Higher Education Strategy Associates

November 22

The New AUCC

Reading through a couple of recent AUCC initiatives – notably: the “five commitments”and its new brochure on the value of universities, it occurred to me how much AUCC’s focus seems to have changed in the last few years. Though it hasn’t really been remarked upon, there seems to be a slow but dramatic shift in the way higher education lobbying occurs in Ottawa.

As late as 2000, AUCC still had an unrivalled lobbying presence in Ottawa. Individual institutions were starting to beef up their own government relations offices, but for the most part these concentrated on local issues and left Ottawa to AUCC. Over the past decade, though, the rise of the U-15 (formerly the G-13 and the G-10) has altered the landscape. Most if not all of these institutions decided that they needed to have their own lobbying presence in the capital. This didn’t mean having their own lobbying offices there, but it does mean their upgraded GR departments now spend a lot more time on calls and flights to Ottawa than they used to.

The apotheosis of this trend is the fact that the U-15 is now engaged in a search for a full-time president and is looking for someone of VP or even presidential rank to fill the spot. You don’t do that unless you’re looking to upgrade your lobbying capability.

This means that Canada is about to head down the route of having multiple and overlapping groups representing the higher education sector. That’s hardly unprecedented or even negative; both the U.S. and the U.K. do something similar (ACE and UUK represent the broad sector, but a series of smaller organizations such as AASCU and NAICU, or the Russell Group and Million+, represent specific groupings). But it does change the nature of AUCC’s role.

In a sense the change started two years ago, when the organization hired Paul Davidson. Basically, having spent 14 years run by former mandarins (Claire Morris and Robert Giroux) whose stock-in-trade was behind-the-scenes access to government officials, AUCC hired someone whose strengths lay much more in public advocacy. In that respect, it’s notable, for instance, how the “five points” and the brochure both seem to be aimed at influencers outside government.

After a decade-long winning streak, higher education is starting to face a more skeptical reception in Ottawa. What seems to be happening is that AUCC’s role is to play defence for the sector by mobilizing public support on behalf of the sector as a whole. Meanwhile, the U-15 get to keep playing a more offensive role, lobbying for more specific policies, mainly in research.

Where that leaves the rest of the sector is anyone’s guess.

November 21

Try a New Market, For Once

Time for a pop quiz. Name a developing Asian nation that:

– Had GDP growth of over 5% most years since 1995
– Has a population over two-thirds of which speaks English
– Has a secondary school attainment rate of almost 90%
– Has a seriously underdeveloped higher education system
– Has been sending an average of over 15,000 people to Canada as immigrants each year since 2001

The answer is important because, let’s face it, a country like that has to be worth some time serious time and energy as far as recruiting international students, right? In fact, it sounds like Nirvana. There must be hundreds of recruiters there right now, mustn’t there?

For those of you who think this quiz is pointless because the answer is “India” and there are already thousands of recruiters there already, you are 100% wrong. Back of the class, please.

The answer is the Philippines. It’s not quite an Asian tiger but its GDP-per-capita is substantially higher than India’s and its secondary school system isn’t anything to sneeze at. Moreover, unlike India, Filipinos are used to paying lots of money for higher education (given the country’s underdeveloped public higher education sector, private higher education with its attendant fees is the norm).

 So why aren’t Canadian recruiters falling over themselves to go to the Philippines? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe it’s because of the two countries’ relative size. Maybe, it’s because of the kinds of stereotypes associated with immigrants from both countries (India is often associated with scientists and PhDs; the Philippines tend to be thought of in terms of nurses and domestic employees).

But maybe, also (say it softly), Canadian institutions have trouble doing things that are even a little bit contrarian. When’s the last time you heard of Canadian recruiters going somewhere that was virgin territory? More often than not, we’re following a few years behind trails already blazed by Australians and others.

Which is too bad, frankly. Once the U.K. and Australia fix their visa issues (something they are well on their way to doing), Canadian institutions won’t be able to count on a seemingly limitless stream of Indian students anymore. They might just need to start developing some new markets rather than go to the same well over and over again. The Philippines might be an interesting place to start.

