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A Roadmap for Transforming Higher Ed (Guest Post)

The following is the last in a three-part series of guest posts by Rasmus Lynnerup, former executive vice chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. See the first and second posts.

What is required to ensure the continued success of our fellow citizens and our democracy as a whole? In short, high-quality, well-funded, well-run institutions attracting the highest levels of professional talent. These institutions must be run by accountable boards and executives and promote one thing only: student outcomes in college and beyond.

To do so, radical changes to the system are required. Among them:

  • Changing the accreditation system towards promoting more relevance and better outcomes
  • Dismantling parallel governance systems and holding boards and executives accountable to student outcomes in college and beyond
  • Restructuring state and federal funding sources to support explicit public policy goals for the industry and increasing funding for those institutions that improve student outcomes
  • Ensuring the hiring of the best managerial talent into management and executive positions
  • Insisting on 100 percent relevance of all classes and programs at public higher education institutions – whether to ensure full, seamless transfer between organizations or to meet the requirements of employers
  • Structuring the industry around the student to provide them with a system that is transparent and fully integrated across all public institutions
  • Providing real-time, proactive interventions to students based on the mountains of individual student data that reside within postsecondary institutions
  • Running these organizations like the effective businesses they can be.

These changes will not be easy, and many special interests will object. That is even more reason to start sooner rather than later. In fact, let’s start now. Equitable, world-class outcomes are not too much to expect in our America.

About Rasmus Lynnerup

Rasmus is a first-generation college student who immigrated to the U.S. in his 20s. He now resides in Chicago, where he served as executive vice chancellor for the City Colleges of Chicago. He has a passion for helping his adopted home country’s residents fulfill their highest potential and rebuild a system of higher education that his twin boy and girl can grow up to view with pride.

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Why Leadership Must Move at the Pace of Disruption

(This post was originally published on LinkedIn). 

In virtually everything in life, information matters, but insight matters more. That’s in no small part due to the increasingly rapid pace of change in the word around us, which challenges us as leaders to assess different scenarios, identify the data that matters most, and provide others with the right infrastructure, support, and tools to act at the pace of the disruption around us.

I recently published a book, Reinvention: The Promises and Challenges of Transforming a Community College System, about my experience as chancellor of a large community college system. During my tenure, I didn’t think about writing a book about the experience. But my experiences as a student, corporate executive and later as the leader of an academic institution taught me some important lessons, including the one that permeates every chapter of my book– that we must move faster to transform our higher education system. The question we need to answer is do our traditional delivery models leave our students with too much debt and credentials that may have limited value in the workplace. While the experiences in my book are viewed through the lens of transforming a community college system, the principles can be applied more broadly.

We live in a rapidly changing society. Nothing is staying the same, including jobs and industries. As a result, the gap continues to widen between the demand for skilled workers and the availability of people to fill them, which in turn exacerbates our nation’s growing inequality. According to a recent study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, there will be 165 million jobs in the economy by 2020, and 65 percent of those positions will require some form of postsecondary education.

Each year, the Manpower Group, a human resources consultancy, conducts a global survey of employers, the “Talent Shortage Survey.”  Last year, they reported that 40 percent of employers globally had difficulty filling jobs due to lack of available talent with hard skills, workplace competencies and experience. Technology has fundamentally changed the way industries operate. As a result, companies are seeking what The New York Times best-selling author Seth Godin referred to as “linchpins;” individuals who have the potential to transform an organization because of their unique capabilities. But before these individuals can realize their potential as linchpins, they must first have access to relevant education—and by “relevant,” I mean an education which goes beyond the alphabet soup of degrees. Competency matters most. Degrees are only as good as the quality and relevance of the classes required to pass in order to earn them. Employers care about credentials and skills that have the ability to drive and transform their institutions.

For higher education to continue to play a significant role in closing the skills gap in the United States, we as a sector need to acknowledge that we have a problem—that for all our noteworthy efforts to focus our institutions around better supporting students and making their education more relevant, we are simply not moving as quickly as the disruptive forces around us. There are three significant trends that compel that we transform our education system in the U.S. and quickly:

1. Success is Equally as Important as Access: Community colleges and many four-year institutions were built on a paradigm of access, and with the growth of free college programs that provide free tuition to community college students in many states and cities across the country, we’re moving to a point where the first two years of college may someday be as universal as K-12 education has been for the last century. However, as community colleges continue to expand their ability to provide access, it’s also time to commit more fully to a paradigm of success. Many institutions have made impressive steps in this direction by providing a broader range of supports for students. To achieve success, institutions must commit to systemic and systematic change with measurable goals that leaders are held accountable to and are transparent about.

2.    Relevance is key. Even if more college students are supported and attain a degree or credential, those efforts will not be fruitful if our institutions don’t offer a curriculum that is either tied directly to employment with not loss in future momentum or the ability to transfer to a four-year institution without loss of credit. As chancellor, one of the key initiatives that we (along with many other community colleges) implemented was the creation of pathways which provided students with a clear path between the classes/credits they earned and their academic/professional aspirations. The pathways concept has since spread across the country as a best practice, but it’s vital to ensure those pathways are relevant to the industries and employers our students want to become parts of, and supported by effective advising so students fully understand their options and how they connect with their life and career goals.

3.    Disruption is on the horizon; it’s not “if” but “when”: The education market is estimated to be about $1.3 trillion, with $475 billion of that attributed to higher education. It’s important that the industry recognize that we are equally as ripe for disruption from non-traditional players as other industries. Consider what’s happened to the retail sector because of Amazon, the hotel/lodging industry because of Airbnb, and the taxi and limousine industry due to Uber and Lift. For the education sector, the increased validity and penetration of online courses, specialized technical training courses and free online education from resources such as altMBA are already a  challenge. Unlike the private sector, in many cases higher-ed leaders are constrained by regulations and policies that don’t always constrain these disruptors in the same ways, creating even greater challenges—and the need to drive change beyond our campuses, but in our governing bodies as well.

Disruption is inevitable; but for leaders in every sector it is undeniably better to drive and capitalize on disruption from within rather than have it forced upon you. And we’re seeing exciting examples of transformation throughout higher education— statewide career pathways in Tennessee, the creation of a new community college in New York City focused on systems change, and programs offering free tuition for recent high school graduates and, at times, adult learners, in cities and states across the country. Writing this book reignited my commitment to speak up about the importance of revolutionizing our approach to higher education. Put simply, people’s lives depend on our ability to transform our system—too many are slipping through the cracks, getting lost in the system or receiving credentials with limited value. And with the pace of disruption around us, if we focus instead on piecemeal change, our students won’t stick around and wait for us to put our houses in order.

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Why Fundamental Change in Higher Ed is Necessary (Guest Post)

The following is the second in a three-part series of guest posts by Rasmus Lynnerup, former executive vice chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. See the first post here.

Today, the United States has two parallel structures of public postsecondary education: universities (four-year schools) focused primarily on the pursuit of bachelor’s degrees and above, and community colleges (two-year schools) focused on teaching high school curriculum, providing industry certificates and associate degrees, and helping students gain admission to four-year schools.

Both of these structures are in turn governed by the overall frame conditions of higher education, which include the bodies that ensure accreditation of institutions and programs, federal and state regulations, and the implicit and unspoken rules of the sector.

All parts of the postsecondary education system are in need of dramatic improvement. In my opinion, both the structure of the sector and the purpose of the individual institutions must be fundamentally transformed towards a solitary focus on student learning and outcomes.

Many of the specific changes required are well-known to most in higher ed, but the sector as a whole is embracing the required, large changes exceedingly slowly – while millions of students discontinue their studies and the United States keeps decreasing its relative standing in the world.

First, focusing on the frame of conditions for the industry as a whole, there are four large, interlocking sets of problems that collectively ensure the inertia that has allowed the educational levels of the American populace to deteriorate so dramatically in comparison with international standards:

  • Accreditation: The quality assurance process of institutions is largely organized by volunteers that come from within the industry. In many cases, this establishes mindsets and requirements that are insular and self-referencing. Moreover, the penalties for non-compliance are very limited – or exceptionally overreaching in the cases where an institution is disallowed from allowing students to pay tuition with federal financial aid.
  • Governance: In general, the sector is governed in a decentralized manner, with public policy considerations largely divorced from decision-making and with highly diffuse accountability structures. As an example, employees routinely form parallel institutional governance structures outside the appointed or elected institutional board members, which represent a mechanism to maintain the status quo of power structures.
  • Funding: State legislatures are increasingly defunding public tertiary education institutions throughout our nation. Such decisions are often rooted in the sector’s lack of responsiveness to societal and student requirements, combined with perceptions that higher ed’s cost and pricing structure has gotten out of control.
  • Leadership: Recruitment of executive leadership within the industry puts a unique premium on having grown up in the system. Hiring processes are often institutionally focused with large groups of people making hiring decisions. As a result, the sector’s inability to recruit the best and the brightest from across all sectors of society sustains the status quo – and continuously declining outcomes.

