward research into the results of their own teaching, the improvement in the general standards of collegiate instruction might be considerable”

American Association of University Professors. 1933. Report of the Committee on College and University Teaching. AAUP Bulletin 19 (5, section 2): 7–122.

Universities could not only encourage and facilitate such research cooperatives but could set up repositories of research results and journals to make the findings available to a wider audience.

A second way to build scale might be to work with publishers who are now developing substantially more sophisticated learning tools.  They have an advantage of scale which individual institutions do not have.  Partnerships between publishers and universities might be in the best interest of both parties.

Whatever else happens, I predict that the focus on learning outcomes is not going away, especially as tuition skyrockets.  Students, parents, and policy makers all wonder more and more if what students are paying for is worth the cost.  I predict that the most successful campuses will understand the imperative to demonstrate results, and will figure out ways to increase student learning outcomes, using collaboration, critical partners, and other approaches.


About George L Mehaffy

Vice President, Academic Leadership and Change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).
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