A Note from Bob

Robert M. Zemsky, University of Pennsylvania

Just Do Something!

May 2024

Over the last year I have spent a surprising amount of time talking with College Presidents and inquiring journalists. What each asked is essentially the same—what lies ahead for American higher education? And to each I have given the same answer. The funk that now engulfs us could be never ending. Most of those who ask are, like me, steady consumers of Inside Higher Ed’s morning catalog of wails and woes: failed presidencies, campus closures, campus disruptions, and political intrusions seemingly summed up by the continuing dysfunction introduced by the federal government’s failed FAFSA adventure.

Then I discovered I was wrong, deadly wrong. The real problem was that higher education, like society at large, was being engulfed by a deluge of righteous anger. My evidence? The nightly parade of commentators and hosts on cable news. They are angry. With raised voices waving hands, and pronounced grimaces, they declaim against an abundance of villains, bad ideas, and misplaced loyalties. Ultimately, I came to understand that what I read about each morning in IHE was but an echo of what I watched each evening on TV. It was not what was said, that mattered but how it was said. Tone triumphs all.

In April I joined a convening of the 20 institutions developing three-year baccalaureate degrees as founding members of our College-in-3 Exchange. I was asked to offer a fireside chat answering the question as to what lies ahead for our troubled industry. And this time my answer was different. What lies ahead is not more funk, but rather a voluntary wading in the darker waters of righteous anger. As is the custom I ended with a call for questions. First up was a President who, right on cue, snarled, “All right Bob, we get the message, but what are we supposed to do about it?”  Without hesitation I told him, “Just do something! Something purposeful solving a key higher education problem. Something of value, a truly good idea that can engage important elements of your campus.”

It was the lesson I had absorbed over two days of listening to College-in-3 institutions reporting on what they had learned, what worked, what didn’t, and how the effort had come to matter. It was the lesson Chris Hopey, President of Merrimack College and our host for our April Convening, learned when he challenged a small group of his faculty to design three-year baccalaureate curricula. Two months in, he wanted me to know, “the faculty are finding the College-in-3 work liberating.” Not everywhere to be sure, but almost all have benefitted from a burst of energy and optimism. What looked at first to be impossible had proven to be doable. There had been faculty support along with encouragement from their accreditors and a willingness on the part of their institutional friends to help out.

We have begun to understand what made these results possible. First, nearly every participating institution thought small. Begin with just a couple of three-year options, not the entire undergraduate curriculum. And while the prospect of an undergraduate degree that cost students one-quarter less remained an administrative talking point, the real excitement was generated by the opportunity to design something really new, beginning with what students did their first year. Old taboos were discarded. New ideas were readily tried and discarded if they didn’t work. The new watchword for effective design became, “is it truly student centered?”  It became easier to integrate traditional learning outcomes with vocational interests. There was a willingness to make internships and summer work+learning experiences elements of the new curriculum. The ultimate question the curricula planners asked was simply, “What do we expect our students to do when they leave us?” 

Perhaps the most unexpected development was the feistiness of those institutions that faced regulatory roadblocks. Initially the New England Commission of Higher Education (NCHE) told the first of our institutions to submit proposals for a three-year degree to wait a while. Not deterred, the institutions instead mounted a successful political campaign that convinced the Commission to issue a set of guidelines for approving three-year options. In a different region a public institution seeking approval for a three-year degree seemingly did everything right, including securing the endorsement of its accreditor. When it sought the approval, as required, of its State Legislature, however, the effort ran into a political buzz saw: the faculty union declared the idea of a three-year baccalaureate degree was dead on arrival given that a twenty-five percent reduction in time to degree would mean fewer faculty jobs in general and few jobs in the liberal arts in particular. The union won. Still, the campus remained an active member of the College-in-3 Exchange and was duly represented at our Convening in April. The College simply refuses to give up!

To be sure, College-in-3 is not the only way to do something that matters. On the other hand, it neatly illustrates the advantages of what I have in mind. It is curricular, it involves both what and how students learn, and it is by fiat student-centered. College-in-3 is not focused on villains or other forms of apostate behavior. Promoting the idea does not call for protests or other means of acting out. And as Lori Carrell, Chancellor of the University of Minnesota Rochester and co-chair of the College-in-3 Exchange, notes with pride, what College-in-3 can promise is success for any and all students deemed worthy of admission regardless of their backgrounds. Not lamentations on a theme. Not the righteous anger of those alienated by a world turned topsy turvy. Instead, purposeful change that is curricular, that is student centered, and that is designed from the bottom up. That’s what we need.

I recently heard from Sonny Ramaswamy, President of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) that, while they once were a “dreaded accreditor,” he and his Commission are now considered “friends,” doing their best to make three-year bachelor’s degrees a genuine possibility. His Commission had approved Brigham Young University – Idaho and Ensign College to offer three-year degrees on a pilot basis. Ramaswamy stated that he is “optimistic that it’s the first of a successful effort and can serve as a model for others.”  So be it.

A New Era of Higher Education

March 2024

We began with a simple observation. What higher education requires most today is a shock or spark yielding true revitalization. It was Lori who reminded us that we had once promoted the idea of a three-year BA curriculum. She asked might we find a handful of institutions willing to give that idea a try today. What we soon learned was that the idea truly had legs. Our first 10 Pilot institutions eagerly took to the task of redesign provided they could focus on a limited number of programs and majors rather than their entire BA curriculum. What we were also told was it was possible to engage some (rather than all faculty) in the experiment—and for those faculty the effort was, to quote the President of Merrimack College, “truly liberating.”

The stark realities facing American higher education today are on full display. In increasing numbers, we are being asked about higher education’s value. The most critical questions come from within the enterprise itself. Why do so many U.S. students start college and never finish, especially first generation, low income, and students of color? How did the current college degree and experience develop? What should a college graduate be able to do, in the emerging context of the 21st-century? What is educational research revealing about how students learn and develop, and how can we implement those results at scale? And importantly, how can we work together across roles and disciplines to create new options for this new era? Why have we been so reluctant to imbed evidence-based practices in an intentionally designed curriculum leading to significantly more students completing college and launching their careers – without longstanding and now exacerbated disparities related to factors outside the students’ control.

In all our efforts we have kept our focus on the single statistic that motivated us. Currently half of all four-year American colleges and universities across the United States lose a quarter or more of their first-year students before their second year. This outcome is unacceptable and we who serve students pursuing higher education must lead the change. We need not just new, but dramatically different designs — to achieve dramatically different results. That change is the audacious aspiration of the College-in-3 experiment.

We have often described our work focusing on fresh designs for a three-year degree option as a “project.” The more accurate label is “experiment.” Our Pilot institutions are test-sites experimenting by convening conversations to consider and then evaluate the costs and benefits associated with offering a three-year degree option.

We ask you to think about joining us.