The Sustainable College: Thriving and Serving the Nation in the 21st Century

By Daniel F. Sullivan    //    Volume 23,  Number 3   //    May/June 2015

What will it take for a college or university to be sustainable in the 21st century so that its vitally important work can benefit the nation in a time of high need? What should presidents and board members be thinking about as they strive to keep their institutions growing and thriving in the years ahead?

First, what do I mean by “sustainable college” in this context? I mean an institution whose educational programs are organized and structured to produce graduates prepared for work, life, civic engagement, and service in the 21st century and of such quality and numbers that there will be sustained demand for what the institution does. And I mean a college or university that, as a result of private and public subsidies, and its own prudent and careful resource stewardship, is able to provide its educational services in a way that is affordable to families with diverse abilities to pay. I do not mean “sustainable” in a carbon footprint sense, though that, too, is a crucial challenge to be addressed.

The sustainable college or university:

  • Recognizes that the 21st century is the liberal-education century—that, more than ever before in our nation’s history, there is alignment between the intended learning outcomes of liberal education and the learning the nation needs now and for the foreseeable future. Sustainable institutions will be those that commit deeply to liberal education even if, in addition, they provide applied and/or technical education, which is also important and much in demand.
  • Understands that the only approach to undergraduate pedagogy that has strong and growing research support for its effectiveness in achieving both liberal learning and disciplinary content goals is one that is both challenging academically and based on eliciting high levels of student engagement—an approach that, in other words, involves much active learning and little passive learning.
  • Commits to a relentless, evidencebased program of student-learning assessment as part of its continuous quality improvement.
  • Acknowledges that the only way to succeed year in, year out in enrollment management—the process whereby aggregate demand for higher education becomes demand for a specific institution and its programs—is to know its competitors and, especially and realistically, itself.
  • Accepts that families’ ability to pay for college will not grow for the foreseeable future in real terms (that is, adjusted for inflation), and perhaps not even in nominal terms.

The Centrality of Liberal Education

To argue for the centrality of liberal education is to go against the dominant narrative in the United States over the last several decades that what is needed for most students is a much greater emphasis on a narrowly practical, first-job-oriented, pre-professional form of higher education and not the higher-order learning necessary for real-world problem solving at work and in life.

This has been a major mistake, both for the country and for a very large fraction of our institutions of higher education that now must play “catch-up” to deliver the kind of learning we need in the 21st century. The days when enrollment-management success meant linking curriculum and co-curriculum to entry into the job market rather than providing students with the knowledge, skills, habits of mind, and work ethic they will need to adapt to a constantly changing world of work are over. Presidents, enrollment staff, academic leaders, and faculty members must come to grips with this—soon—if their colleges and universities are to be competitive and become sustainable in the years ahead.

Employers—for-profit and nonprofit alike—understand this and have made it clear in studies by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) and others that they want both knowledge and competence in specific fields and the intellectual and practical skills acquired in liberal education—inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, integrative and reflective thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative and information literacy, intercultural understanding, and teamwork and problem solving. These learning outcomes are the keys to success in any job, including the jobs that are even now being invented in our rapidly changing economy. Students need more than a major. Further evidence of alignment, according to Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, is that employers put their compensation dollars into the jobs that require these kinds of higher education learning outcomes.

Increasingly, employers also realize that a less-expensive, narrow, vocational education geared toward particular jobs requires its recipients to be retrained for the next job at significant cost to both employee and employer, as well as the taxpayers who fund federal and state job programs. In other words, this type of education depreciates.

In contrast, students properly educated for the high-level thinking and skills needed in the 21st century—that is, educated in a way that inspires them to become intellectually curious, lifelong learners—are constantly educating themselves in their current jobs and for their next jobs. They are adaptors to changing environments, and the more general skills they have acquired transcend the particular. This kind of education actually appreciates in value because its beneficiaries become more valuable in the marketplace with time—good for them and good for the rest of us who benefit from their improved productivity. Employers fault America’s colleges and universities for not providing enough of this kind of learning.

The evidence is clear: To be sustainable, all colleges and universities, including two-year colleges, must give a much higher priority to the liberal-learning outcomes essential to a 21st-century education.

