Necessity is the Mother of Innovation* (*Offer not applicable to higher education)

June 18, 2012

Today we come to our fifth and final blog post leading up to the release of Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Public Postsecondary Education tomorrow. So far, we’ve looked over several aspects of what’s going on in higher education. In part one, we tackled cost-effectiveness. Part two addressed the crippling graduation rates and inefficiency in higher education. The third part looked at state policies that could make a major impact on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of institutions. The most recent blog post discussed the iron curtain-like state of transparency and lack of accountability in postsecondary education.

While those pieces looked at past and current happenings, this one will look more towards the future. Innovation has long been the hallmark of our country, and has driven our nation forward since the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, the concept of transformation in higher education is quite literally a joke. An April column by Ann Kirschner in The Chronicle of Higher Education is even titled, “Innovations in Higher Education? Hah!” Education, in general, has been rather resistant to change in spite of wave after wave of societal push to do so.

Still, there are some forces that even the mighty Ivory Tower can’t thwart, and one of them is the Internet. Online learning—thanks largely to the powerful advances made by the for-profit sector—has proliferated even among traditional public institutions, and has opened up new, cost-effective avenues to deliver education to more students.

Now, I’m under no illusions regarding the transformative power of online learning. By itself, it will only change higher ed about as much as the vending machine revolutionized the soft drink industry—it may put the product in a few extra hands, but ultimately the game remains the same. Nonetheless, it’s the best proxy we have to determine the willingness of states and institutions to move higher education into the 20th century, if not the 21st.

As such, we examined the efforts made by states to create robust online learning systems and graded them on a seven-point scale. We found that while most states have indeed incorporated some aspect of online education into their public institutions, there’s a rather wide variation in the degrees to which they’ve done so. Georgia, for example, has made it possible for students anywhere in the state to take their first two years of courses entirely online. Florida has instituted a common course numbering system to help students clearly understand which online courses will freely transfer into their university of choice before taking them. And both states have set bold goals for increasing the number of students who take online courses and for raising the number of courses offered through the medium. Conversely, four states received an ‘F’ and 13 received a ‘D’ for their unsophisticated online learning systems.

Of course, one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways for states to innovate is to simply let someone else do the work. That’s precisely what Indiana and Washington have done in effectively making Western Governors University an in-state school for student financial aid purposes. Rather than spending money to create an entirely new infrastructure of their own, they partnered with the online nonprofit institution to open greater access for students within their states and spent next to nothing to make it happen. With those examples in mind, we examined state regulations that could inhibit new, outside educational providers from providing services to its citizens.

To do this, we partnered with Eduventures, a consulting firm that frequently works with public, nonprofit, and for-profit higher education institutions on issues of regulatory policy. Together, we examined several aspects of regulatory policy, including what factors might trigger regulatory oversight, the financial burden imposed on providers in the form of fees, and the process by which an entity would receive approval to operate.

I’m sure it comes as little surprise by now that 30 states received either a ‘D’ or ‘F’ in this category. It seems that most states are either perfectly content reinventing the wheel themselves, would prefer not to have outside competition for their students, or, worse, would prefer to do nothing at all.

And that’s really the problem here, isn’t it? We can’t continue down the existing path—not with all that our nation needs and how little we have left to invest. We can’t continue to raise tuition. We can’t count on higher education to change itself. And state laws either discourage or effectively prohibit someone else from solving the problem. We’re left to an unsustainable status quo.

At the end of the day, that’s why we’re releasing Leaders & Laggards. Because our employers need talent to thrive, and our talent needs help it isn’t getting from our colleges and universities. Because we know that the only way to solve our problems is to shine the light of transparency. Because innovation has become necessity in and of itself. And most importantly, because we have no other choice if we want our nation to remain competitive.

If we’re going to be successful in making higher education efficient, effective, and sustainable, we’ll need your help. We’re taking the first step towards pointing our nation’s higher education systems in the right direction with Leaders & Laggards by putting a spotlight on the policies and practices that desperately need to change. Join us in our call to action on June 19th at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and together, we’ll make America a leader once more.

Domenic Giandomenico is Director of Education and Workforce Programs for ICW.