November 18

Can You Build Your Way to Happiness?

With a half dozen universities currently planning upgrades to their athletics facilities, it’s worth asking the question: what’s the impact of these things on student satisfaction?

(Yes…we know…satisfaction isn’t everything. But it’s not nothing, either. And it has the singular value of being measurable, so…onwards!)

We have two recent case studies here. In 2009, Queen’s completed a new $230 million athletics complex, while in 2010, Trent completed an $18 million renovation to its own athletics building. What kind of effects did these renos have on satisfaction?

On our nine-point satisfaction scale, Queen’s saw a 3.4-point jump in satisfaction with Athletics facilities after completion of the new building; Trent saw a 2.3-point bump after its renovations were done. Clearly, it’s not dollars alone that push satisfaction – Trent got 0.126 points of satisfaction per million dollars spent, while Queen’s only got 0.015, which is an order of magnitude of difference.

But that’s just satisfaction with facilities. What about overall satisfaction with recreational and athletic programs themselves? It turns out these see a bump, too, but it’s not as large: the bump is about 1.7 (out of 9) at Queen’s and 1.3 at Trent.

Let’s take this still further. Satisfaction with athletic buildings and facilities is one of a number of buildings and facilities questions we ask. How much satisfaction “flows through” to overall satisfaction with buildings and facilities?

Answer: Not much. While both universities see an increase in overall satisfaction with buildings and facilities, Queens’ increase is small (about 0.22) and not out of line with the increase that Queen’s saw the previous year. Trent does have an anomalous bump of 0.30, which is more than one would expect from statistical noise.

Finally, let’s ask the big question – do these investments have a clear impact on overall satisfaction with the educational experience at these schools?

Answer: No – or, at least, not enough to stand out amidst all of the other factors that affect students’ satisfaction from year to year. Both schools actually saw small decreases in overall satisfaction in the years that the projects are completed.

In sum, it doesn’t seem like you can build your way to student satisfaction: students can’t be bought quite that easily. It would be interesting to have a counter-factual to Queen’s in order to find out what happens if you stick with an old, run-down athletics building and spend $230 million on decreasing class sizes or improving pedagogy instead. Our guess is the effect would be much more dramatic.

Maybe one day we’ll get a chance to try that out.

Alex Usher and Jason Rogers

November 17

Kids in the House

One of the big memes in student affairs these days is the increasing dependence of students on their parents. Sometimes, this is blamed on parents’ over-protectiveness, sometimes on students’ reluctance to grow up, but regardless, it seems a point of general agreement.

We can’t say much about long-term trends, but thanks to our regular CanEd Student Research Panel, we can provide a more nuanced portrait of these students. A few months ago, we asked panel members who lived at home about their parents’ on-going involvement in their lives. Specifically, we asked them what kinds of household activities their parents still did on their behalf. The results are shown in the figure below.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 81% of students reported that their parents often or always shopped for their groceries, 71% of students’ parents paid their household bills and 65% had their meals cooked for them by their parents. Female students were slightly more likely than males to report that their parents conducted household chores for them, with the exception of grocery shopping, where males were more likely to rely on parents than were females. Allophones and scholarship recipients were also more likely than other types of students to report that their parents conducted household chores for them.

In the absence of historical data on this subject, we have to wonder how university students would have answered these questions five, ten and twenty years ago. Are students increasingly dependent on their parents, or are things pretty much the way they’ve always been? And if they are increasingly dependent, is that just a function of changing demographics (i.e., more students from cultures where living with parents into adulthood is more common), or a more general phenomenon of delayed adulthood?

Let us know what you think.

Miriam Kramer and Alex Usher

One Thought to Start Your Day takes requests! Is there a topic you want to see addressed, or some data that makes you curious? We can help. Got any ideas for questions to put to our CanEd Student Research Panel? Drop us a note and we’ll see what we can do for you.

