Dr. Marjorie Hass, President of the Council of Independent Colleges: Innovation Buoys Higher Ed in Challenging Times
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.
A new school year is underway at colleges and universities around the country, so it’s a good time to take stock of where higher education finds itself after several very challenging years of a massive public health crisis and unprecedented economic turbulence. Some are even questioning the viability of the traditional campus-based model as competition increases from tech-enabled, less costly approaches to training and education.
With me today to tackle these big questions is Dr. Marjorie Hass, President of the Council of Independent Colleges, which serves 765 nonprofit higher education organizations. Before assuming her current role, Dr. Haas had a long career as a campus leader including being president of two members of the CIC — Austin College in Texas and Rhodes College in Memphis. She’s also the author of A Leadership Guide to Women in Higher Education, and has been active in the leadership of other prominent higher education associations.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Marjorie.
Marjorie Hass: It’s a pleasure to be with you. Thank you for inviting me.
Van: Absolutely. Why don’t we start by having you add to my brief description of the Council of Independent Colleges and its mission? What do 765 higher education institutions have in common?
Marjorie: Well, CIC does three things for our members. We focus on leadership development for our sector. We do projects and cohort leadership development programs starting with faculty leaders and moving up through department chairs, academic deans and provosts, and then preparing for the presidency and succeeding in that role. So, leadership development is very important.
The other thing that we focus on is helping to advance the sector and helping our institutions live out their mission more fully. We do that in a variety of ways, including grant programs that we are able to operate to help institutions innovate and try new things. The third thing we do is to help shape the national conversation around independent higher education, which I’m doing in part here today.
Our members are independent. They’re private institutions, privately governed by independent boards and independent missions, so they’re very diverse. They range in size from a few hundred students all the way up to larger small universities, but they are brought together by the fact that they all have a fierce commitment to the undergraduate teaching mission and to the notion that relationship-driven education offers significant things, particularly to young people.
Van: You mentioned the leadership development of these institutions at all levels. It is no easy period of time for these leaders to be at the helm. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the challenges of being a leader of a higher education institution at this moment in time.
Marjorie: They are many, and I can say that from experience. As you noted, I was president of two different colleges and served as a provost at a third one before that, and a faculty member before that. One of the things that I think we’re not perhaps talking about as much is the leadership turnover that has occurred during the COVID period. There were many presidents who stayed on and perhaps postponed retirement because they wanted to lead their campuses through those early COVID years. There were others where maybe they were brought in and it wasn’t quite so successful because it was such a difficult time period, so the institution has already moved on to a new president.
So, there are many, many, new presidents starting and my heart and my prayers are with them. It is a very complicated job. When you think about the role of a college or university president, it is sometimes compared to being the mayor of a small town. You have a lot of responsibilities. You have a number of different kinds of services — food and catering, hotel and hospitality, fundraising and athletics — and obviously, of course, the whole core academic mission. And you have a lot of different constituencies. In the current day, those constituents are able to be in touch with you and with each other almost 24/7. There is a lot of pressure to make decisions quickly, to make decisions in a transparent way and to make very good decisions in very complicated circumstances.
Van: In a way, all of those pressures have always existed for campus-based leaders. At this moment in time, we also have these large institutions that are online first. For example, Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University and Arizona State Online. They were born in the virtual environment, and what happened during the pandemic is students and communities realized that they didn’t just have to look at the institutions in their backyard. I wonder if you could answer the question, what is the purpose of place in higher education?
Marjorie: What a great question. I do want to be clear that some of our CIC members have a very strong and significant online presence, particularly in their adult education programs for learners who are perhaps beyond the traditional college age, or who are returning to campus after time away. Many of them now have really found ways that they can use technology to supplement the face-to-face experience. But I think another key thing that the pandemic showed us is that students want to be on campus. It was heartbreaking for students to not have the campus experience for those who had planned on it and looked forward to it and understood how important that is, particularly for students moving out of high school and into early and young adulthood.
The opportunity for learning happens far beyond the classroom or the laboratory. The experiences that students have in the cafeteria or over dinner at a professor’s house, or in that pickup softball game or the chance encounter in the library are valuable. That opportunity to live with your learning community, to experience what it means to truly live in a community…how do we live together across diversity and differences?
Those are key things that students learn from the campus experience and were not able to have when they lost that. So, we are not hearing from our campuses that students are not eager to return to a campus experience. We also are not hearing that they have lost interest in the relationship-driven education that our institutions excel in.
