Q&A with SNHU President Paul LeBlanc


Q&A with SNHU President Paul LeBlanc

Episode 74. October 5, 2021.

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Southern New Hampshire University President Dr. Paul LeBlanc has written a new book, “Students First,” centered on the idea that time is the ultimate scarcity, the lack of which prevents far too many students from achieving their educational goals. Going further, Dr. LeBlanc explains why the credit hour concept may have outlived its usefulness and why competency based educational curricula deserve a fresh look.

Dr. LeBlanc also shares with EAB’s Sally Amoruso, reasons why the growth of short-form alternative credentials and hybrid instructional models are good for higher education.



0:00:11.1 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. We're joined today by a visionary in higher education, Dr. Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University. Dr. LeBlanc talks to EAB Sally Amoruso about his new book, which argues for substantial changes to the traditional higher education model. His argument is centered on the idea that we aren't likely to improve abysmal graduation rates until we recognize that the entire credit hour model and a system built around old-fashioned classroom and scheduling allotments doesn't work very well for today's non-traditional students. Give Paul a listen and draw your own conclusions, and enjoy.


0:01:02.9 Sally Amoruso: Welcome to Office Hours. I'm Sally Amoruso, Chief Partner Officer for EAB. And I am delighted to be joined today by the President of Southern New Hampshire University, Dr. Paul LeBlanc. Hi, Paul.

0:01:14.6 Dr. Paul LeBlanc: It's a real pleasure to be with you Sally, thank you for having me.

0:01:17.5 SA: Oh, thank you for joining us. If anyone has been living under a rock and doesn't know Southern New Hampshire, it is the largest non-profit provider of online higher education in the country, having grown under Paul's leadership from less than 3000 students in their on-campus university to now more than 180,000 students served. Not long ago, the university was number 12 on Fast Company's World's 50 Most Innovative Companies List, it's actually the only university included on that list. And Paul is here today because he has written a new book called "Students First". And in the book, Paul presents a compelling case for giving students greater agency to gain, assess, and certify their knowledge on their own terms and timelines. So Paul, let's start with the provenance of this book, what made you feel like this was the right time to write this particular book?

0:02:16.7 DL: I've been thinking about this for a long time, obviously, and working on these questions of, how do we create models that will better serve students who are increasingly left behind by our existing system of higher ed. If you'll permit me, Sally, I feel like I have this very schmaltzy, heartfelt embrace of the American dream [chuckle] and higher Ed's centrality to it. My... We immigrated when I was a kid. My parents had eighth grade educations. My daughters have both just completed doctoral programs, one's at law school. And I think what was the connection between their world, which their grandparents could scarcely imagine, in the world where I was born, and it was my access to high quality higher education. That's increasingly out of the reach of too many people. We're leaving too many people behind.

0:03:07.9 DL: And when I was growing up, higher education was seen as part of really critical to the solution of social mobility, social justice, and opportunity. And for so many people today, that narrative has changed. Higher education is seen increasingly as part of the problem, and it breaks my heart 'cause I love this industry and I live the power of it. I wanna figure out how we can get that back. The pandemic actually accelerated all of the negative trends that we saw, and I think it impelled me with no social life or inability to go out [chuckle] without being able to see my friends, to write this book, which I've been really working out in my head for a very long time.

0:03:49.7 SA: So I speak to lots of higher ed leaders, and I think most of them would say that they already put students first. This is a hearts and minds career path that they've chosen. And yet you contend that the current system is broken. How does your book actually challenge higher ed leaders to think differently about what it means to be student first?

0:04:12.8 DL: No, I think you really raise this paradox that I'm working on another book, which we'll talk about later, if you like, but it's around this paradox that we're in an industry like other industries like healthcare and K-12 and mental health treatment, in which people I think have almost a calling to it. They have a heartfelt sense of commitment to the work, and that they now work in systems that actually often come to poorly served and sometimes even de-humanize the very people they're supposed to serve. When I think about... If you think about American higher education, if you think about the pressure that we impose on high school kids around the admissions process, and I think the Varsity Blues scandal only made it clear what a lot of people believe, which is the game is already rigged, if you think about the amount of debt we saddle students with, if you think about the exploitation of athletes or graduate students, if you think about the ways in which we build our systems to reward not things that are centered on students, but things that are centered on status, it's hard to conclude that we work in a system that loves its students, at least much of the time.

0:05:22.3 DL: So I think almost everyone would say, "Oh, I care deeply about students," and they believe that, but the systems of which we are a part often work to disservice students, particularly on issues of equity and access and serving underserved communities, we need to do a much better job. The 45% of students who start in American higher education and don't graduate, but oftentimes have debt, would tell you that they don't feel like they've been part of a system that loved them, that cared for them. That really had them at their center.

0:05:54.2 SA: So your initial comments and that response really go to a segment of higher ed that is perhaps more selective, the varsity blues, and yet a large part of higher ed is about serving the students of their region. And so can you expand a bit on how you feel like that system is also broken?