November 16

Helicopter Parents: Grounded?

We’ve all seen stories about “helicopter parents,” parents who hover over their children even after they enrol in university. But most of these stories are American in origin and tend to be anecdotal in nature. What’s the reality in Canada?

A few months ago, we asked our regular CanEd Student Research Panel what kind of on-going involvement their parents had in their lives. Did their parents help them with their homework or help them select courses or extracurricular activities? Had they helped them find a job, or (helicopter alert!) helped them contest a grade? The figure shows the results.

By some distance, the area in which parents gave the most assistance was finding a job, with runners up in assistance with school work, discussing a problem with a professor or administrator, and suggesting extra-curricular activities. Only 3% of students said their parents had behaved in that most helicopter-ish of ways by contesting a grade for them.

Female students were more likely to report having parental involvement in all of the categories compared to male students, and parental education was positively correlated with all categories as well. On academic matters, such as getting help with schoolwork and course selection, parental involvement increased with parental level of education. Anglophone parents were more likely to assist with schoolwork compared to other parents; allophone parents (many of whom are immigrants) were more likely to assist with course selection. Regarding choosing a career path or finding a job, allophone parents were more likely to be involved in choosing a career path, but substantially less likely to be involved with finding a job compared to Anglophone and Francophone parents.

Clearly, helicopter parents are not the norm among Canadian university students. So why do we hear so much about them? For one, they make a great news story. As well, it is possible that even a small percentage of meddling parents can affect institutional work patterns: at a campus of 30,000 students, if 3% of students’ parents call about their children’s grades, that’s 900 parental calls, or at least two calls a day, into the offices of Deans and Student Affairs. If that’s up from 2% a few years ago, that’s an extra 300 calls. That’s certainly enough to cause stories of helicopter parents to circulate, even if they aren’t in fact all that common.

Miriam Kramer and Alex Usher

November 15

What We’re Reading Now: The Faculty Lounges

Let’s be clear up front: The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get The College Education You Paid For by freelance writer Naomi Schaefer Riley isn’t the most cogent book you’ll ever read. In fact, many of the links she makes between tenure and the various problems within higher education are questionable to say the least. But if you look past the tenure stuff and get down to the actual issues which she (mostly wrongly) thinks are caused by tenure, what you’ve got is a reasonable summary of some of the key issues in North American higher education today.

Tenure, for instance, does not cause the problem of publish or perish – rather, both are products of academic norms. Institutional financial crises can be exacerbated by tenure (in the sense that it makes the academic workforce less flexible), but they aren’t caused by it. Nevertheless, Riley writes cogently on the importance of those issues, even if she misdiagnoses the cause.

Where she is most persuasive, however, is in her description of what she calls the “Academic Underclass” – part-time faculty who just miss out on the tenured good life, leading highly contingent lives for low-pay. Whether or not you agree that they are “victims” of tenure, their plight is among those in most urgent need of redress, and she writes about them vividly.

You might think this an unconvincing review, given that I’m dissing Riley’s basic thesis that tenure is the root of all academic evils, but I actually think this book is worth reading even if only in a “know-your-enemy” kind of way. As budgets get tighter, tenure is certainly going to become a political target and arguments like Riley’s are going to be made – all the more so because the problems she points to are real and serious even if their link to tenure isn’t as tight as she makes out. People who care about tenure should take the time to engage with her arguments rather than dismissing them outright.

November 14

Learning from the Airline Industry

Every once in awhile it’s worth looking at other industries to see what you can learn from them and apply it to your own. In the case of higher education, I think it is time to look at airlines.

The obvious similarity here has to do with the difficulties both experience in branding. Airlines all deliver essentially the same experience – you get to the airport, go through security, pick a seat on one flying cigar tube and a few hours later you’re at another airport.  Similarly, universities provide generic experiences to students by offering the same selection of courses taught using the same techniques leading to the same qualifications. Branding is therefore about incredibly small differences in provision.