Online is not just the same thing everywhere any more than face-to-face is. There’s a difference in the experience of being in a 700-person lecture and being in a small seminar with ten students and a professor with a Ph.D. and three books in that area. Those are different experiences. And the same thing is true for online, right? Moving into an online community where you are known and seen and valued is different than being an anonymous watcher of pre-recorded information.
Van: Some institutions became stronger during the pandemic and others struggled during this era. Of the institutions that are faring well now, what do they have in common?
Marjorie: I think they have in common a spirit of innovation. Many of the biggest challenges to the financial models of independent higher education have been known quantities for at least fifteen or twenty years — the changes in how many college-aged students there are and what they are like and what they want and need — those have been widely known and our presidents have been talking about them at our events and in our learning opportunities for many, many years. So, institutions were not caught by surprise there. I think, obviously, things sped up certainly during the pandemic. We did a dozen years of faculty development work in a week or two as we taught faculty the technologies they would need to make sure student education wasn’t interrupted.
At the same time, institutions have looked for ways to innovate, and we see that in our sector really vividly. More than half of our institutions, for example, have graduate programs even though undergraduate education is a primary focus. Over the last decade, many institutions have diversified their revenue streams. Many of them have specialized in very unique kinds of degree programs that attract highly-motivated students. Many of them have expanded the borders from where and how they recruit. Many of them have really looked to try to identify efficiencies that don’t reduce the quality of the educational experience. Many of them have expanded by offering co-curricular programs, opportunities to really engage with the community or play competitive athletics or be a campus leader in a certain way so that they’re enhancing that experience.
I think the institutions that have innovated and are open to continuous innovation seem to be faring well. I think also, unfortunately, a lot of the faring has to do with the economic position of the students that the institution serves, and that’s really a tragedy from my perspective. Institutions that have a strong reputation for serving students from more challenging financial backgrounds are often the ones having the most trouble because they rely on the student tuition dollars, and the students are just not able to pay.
So, the federal support for students to continue their education was very, very helpful for many of our institutions. As that goes away and students are forced to rely on their own savings or what they can earn in a very challenging economy, that is in some ways putting pressure on our institutions.
Van: That’s a good inventory of innovations across your institutions. Our listeners are interested in the area of workforce and higher education and the overlap in between. You mentioned the spirit of innovation. Are there some innovations that you’d like to highlight, or call-outs specific to workforce practices?
Marjorie: Yes. One thing you’re seeing is a lot more interest in more significant partnerships, mergers and pairings. The ones that are most successful, though, are not the ones where some venture capitalist has said, “Oh, this could be an area of revenue.” They are ones that have grown organically through campuses and really continue to function in a clear non-profit way. Those are proving to be very successful, and institutions are working closely together on those.
Other innovations have involved using technologies, but using them to supplement the relationships that grow beyond the technology, not as a replacement. There are interesting ways campuses are doing that. We’re actually holding our national meeting this year in San Francisco and one of the themes is, what is the relationship between the liberal arts education — the holistic education that really focuses on communication skills, critical thinking skills, learning how to learn — and the jobs of the future, particularly those in technology?
When I talk with CEOs, the first question I always ask is, “What do you want in recent graduates? When you go out to hire for those entry-level positions, what is it that you’re looking for?” And what they tell me is the same as what the research shows: that the things they want in those students are many of the things I mentioned. They want students who can communicate with others, who have outstanding oral and written communication skills, who have worked in diverse teams, who have perhaps traveled or studied abroad, and who have been in classrooms where they’ve had to defend positions against really smart questioners. The CEOs tell me that.
Then I say “Where do you recruit and how do you find these people”? And they say “Well, we put out that you need to be certified in this piece of technology or that piece of technology.” And I think one of the shifts we’ve seen on the workforce side is that many workplaces have stepped back from the kind of highly technical training that they used to be prepared to do which involved taking really smart people who were very well educated and teaching them the particular piece of software that they needed them to know, or the particular technique.
I saw this with my own children. They were able very easily to get certificates in some technical skills, which made both of them more employable. But what has gotten them promoted, and what has made the students I have worked with competitive in their fields, is the quality of the broader education that they have. They’re trained not just to do a specific job.
Van: I’m glad you brought up that point. Some people believe workforce training and liberal arts education are in conflict with each other, but it’s more of an “and” and not “or.”