0:06:17.7 DL: Well, because if you take a look at it, in fact, where students are falling out of the system are not in the highly selective institutions. The hard part about those institutions is getting in. Once you get in, it's pretty hard to fall out.

0:06:27.9 SA: That's what I think.

0:06:28.9 DL: But if you take a look across the breadth of higher education, it's kind of where we're seeing accesses happening all over the place, but completion rates haven't budged one bit since 1980 for the bottom quartile of students, economic quartile for students. If you take a look at the kind of processes we put students through, even in the most ostensibly student-focused institutions, there's a kind of bureaucratic administrative burden we create, which makes it very hard for many students to come into the system or survive the system. Take a look of the FAFSA. [laughter] That alone is a great, wonderful illustration.

0:07:06.3 SA: I agree.

0:07:07.6 DL: And if you listen to Arne Duncan talk about the work he did in the Chicago Public Schools to simply move the dial on FAFSA completion rates and how many more students then went to college. How many students didn't even know there was federal financial aid available? If I were sort of channeling my friend Sara Goldrick-Rab, she would say, "Let's stop talking about Pell Grants for the needy. Let's talk about the fact that these are government funds for the deserving. And let's change the narrative around how students come to us." If we think about the trauma that so many students carry with them, the levels of housing insecurity, food insecurity, are those accounted for in our systems, in our institutions?

0:07:47.1 DL: And then on a more practical level, who would have offices that open at 8:00 AM and close at 4:00 PM if we really care about 19-year-olds or if we cared about 30-year-olds who work all day? So we even think about it. And then if we think about our incentive systems, and in so many institutions, what gets rewarded in terms of promotion, in terms of tenure? I'm not talking about just at the most selective institutions. Most young faculty know they better be on top of their publishing, their scholarship, their committee assignments, being a good colleague, however that's defined, which is mostly don't rock the boat, and there's very little reward for those who wanna stay intensely focused on lifting students up. So I think it's... Again, if you stand back and look at the system, it's hard not to conclude that we are not aligned with this thing we say about ourselves and who we serve.

0:08:40.6 SA: And then...

0:08:41.6 DL: And that's now relegated to the elites.

0:08:43.0 SA: And those are all fair points. And then I think in the book you also talk about for those students that actually do graduate, there is still a gap between the level of preparation that we have given them for the work world. And you also talk about the Gallup-Purdue survey, which sort of brings that out. Can you speak to that a bit as well?

0:09:04.6 DL: Yeah, we have a system that's built on a terrible measure of actual learning, which is the credit hour. As a result, we really often don't know what students can actually do with what they've learned along the way. We don't even quite know what they've learned. We know grades are a sort of structurally flawed artifact, and we do lots of research on grade inflation over the last decades. So the Gallup survey that you referenced was a few years back in which something like 93% of provosts thought their graduates were ready on day one, ready for work on day one. Well, only something like 11% or 12% of employers agreed with them. So there's this yawning gap, and we can play to some of what's probably happened in there, but the result is we are routinely graduating students who can't write very well, who can't comport themselves.

0:09:51.2 DL: I mean, 40 years ago, a college degree was a signal to the labor market that you had those skills, which could be assumed, employers don't assume them any longer. And then we often I think, allow students or create sort of catalogs of programs in which we see students routinely graduate making salaries much less than what they've borrowed to get to that first job. We know the data on students who are graduating from schools and for whatever reasons are underemployed, and we know that 50% of them will be underemployed five years later, and that 70% of that half will be underemployed 10 years later, I.e., they never catch up. So what are we doing in terms of pathways that are aligned high demand jobs, demonstrable skills? This is where in my book, I come back again to competency-based models, which at least are a better measure of what students can actually do with what they've learned.

0:10:50.3 SA: So can...

0:10:50.4 DL: And it's not a do versus know binary, which is often misunderstood.

0:10:55.9 SA: Yeah. So I wanna come back to the do versus know binary, but I also wanna just acknowledge that CBE was all the rage a few years ago, and it was for many institutions, difficult to implement and actually didn't result in the cost-savings that we thought would be conferred to the student. So can you talk about why you think competency-based education is the solution and why it failed in the past?

0:11:23.7 DL: Yeah. So I think... So first of all, let's sort of think about that Gartner Curve in which you kind of get these new breakthrough ideas, there's a rational exuberance around them, so that peaks, and then all of a sudden they sort of can't live up to the billing, so they sort of drop off at, I think Gartner calls it the slalom of despair. And then what actually happens is they quietly build, they figure it out, we grow. So if you think about MOOCs, MOOCs were gonna change the world, then MOOCs were an enormous disappointment. And if you just look, a few weeks ago edX sold for $800 million.

0:11:58.2 SA: Yes it did.

0:12:00.2 DL: Coursera is worth billions of dollars. So the MOOC providers have quietly built this pretty important piece of the higher ed ecosystem. In like fashion, CBE came along. A lot of people said this is gonna change the whole educational landscape, then of course, it didn't. It couldn't live up to that. And we can talk about why, like what things got in the way. But actually we're seeing schools across the country quietly building out CBE offerings, alternatives, and programs. So CBE is growing and it's following that sort of Gartner Curve. The reason it's growing slowly and why it struggled are a couple of things.

