The Future is Now

May 18, 2013

The Future is Now

Robert J. Massa

May 18, 2013



Thirty-nine years ago this month, I earned a masters degree in educational psychology from the University of Rochester and was offered a position in the admissions and financial aid office at Teachers College, Columbia University, where I would simultaneously pursue a doctorate in higher education.  As I begin my fortieth year in college administration, doctorate long in hand, and with senior-level experiences at three colleges and one university, I have been witness to—indeed a part of – enormous change and growth in higher education.


During my years as dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins University in the late 1980s and the 1990s, the Justice Department intervened to end the sharing of unit record financial aid data among “overlap” institutions, unwittingly fueling price wars that would inflate the cost of a college education and increase the price charged to all.  But colleges and universities were not simply “victims” of federal intrusion through this and countless regulatory requirements that also increased the cost of delivering education.  We paid close attention to the popular rankings – most notably USNews & World Report.  We added faculty to keep our student/faculty ratio low, and administrators to recruit more applicants so we could appear more selective, to raise more money while focusing on a high alumni participation level, and to keep our students comfortable and happy with food court choices, suite-style living and the iconic “climbing wall.”  In other words, we made our “product” (undergraduate education) more expensive to “produce” and “deliver.”


From 1999-2009, I had the privilege of serving Dickinson College as Vice President for Enrollment and College Relations.  We had some “catch-up” work to do there – a newly renovated library, a fitness center, residence hall additions, a global education center,  new science buildings, a home for our popular international business program, and a facility for a new Center for Sustainability.  The buildings, and the programs and people that filled them, certainly made Dickinson more competitive and its undergraduate programs more in demand – but it also added to the cost of running the college.  And of course, Dickinson was not the only college or university spending its way toward excellence.  I cannot think of a single college president in the past four decades who was content with being just “ok.”  All of us want to get better, and “better” costs.


Today, I serve my son’s alma mater, Lafayette College, as its Vice President for Communications.  That’s a bit ironic, isn’t it?  Every position I occupied in higher education since 1987 was a position that did not exist before I served in that role. Was there a “vice president for communications” at any college or university when I began my journey in 1974?  I doubt it.  But today, how we position ourselves in the public eye influences prestige, and prestige influences rankings, and rankings influence applications and selectivity, as well as alumni support.  Someone had better be coordinating, in a strategic way, what we say about ourselves.  Someone needs to manage communications in a crisis, as we learned all too well after Virginia Tech and Penn State, among others.  And so it goes – we spend more money to hire more people to teach our students at “high touch” institutions, more folks to advance the resources of the college or university, and more to deliver services to students.  No wonder the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the price for undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board at public institutions rose 42 percent, and at private colleges and universities, 31% from academic years 2001 to 2011 – in inflation adjusted dollars!


All of this makes perfect sense to someone who has been a part of this growth for his entire adult life.  But to families of college-age children, the question of value plays a more important role than ever before in college selection.  While “college cost” has been an issue for many years, the pitch of the concern has accelerated in the press and in the voices of parents heard by our staff members at college fairs, high school visits and college symposia.  Worry about structural issues in our economy, and the resulting un- or under- employment, fuel the public’s angst about increasing college costs and higher student loan debt.  College executives and boards are, of course, becoming increasingly concerned about the future, as they should be. ( As an aside, I recently read a New Yorker Magazine cartoon showing two business men talking.  One said to the other, “In this economy, it is advisable to start each sentence with, ‘In this economy’…”  How true!)


And of course, technology has inflated college costs significantly – just ask the college that finished a multi-year installation of fiber cables throughout the campus, only to find upon completion that it is now obsolete and a wireless network must be installed.  Our insatiable appetite for more and better technology is clearly a cost driver today.  But just around the corner – actually now at the front door – is on-line education and how that can be blended into traditional pedagogy to enhance quality at a lower price.  Will the delivery of “free” content threaten the business model of every college and university?  Or will consortia of like-minded college band together to deliver introductory, basic course content more efficiently.  Either way, we are poised to see major changes in colleges and universities as we know them today.