The two industries differ in a couple of respects, of course. One, universities are in the prestige business, so there’s no one to play the role of RyanAir or Southwest Airlines. Two, there’s no customer loyalty issue in higher education. Airlines fight for repeat business: universities don’t try to give you the same degree more than once. Sure, universities like to talk about being in the customer service industry, and earning loyalty for fundraising purposes, but that’s a somewhat different matter.

Differences aside, it’s a bit remarkable that universities haven’t gone the airline route to rebranding. Obviously, you can’t get profs to do Porter Airlines dress-chic, but is it too much to ask universities to build certain common themes into touchpoints with stakeholders? Why not make a university stand for something specific, like developing leadership skills or encouraging community service, and build it into various student interfaces: curriculum, residence programming, commencement speeches, etc. Building a distinct identity like this is the essence of branding; there’s no benefit to being sniffily post-modern about it if it condemns your institution to being “just another university.”

But forget branding: let’s talk alliances. Universitas 21 was an early attempt at getting institutions to link like airline alliances, but it was pretty weak.  The real money will be in creating a global superbrand (à la Star Alliance or Skyteam) not for domestic purposes, but for catching high-value international (primarily Asian) students. Imagine two institutions from Australia and England with significant overseas presences joining together to become a single institution for the purpose of creating a dozen or more campuses around the world. Remember when Monash wanted a campus on every continent? This is the way to do it. Throw in an ambitious American school with foreign designs (Cornell? Texas A&M?) and you’ve got a global powerhouse.

I give it three years, tops. Watching the feathers fly will be interesting indeed.


November 11

Why are Toronto Students so Friggin’ Miserable (Part 5)

Last week in our series on student satisfaction (and Toronto students’ lack thereof) we looked at how students’ perception of institutional character – specifically, things like having applied curricula, seeming open to new ideas and offering a supportive environment – correlated with student satisfaction. This week, we’re still on the issue of character, but students’ own characters rather than those of their institutions.

The 2012 Canadian University Report survey asked students how much they agreed, on a one to nine scale, with a series of statements about themselves (e.g. “I am an athlete”). There were eight statements in total, corresponding to “athlete,” “political junkie,” “environmental activist,” “artist,” “technological guru,” “career oriented,” “studious” and “I like to live it up.” (We were unable to ask the more direct question – whether or not students would describe themselves as “liking to party” – because no institution wants to be labelled a “party school” as a result of the CUR).

It turns out that only three of these eight statements have any important relationship to overall satisfaction (Figure 1). The ultimate trifecta of satisfaction? A studious, career oriented student who likes to live it up; the average satisfaction of a student who rates themselves as a nine on all of these measures is 7.5 out of nine.

This, by the way, makes you wonder why any institution would want to avoid being called a party school since such a status is likely to be associated with high levels of satisfaction. To at least some extent, the University of Western Ontario’s continued long-term success in having top satisfaction ratings (which it likes to talk about) is because of its status as a party school (which it would prefer not to talk about). It’s two sides of the same coin.

But back to our longer-term question: does any of this explain why Toronto students are so miserable? Can Toronto institutions’ low satisfaction levels be explained because students there are less likely to describe themselves as “career oriented,” “studious” or “liking to live it up”? Well, maybe a little bit.

Figure 2 shows the percentage of students who rate themselves as an eight or a nine (on a nine-point scale) on each of these three traits. Clearly, Toronto students are less likely to strongly identify with these three traits, but the gap isn’t huge – certainly not enough to explain the big gaps in satisfaction we see each year. That said, it’s worth noting that students at Ryerson – the one Toronto school that does reasonably well on the CUR’s satisfaction measure – are also the ones with the highest average scores for being career oriented and “liking to live it up” and the second-highest average scores for studiousness (behind OCAD).

More next week. Stay tuned.

— Alex Usher and Jason Rogers

November 10

Financial Illiteracy

Last week I joined researchers, policymakers and innovative practitioners at the HEQCO Fear of Finance: Financial Literacy and Planning for Post-Secondary Education conference. Kudos to the HEQCO team for putting on a fantastically relevant conference that brought these diverse groups together; it doesn’t happen very often, and it was engaging for participants step out of our usual silos for a couple of days.