Marjorie: Exactly. And it’s easier to take somebody who is broadly and deeply educated and teach them a technical skill than it is to take somebody who has focused purely on technique and teach them to dream and vision and communicate. In an ideal world, our students are being educated in ways that promote both of those things, and I think you see those innovations on our campuses as well.
Many of our campuses are adding certifications and opportunities to earn and learn some particular technical skills that they will need to get their foot in the door in order to supplement the deeper skills that they’re learning that are going to really shape the future and shape their future careers.
Van: Marjorie, I want to do a call out to one innovation strategy that a number of private institutions have used, and it’s a direct experience with Futuro Health. As you know, we have partnerships with public education providers from the community colleges to the California State University to UC Berkeley, but also with a lot of private institutions. Because we’re trying to chip away at the shortages in health care — but not do it twenty-five students at a time given the shortage in California of 500,000 allied health workers — we needed a strategy that could produce hundreds, if not thousands, of workers at a time.
There was a set of institutions led by Pima Institute who came together in a consortium so that when we wanted to send hundreds of students through medical assisting they actually, in common, set a tuition price across all of them. It was one master contract across six institutions. And then, we were able to geolocate students depending on who was closest to them. That was an innovation, I thought, where they played together rather than tried to compete against each other.
Marjorie: And we’re seeing that more and more. I think our institutions realize that we will be more successful together than apart. That’s a perfect example. Another one is CIC has formed an online course-sharing consortium that more than half of our institutions are part of. It enables institutions to meet student needs using technology but in ways that, again, supplement the face-to-face experience and that rely on the trust that faculties at our institutions have in each other to provide top-quality learning opportunities for students. So, that’s been very helpful and successful.
Van: Thank you for sharing that asset that’s under the hood of the CIC. Now, let me ask you this question: if you were to start a new private institution at this moment in time, what elements would you design in, and what elements would you design out?
Marjorie: Well, the best element to design in is a very hefty endowment so that you can bring students in based on their talent, their curiosity, their passion, and their promise and not simply on how wealthy their families are. So, that would be very, very important.
In addition to that, the impact of the Pell Grant and other need-based financial aid programs are, in my view, the most important public policy issue that affects the future of young people. We really believe strongly in how important that investment in education is. But having said that, I think what you would design is a community where students have an opportunity to practice the skills of democratic citizenship, which are few and far between in this day and age. A place where students have enough freedom to follow their interests, curiosity, and passions but enough guidance to make wise choices and not have to simply repeat the mistakes or errors of past thinkers. And an opportunity where students can see their learning as something that is lifelong…that learning is not just something that happens for a short period of time in a classroom, but it’s an approach that you bring to the world. Because if there’s one thing we know about the future, it’s that it will be in many ways not like the past and learners and workers will have to keep reinventing themselves.
Van: In my younger days, when there was a conversation about lifelong learning, it tended to revolve around what languages you wanted to learn for your vacation. Interestingly, in recent years when I’ve attended the National Governors Association gathering, lifelong learning actually has now surfaced at the public policy level…
Van: …because there’s a recognition that continuous skills upgrades are going to be critical to keeping workers relevant.
Marjorie: And this is another place where you are seeing some innovation in our sector. Institutions are looking to be able to provide that kind of re-skilling and upskilling for their own graduates. It’s about the notion that your relationship with your institution might be lifelong and not happen just during those four years that it takes you to earn an undergraduate degree or those few years after to earn a graduate degree, but into the future as you suddenly say, “Oh, I’m being considered for a management position and I may need to learn some additional skills or they’re bringing in some new technology in my workplace or I’ve decided that I could make a bigger impact in an allied field.” So, we are seeing institutions beginning to think about how we serve that need.
Van: And what approaches are they taking? Because in that space, they’re also competing with a lot of online learning platforms, right?
Marjorie: Right. As I said, many of our institutions have online options and there are some consortiums forming particularly around adult learning. But the other thing is, you can’t underestimate the ways that people feel loyalty, not only to the place that is their undergraduate institution, but to the kind of learning that happened there. And because our campuses tend to attract and retain faculty members for long times, you can sometimes come back as an adult and learn again from that professor who was so instrumental to you as a youngster, or learn from the person that professor has mentored and has now brought in new skills. So, I think there are a lot of opportunities.