0:12:34.4 DL: So one is that while federal financial aid system allows for competency-based education, all of the rules for dispersing financial aid are tied to time. So there's a mismatch between the legislative intent, when Congress said, "There's something either you can, as an alternative to the credit hour, direct student... Direct assessment of student learning can be used for financial aid." Seems really sensible.

0:13:00.2 SA: Right. Sure.

0:13:00.6 DL: And then none of the administrative rules evolved to do that. So they're still all tied to time. Definitions of term, definitions of the academic year, satisfactory academic progress, all of these things tied to time. So that was one. Two, competency-based education really does require, if you're going to do it well, to be really on top of your game in terms of assessment, particularly performance-based assessment, because you're talking about the ability to do something with what you know or have learned. And the higher education is not very good at assessment, except for the areas where our lives depend on it, like clinical health care or aviation, being a pilot. So that's been, I think a problem. There's also an invitation in competency-based education, which is to say when you get really, really good at measuring the outcomes, you can have a lot of freedom about the models that get students there.

0:13:56.7 SA: Because they're not binary.

0:14:00.5 DL: That's right. And I think that in my book I've showcased a variety of CBE programs that look quite different from one another and the point I'm trying to make is it gives you enormous freedom to rethink your delivery models, because it's not about the inputs, it's about the outputs. But not a lot of schools can persuade themselves and their faculties to take up that invitation. I'm pretty happy with the way my life works. I like delivering my programs the way they work today. Why would I do that? So the incentives are not built in to actually do the more innovative challenging work, I think.

0:14:34.0 SA: Well, the other aspect that I hear is that you can see competency-based education in some of the harder skills, like tech or vocational areas, it's much more challenging to think about how you use that for a Shakespeare course, for example. So can you speak to that as well?

0:14:54.6 DL: Yeah, and one of the... I love... We feature in the book, theology, school of theology. So you would think, "Wait a minute, competency-based in theology, but they really thought hard about what do they want their graduates to be able to do with this pretty amazing education they get." I often say, "Let's have this discussion with philosophy faculty who say, 'Wait a minute, I get it, I get how you can do CBE with technology or medicine, but I'm a philosopher, what are my graduates going to do?'" It's like, really? Think about that. The most powerful consulting companies in the world, McKinsey and Accenture and others, they recruit from the philosophy departments of universities. Why? Because your graduates have real skills, they have real competencies that are valued by those companies. They can think of logic models. They can think of symbol systems. They can look at fallacies of thinking, critical thinking, communication, languages. Are those not substantial?

0:15:50.6 DL: I think of those as critical. I think philosophies may be the highest form of intellectual training. They do too. Why don't you own that? But it also, I think part of the problem, is that if you say that those are the things your students can do, then you're going to be held accountable for showing that. And I'm not sure that that's where faculty sentiments sometimes sit. But I would argue that there's nothing about competency-based education that actually holds anyone back from implementing it, 'cause it really is just an invitation to say, "What claims do you make for your students' abilities? What claims do you make for what they can do with what they've learned from you?" And you should be able to ask that question of any discipline. In fact, I would say that if you can't answer that question, you're really not doing your work in the way that you should.

0:16:44.8 SA: And the interesting aspect of that is when you think about where the world of work is going, when you look at the future of work, those skills that perhaps faculty are professing are the hardest to assess, are the very ones that have enduring value in the world of work.

0:17:01.5 DL: Wholly agree, and I think it's one of the ironies that everything we know about the impacts of AI and algorithms and machine learning and the future of work, points to the fact, to the point you just made, sends back to the point you just made, Sally, which is that qualities and competencies and skills that we associate with humanities are probably going to be the most valued thinking that the humanities are really poor at making that case for themselves.

0:17:31.8 SA: So I also wanna explore this concept of time as currency, and you talk in your book about the middle class time squeeze and how really time is the ultimate scarcity. Can you expand a little bit on that with regard to inequity in higher education?

0:17:52.9 DL: Sure. Because I think it's easy for people to pretty quickly see the ways in which a credit hour is a poor measure of learning, but beyond that, the revelation for me at some point was the credit hour is also a source of inequity because it ties learning to time, and time is the thing that low-income people have the least of. If you are financially poor, everything takes longer. If you don't have a washer or dryer in your apartment, it takes longer to have clean clothes. I don't even give that a second thought, I'm sure you don't either. That's like on my way down the hall, throw a load of laundry in. If you don't have money and you don't own a car, it takes longer to put food in your refrigerator. If you don't have access to the high-quality medical insurance plans of your employer, if that's not part of your world, it takes longer to get medical... Everything takes longer.