A Teaching and Learning Environment that Engages Students

The increasing pressure on higher education over at least the last two decades to pay less attention to liberal education and more attention to a narrowly practical, first-job-oriented, pre-professional form of higher education has also come with pressure to reduce the cost of higher education by substituting capital, in the form of distance learning, for more labor-intensive teaching and learning environments that lead to high levels of student engagement. And yet, research by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) shows that the essential 21st-century learning outcomes we have been discussing are most fully achieved by students in institutions characterized by high levels of student engagement. In other words, students must be challenged academically; experience high levels of purposeful, active, and collaborative learning; enjoy quality interactions with faculty members around their academic work; experience the enrichment of such opportunities as well-designed internships, collaborative research with faculty members, and study of other cultures (abroad or in America); and benefit from supportive campus environments.

High-student-engagement learning environments are not only differentially successful at facilitating student learning of essential 21st-century skills and knowledge, but they are also efficient and cost-effective. NSSE research shows that campuses characterized by high levels of student engagement have higher fouryear graduation rates because students are more successful academically and more highly motivated to learn and to persist. They leave college less often for academic reasons, and they graduate at higher rates because they love what they are doing and value the personal educational transformation that they experience.

When students fail to graduate in four years, their costs for attending college escalate significantly, and all other stakeholders—parents, employers, donors, states, and the federal government—also feel the financial and productivity consequences. And it is not just traditional students attending four-year colleges and universities who benefit when institutions do the things necessary to improve graduation rates. Students at two-year colleges; transfer students; part-time, nontraditional students who can’t complete their coursework in four years; and those who are seeking just enough additional education to enhance their job prospects in a difficult economy all benefit.

It will take courage for institutional leaders and faculty members, in the face of the continuing first-job-focus and substitution of online learning for student engagement narratives, to commit to a greater focus on liberal education and to the faculty-intensive learning environments— often supplemented by sophisticated technological support for teaching and learning—that we know work to make a 21st-century education possible. But, remember: It is impossible to assess the efficiency of a system, or whether it costs too much, when its goals are unspecified.

Higher education’s critics—and they are legion—are right, unfortunately, that we haven’t performed well enough. Over the last half century, we have honored our commitment to teaching and learning environments that are characterized by high levels of student engagement more through lip service than actual performance. As a result, our nation has come to trust us less and less to do what we say is best for students, as actual levels of student learning and development have not kept up with national needs. We must own that; no one forced us to choose passive over active learning. The trick will be to accept that justified criticism without “betting the farm” on the unproven solutions that these critics would like to impose.

How should boards address this issue? By insisting that both advocates for re-investing in what we know works in student learning and advocates for revolutionary change in teaching and learning argue from good evidence. Individual institutions willing to try revolution subject themselves to huge market risk— what economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen called “the penalty for taking the lead.” College and university board members are fiduciaries, not stockholder investors. They are charged with ensuring the life and service of their institutions in perpetuity. If they gamble and lose, they risk not their own wealth—as capitalists in the for-profit sector do—but the institutional assets created by generations of donors and wise management. The same standards the courts apply to boards of trustees that fail to follow the “prudent man rule” in the investment of institutional funds would apply to trustees who try revolution and fail.

The Right Kind of Student Learning Assessment

Market demand for an undergraduate institution in the 21st century, a sine qua non for institutional sustainability, will more than ever before be strongly correlated with how well the institution succeeds at teaching and learning. To be of real service to the nation in this time of high and increasing need, colleges must know how well they are doing. They must get truly serious about assessment in a way that both respects the complexity of what we need students to learn and allows institutions to benchmark their performance against that of competing institutions to ensure continuous quality improvement. To be competitive in student recruitment, institutions will increasingly have to demonstrate that they are getting better faster than the competition at all of the things that matter most for student learning.