Adult learning is a place where I think remote technology is often helpful because of the ways adults live. But even adult learners often benefit from some of the low-residency programs that we see where there is an opportunity to come together and form a community that goes beyond just the two hours we’re in class.
Van: I was wondering if I can bring up the recent higher education news, which is President Biden’s student loan forgiveness initiative. How are your members receiving that news?
Marjorie: Well, remember, we are independent institutions with independent governing boards and independent missions, so there is no uniformity of perspective on any topic. But I will say that my sense is that our campuses and our presidents welcome anything that gives students an opportunity to move forward in their lives without being burdened by debt. Many of our campuses have worked tirelessly to try to reduce student debt themselves using whatever resources they have. Student financial aid is almost always the largest item in a budget for independent colleges, for private colleges. So, anything that gives students a lift there is welcomed. I think many of us would have liked to have seen some reform coming along with that.
The biggest piece of this — and I know the Biden Administration and others have worked hard to make some progress on this — is the expansion of Pell Grant. The Pell Grant is one of the most successful public policy programs we’ve ever had. It’s means-tested. The money goes with the student. The student gets to make the choice of what kind of education they want that is best for them. And outside of some cases that you see of abuse and some of the fly-by-night for-profits — and not every for-profit is a fly-by-night…some of them are quite fine — but outside of those abuses, the Pell Grant has been the single most impressive piece of policy. I would love to see Pell Grants double. That’s something that we have worked for and advocated for.
Van: So, Dr. Marjorie Hass, what does the future of higher education look like in ten years?
Marjorie: I think it’s a vibrant place. One of the great strengths of American higher education is its diversity…that there is no one model, one style, one subject, or one curriculum. Students have the opportunity to find a place that meets their needs and matches the ways and styles that they want to learn. I think we’re going to see an increase in that diversity. And I think some of the cuts that we think you have to make — do you want to be in person or online; do you want to be residential or do you want to have students that work; do you want to be in a system or do you want to be in a single institution — I think some of those dichotomies are going to become helpfully messier, and those choices will increase.
I do think, though, that unless we continue to push public policy in this direction, high-quality education will still continue to be largely open and available to families of means, and poor students from disadvantaged backgrounds or first-generation students will be increasingly shuttered into the kind of education that does not allow them to really make an impact in their trajectory and their family’s trajectory. My hope is that we will continue to put policy decisions behind this notion of access.
Van: So, Marjorie, trust in our institutions has been eroding, including trust in government and in higher education institutions. What can we expect to trust in our higher education system in the ten-year future?
Marjorie: One thing that’s very interesting about that is there’s some evidence that it’s a little bit like Congress, right? Americans will say, “I hate Congress, but I love my congressman.” And it’s often true about the local College, too.
You may see the numbers dropping for trust in higher education — and we know that that’s significantly true for Republicans, much less true for people who identify as independents or Democrats — and yet people still turn to their local college for a whole host of services. Our college campuses were often at the center of providing community health services during COVID. They are a sight for job reinvention. They are a cultural site in many communities. The faculty and students they attract are usually the most sought-after advisors and community service folks.
There are so many ways in which individuals see their lives having been made better by higher education. Sometimes we ask the poll question in a way designed to get the most unthoughtful answer. I think if we ask those questions more thoughtfully or if we, in fact, look at people’s actions, we see that there is a great deal of trust. Most people in this country still want their children to go to college and they want their children to have that experience and they believe that it will help them live a better life. The research shows that it helps financially. It helps in terms of markers of good citizenship, such as voting patterns and taxpaying status and civic engagement. And it helps drive innovation. Our top-flight education system is why America has continued to be so dominant in innovation and technology.
Van: Well, thank you for inspiring us today, Dr. Hass. It was such a pleasure to have you spend time with our listeners.
Marjorie: Thank you so much. And it’s been fun to get to talk to somebody who is not quite in the higher education space, but connected and allied in these different ways around workforce development. I think that’s a very, very important dialogue.
And I hope your listeners will go spend time on a nearby college campus. Go see what it is that’s happening there. Don’t just take the pundits’ word for it, or your memory of what college was like when you were a student those many years ago. Go visit and see. Talk to today’s students. I think you’ll be very surprised and very impressed by what you find.
Van: Well, that’s a good call to action. I’m looking forward to joining you at the San Francisco gathering.
Marjorie: We can’t wait to see you! That will be great. Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this.
Van: Absolutely. Thank you very much, Marjorie, for being with us today. I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx.