We can STOP the “You Can’t” Firewall in Higher Education

(Excerpt from Richard DeMillo’s address to the Georgia Legislative Policy Forum.  Watch his address on the Foundation YouTube channel.)


RICHARD DeMILLO, Director Center for 21st Century Universities Georgia Institute of Technology

Center for 21st Century Universities
Georgia Institute of Technology

The conversations we’re going to have today are conversations being held 100 times in the U.S., 1,000 times around the world.  No matter where you go everyone is worried about the status of their own university.  If you go to Europe, if you go to Asia or Africa everyone is looking at American universities and saying, that’s the gold standard, that’s what we want to be.

The Times of London publishes an annual ranking of world universities, mainly research universities.  They rank maybe 1,000 universities around the world.  In the top 100, sixty percent are American universities.  So, what do we have to worry about?  The catch is that those 100 universities enroll one-half of one percent of all college students in the world.  The 60 universities enroll generously, eight percent of American college students.  What about the other 90 percent who aren’t going to Georgia Tech, Stanford, UGA or Duke?  What happens to them?

This past October 1st, Georgia Tech’s enrollment in massive open online courses (MOOCs) passed the 500,000 student mark. That’s five times the number of people that we reach compared to the brick and mortar institution (all students and alumni).  What does that mean; those are just people who managed to enroll in a website.  The fact is, among those 500,000 students are literally hundreds of thousands of people that knew nothing about Georgia Tech before they enrolled in the massive open online courses.

Then we heard about the massive online approach to a low-cost master’s program where we promise not only a $7,000 master’s degree, we promise the same quality as a brick-and-mortar master’s degree at a place like Georgia Tech.  This little story is going on 100 times around the country.   There is change taking place in higher education at a rate that is really unimaginable.  The pace of change is absolutely terrifying.  The innovation cycle in higher education can be measured in weeks.

What’s driving this accelerated pace of change?  Cost and performance is one.  When we open the paper we’re used to seeing tuitions going up, completion rates going down.  That has driven a whole conversation about why are tuition costs going up the way they are?  Why is it that public universities and colleges can’t seem to graduate students in four, five, six years?

Then I hate to say it, there’s been a loss of public confidence in public colleges and universities.  Pew Research does an annual poll about how do people feel about colleges and universities.   For the first time last year, the majority of the people surveyed by Pew didn’t feel that a college degree was worth the price of tuition.

There is no one that I know of who looks at higher education in this country and thinks that it is on a sustainable path.  Let’s get real basic.  Most universities – public, private – discount their prices so far below cost that they will never make it up.

Granted, there are islands of excellence.  In the sea of 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. there’s a few, maybe 200, that manage year-after-year to be financially sustainable, but the vast bulk don’t.  So the question is, how do you take these islands of excellence in a sea of problems and turn it into a system that performs well?  You have to have a game changer.  You have to do something differently.

People have been talking about computerized instruction for a long time, distance learning, putting more or less people in classrooms, using lower-skilled labor, part-time teachers … none of that has seemed to help very much.  The reason is none of those approaches ever got to the heart of the problem in higher education, which is learning.  I am drilling down to the idea of where MOOCs came from.

None of this matters if people walk into a classroom and they don’t learn anything.  They can graduate and not find jobs.  They can enroll in college and not graduate.  They can find themselves in positions that their degree would say they are not suited for.  This has been a problem for a long time. How do you address the increased costs of higher education (and) lower performance in the classroom?  You have to be able to automate something.

This is exactly what the technology behind MOOCs buys you.  It gives every student the chance to be self-paced through a course.  For a well-defined course this means those students are going to perform better than students who have been sitting in brick-and-mortar classrooms.  As the technology improves, you allow increased personalization. To the student it appears as if they are getting more personal attention than they were getting in the 300-person darkened lecture hall, which means they are approaching the idea of having a personal tutor.

What’s the moral of the story?  These innovations that you are seeing in the online master’s degree at Georgia Tech and in MOOCs in general have a serious purpose, to increase the productivity not of individual teachers, but of the educational enterprise in general.  They take away the “You can’t.”

The thing that stopped American higher education from turning islands of excellence into a system of excellence is, “You can’t.”  You can’t offer personalized education because you can’t afford it.  You can’t provide federal support for students that need federal aid that is guaranteed to improve their educational experience because you can’t afford it.  Technology removes “You can’t.”  This is the number one thing that you should think about.

There’s a big picture reason for doing this.  Since the (President Harry) Truman administration it’s been the policy of the United States to improve access to higher education for U.S. citizens and improve quality.  We’ve done a really good job at improving access; college is available to anyone at reasonable cost, even with increased tuition prices.  The bad news is our completion rates are among the lowest in the developed world, under 30 percent, which puts us on a par with Italy whereas in the Scandinavian countries, 90 percent complete college.

There is an enormous amount of money spent in this country re-creating mediocre content.  Eighty percent of the courses taken by 80 percent of the students in the first two years are in 18 courses.  Most of those courses are not taught well.  Even the ones that are taught well are taught inefficiently and expensively.  I can think of very little reason why a mid-tier institution would spend a penny more on a general education course when you can go to a company like Coursera or Udacity and find exactly the material that would be taught in the classroom.

We should be thinking seriously about alternatives to degrees.  We hang onto college diplomas as if they were handed down from Heaven when, in fact, what matters is what you study, how well you study it, where you study.  An associate’s degree is worth less in the marketplace than a high school diploma, almost no matter where you study.  So, shouldn’t we be investing in skills students are going to need in the marketplace?

We have to figure out how to break the stranglehold of accreditors on our institutions.  It’s enormously expensive.  Stanford University is ranked number one or two in every international ranking of universities that I know of.  Stanford spends eight cents of every tuition dollar on accreditation, $20 million a year.  None of that shows up in a Stanford degree.

These are the life or death questions for universities over the next 20 years.  The primary one is, are you serving the people you intended to serve?  It’s not always an easy answer.  Who are your successes?  In order to be taken seriously you should be able to point to a significant number of graduates who are successful or influential people.  Even when you have successes, what happens to most of your students?  Do they get degrees?  What do (they) learn? You can’t look at a college catalogue and tell what students learn.  Eighty percent of colleges in this country that charge $40,000 or more tuition per year don’t teach what is in their catalogue.  Then finally, how important are you to your city, to your state?  Would anyone notice if you disappeared?  It’s not an easy question to ask, it’s even harder question to answer.  Those five questions encapsulate what is going to happen in higher education over the next generation.

Georgia Tech created my organization, the Center for 21st Century Universities, to be able to experiment with higher education, to be able to make mistakes, to be able to find out what’s going to work in the future and then translate that into practice very quickly.

There’s an argument to be made putting the brakes on most capital construction projects that can’t explain why they will be relevant in 20 years.  Building theatre-style lecture halls with fixed seating and fancy audio-visual makes less and less sense whereas, building flexible space that is more like a blended classroom or a flipped classroom is going to be useful.

My take is higher education will become a network business, an internet business which means that like newspapers, there will be a few big winners, 100 worldwide brand name universities that will be capable of commanding tuition and then a long tail that will consist of many more universities than we have today.

There are 50,000 universities worldwide.  Most can’t answer the five questions I gave you but there are smaller more niche-oriented possibilities for universities that don’t require capital expenditures.  Why?  Because technology provides the platform that is able to deliver value to individual students.  My guess is the institutions in the middle are going to have to scramble to figure out how they will survive.  A lot of them won’t.  A lot of them will downsize.

Eighteen-to-24-year-olds are no longer the predominant source of college students.  It’s what we used to think of as non-traditional students.  These are returning servicemen, new arrivals to the United States, later life learners who are coming back for a second or third career who that need to be re-educated. The policy has not kept up with that.

If we really want 18-to-24-year olds to have a good college experience why in the world are we relying on universities to do that?  We should be sub-contracting that out to Disney!  Who knows more about creating an experience?  There is an element of rational thought here.  Maybe we should not be operating dormitories.  Maybe we should be figuring out what part of the student experience should be done by a third party who knows what they are doing and priced accordingly.

One of the reasons we got to a $7,000 price tag for the online master’s program was we were able to filter out costs that had nothing to do with what a master’s student wants.  Someone coming to Georgia Tech for a master’s degree really doesn’t care about the athletic field, so that goes.  They aren’t going to live in a dormitory, so all the costs associated with that goes.

Every one of those discussions was a very tough discussion but we got to this $7,000 degree by saying, what is really our cost in getting that student a Georgia Tech quality degree?  It’s something south of $7,000 for 10,000 students.  That needs to be thought out on a large scale by many hundreds of institutions.

(Richard DeMillo is Director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech.  His previous associations include the National Science Foundation, Hewlett-Packard and Telcordia Technologies.)