0:18:48.5 DL: And this was vividly brought home to me when I met a student in one of our programs that was not time-based, and her name is Marian, not her real name, but I opened the book with her story. And she was a student, if you looked at her transcripts, she looked like somebody who wasn't either ready or just wasn't well suited for college, because she had attended two of the local community colleges, very fine schools and she had only F's and W's, withdrawals. But when I asked her about it, it turned out that Marian came from the poorest neighborhood of Boston, from Roxbury. She was a single mom, she had very little social capital, she had almost no financial capital. You may remember four years ago, the Boston Federal Reserve Bank issued a report that said African-Americans in Boston had a net worth of on average $8.

0:19:35.2 DL: The Boston Globe, the next day had to do a front-page story that said that wasn't a typo, it's $8. So Marian lives in that community, and her 8-year-old, I think eight at the time, had chronic respiratory illness. So every time her daughter gets sick, Marian missed class. She missed exams, she fell behind on papers and she could never catch up. If it was early enough in the term, she took the withdrawal, if it was too late, she took the F, and she was using up her total Pell grant eligibility dollars. When we put her in a program, that was untethered to the time, when she could go as fast or as slow or pause when she wanted, she was remarkable. This is a very smart woman with a lot of grit, a lot of drive, but what she said to me is that any time her little girl would get sick, she just hit the pause button because she could... She said this, "I'm the calendar." She had this great phrase, "I'm the calendar." And then when her daughter was recovered, and was going back to school, she could hit button and start up again. So she raced to her degree, but we hadn't built a system well-designed for somebody who had a lack of time.

0:20:38.1 DL: And if you think about people in front-line jobs as we now call them, if you work in fast food, if you work in retail, you may not only have not a lot of time, you may not even have control about when do you have time. That is, do you have a set schedule? Probably not. How do you commit to a time and a place, a classroom and a schedule? But classrooms and schedule allotments work really well for institutions, the system is... Our life is easier in the system when we can know that. So one of the things I think we see in systems of all kinds, are ways in which the needs of the system start to supersede the needs of the people they serve. And I think that happens in higher Ed, and I think it happens and is a source of inequity around time and schedules.

0:21:25.4 SA: So right now we have a lot of conversation going on about alternative credentials; short format, boot camps, and also blended or fully online instruction. University presidents are thinking about how do I expand my online course offerings? Do I partner? Do I build it myself? We may not have... We certainly don't have the resources that SNHU has, and I hear that all the time. So what advice would you have to university presidents that are thinking about using these alternative modalities and alternative structures to better serve their student populations?

0:22:05.4 DL: So I'm gonna unpack that a little 'cause there's a lot in that. So one is, I think no responsible institution can't now have an online strategy. It doesn't have to look like ours, it doesn't have to look like others, but you need to know what your students need from you in terms of online access or digital access. So the way I would think about this is the pandemic has really accelerated the move towards hybrid programming, and I think the key watch word there, the goal is fluidity. That is, I have to make it really easy for my students to slide in between those modalities depending on what they need. And that's hard to figure out but schools are doing that. I think everyone... Every successful institution is going to have an online strategy.

0:22:48.8 DL: The second part that you asked about was short-term credentials. So short-term credentials is the hot area right now. We know that there is a demand signal as demonstrated in survey after survey, from a big swath of the population that says they need the following; I need something that's faster than a degree program. I'm stuck, I need to get back on the workforce, I'm not gonna go back to that retail job, I'm not gonna go back to that restaurant job, so I need a short-term program. Think three, six, nine months. I need it to be affordable because I'm stuck economically, I need it laser-focused on demonstrable skills. Skills, skills, skills, and I need it linked to an in-demand job. Don't give me something that doesn't produce a job at the end. If you think about those four things, that's not mostly what higher education does. To some extent, community colleges can lay claim to that with mixed levels of success.

0:23:40.6 DL: So again, if you're thinking about, as leaders, I need to have a strategy around that. Do I wanna play in that space? Most of traditional higher ed's not built to do it, you gotta be really fast, you gotta be aligned with employers, you gotta be very conscious of where students are and what the job opportunities are. You gotta be able to shift your curriculum on a dime. So if you take a look at a code bootcamp for example, which is a good example of a short-term credential provider, if I'm teaching software development and I'm teaching a programming language and there's a new routine release tonight, that's in the curriculum tomorrow. Most institutions are not built to sort of be able to adjust so quickly. So can you play... Do you wanna play in that space? What's required to play in that space? Can you build up the capacity within your institution? And it's probably not trying to take your existing faculty departments and programs, it's probably bolting on something on the margins of your institutions.

0:24:38.6 DL: And then the third part of that question was, but how do I do it? Can I do it myself? When do I turn to outsiders? George Cameron at Dartmouth just had a nice piece on this, which is really thinking hard about what do you... Really it all starts with your self-assessment, what capacities do I have? What do I need? What do I wanna own and build? Is it really essential to my identity? And what do... I was like, I'll never be good at X and let me hire that skill, let me hire that ability. So the OPM industry, which has, as you know, exploded, is really an answer to that question. Which is that most OPMs will now kinda give you a la carte, so what do you need from us to launch into these spaces that you wanna be in today. And every institution is gonna answer that very differently, depending on the capacities and the knowledge they have. The most dangerous place is to not know what you don't know. In other words, to build up and feel like, wait a minute, how did you not account for X? Did we even know about that? That's dangerous ground. So the first part is to just to be inquisitive and learn and ask and figure out what you don't know, and then think about the strategies, for getting them.

