My View from South Hill
Monday, December 17, 2012
Over the last three weeks I have described some of the challenges related to cost and quality that we face at Ithaca College. I am certain we will be able to meet these challenges because our campus community has great clarity on what makes us special and on where we need to improve. We are also committed to being accessible to all students of talent, which means that we will find a way to bend the cost curve so that IC can be a leader in combining excellence with affordability.
I want in this final message of the semester to focus on the opportunity in front of us. Our greatest opportunity lies in our educational mission to become the standard of excellence for residential comprehensive colleges. We take justifiable pride in our commitment to offer a blend of liberal arts and professional education that creates a transformative experience for every student.
We should never forget the profound impact our educational community has on students. To take just one example, I have gotten to know a senior named Perri Rumstein. Perri almost didn’t come to IC. IC was her first choice but it was pretty far from home and she didn’t think she was ready to be that far from her family. Perri was so unsure of herself that she left her freshman summer orientation early to go home and began to make plans to go to the local community college instead. Her parents talked Perri into giving IC a chance, though, and she did. Four years later, Perri has excelled as a student and is on track to graduate next spring. She is a leader in the senior class, one of the co-chairs of the senior class gift committee. The formerly shy student has been a President’s Host for the last couple of years, giving campus tours during which she tells prospective students that IC is a place where you can dream big and be fully supported in becoming the person you hope to become.
Perri’s story is the Ithaca College story. Yesterday I attended the celebration on campus for December graduates. Talking with the graduates and their parents, I heard stories again and again about how IC has fostered personal and intellectual growth among our students. An IC education is so much more than just the amassing of certified college credits leading to a degree.
I have sought over the last three weeks to describe the challenges we face in order to prepare us all for the focused effort we will undertake together in the years ahead. Our vision statement says that we will “strive” to become the standard of excellence for residential, comprehensive colleges. There is a lot of striving going on right now, and that will continue to be the case. Please do not let the magnitude of these challenges cause you to feel that Ithaca College has an uncertain future. Your commitment to our educational mission ensures that we will do more than just meet these challenges – we will build on the IC legacy of excellence to fully meet our commitment to become the standard of excellence.
I hope you will enter the holidays with a sense of peace that comes from confidence and pride. Thank you for all you do to make Ithaca College a truly special educational community.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Our focus at Ithaca College is on increasing our VALUE to students. Given IC’s standing as one of the best student-centered learning environments in the country but also as a relatively expensive higher education option, it is my opinion that we must be focused on both parts of the value equation at this time: increasing quality while also controlling cost.
Having discussed last week what constitutes quality and how we are seeking to go from good to great in quality at IC, I would like this week to focus on the matter of cost.
As Professor Elia Kacapyr pointed out in a comment posted on my blog two weeks ago, the cost of attendance at Ithaca College has increased at 3.58 times the rate of inflation since 1983. His calculation does not take into account financial aid that is provided through the college; when you consider such aid our final cost to students has risen at “only” a bit more than twice the rate of inflation. Cumulated over decades, though, that is still a big disparity! Even more relevant is the comparison of the net cost of attending Ithaca College to growth in family incomes. The net cost of IC after financial aid has grown at twice the pace of growth in the median family income over the last decades, a trend that is causing stress among prospective students and their families. Obviously, this trend is not sustainable from the perspective of affordability.
In order to reverse the cost spiral – which is general in higher education and not unique to IC – we must reduce our expenses in order to allocate funds to quality improvement. We must also reduce the current reliance on annual cost increases that are approximately twice the rate of inflation. It is this latter task, of reducing the annual increase in student cost, that has commanded the most attention in society. President Obama, for example, has stated the goal that colleges must cut their rate of cost increase in half (to approximately the rate of inflation), and pledged in his campaign that he would seek to withhold federal financial aid dollars from colleges that do not do so. If we are to move in the direction of meeting this challenge, we will need to find on-going operating efficiencies. If you think of our costs over time as a line with an upward slope, cutting expenditures shifts the line down while finding operating efficiencies lowers the slope of the line in the future.
In the 46 years from 1962 to 2008, annual gross tuition cost increases at Ithaca College averaged 7.3% per year, including a 6.9% per year average from 2000-2008. Some of those years were high inflation years and there was also a significant increase in financial aid during that period of time. Even so, the numbers bear out the fact that IC fully participated in the general trend of an unsustainable cost spiral. From 2008 to the present – since the global economic crisis – gross tuition at IC cost has gone up by 4.9% per year. This is significantly less than our long term rate of cost increase. But if we were to meet President Obama’s goal (to name just one possible objective), the rate of increase would need to come down still further to about 3.5% per year. How can such efficiencies be achieved?
Broadly speaking, there are two strategies for cost control. One is an across-the-board belt tightening. We could freeze salaries or keep salary increases minimal. We could keep all controllable budgets flat, recognizing that some of our expenses – such as for energy and for employee health care benefits – are likely to grow by much more than 3.5% from one year to the next.
The other strategy is targeted, based on a careful review of all expenditures with the aim of reducing or eliminating expenses that are not closely aligned with the quality of our core educational mission. Under a targeted approach, we would reduce expenditures in some areas in order to have the funds to maintain quality in others and even to increase our commitments in areas that significantly advance our educational quality and our vision for the future.
There is no one right answer for all situations when it comes to the choice between across-the-board and targeted cost reduction strategies. Which strategy is best at a given time depends on context and on what one is trying to achieve. In the global economic recession of 2008-2010, for example, IC adopted a one year salary freeze and every division took proportionate cuts to their operating funds. Those are classic across-the-board strategies, appropriate to a situation where the goal is to work through a temporary financial gap.
In our current situation, we are not seeking to weather a temporary economic crisis but instead to end a cost spiral that has gone on for decades. We are challenged not just to reduce our rate of tuition increase for one year, but on an ongoing basis. To adopt across-the-board strategies under these circumstances would be to paralyze the college with no financial capacity to adopt new ideas. Over time, this strategy would surely condemn IC to a slow decline. We would be able to afford only minimal salary increases year after year, leading to a loss of morale and an increase in attrition. It would not be possible to invest in further advancing quality, opening us up to the possibility of a long term erosion in both quality and reputation. In short, across-the-board strategies are not a good response when the goal is long term change.
Unlike 2008-2010, IC is now embarked on a strategic and targeted cost reduction strategy. With the help of Huron Education Consulting, we are now reviewing every aspect of our administrative organization and processes. The IC campus will review Huron recommendations early in the spring semester and offer input into the development of a plan that in future years will produce savings and generate new revenue. With the participation of the faculty, and recognizing their primacy as the experts in academic instruction, we will take parallel steps in considering how to reduce the future rate of annual growth in the cost of our academic programs.
The commitment to cost control at Ithaca College is not primarily directed at weathering a temporary budget gap or getting us through to the next period of expansive economic growth. We are seeking to find a permanent footing that will enable us to offer a world class education at a price that keeps Ithaca College accessible to students of talent from the widest possible range of economic circumstances.
Monday, December 3, 2012
Last week I summarized the challenge for Ithaca College to continue to attract high quality students who can benefit from the educational experience we offer. In brief, there are more options for higher education today than ever before and most of them cost less than IC. In addition, every year the cost of IC becomes unaffordable for a larger fraction of families. For us to succeed in that environment, we must focus on increasing our VALUE to students. Value = Quality / Cost, which means that to increase value we must increase quality while at the same time slowing the growth of our costs relative to competitors.
This week I want to focus on the QUALITY part of the Value equation; we will take a closer look at Cost next week.
Increasing quality is a more complex task than is decreasing cost. Everyone knows that less expensive is better than more expensive, but there are differences of opinion as to what quality means in a college education. Our understanding of quality at Ithaca College derives from our educational mission, which is to provide a foundation for life-long learning following three principles: “that knowledge is acquired through discipline, competence is established when knowledge is tempered by experience, and character is developed when competence is exercised for the benefit of others.”
This long-standing educational mission is in sync with student expectations. Students hope their IC education will lay the foundation for future success both in terms of a career and in terms of a rich and happy life. They want to graduate READY for the challenges they will face throughout their lives, including challenges that cannot be imagined from the perspective of today’s experience.
Our Quality challenge is to focus on constantly improving on our ability to deliver on this educational mission. Continuous improvement takes place when we identify, celebrate, and reinforce those things we do very well, and when we are fearless in identifying and seeking to improve things we do not do as well. It is said that Michael Jordan would work obsessively on the weakest areas of his basketball skills every off season. ("Weak" is a relative term in this context!) If his first dribble to the left was slower than his first dribble to the right, he spent the summer practicing his move to the left. By the next season, defenders who thought they could count on him going right in a key situation would be “left” behind. It is human nature to get the most pleasure from practicing the things we already do well. But his willingness to focus on weakness led to the player-without-peer that Michael Jordan became.
During my first year at Ithaca College I held a series of "Listening Sessions" with faculty, staff, students, alumni, retired employees, and members of the wider community. I asked people what they were proud of about the college and what they thought could be better. I was struck at the time by the high level of agreement on both our strengths and our weaknesses. One of the greatest strengths identified was the degree to which faculty care about student learning. You might think that would be true everywhere, but there are many campuses where showing too much enthusiasm about teaching is taken primarily as a sign that one is insufficiently engaged in their research. IC faculty, by contrast, seemingly have their most passionate arguments about curricula and about teaching pedagogies. As a closely related point, our faculty care about each student as an individual, with their own strengths, weaknesses and aspirations. The most powerful faculty-student conversations often happen outside of class and frequently are only loosely connected to course material or assignments.
The second area of excellence at IC is the extent to which staff consider themselves to be educators. Students fill 3,000 jobs on campus every year, generally working closely with members of the staff who take pride in the opportunity to be part of a student’s professional and personal development. Late shift facilities workers who clean and service our buildings have told me with pride about times they sat next to a discouraged student in a lounge in their building in the middle of the night. They offered a sympathetic ear, and when asked they offered some advice. These members of the staff are making real our commitment to become the standard of excellence for residential comprehensive colleges.
There was a nearly equal level of agreement in my listening sessions on our relative areas of weakness. The quality of student advising came in for substantial criticism from students, faculty and staff, not that it was generally poor but that it did not meet the high standards of consistency we set for ourselves. A second common area of criticism was the difficulty of taking courses in schools other than one’s own, and then having those courses count toward one’s degree program.
Like Michael Jordan’s ability to make a quick move to his left, these areas of criticism need to be understood as relative weaknesses rather than as matters of incompetence. But a college committed to continuous improvement must be willing to identify such weaknesses and focus extra attention on them. Accordingly, the development of the IC 20/20 strategic plan was shaped by eight task forces, each co-chaired by a faculty member and a dean or associate dean, that centered on the relative weaknesses previously identified by the campus community. Not surprisingly, one of the task forces focused on student advising while another centered on models of integrative learning that would draw together the resources and perspectives of multiple disciplines and schools.
Ideas from each of the task forces were incorporated into the IC 20/20 strategic plan. Consistent with our commitment to constantly improving quality, the greatest attention in IC 20/20 is given to the identified areas of relative weakness. We continue to celebrate and support our points of greatest pride, including the faculty culture of commitment to student learning, the staff culture of being part of the total educational experience, the excellence of our majors and professional programs, and the richness of student life on campus. The plan, though, is focused on areas where we can be better.
We are now in the second year of implementing the IC 20/20 plan for educational quality, and we have for various reasons chosen to tackle the most demanding parts of the plan first. Faculty are working very hard on the Integrative Core Curriculum, whose development has required significant planning and accommodations to fit it in with the established major fields of study. Staff are working hard, especially in Student Affairs, to envision an even richer educational environment for students in campus and residential life. This is the hardest part of the process, when the reality of the work to be done hits home but we have not yet booked the successes that begin to bear tangible results.
Please stay the course in our commitment to quality. The potential rewards are great. With the Integrative Core Curriculum in place for entering freshmen in the fall of 2013 – at least in its first version – we will have turned an area of relative weakness into an area of distinctive strength! Michael Jordan would be proud.
The bedrock of quality at IC rests on the fact that members of the faculty, staff and administration each understand how they can contribute to excellence in our mission as a residential, comprehensive college. I take pride in the attitude displayed by a member of the IC faculty when he wrote to me last week in response to my first Monday morning message on the challenge before us. In an email that was in significant part critical of what he regards as administrative impediments to the achievement of excellence, he commented that he hoped IC would be able to
capitalize on this energy, move … forward in new directions, and … move our development [fund raising] success forward substantially. All of this will help us become a place where we put our money where our mouth is: a place where prospective students know that if they attend they will be transformed into "world-class professionals", become successful and impressive advocates for [their professional fields], and build careers that are much more rich and influential than just [mastering the tools of their profession]. 1
To the extent we all adopt that attitude, including the element of criticizing procedures and arrangements that may impede our quest for excellence, I think our continued growth in quality is assured.
1Elisions and edits to this quotation are made solely to generalize a point this faculty member made with specific reference to his school.
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
This is a time of rapid change at IC and in higher education generally. We have entered a period in which we are challenged to operate differently in order to continue to flourish. As a result, there is a great deal going on right now, including IC 20/20 implementation as well as the Effectiveness and Affordability Review that we are conducting with the assistance of Huron Education. The challenges are serious. If we respond to these challenges with vision and determination, however, we have an opportunity to create an Ithaca College that is not only financially sound but also better and more respected than ever.
The central challenge lies with our ability in the future to attract students who will be willing and able to pay IC’s cost of attendance (tuition plus room and board) that has now surpassed $50,000 per year. What has changed, you might ask -- why won't students continue to seek admission to IC as they always have in the past? We are challenged from a number of directions. The spread of online learning opportunities -- many of them inexpensive and some of them free -- grabs the headlines. But the bigger threat is one that we created ourselves over a period of decades: the accelerating cost of an IC education. We are not unlike other private colleges and universities in having increased our cost of attendance over the last thirty years at a rate of 5 to 6 percent per year – a bit more than double the rate of inflation and nearly double the rate of growth in family incomes. People value what we have to offer, and so in the past families have been willing to invest their life savings and to take out second mortgages on their homes in order to send their sons and daughters to IC. Those sons and daughters, in turn, have been willing to take on ever higher levels of debt.
However, willingness to do whatever it takes to be able to attend IC is now changing in ways that our admission and financial aid staff encounter every day. The loss of home values beginning in 2008-2009 suddenly eliminated one of the major ways that people paid for college. The growth of student debt has reached what many consider to be a breaking point and has led an increasing number of people to ask if college is worth it. It does not help that we have faced for several years now a relatively weak job market for recent college graduates (though it is still WAY better to have a college degree in this job market than not to have one!).
The reservations felt by many prospective students and their families are becoming increasingly public. If you read magazines like Time or Newsweek you will have seen in the last few months cover stories questioning whether a traditional college education is worth it anymore, and lauding new online alternatives. Public anger about both cost and quality has also been echoed in government, where there have been congressional inquiries into college pricing and into whether colleges are doing all they can to help students complete their degrees. The cost of college was a presidential campaign issue this past fall, perhaps for the first time ever.
Ithaca College has been part of this cost spiral. Over time, we have built out a beautiful and attractive campus. We have added academic majors and minors as well as programs for student services and support. We have added faculty and staff to support and deliver those programs. We have offered the best of the best, and been proud to do so. Students pay for all of it.
What we did was not wrong and it was not wasteful. To a considerable extent, it was fueled by student demand for small classes and low faculty to student ratios, the best academic and recreational facilities, and the latest equipment. If you take a moment to look with fresh eyes at all that we offer -- both the physical facilities and the 1,500 professionals dedicated to providing the best possible educational and living experience for 6,500 students -- then you will feel a well-deserved burst of pride.
But those great accomplishments are no longer enough when an increasing proportion of the college-aged population cannot afford to attend IC. Even if prospective students feel that IC offers the best possible educational experience, the one they would like to have in an ideal world, they will not come here if they cannot afford to do so. We have for decades been an attractive option for students despite being three times as expensive (before IC financial aid) as a SUNY campus for a New York resident. We must in the future be seen as an attractive and affordable option for students despite being 20 times as expensive as the online undergraduate degree programs that are just now emerging. People still want excellence but to an increasing extent they are also demanding VALUE.