But not just any kind of assessment will suffice, and we in higher education have been slow to get on top of this. As a result, in the absence of proactive and broad-based leadership on assessment and accountability from the academy, a politically popular demand for accountability has swept statehouses across the country and has attracted the attention of the current Secretary of Education and many lawmakers of both parties at the federal level. Ironically, this ideology actually threatens to shortchange accountability by holding the academy to standards for students’ higher learning that are both too narrow and too low or, in the case of the proposed federal ratings system, do not yet consider student learning at all. How can colleges be rated on their effectiveness if student learning, the most important outcome they seek, is not considered?

Accountability proposals that do seek measures of student learning have one feature in common—a commitment to standardized tests as the assessment solution. What’s the alternative to learning assessment that relies on standardized tests? Drawing on work that has already begun on many college, university, and community college campuses, the Association of American Colleges and Universities is working with higher education leaders and faculty to advance a far-reaching change in what counts as “primary evidence” for assessing students’ learning gains in college. The key innovation is that these faculty-led approaches move students’ own complex college work—projects, writing, research, collaborations, service learning, internships, creative performances, and the like—to the center of the assessment equation. Standardized testing would, in this new approach, become complementary rather than central to national and institutional reporting on students’ gains in learning.

At the same time, it is not enough for an institution to assess its students in ways that are grounded only in its local curriculum. Colleges and universities also must provide useful knowledge to the public about goals, standards, accountability practices, and the quality of student learning. Working with the faculty at more than 100 member institutions, AAC&U has identified 16 learning outcomes that, in addition to knowledge and competence in specific fields, are essential to a 21st-century education. They are: inquiry and analysis, critical thinking, writing, integrative learning, oral communication, information literacy, problem solving, teamwork, intercultural knowledge, civic engagement, creative thinking, quantitative literacy, lifelong learning, ethical reasoning, global learning, and reading. For each of those learning outcomes, AAC&U organized faculty-led teams that developed rubrics— VALUE Rubrics, for Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education—for assessing and scoring the quality of actual student work. Eighty-five public and independent two-year and four-year colleges and universities are now beta testing this approach to assessment.

VALUE represents, in my view, a real breakthrough in the assessment of college student learning. Such a system of learning outcomes assessment can provide continuous improvement in student and institutional performance, while at the same time providing the evidence of student learning that those who finance and subsidize American higher education—families, government, and charitable donors—deserve.

What is the board’s role, as fiduciary, to ensure academic quality and guarantee that students are learning what they’re supposed to be learning? Institutions will work harder and more successfully to improve student learning outcomes when college and university boards, which have fiduciary responsibility not just for ensuring financial health but also for the quality of their institutions’ academic programs, become appropriately engaged in academic program oversight. This, of course, requires that boards, especially their academic affairs committees, be sensitive to the academic culture of their institutions and regularly receive and discuss good, carefully selected assessment data on educational outcomes that are benchmarked, if possible, against the same data from comparable institutions.

When a board’s academic affairs committee begins to monitor institutional progress in areas such as student engagement and student learning outcomes, and when it begins to monitor progress on retention and persistence to degree, there will surely be corresponding heightened efforts by faculty and institutional leaders to improve in all of these areas and to seek the resources to accomplish these goals. Things that get measured and reported to the board inevitably receive greater attention from institutional leadership and faculty.

Ongoing, Evidence-Based Benchmarking of Market Success

The only way to succeed year in, year out in enrollment management is to know thy competitors and especially, without rosecolored glasses on, to know thyself. Far too few institutions do this well enough.

My experience has also shown that there is an imperfect but still real justice in the area of admissions recruitment outcomes. Among the four P’s of marketing—product, price, promotion, and place—improving your institution’s product (student learning outcomes and other elements of student development and the student experience) relative to that of your real competitors, while not the only important thing, is ultimately the most important thing for admissions recruitment success. The only way you can know if you’re getting relatively better is to benchmark your institution’s educational and other outcomes against those of your competitors.

Institutions that engage in benchmarking (all should, but not all do) typically monitor one or more comparison groups and sometimes different comparison groups for different purposes. Many institutions are in consortia whose members are in the same Carnegie classification, such as the Associated Colleges of the Midwest or the Great Lakes Colleges Association, where the members agree to share data, simplifying the benchmarking job. Others choose to benchmark against a specially chosen group of institutions in the same Carnegie classification that is national in scope and where the institutions are of roughly similar selectivity or have similar financial resources. This kind of benchmarking can be useful and informative for understanding an institution’s relative financial condition or fundraising success, and it can even be somewhat informative for admissions and financial-aid purposes.