0:25:52.6 SA: Another ambient fear that I hear is the cannibalization of higher Ed. So if I choose not to go into that space because it's not right for my institution, which may be the right strategic move, are we allowing the cannibalization of higher Ed by these disruptive and alternative providers?

0:26:13.2 DL: So, technically cannibalization would be if we were doing it to ourselves.


0:26:19.3 SA: Right.

0:26:19.4 DL: So I'm gonna reframe slightly, which is, are we going to allow new providers invade our ecosystem, think of them as like invasive species, so will these invasive species come in and take over? And I like the ecosystem metaphor because we're in the middle of ecosystem change, really big ecosystem change. And when you're in the middle of it, it's kind of hard to know how it will all play out, but what we do know is that those who once thrived might struggle, those who once struggled might thrive and new players into an ecosystem will sometimes be good for it, and sometimes will be bad for it, but it will almost always change it. So, if you think about it in that context, it could be that schools which have had a stranglehold on some part of the market all of a sudden see that erode because there are new players coming in.

0:27:10.0 DL: It could be the answer to schools that have struggled for a while who are not gonna be able to build against the selective institutions, it takes too long to build your brand, but who get really good at something that they weren't good at, no one knew who we were when we started this journey. We were an unknown, parked away in Manchester, New Hampshire, people in Boston didn't know who we were. So, it can happen and we're not an anomaly, we didn't discover some magic, we just got really focused on what we needed to do. And I think there is a play book, Sally, and I think you have to think about what is your theory of change? What is your theory of what's happening? I think for presidents and leaders, you have to be unbelievably hard-nosed about your own institution. I know we have to be cheerleaders outside of the boundaries of our campus, but I will say you have to be like a poker player in a high-stakes poker game, you have to look at your hand and play your best cards, and smart poker players don't chase inside straights, they don't do stupid things, don't stupid things, and get really, really focused on the problems you wanna solve.

0:28:09.4 DL: And for some people that might be, you know what, my institution is in a particularly high brand at a selective institution, but I sit smack dab in the middle of a community that's desperate for shorter term credentials. And I've got an employer who will hire every single, pick a category, software engineer that I can produce for them. And I can figure out by partnering with the right person or bringing the right people in, to build nine-month programs and market that, that's great. That's an opportunity for those who were once struggling to survive to thrive. So, that's a Clay Christensen Jobs to be done exercise. But I don't think, this is not one of those situations where the haves necessarily win out against the have-nots. In ecosystem change, the formally have-nots can be sort of empowered, and the formerly haves can actually be banged up a little bit. I think that's what we're going to see.

0:29:07.7 SA: And thank you for pushing on that concept of cannibalism, you're absolutely right. Although I do hear the legitimate fear around cannibalism itself for institutions that are thinking about offering different and alternative credentials themselves. And what would you say to that, and you can draw from Clay Christensen work here, 'cause I know he has strong views on that.

0:29:28.6 DL: No, I think it's so simple. If you don't figure out how to do it, someone else is gonna do it to you. 'Cause in the end, it's about meeting students in terms of what they need and what they want, and delivering the kinds of education they want in the ways they want it. So, if I don't figure out how to do that to myself, there are a lot of other people trying to figure out how to do that to me, so I think it's a misplaced fear. But it's also the most natural one, which is, "But wait a minute, I've got this high margin program and I do okay with it, if I do this low cost, low margin program over here, oh my god, students are gonna go over to it." Well, you still have those students and you can then start to build that program, and if it cannibalizes you, it means you pose a threat to others, so strategically, okay, embrace it, run with it, but don't... But move your resources, don't just leave the old thing for flounder with...

0:30:23.9 DL: So, it's a really interesting leadership and managerial challenge around that strategy, but someone's gonna do it to you if you're not doing it to yourself, and that can sound pithy and cliche, but it is the brutal truth.

0:30:39.7 SA: When I think about the pricing issues that higher ed institutions faced when they first went online across COVID and how this sort of brought to life the Jobs to be done question at a different level, because all of a sudden they may have had online courses that were lower price, they were now bringing their residential experience online and trying to, in some cases, make the argument that this was still the same quality of instruction that they were providing in the residential experience, and you wrote an interesting article about that called It's not the salmon, stupid or something along those lines, right? Can you speak to that?

0:31:22.1 DL: Yeah, I think what I was trying to argue is that the residential campuses who then had to go online were confusing or forgetting that there are two jobs that they're being paid to do. There is the delivery of an academic experience and a degree, and students place a certain value on that, and then there is this coming of age experience of living on a campus and the community of peers, and it's an amazing experience. And they place a value on that. When the schools then said, "Hey, it's the same experience, so we're just gonna give you 10% back because we don't have this other thing for you," what they were saying resoundingly back was, "Uh-uh, no way. We actually put a lot more value on the coming of age residential community experience, and we don't value your academic experience quite the same way, because we perceive that it's kind of like the same everywhere else. Like students, I don't think make a huge distinction between our academic programs.

