Remaining Affordable without Compromising Quality
Westminster College is making great progress in its efforts to become a unique and powerful environment for learning. I usually demonstrate that by using Westminster Matters to share with you some of the cutting-edge ideas that distinguished scholars and practitioners from across the world have explored with our students and faculty on campus. But every now and then, I feel compelled to describe some of the innovative ideas about higher education that are under active exploration at the college. So in this printing, I discuss the issue of affordability and explain how Westminster is
experimenting with ways to control the escalating cost of higher education without diminishing the quality of the learning experience for students. The cost/quality problem is, I am convinced, the overarching challenge facing higher education.
I do not claim that the approach outlined here constitutes “the answer” to that problem. But I am confident that it represents an approach that shows promise. And I am certain, as well, that the progress we have made in understanding how to control costs without compromising quality puts Westminster in the forefront of institutions grappling with this critical issue.
Even before the current economic downturn, cost had become the dominant public concern about American higher education. As the president of Westminster College, it had also become my dominant concern. And with good reason: over the past decade, at colleges and universities across the country, including Westminster, tuition increased at a faster rate than inflation, than the growth in family incomes, even faster than the increase in health care spending. It became obvious that cost was discouraging too many students from modest backgrounds from viewing schools like Westminster as a realistic option.
So each year I, along with the senior officers of the college and the board of trustees, struggled with two decisions—where to set tuition for the following year and how much institutional financial aid should we offer? We wanted to keep the college affordable, yet at the same time, we wanted additional resources to invest in our ongoing efforts to strengthen our programs. But each year, after some gnashing of teeth, we opted to set tuition and institutional aid at levels that would maximize our net tuition revenue. Why? We were following conventional wisdom that said that investing more resources translates into higher quality and higher quality attracts more resources.
Among the colleges and universities I know best, quality is the main driver. And most people inside and outside the academy—including those who control influential rating systems of the sort published by U.S.News & World Report—define academic quality as small classes taught by distinguished faculty, grand campuses with impressive libraries and laboratories, and bright students heavily recruited. Since all of these indicators of quality are costly, Westminster’s pursuit of quality, like that of so many others, led us to seek more revenue to spend on quality improvements. And the strategy worked.
Over the last decade, every available dollar we had from tuition revenue, as well as from
enrollment growth and fundraising, was invested in traditional indicators of quality. We built new state-of-the-art facilities, hired great faculty, gave generous scholarships to high-achieving students, maintained small classes, expanded our co-curricular activities, and invested in a host of high-impact educational practices such as learning communities, service-learning, and diversity initiatives. And our reputation for quality grew exponentially. While we had long been known within our state as a place where students blossomed under the tutelage of caring faculty, now we are seen as a top-tier college. We are included in the Princeton Review’s list of the best colleges in the country; our applications have doubled over the last decade, and now, for the first time in our 135-year history, we receive the majority of our applications from out-of-state students.
But our nagging concern about affordability wouldn’t go away. We didn’t need fancy
economic models to realize that Westminster, along with so many other schools, was quickly approaching a danger zone. If we continue to raise tuition as we have in the past, more and more prospective students, even those who have their hearts set on attending our institution, may find that they simply cannot afford to do so. It is clear that, unless we find ways to reduce our costs, and thus moderate our annual tuition increases, there is no way to avoid a serious enrollment shortfall, no matter how quickly the economy recovers. We are caught in a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma. No one wants to cut costs if their reputation for quality will suffer, yet no one wants to experience a shrinking enrollment.
I believe that, for the vast majority of colleges and universities, public as well as private, the elephant in the room is the cost structure of our academic programs. We don’t talk about it because of the perception that cost is inextricably related to quality, and no one is ready to sacrifice that. When quality is defined by those things that require substantial resources, efforts to reduce costs are doomed to failure.
But we know there is another way to think about quality. Over the last 20 years, some of the best thinkers in higher education have urged us to define quality in terms of student outcomes.
The notion of defining quality in terms of outputs rather than inputs, by the achievements of our graduates rather than the achievements of our entering class, was a key element in the strategic plan Westminster began developing in 2002. During the planning process, dissatisfaction with traditional models of education came to the surface. Faculty said they wanted to move away from giving lectures and then having students parrot the information back to them on tests. They said they were tired of complaining that some students couldn’t write well or think critically, but not having the time to address those problems because there was so much material to cover. And they were concerned when they read that employers had reported in national surveys that, while graduates knew a lot about the subjects they studied, they didn’t know how to apply what they had learned to practical problems or work in teams or with people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Based on those concerns, and informed by the literature on the “teaching to learning” paradigm shift, Westminster faculty began to change their focus from what they were teaching to what and how their students were learning. In the process, they broadened their conception of what students should learn by including more than subject-specific information. They established what we call college-wide learning goals that focus on “essential” skills and attributes that are critical for success in our increasingly complex world. These include critical and analytical thinking; creativity, writing, and other communication skills; leadership, collaboration, and teamwork; and global consciousness, social responsibility, and ethical awareness. (A fuller explanation of this paradigm shift can be found in my essay, “From Teaching to Learning,” published in the Summer, 2008 edition of Westminster Matters).
The shift to a focus on student learning bubbled up from faculty rather than being imposed on them. They modified the definition of their role and experimented with different ways to promote active, experiential, collaborative, and cross-disciplinary learning. Not every member of the faculty embraced this effort, but enough did so that it became part of the culture of our campus. Evaluation tools like the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Collegiate Learning Assessment and our own internal measures demonstrate real improvement in student learning, including achievement of our college-wide learning goals.
Just as importantly, shifting our paradigm from teaching to learning enabled us to approach the question of cost in an entirely new way. Instead of assuming we need all of the expensive accoutrements of quality, we can focus our attention on those things known to have the most impact on student learning. And it doesn’t take long to discover that, despite claims to the contrary, many of the factors that drive up costs add little value. A recent national research study found that “there is no consistent relationship between spending and performance, whether that is measured by spending against degree production, measures of student engagement, evidence of high impact practices, students’ satisfaction with their education, or future earnings.” Indeed, the study concluded that “the absolute level of resources is less important than the way those resources are used.”
So we started searching the literature for instructional designs that require fewer resources and result in high levels of student learning. The ones we found share certain characteristics. They are driven by clear learning goals and involve extensive assessment and feedback to students. They stress active learning and take maximum advantage of technology. In each design, faculty spend less time lecturing and more time coaching, proactively asking and answering questions with groups of students. And faculty are assisted in their coaching role by teaching assistants or peer mentors. Finally, economies of scale help to produce significant cost savings.
With these principles in mind, and with support and encouragement from our board, I decided to commission a demonstration project. I pulled together a team from our Gore School of Business and told them the goal was to develop a program that produced more and better learning at a significantly lower cost than our traditional program. After more than a year, the group had developed what we now describe as a low-residency, competency- and project-based degree-completion program for adults with some experience in the business world. Here students don’t take courses or earn grades. The requirements for the degree are for students to complete a series of projects, captured in an electronic portfolio, that mirror core activities in business. To complete each project, students must acquire and apply specific competencies—competencies identified as necessary to function effectively in a modern business. The list of competencies also includes all of our college-wide learning goals. Students acquire the competencies by accessing a rich repository of learning resources and activities that our faculty compiled and made available online. These are enriched with multimedia features, communication and social networking capacities, and contextually rich simulations and animations. Faculty spend their time coaching students, providing them with feedback on their projects, and running two-day residencies that bring students to campus periodically to learn through intensive face-to-face interaction.
After a year-and-a-half, the evidence suggests that students are learning as much, if not more, than those enrolled in our traditional business program. Although it will take some time to fully evaluate this model, and to assess the true costs of delivery, the approach shows real promise.
One thing we are learning is that providing students with sophisticated online learning
materials and supporting their learning with face-to-face interaction with faculty who are attuned to their different interests, orientations, and learning styles can be a powerful combination. That’s consistent with an analysis, recently published by the U.S. Department of Education, which showed that students learned more in courses that combined online and face-to-face elements (called hybrid or blended learning) than they do in programs that are exclusively online or exclusively classroom based. In short, the report documented that high-tech plus high-touch works best.
As the campus learns more about the demonstration project, other faculty are expressing interest in applying its design principles to courses and degree programs in their fields. They created a Learning Coalition as a forum to explore different ways to capitalize on the potential of the learning paradigm. They designed a problem-based, general education curriculum for high-achieving students. They are using students as peer teachers in a number of settings. Every academic program has articulated a set of program-specific learning goals and is developing ways of assessing student progress toward these goals. And our business faculty have now designed a new MBA program using a model similar to the one they used in the demonstration project.
There are hundreds of private institutions like Westminster that have longstanding and well-deserved reputations for maintaining high standards for student achievement and providing personal encouragement and support for students to meet those standards. High-touch is at the core of this educational philosophy. But a high-touch model is so costly that I fear it is unsustainable. I don’t know if hybrid or blended instruction will be the magic bullet that allows us to cut our costs and thus moderate the rate of our annual increases in tuition. It’s more likely that different programs will find different ways to integrate efficiencies, high-tech or not, into their largely high-touch designs. Some, like theater and studio art, may not be able to do so at all.
Westminster will continue to experiment with different instructional designs until we find
approaches that work for us. But I suspect we don’t have the luxury of time. There are enough for-profit and not-for-profit institutions that are quickly putting the pieces together to be in a position to mass market multiple high-quality, low-cost degree programs that students of all types will find enormously attractive.
I don’t know how close we are to the point where we find we have priced ourselves out of the market. But it is a point we have been approaching for some time.
Trying to predict the future is fraught with risks. But I believe that private colleges, including largely residential colleges with modest resources, can survive the challenges ahead. There are many families who see great value in having their children leave home
to have the holistic and often transformative learning experiences these schools provide. At the same time, I see danger ahead unless we can break the Gordian knot between cost and quality. At the very least, finding innovative ways to lower costs without compromising student learning is wise competitive positioning for an uncertain future. The search at Westminster continues.
Michael S. Bassis
President, Westminster College
Dr. Michael S. Bassis is in his eighth year as president of Westminster College, the only private, comprehensive liberal arts college in Utah. An authority on educational change and an active participant in the national conversation on the future of higher education, Dr. Bassis has served as a teacher, scholar, and administrator at both public and
private institutions over his 35-year career in higher education.
Shortly after his appointment at Westminster in 2002, Dr. Bassis led the college community as it developed an ambitious strategic plan: to bring Westminster into national prominence as an institution distinguished by its distinctive educational programs, its record of preparing graduates for success in a rapidly changing world, and its commitment to continuous improvement, effectiveness, and value.
Implementation of the strategic plan has propelled the college to new heights. Westminster is now included in the Princeton Review’s list of the best colleges and universities in America, where it is ranked #12 in the nation for the quality of student life. The college is experiencing record enrollment, and last year, for the first time, received the majority of its undergraduate applications from students who live
outside of Utah.
Following his graduation from Brown University, Dr. Bassis earned MA and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago. He and his wife, Mary, are the parents of four grown children.