It could be, for example, that not every college in a group of similar institutions needs to offer every program – that on-line sharing could compensate for each college needing to hire a specialist in a particular field.  But what would this do to the student/faculty ratio, and how would USNews react?  This is certainly an issue for college presidents and provosts who are trying to control costs while still being committed to quality.


When concerns about “college costs” were raised in the past, the “affordability” discussion typically focused not on how to reduce the cost, but on how to fund it through increased scholarships and financial aid.  We are also taking deliberate steps to “communicate value,” as if a convincing spin of the benefits of a college education can hide the fact that it is so darn expensive.  And while both of these strategies are necessary – help students through aid and demonstrate the value of the investment — they are hardly sufficient in addressing the meteoric rise in costs incurred and prices charged.  The expense side of the equation must be addressed.


We are about to come to a jumping off point.  How can college and universities control the growth in cost using technology and cooperation among like-minded schools (dare I say, “competitors”) to stabilize or perhaps decrease the rate of growth in the price we charge?  Who will be strong and confident enough to ignore the impact of these important decisions on the rankings?  Who will take a risk and reduce staff efforts to collect more and more applicants, and to discount heavily to impact enrollment choice and quality, again for the rankings?  And who will cut back on all but the necessary student support services that address health, safety and academic preparedness?  These are tough questions for which – as easy as they are to ask – I have no real answers.  But I commend to you a recent publication from the Institute for Public Policy Research in Great Britain entitled An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead ( by Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi, with a foreword by Harvard President Emeritus Larry Summers.


Summers summarizes the issue quite succinctly:


The fundamental question in An Avalanche is Coming is whether a university education is a good preparation for working life and citizenship in the 21st century or, more precisely, whether it will continue to be seen as good value, given the remorseless rise in the cost of a university education over recent decades. For students, the question is immediate and challenging given the growing anxiety around the world about youth unemployment, even among college graduates. For policymakers, all kinds of new challenges are raised: how to promote meritocracy; how to regulate a sector that used to be national and is increasingly becoming global; how to ensure universities of the right sort combine with great cities to fuel innovation and economic growth; and how to break the rigid link – at least in people’s perceptions – between cost and quality.

For university leaders, the questions are more profound still. The authors argue that the obvious strategy – steady as she goes – is doomed to fail; the one thing you don’t do in the path of an avalanche is stand still! But what should you do? Does the curriculum need complete overhaul? What are the right models of teaching and learning now that the traditional lecture seems obsolete? Which students should be targeted? What global allowances will be necessary?

The authors of An Avalanche is Coming don’t answer these questions definitively but they most certainly put them on the agenda. Furthermore, Michael Barber’s argument about unbundling (NB: for example, content can be delivered from multiple sources; research can be conducted outside of the academy, community engagement can be offered outside of the university setting) needs to be studied
and acted on by university leaders around the world. Those involved in thinking through the prospects for university education in the 21st century will find much to interest and provoke them here.


Just like the authors of “Avalanche,” I have no silver bullet to offer.  So much for four decades of my life’s work!  But I continue to be convinced that the American system of higher education is strong because it is diverse and it is expensive because we are motivated to become better and better at what we do.  What we have done in higher education over the last forty years mirrors what we have experienced in our lives – a world without pay phones, printed street maps, typewriters, board games, record players – even CD players!  The world has become a more expensive place in which to live in part because our lives are no longer as simple as they once were ( ok, I admit, the ‘70s aren’t really the good old days, but you get the point!). 


But just because higher education has followed the trends in our society and in our economy doesn’t mean that those things that worked well in the 20th century will continue to work well in the 21st. We must begin to make the difficult decisions now, before we are forced to act.  As Summers reflects: “…the obvious strategy – steady as she goes – is doomed to fail; the one thing you don’t do in the path of an avalanche is stand still!”  The time for bold and creative leadership is upon us. 



Robert J. Massa has served as Vice President for Communications at Lafayette College since July, 2009. In the two decades prior to joining his son’s alma mater, he was Dean of Enrollment at Johns Hopkins University and Vice President for Enrollment and College Relations at Dickinson College.  Before that, he served in various admissions, financial aid and student services positions at Colgate University and Union College.


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