0:32:24.2 DL: They make a big distinction over the sort of the campus life and the place that they're attending and the peers that are there. That's huge for them, and that's a bitter pill for a lot of academia to swallow because we spent enormous amounts of time, energy and resources, thinking about our academic programs. We're academics, that's what we're paid to do. And I think we think of the other job, that coming of age job as a kind of ancillary. It is this other piece. So, what the pandemic showed us is that it actually might be more of a balance, it might even be that students are saying, "No, I actually put more value on the campus experience, and I'm actually willing to take my academics in a variety of other ways, including ones that are cheaper." That's an interesting sort of dynamic, but that's a very hard pill to swallow.

0:33:15.2 SA: As we're coming out of COVID, I hear a lot of presidents and leaders struggling with reconciling what you're just talking about, which is trying to create more capacity for online, trying to be more flexible, but still preserving that student experience on campus. And even from an employer standpoint, how do we let our workers be remote if we need them on campus to create that magical, wonderful student experience? What advice would you have for higher ed leaders who are really struggling to reconcile that?

0:33:52.6 DL: Yeah, I think it is to get comfortable with the idea that we have to un-bundle these two jobs and treat them as separate jobs that touch each other, but that aren't the same. And I think by charging one tuition, and kinda putting it all together in one box, we sort of lost sight of what people really value and what they're willing to pay for. I think that you... Still on the academic side, I think you have to build for the kind of fluidity and hybrid models that students will increasingly demand.

0:34:25.1 DL: We're trying, at my own institution, the residential campus, which is not very big, it's only 4000 students all total, but to be very, very comfortable with students being able to mix and match. So, in this particular semester, I'm only gonna take two classes on campus, but I'm gonna take three classes online, why? I'm playing a sport this season, and the schedule just works better if I do that and I need the flexibility, or I have an internship and I wanna be able to do that. So, that mix and match was really... I think gonna be very powerful for our students. We actually have a handful of students who are living on campus and having the full campus experience and only online for their academics, and it's like, "Hey, let's watch this, let's learn and see what that's like," do they feel as engaged with the campus as like...

0:35:12.5 SA: Fascinating.

0:35:12.5 DL: So, on the academic delivery, I think you have to think about that in one way, but the other job, that coming of age job, that what we learn from the pandemic from students who have the privilege, and it is a privilege to be on campuses, on residential campuses, that's not the majority of higher ed, they were desperate to be back for the most part, they love that experience. And I think being able to be able to separate those. But the question I would have is, is four years of a coming of age too much? Do we really need four years of residential education? Can we start talking about models that bring down the cost by allowing students to have three years of life on campus, fourth year online, and start to work? Bring down the opportunity cost, move to an earn while you learn model. So, I think there's an invitation here to get much more creative about the models and start to deal with the downward pressure on cost, which everyone's going to face.

0:36:10.3 SA: Does the residential wonderful four-year or three-year experience then just become for the affluent? That is another fear, and because what you're talking about is creating more access and serving students better, but are we creating a two-tiered system where we are actually exacerbating the have and have-nots?

0:36:33.1 DL: Right, so let's acknowledge that we have that today, and we probably have a three or four-tier system. And every time we accept students that for whatever reasons don't make it, right,  that's a failure of those students. So, we have a tiered and selective system already that places people in various parts of the hierarchy of higher education. And I sometimes think we forget that, like we think we have an egalitarian model, we don't have an egalitarian model by any stretch. Secondly, I think that students themselves tell us in various ways that the existing models don't work for them as well as they did when you and I went to school, so that can take, that signal from them comes in many forms, they're choosing other ways of learning, they're moving towards, they're more open to the non-degree programs, the shorter term programs that places like Grow with Google and others are offering.

0:37:31.6 SA: Yes.

0:37:34.0 DL: They are moving to online more fully, so that 180,000 students, we have 30,000 traditional age students in that mix, we used to think only of working adults with kids. Now, we've got young adults who would otherwise be the same age as would be on a campus. Don't forget the minority of students live on campuses today, but first-time full-time living on a campus straight out of high school, that's a distinct minority of students, that's not most of higher ed. So, I don't know if we're, in some ways, creating a red herring for ourselves when we think about that question.

0:38:08.7 DL: The heart of that question though, which is about equity, I think we need to be much more serious about and think about the ways in which our current system is inequitable and start to get at that. And that's part of what the argument of the book is, the whole subtitle is equity, access and opportunity in higher ed.

0:38:25.3 SA: And to you, the real crux of that is recognizing time as the currency and allowing students more agency.