So here is our challenge: We must increase the value of an IC education. Value = Quality / Cost, meaning that we must increase our quality and at the same time substantially rein in the growth of cost.
Please be clear that BOTH parts of the value equation are vital. We are never going to be one of the cheaper higher education options, so prospective students will not want to come to IC if we are not seen as offering the very best in quality. But if we continue to add to quality by increasing cost well beyond the rate of inflation, then prospective students will not be able to come to IC.
Greater quality at a lower cost. That is quite a challenge! But we have been working on solutions with respect to both quality and cost for several years now, and many of you have played significant roles in identifying those solutions. I will discuss those solutions beginning next week.
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
The Ithaca College Chemistry Department has more than five hundred graduates, some of whom are today among the most respected leaders in their field. Its faculty care so much about their students that years later they can recount stories about light-hearted moments or intellectual breakthroughs in the lab. The department’s alumni care so much about the faculty, in turn, that they travel to Ithaca years later to give testimony about their mentors.
This tradition of excellence in the Chemistry Department has developed over 50 years. It is marked by such signposts as the over 50,000 cumulative hours of student research undertaken in the lab, and the more than 200 students who have presented their research at regional, national and international conferences. That represents over 40% of all graduates of the department who have had the opportunity to undertake original research and present it at conferences; a rate that is even higher among recent graduates.
Mike Haaf, an associate professor in the department, was recently recognized by Princeton Review as one of the top 300 college professors in any field of study, based on student ratings. He and 299 others (one of the others also from IC!) were chosen from among over 1.8 million post-secondary teachers in the country! Mike is so modest that he deleted the first two emails from Princeton Review telling him he had won this award, assuming them to be spam. They finally had to call to convince him this was a legitimate honor. “I appreciate that the Princeton Review decided to recognize quality teaching,” Mike says. “That is what the faculty in our department live for. This is really a departmental award because we have developed together and over a long period of time the culture of focusing solely on student learning.”
Conversations with our chemistry alumni prove that Professor Haaf is right: quality teaching has a long pedigree here. Grateful alumni of the department have donated five endowed scholarships to be awarded to junior and senior majors. The most recent of these gifts was announced at the department’s 50th anniversary celebration last month. Dr. Marjorie Chelly ’94 is a hand surgeon in Texas whose reconstructive techniques enable people to regain full functionality after accidents. She attributes her success to the opportunity she had as an undergraduate to conduct and present original research; her fund will enable future students to have the same experience. Dr. Chelly named the award for Professor Glenn Vogel, the mentor who created those opportunities for her.
IC chemistry alumni have been successful in many related fields. Gary Kubera '82 is today President and CEO of Canexus, a chemical manufacturing and handling company. He also serves as a director on the Chlorine Chemistry Division of the American Chemistry Council and is director and past chair of the Alliance for Environmental Technology, an international association of chemical manufacturers dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of the pulp and paper industry by fostering adoption of chlorine-free technologies.
Dr. Bill Schwab ’68 is professor of Trauma Surgery and former division chief at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Bill served in the United States Navy for nine years, where he honed his life-saving surgical skills. Once in civilian life, he applied what he had learned in the Navy to develop patient transportation networks and trauma center collaborations that improve the speed and integration of emergency care. He also became a leader in pioneering trauma surgery techniques ranging from brain-tissue oxygenation to X-ray tomography. Through his writings – including being co-author of the definitive textbook on surgical trauma care -- and by traveling around the world to offer lectures and consultations to colleagues, Bill has saved untold numbers of lives by spreading his innovations on a global scale. He points to Professor Heinz Koch as the one who introduced him to research and inspired his future career, and Bill has also created a student research fund in the name of his former professor.
The IC Chemistry Department has a distinctive commitment to undergraduate learning that, over 50 years, leaves a remarkable legacy. I am particularly struck by the way our alumni combine technical expertise, business acumen and commitment to making a better world. That is exactly the kind of big picture thinking we seek to develop at Ithaca College.