Admissions recruitment leaders, of course, almost always know who their real competitors are and, at a minimum, know application and acceptance overlap numbers and comparative admissions and aid statistics for these institutions. An independent institution’s real competitors will typically include a few or, depending on the state and region, many public institutions, as well as independent institutions not in the same Carnegie classification. In short, this group will be different from the lists of institutions selected for benchmarking because they are similar. Benchmarking insights leading to improved admissions marketing competitiveness can only happen when the benchmarking group is the real competition group. And the most useful insights for admissions marketing often come from benchmarking in areas outside traditional admissions and financial- aid metrics, such as comparative actual or perceived educational performance or perceived overall institutional quality.

How should the board respond to this issue? In the same way that it exercises its fiduciary responsibility for the oversight of teaching and learning, the board can and should insist that a program of admissions marketing and benchmarking research appropriate to the resources and circumstances of the institution be undertaken and sustained. These results should be regularly reported to it as part of ongoing efforts to develop and execute successful institutional strategy in the enrollment arena.

The Affordability Crisis in American Higher Education

To become sustainable in this century, institutions must also come to grips with the fact that the ability of their prospective and current students’ families to pay for college is very unlikely to improve for the foreseeable future and may in fact continue to decline. The last 30 years have been marked by declining public subsidies for higher education and wage and salary stagnation for all but the very top earners. (Private subsidies from gifts and endowment have come closer to keeping up with college costs, but they are a positive influence on affordability only at a small number of relatively wealthy institutions.) At a time when America needs a more highly educated populace than ever before, this presents a serious problem—for families, institutions, and the nation as a whole.

What does it mean for colleges to accept ongoing wage and salary stagnation in order to become sustainable? Most important, it means that average net tuition revenue per student is unlikely to grow faster than inflation and very likely somewhat less. So the combination of tuition and financial-aid policies will need to reflect this constraint long-term for a large majority—perhaps 95 percent or more—of institutions.

Institutions with big endowments per student, and where endowment income represents a substantial portion of the operating budget, will find it easier to be sustainable if, in the future, the rate of return on capital continues its recent trend and grows at two to three times the rate of growth of wages and salaries. With regard to the future growth of cash gifts to institutions just for operating purposes, however, my own speculation is that such giving will grow at a rate closer to that of wages and salaries than to the rate of return on capital since most of it comes from the wages and salaries, as opposed to the capital, of donors.

So for just about all institutions—especially independents, but also increasingly publics—what happens to net tuition revenue per student will tell the tale regarding sustainability. The fate of public institutions will also be affected by the future of state higher education subsidies. I am pessimistic that a major reversal in the downward trend of state subsidies will occur in the foreseeable future. I am equally pessimistic that a radical re-engineering of the structure of college teaching and learning through substitution of online for face-toface education will lower the cost of higher education so that it will be more broadly affordable, especially in the face of realincome stagnation or decline.

To control expenses or re-engineer institutions’ business models so that this new constraint can be accommodated, while at the same time improving student learning outcomes in all the areas the nation needs, will be a major challenge. And just as the demand for highly educated employees in the wider economy outstripped the supply for the 25 to 30 years beginning roughly around 1980 and drove salaries up for the people whom colleges and universities must hire, going forward, the general wage and salary stagnation in the wider economy will lower how much colleges and universities will have to pay for these same highly educated employees. This is not a happy thought for those who have worked hard to ensure fair and increasing real compensation for faculty and staff, but I believe it is the future. It will also be a major political challenge for campus leaders.

Boards must engage themselves in continuous evidence-based education on these issues, especially regarding the challenges and realities of online education, not just the opportunities. Change—aggressive reinvestment in what we already know works in student learning and exploration of and investment in promising new approaches to teaching and learning—is inevitable, but prudence argues for goaloriented, evidence-based evolution over betting the farm on revolution. History tells us that almost all revolutions fail.