Higher Education Strategy Associates

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.

November 08

The Problem With Strategic Enrolment Management (SEM)

There are two basic issues with the way strategic enrolment management is practiced in Canada. The first is that there is a widespread misunderstanding about what it means to “compete” for students. SEM, done properly, is about competition, and finding ways to appeal to niche segments of the market that your competitors are also after.

But few Canadian institutions have more than two genuine competitors, and even that’s being generous. Many are essentially local monopolies or duopolies. Only institutions in southern Ontario and Nova Scotia genuinely know anything like the kind of fierce competitive environment in the United States, where it’s not uncommon for markets to have 20 or 30 or more institutions battling for students’ attention. When 80% of your market is local, how much should you really be spending to “compete”?

In fact, the only market where Canadian institutions are in a dogfight is for foreign students, where the battle is literally against hundreds of institutions around the world. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, our institutions are currently labouring under the delusion that our current high foreign enrolment – largely the result of big missteps by Australia and the U.K. which are quickly being rectified – can be maintained without significant operational changes. But this is a challenge few SEM programs seem prepared to deal with.

The second big problem is that a lot of SEM practitioners are insufficiently focused on the “S.” Way too much of the advice out there that proclaims itself as “strategic” is actually tactical. A lot of the advice ends up being on messaging, tag lines, social media and the like – the bad end of marketing, basically. Institutions can royally screw up their brand by going too far down this road. Frankly, any university that allows its messaging to get driven by the whims of 18-year olds deserves everything it gets.

Truly strategic SEM isn’t about putting bums in seats. It’s about deciding what kind of university you want to have: what kinds of students and what kinds of programs. There are very serious financial issues at play, too; for institutions with ambitious agendas requiring a lot of money, SEM projects have to be about setting long-term revenue goals and finding the right mix of domestic and foreign students to deliver that amount of net income.

In a future where government support seems set to decline, SEM needs to be more strategic than ever. Making it just about tactics is a recipe for failure.

November 07

Shite Gifts for Academics

So, now that Hallowe’en is over, you need to start thinking about Christmas. Wondering what to get an academic friend? Check out the facebook app Shite Gifts for Academics, where you’re sure to find something worth giving.

Ok, not really. It’s one of those meant-to-be-funny-but-actually-kind-of-annoying facebook sites where you can “send” something to someone. With a click of a button, you can give a friend one of 212 presents such as “two big male egos in a departmental meeting,” “second wave feminist with an axe to grind” and “non-academic friend who thinks you have summers off, right?”

At this point, you’re rolling your eyes and asking, “This is trite – who cares”? Well, the nice thing about facebook apps is that it’s all about metrics. You can always see how many times someone has sent each gift. And as such, this particular app is an interesting window into the psyche of academics. Since each gift is clearly ironic, it actually functions as a rough-and-ready guide to what it is that academics (ones on facebook, anyway, meaning in the main young-ish academics) dislike the most about their jobs and lives.

So, here we go: the top five gifts on Shite Gifts for Academics (as of November 3):
1) Eighty freshman composition papers (gifted 42,003 times)
2) Sentence in outrageous academese (41,662)
3) Students texting in class (40,944)
4) Boring faculty meeting (31,569)
5) Enthralled class (with an accompanying picture to make it clear that the class is in fact unenthralled) (31,283)

One other entry (overbearing maladjusted colleague) gets over 30,000 “gifts,” and then there’s another couple between 25,000 and 30,000 (“unnecessary Freud reference” and “vengeful student evaluation”), but after that the numbers tail off pretty quickly. That top five really seems to nail what peeves our group of young-ish, facebook-inhabiting academics.

Obviously, one shouldn’t read too much into this, but it’s interesting how much the focus of their peevishness is students and teaching, isn’t it? That can’t be good.

November 04

Why Are Toronto Students so Friggin’ Miserable? (Part Quatre)

To date, we’ve been musing about the causes of Toronto students’ dissatisfaction. But let’s put the shoe on the other foot for a bit: what causes student satisfaction to begin with?

One thing we ask in the Globe Canadian University Report survey is students’ perceptions about a number of dimensions of the character of their institution. For instance, we ask them if they think their institution’s curriculum is more theoretical or applied, whether the institution is broadly-based or focuses on a few areas of study, etc. (to save space, we’ll spare you the methodology and wording caveats; contact us directly if you want to know more).

It turns out that students’ perceptions of certain dimensions of institutional character are remarkably closely correlated with satisfaction:

Here’s what Figure 1 tells us: Students are more satisfied if they think their institution isn’t specializing in certain areas, but rather is spreading the (monetary) love about evenly across different fields of study. If they think their curriculum is practical/applied, they’re happier than if they think it’s theoretical. Students who see their schools as expecting them to be self-sufficient or as cautious to new approaches and ideas are miserable; by contrast, those who see their institution as “nurturing and supportive” or “open to new approaches” are extremely satisfied. Indeed, the range of satisfaction from one end of the scale to the other for both of these measures is over three points: that’s larger than the entire range of institutional satisfaction results in the 2012 Canadian University Report.

So, might these factors explain our Toronto problem? Are Toronto institutions seen as too theoretical, closed to new approaches, etc?

It turns out that Toronto institutions aren’t rated differently from institutions elsewhere in terms of spreading their wealth and are barely different in terms of being open to new ideas.  Having a theoretical curricula is a big factor for St. George, but not for the rest of Toronto on average (though there is variation – applied curricula at Ryerson and OCAD offset theory at York and the U of T satellites). Only on the issue of being insufficiently nurturing/supportive of students – a measure inversely correlated with institutional size – is there a clear difference between Toronto schools and those elsewhere. But even this is less than it seems. Toronto’s numbers are being driven by the three U of T campuses and OCAD (all of which do badly even once size is taken into account); York’s score is about average while Ryerson does exceptionally well on this measure.

In short, institutional characteristics are an important driver of satisfaction generally, but can only partially explain our Toronto conundrum.

The search continues next week. Stay tuned.

— Alex Usher and Jason Rogers

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