0:38:32.3 DL: I think that. I think bringing down cost, I think really thinking harder about transparency and outcomes. The ability to demonstrate to students what the pathways are for them to unlock opportunities. We know, for example, the research shows us, the choice of major is actually much more impactful than choice of school. Yet, when we report outcomes, we report them on an institutional basis, not on a programmatic basis, by and large. Now, there are some attempts to break that down in some states, have started to do that as well. So, I think there are a number of things we can do to address equity, but I think time for me was a revelation about how important now the piece is as well.

0:39:12.3 SA: So, stepping back, What are the biggest changes you think are coming to higher ed over the next five to 10 years? And then what advice might you have for university leaders?

0:39:23.9 DL: I think we have an invitation to think kind of a third way and drop the old, what I think are increasingly tired binaries. So, we used to think about face-to-face versus online. It's gonna have to be both. It's gonna be a mix and an interweaving of both. We used to think of knowledge and skills, it has to be both, we have to be able to create what IBM calls T-shaped employees. People with breath of knowledge, but the ability to go deep in terms of their skills and competencies. So, I think that will be another binary that falls away. We used to think about degrees and non-degrees, I think we're gonna think about a range of credentials and pathways. I think we used to think about now, we had a sequential model in our head of students who would come out of high school, go to college for two or four years and then go off in their careers, that seems hopelessly antiquated and out of date.

0:40:13.0 DL: We know that skills now reach their expiration date much faster than ever before, that jobs change at a ferocious velocity, so even if your job does not change, your job title, your job will change out from under you every three to five years. What does that mean practically? It means that you're gonna dip in and out of a higher ed ecosystem for the whole of your life. I think one of the things that we're gonna have to come to grips with in our industry is we are going to... We're losing our monopoly on what counts. So, we used to be the arbiter of knowledge and the arbiter of credentials and I don't think that will be true any longer. When you look at places like Walmart, working with Guild, if you take a look at Target just announced their big partnership with Guild, you have InStride doing its work. A number of these players who I think you're seeing employers in some ways rise up as the arbiters of quality. Some people would say they're the next generation of accreditors.

0:41:09.1 DL: In other words, they will say to the world, "This is a quality program." In all of those things, these are the big... What I kept saying earlier, these are the big ecosystem changes, and I think what we have to be able to do is move away from, in many cases, I would say very tired framing, to think about the new third-ism, what is this new thing that we're building? And when we move away from the old choices, it's actually pretty liberating, we can start to think about the future of higher ed differently. But I think it's, again, gonna be a painful recognition that we no longer as an industry hold the monopoly on what counts. That the learning ecosystem in a way that's really, really good for students, will offer them many more choices, greater sense of transparency and opportunity, they'll be able to make better choices. I think we will move more closely to something that feels like genuine personalized options. So, we often say, my own institution and vision, is to be able to give students just the right learning in just the right way, in just the right time.

0:42:17.4 DL: And if you think about an ecosystem that can do that, I think institutions of higher ed will continue to be very, very important, and I think degrees will still be incredibly important milestones, but they won't be that alone, and there will be a lot more. And that's probably a really good thing for students.

0:42:32.6 SA: So, perhaps apropo to the title Students First, your book actually features a lot of student voices and stories. You talked about Marian, who was really the aha moment for you about time. Are there any other student stories you think would be instructive to our listeners? I'm sure there are lots, but maybe one or two.

0:42:52.9 DL: There are lots of them, and I think... We do a lot of work within refugee camps in Africa, and in the Middle East, and I watch what happens when the opportunity to learn is not only not a guarantee, but it's actually a distant and remote hope, and when you can put that in the hands of people how powerful that is. I think one of the revelations of that for me is when we take a learner, whether it's there, or I had a student that we helped, another student out of Roxbury Mass, who was the first in his family who was homeless when we scholarship-ed him, he had no resources.

0:43:36.4 DL: When he came to us, the whole neighborhood who knew him gathered for his send off. When I was in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, in a remote part of Kenya, there were two students in our program and we really feared their safety and their mental health. Suicide had... A wave of suicides had washed over the camp, and these kids are very precarious. They, by the way, only know life from the camp, so they were in the early 20s and never known a life outside of a refugee camp. A tough, tough place.

0:44:04.8 DL: And I remember we gave them... We gave them the scholarship, we told him in the morning, I'm gonna bring you to the US, we're gonna get you a visa, full scholarship, we're gonna get you out of here. One of them couldn't stop talking, it was this wave of emotion, and the other one couldn't talk. He could just sit there with tears coming down his cheeks. He was rendered speechless, and I remember being so moved but also saying to the camp director, this wonderful guy, Ignazio, Italian, he ran... A staffer, that night, it was pretty kind of... I was having a very hard time with it because I was saying, so we help these two and it's wonderful, but the magnitude, there are 200,000 people in that camp, and we saw horrible things, hard things.

0:44:49.5 DL: I was like, "What do we do?" And he said, "You just gave the greatest currency possible for everybody else, you gave the currency of hope, because now they can look at these two young men and say, 'If it happened to them, it can happen to me as well,' and sometimes it does." And I think one of the things that I would observe about the work is, and from the student stories, is that it's not just their story alone, some of the graduates who walk across the stage, I say, "That was really hard. Why did you do this?" And they often will say, "I need to get that degree, get a better job," but almost always they say, "I wanted my kid to be proud of me. I wanted them to know their mom or their dad is a college graduate." And this ripple effect that goes through a family, that goes through a community. That goes through that camp is really pretty remarkable. And I often say, when I think about the student stories that inspire me most, we're not just in the business of education, we're in the business of hope.

