Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Thoughts for Funders

Are you a billionaire looking to make a difference?  Do you like to pretend you’re a billionaire looking to make a difference?  Read on...

From the outside, it’s easy to see many of the funding needs that public higher education has.  Most of them fall under the category of “operating” costs, which are the recurring costs of doing business, of which the largest and most important is labor.  The squeeze on operating funds is the single largest driver of the trend toward adjunct faculty, and that trend won’t be reversed unless and until the underlying economics of it are.  And philanthropy generally avoids subsidizing “operating” budgets like the plague.

But some targeted philanthropy could not only help colleges fulfill their mission more effectively, but also free up money to pay for full-time employees.  The catch is that most funders are distant enough from the trenches that these suggestions don’t occur to them.

So, in the spirit of translation, I’ll offer a few observations from the ground about things that funders could cover that would make meaningful differences here.

First, and most wonkily -- I noticed “wonkily” didn’t trigger my spellchecker, which probably says something about me -- an ERP system built specifically for higher education could do a world of good.  Right now most colleges use systems designed around sales.  If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard “we’d have to do that manually…,” I’d have enough money to pay people to do it manually.  It’s hard to make data-driven decisions when you can’t get the data without heroic effort.  We shouldn’t need to make heroic effort.  Given that most colleges handle registration in relatively similar ways, the user base could be significant.  And if every college is able both to streamline its back-office operations and make more intelligent decisions with data, the efficiency gains could be substantial.

I had hopes that the Gates folk would take a crack at that, given their ties to a fairly well-known software company, but they passed.  If Lumina or someone else wanted to step up, they could free up operating dollars at campuses across the country.

Second, OER.  There’s some foundation-sponsored development of Open Educational Resources going on -- Saylor in particular has been active -- but it’s not where it could be, and it’s low-hanging fruit.  How many colleges across the country teach Intro to Psych?  

The real challenge here is the stuff that goes with the textbook.  That means test banks, homework assignments, ancillary worksheets, and the like.  Right now, even if a professor finds a good open textbook replacement, she still has to do the heavy lifting of personally finding and compiling (or writing) all the other stuff.  For a field like math, that’s a deal-breaker.  But how many colleges teach math?  

A high-profile national effort to build up a repertoire of OER in the high-enrollment classes would save students millions of dollars right out of the gate.  It would also help overcome a major faculty objection to OER, which is fear that courses without standard textbooks won’t transfer.  If the materials are accepted as industry standards, the courses will transfer cleanly.

I could imagine, say, Title III incorporating the development of student-facing OER as a permitted activity under its “Strengthening Institutions” program.  It wouldn’t take much to do that, and the payoff could be substantial.  

Finally, serious professional development for both faculty and administrators around online education.  The achievement gap in online classes is typically even worse than for onsite classes.  Given that online enrollments are growing relative to their onsite counterparts, the argument for getting good at it is powerful.  What low-cost, scalable steps could colleges take that would actually help?  

I promise no pride of ownership for any of these ideas.  Any funders who are so inclined are invited to take these ideas and run with them.  In each case, some carefully-targeted funding could free up operating funds at colleges across the country, with salutary effects on budgets and employment.  If any funders would like to discuss them further, well, my phone works.  

Here’s hoping...

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