I presented on what I call financial aid literacy in PSE; that is, what students and their parents know about financial aid. Although, as we shall see, it’s what they don’t know that’s the important/scary part.

In 2009, as part of some work done for a coalition of student groups, we asked 14,500 Canadian students to complete a simple seven-question financial aid quiz which included questions about assistance eligibility and repayment. Three-quarters (!) of students failed and a mere 10% received a “B” grade or better. Knowledge improved with age, and Anglophone and Francophone students performed better than Allophone ones. The best news was that government loan recipients received higher scores than their non-recipient counterparts, though the difference in scores was small and both groups still overwhelmingly failed.

The sources students used to learn about student aid had a very strong impact on their level of financial aid literacy. Word of mouth from friends (used by 57% of students) and family (51%) were the most commonly-cited sources; however, students who relied on these sources performed the worst of all on the quiz. The second set of most popular sources were financial aid officers (33%) and government websites (32% for provincial and 23% for federal); students who used these sources performed significantly better than average, and much better than those who didn’t use any of them.

Though Canada has a pretty good financial aid system, especially with the recent increase in grant funding, financial illiteracy has a potentially significant and detrimental impact on access, persistence, loan repayment planning and default. The silver lining to a huge problem of better informing students, parents, guidance counsellors and financial aid administrators is that it is primarily one of public relations and knowledge mobilization. Compared to overhauling financial aid programs, it’s a cheap problem to solve. But it’s still a very difficult one: there is very little precedent from which to work. The HEQCO conference was a great start to thinking about this problem and I look forward to more discussion, not only of the problems, but also of the solutions.

November 09

Is Higher Education Oversold?

Alex Tabarok at Marginal Revolution recently asked an interesting question that has spread quickly across the blogosphere – is college oversold? I think this question is going to get asked a lot more as the economic slowdown wears on, so it’s worth examining.

Basically, Tabarok notes that U.S. enrolment in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects has been stagnant over the last couple of decades, whereas enrolment in “softer” subjects with allegedly (no data is provided) lower rates of return, such as psychology, visual arts and journalism is way, way up. On this basis, he suggests that “college has been oversold.”

This is an interesting way of phrasing the problem to say the least. Who is doing the alleged overselling, exactly? And what motives might they have for doing so?

Let me suggest some alternate theories that might explain this phenomenon:

1) Perhaps it’s a symptom of colleges being underfunded. Government dollars have been tight even while demand is increasing. Perhaps American universities – like universities almost everywhere in the entire world – have reacted to this problem by bulking up on social science programs that are cheap to deliver while keeping a lid on more expensive science and engineering programs.

2) Perhaps it’s just universities reacting to demand. When we curse crappy reality TV for things like Jersey Shore, we don’t just blame the networks for airing it; deep down that what we’re really cursing is the taste of the viewing public. Same thing here: maybe the consumers of education, not the producers, are to blame.

3) Perhaps it’s students looking at ROI in terms other than dollars. Prestige, for instance. Decades of over-production of lawyers haven’t dimmed the allure of law degrees in Latin America, because of the prestige factor; maybe the same thing’s going on with journalism in the U.S. Or “fit”: students don’t feel connected to science and engineering when they apply to university so they discount the potential monetary gains by thinking about how much, deep down, they hate lab work and how much they’d give up to avoid it.

4) Finally, maybe students are just acting like rational consumers. Returns to engineering – especially computer science – have been highly volatile in the last two decades. Plus, as we’re repeatedly told, Indian programmers can kick Americans’ butts at a tenth the price. Does that sound like an industry to which you’d want to commit your future?

I’m not saying any of these are necessarily full explanations for the problem of overproduction of graduates in fields with low ROI. I’m just saying they are valid – but less emotive – hypotheses to rival the “we’ve been sold a bill of goods” line of argument. They deserve equal billing.

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