0:45:50.5 DL: And I think that... I'm working on a second book that will be out next year, and in that book, I really talk about these more existential questions than I do about system reform. Those are... We need to reform our systems, but on some level we have to reform them in these very human ways. And the questions I sort of ask are like, "How do we make students feel like they matter?" The three... Craig Elliot, this wonderful sociologist at Brown talks about the three questions, whether you're talking about your employees or whether you're talking about the students you serve, the questions I have is, “Does this place even know I exist?” And there are lots of ways I think that people can feel like a number, like no one really knows, kids who fall through the cracks, “Does anybody I know I exist? Do they invest in me? Is there any demonstration that they're investing in me as opposed to the system and the institution? And do they demonstrate that they value me?” So it's one thing to invest, I could give you a scholarship and say, "Sally, I'm investing in you, I'm making this opportunity available."

0:46:51.3 DL: But if once you arrive on campus, every signal says, "You don't belong." I don't make you feel like you're valued. Those are two different things. So the first chapter is on mattered, and the second chapter is on helping people dream bigger dreams for themselves, and I'm talking to people from lots of other industries that are built to ostensibly to lift people up. So, I'm talking to people who lead healthcare systems, I'm talking to a guy who spent 23 years in prison in California and nine of it in solitary confinement. He's building a college for recently released prisoners, formally incarcerated, and I'm talking to folks who lead really cutting-edge mental health service providers. And what's interesting about all of them is when you get at how they're reforming and rethinking the system, and they'll talk to you about incentives and how the money moves and all that's wrong with all of that.

0:47:43.3 DL: They'll talk about policies, but they always get back to people that we serve need to feel respected, and that we know that, that we see them in their wholeness, not just as labels, but as human beings. So, a story that Arne Duncan tells quite often is the story of this guy, Billy Moore, who killed one of Arne's friends, murdered him, when Billy was only 15, it was a stupid street altercation Southside of Chicago.

0:48:16.2 DL: Arne's friend, Benji, was the most highly rated high school basketball player in America, it was 1980 something when this happened. And Billy served 20 years, 21 years, he's out now. He works in Arne's organization. He works with young men who have been in and out of jail often for pretty serious violent crimes. And what he would say about that day when he was 15 years old is, that's the thing I did, but it's not who I am. And our system so often put people they serve into categories and labels, and I'm really interested in thinking about how in higher education do we move past that to recognize students and the wholeness of their being.

0:48:55.5 DL: And then to build institutions and programs that recognize that and serve them in that way, so that's kind of the big... I'm sorry, you started with a simple question, wanting to learn about individual student stories, and I think the bigger, the answer to that is that we have to understand our students fully as human beings, and not as a major or a label in which they fall, or an income category or a marketing cohort or a marketing segment, but to really... And here's the thing, it only works if you provide time. There's no shortcut through it, there's a lot of good things we can do with technology, and a lot of people are like, "SNHU, you guys use technology a lot." It's like, we use data a lot, we use technology a lot, but we do it to amplify human interactions, and when we focus on efficiency, when we focus on cost cutting, or if you're in a for-profit world, shareholder value, and any other number of things that are important to the system, they actually reduce the efficacy for the people they are supposed to serve.

0:50:03.0 DL: So it's a complicated question, I'm trying to unpack and understand. There is a wonderful book, for example, called The Long Fix by Vivian Lee, which is about the reform of the health care system in Utah, she talks about these things. I talked to a person who heads up an opioid addiction treatment center, a series of them, and she talked about how they actually reverse the traditional relationship of the medical staff to the counselors, 'cause the medical staff and most providers quarterback patient care, but in their world, they actually reversed it. The counselor does, why? 'Cause the counselor spends hours with the patient, the medical staff is looking at a file. Who knows the person and who can recognize them in the fullness and complexity of who they are as human beings?

0:50:52.9 DL: So that's our big challenge in the end. And it's really, it's a wonderful challenge 'cause it's an invitation for us to get back with a heart of all great learning, which is a relational one. It's human beings with each other, learning and teaching and engaging.

0:51:06.2 SA: I can't imagine a better note to end on. Thank you for writing both of these books, most of us did not hold to our resolutions across COVID to lose weight or learn a language, you managed to write two amazing books. And thank you for joining me today and sharing your insights.

0:51:28.1 DL: Well, it's a pleasure. You'll have to decide if it was a good use of my time, Sally. Wait till you read them before you decide, but thank you, you're kind for saying it. It's a pleasure to be with you.


0:51:42.0 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please be sure to join us next week when we share findings from a new survey of more than 2000 current and prospective adult graduate online and professional students about their future enrollment plans. Until then, thank you for your time.


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