Second, reshaping the institutional focus on improving student outcomes, and especially the equity of those outcomes, will require tackling similar sets of large problems that directly challenge the existing power bases in the sector:

  • Relevance: Program and curriculum development is in most cases not connected with other institutions or the labor market. As a result, the transferability of credits across institutions and the eventual usefulness of those skills in the labor market is often limited.
  • Structure: In general, the industry does not provide good structures that allow for students to understand their goal, the path to reach that goal, and the implications of going off course. These structures must be deeply embedded within the fabric of each institution. One simple example would be to insist that classes are offered to students when they need them, instead of when institutions want to offer them.
  • Student Supports: Higher education officials maintain mountains of individual student data and could be leading the way in the use of analytics and proactive interventions. However, most institutions have not aligned their systems to proactively identify and support students showing signs of being in trouble.
  • Operational Excellence: Despite being organizations with massive balance sheets, billions of dollars of revenue and costs, and serving millions of students, postsecondary institutions often place little emphasis on truly implementing principles of operational excellence. These institutions have all the characteristics of billion-dollar businesses—but are not managed as such.

In short, there are very large issues, both within the sector as a whole and within each institution, that must be fundamentally changed—and this change will take years or even decades to take effect. However, the sooner we start, the sooner we will put our nation on track to a future of world-class, equitable educational outcomes for all.

About Rasmus Lynnerup

Rasmus is a first-generation college student who immigrated to the U.S. in his 20s. He now resides in Chicago, where he served as executive vice chancellor for the City Colleges of Chicago. He has a passion for helping his adopted home country’s residents fulfill their highest potential and rebuild a system of higher education that his twin boy and girl can grow up to view with pride.

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Transform Higher Education… Now (Guest Post)

The following is a guest post by Rasmus Lynnerup, former executive vice chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago.

The United States of America has a proud history of excellence in postsecondary education. International rankings routinely show higher education in America as the pinnacle of global academia. As an example, the latest rankings by US News and World Report (2018 Best Global Universities Rankings) place 8 of the best universities in the world in America, with two British universities (Oxford and Cambridge at 5 and 7, respectively) rounding out the top 10.

As a result of this perceived level of excellence, the names of undergraduate colleges and top business schools are household names—global brands that serve as the yardstick that global competitors emulate.

However, more granular data about America’s ability to provide postsecondary education for its population tells a very different story than the one suggested by the global Top 10 lists. In short, I believe we have lulled ourselves into the belief that, while the system of higher education can be improved – especially when it comes to affordability – it is generally providing the path to the American Dream for most. In reality, I will argue that the house is on fire and that we as a society are standing by or working on small-scale initiatives when we all should be moving with the urgency of first responders.

In the latest OECD analysis of the educational attainment levels for 25-34 year olds (2016 OECD Education in a Glance), the United States has dropped out of the top 10 in terms of the share of the populace that has completed higher education:

  • #12 for at least a 2-year degree (associate’s degree level)
  • #18 for at least a 4-year degree (bachelor’s degree level)
  • #26 for at least a 6-year degree (master’s degree level)

Similarly, in the 2014 analysis of educational attainment across working age adults (25-64), the U.S. ranks #7—so more respectable? No. The average ranking hides that the USA is #4 for adults 55-64 and again out of the top 10 for 25-34 year olds, coming in at #12. We are simply getting worse, while others are getting better.

An integral part of inclusive economic development is for a country or region to have a highly educated population. In that context, the steadily declining share of the population with postsecondary credentials in the United States is an alarming problem of national proportions. Despite once leading the world, our nation is now in the middle of the pack—and dropping in the rankings.

Furthermore, these numbers do not even begin to reveal the ways in which the current system creates a gulf in educational attainment outcomes between the population as a whole and African-Americans and Hispanics. In the latest report on educational attainment by the U.S. Census Bureau, the share of African-Americans with an associate degree is almost 25 percent less than the population than as a whole. For Hispanics, the share is almost 50 percent less than the population as a whole.

I believe these patterns constitute one of the most important issues of our times—both from a perspective of maintaining American leadership on a global scale and from a civil rights perspective. Except for the very elite schools that populate the global top 10 lists, the current system of higher education in America is simply failing the American population. The house is on fire.

I will write more in upcoming blog posts about how to collectively address these patterns, but I believe that transformation of the entire system of higher education, as well as most of its institutions, is needed. Everyone in higher education is always looking for the next ‘program’. What is needed instead is fundamental, comprehensive change.

About Rasmus Lynnerup

Rasmus is a first-generation college student who immigrated to the U.S. in his 20s. He now resides in Chicago, where he served as executive vice chancellor for the City Colleges of Chicago. He has a passion for helping his adopted home country’s residents fulfill their highest potential and rebuild a system of higher education that his twin boy and girl can grow up to view with pride.