Monday, October 31, 2022 - So many headlines to parse this week: What the NYU brouhaha says about how we educate top students; how the coverage of ACT scores missed the real headline; and is it better to serve in the U.S. Senate or as a university president. Michael and Jeff break it all down. This episode made possible with support from Course Hero, Ascendium Education Group, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
This episode is brought to you by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, working to eliminate race, ethnicity and income as predictors of student success, through innovation, data and information, policy and institutional transformation. This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. For more information, visit ascendiumphilanthropy.org.
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I'm Jeff Selingo.
And I'm Michael Horn. And this is Future U.
So Michael, we're two months into this season of Future U, so maybe it's time to take a short breather since I think our listeners would appreciate maybe a slightly shorter episode. I'm hearing from those who listen to us on their runs and they're not too happy that the episodes are running more like 45 minutes instead of 30 minutes recently. I just keep telling them maybe we're just trying to get them ready for a marathon.
Look, Jeff, I'm all about helping the training for marathons, but I'm not convinced that our topics or our voices are all that motivating all the time. So let's meet listeners wherever they are and I think it's a good idea. And Jeff, love to quickly catch up on a few of the headlines anyway of recent weeks, some frankly which went viral and others that might be new to our listeners.
So Michael, I'll start with the viral because there's one higher ed story in recent weeks that has made the major networks, appeared on every one of my social media feeds, and was even the topic on the sideline at my daughter's soccer game. So you know that's really when something went viral. And it's the story of Maitland Jones Jr. You may all know him better as the NYU organic chemistry professor. He had a long career before NYU at Princeton and is also an author of a well-known textbook on the topic. So the story is in August, NYU decided not to renew Jones' contract because he failed to meet the university's teaching standards after a petition was circulated by some of his students who said their grades in the class didn't reflect the effort they put in. Well, The New York Times picked up his story a few weeks ago and framed it as an example of the student as customer and the decline in standards, et cetera, et cetera, all the things we hear about students today.
Now, my old colleague at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett, interviewed Jones about all the attention he received for his dismissal, and there are a lot of gems in the interview, and so we're going to post it to the show notes. But there was one thing he said that I wanted to get your take on, Michael. He told the Chronicle that "Kids who used to get 90, which is a very, very strong grade, are now getting 100." And this is the part that I wanted to stress in the interview because he said, "I worry that we're not serving the top 10 or 20% very well. They shouldn't be getting 100, they should be getting 92 and then looking at what those eight missing points were and learning from that." So Michael, are we serving the top 10 to 20% very well?
Jeff, it's a great question. There's no doubt in my mind that throughout all of education, not just higher ed, frankly, we're not serving the top echelon nearly as well as we could. And maybe you knew I'd go here, which is why you asked it. I see his story in many ways as more a symptom rather than the root cause of a bigger issue, which is frankly as our education system, and again, it's not just higher ed, it's K12 as well, it was set up as what I would call a sorting system or what Sanjay Sarma of MIT calls a winnowing system. We're going to have Sanjay actually on the show soon. But the upshot is that because we have this time-based system rather than a mastery-based system, we're not supporting all learners in frankly reaching their potential but mastering course material on the way, no matter how long it may take them. And then they can make the decision during the course of learning or afterwards if this is a path that they actually want to continue to go down.
In Sanjay's book, he has this great example of Florida International changing this mindset in their law school and teaching students how to learn. And those who were in the bottom 20% of the class and were often from first gen families and all the rest, they simply started soaring, Jeff. Now where does this leave the top, which is what you asked about? Well, I think we ought to be judging them against a standard of mastery, not against a curve, which is what his quote sort of implies because that's how the system has historically thought about it. And as Sal Khan has always said, the answers shouldn't be, "Oh, great, you got 80% right. And in these days, we'll call that an A because of the way of grade inflation." But not acknowledging that we've built a really shaky foundation on top of which to build the rest of the house.
And instead to say, "Hey, to progress in this area, you really need to get full mastery of organic chemistry or whatever the topic might be." And whatever we've set the threshold at for mastery and for those students at the top, that actually allows them to move faster or deeper in their learning, ideally, which will help us maximize their potential and pay attention so that they're not bored, but also so that they're achieving and getting to really push forward and we get to benefit as Americans. But Jeff, speaking about often we talk about the top in this country, let's talk about everyone's favorite topic, which is standardized test scores.
So Jeff, I want to talk ACT scores specific. The headline that's circulating everywhere, and by the way, it came out just a couple weeks before we got those NAEP results, which is "the nation's report card" for K-12 learning, is that the ACT scores dropped to their lowest level in 30 years, a composite score of 19.8 out of 36. That was the first time since the year you graduated from high school in 1991, Jeff, that the average score was below 20. So what's going on here?
Well, Michael, I didn't take the ACT, so I cannot be blamed for that 1991 composite score. But I don't think the story here was that the composite score dropped, but rather that the number of test takers is falling. While more teenagers took the ACT and the SAT this year, their numbers are still way down from before the pandemic. For the ACT, they're down more than 300,000 since 2020. And for the SAT, they're down more than 450,000 since 2020. And you can blame California for a big chunk of that drop. Just look at the ACT, for example. Back in 2020, 80,000 students in California took the ACT. Last year, 21,000 did. And you only have to go back to 2017 when there were 130,000 students in California who took the ACT, six times as many as last year, and we're only talking six years ago.
So I think there's a few things going on here that I think are worth watching. First is we're still living through an ambiguous period right now when it comes to the use of tests and admissions. Of course, there are a few colleges that went back to requiring the test, notably MIT. And then there's a few like the University of California System that went test blind, which is probably the biggest reason the numbers dropped so much in California. But most colleges remain test optional, and it's going to probably be a few more years until that fully shakes out, because so many colleges right now are still in a pilot phase of test optional, trying to figure out how those students who are coming in test optional or without test scores do once they're in college. Now, second, in terms of what to watch, before the pandemic, even as the number of test optional institutions grew, so did the number of test takers.
And so what's interesting now is that even though we have many more test optional schools, the numbers now are dropping. So perhaps we've reached a tipping point here where there are just so many test optional schools that some students are really just forgoing the tests altogether, because I don't think you can blame the pandemic on this year's decline like you could have the year before. And third, and perhaps this is the biggest thing to watch, students are still taking the test because they think it will help them get in, or they want to have a score to kind of gauge where to apply.
And they do so by looking at the median test score for a college. But if the only people submitting scores are those who think they scored high, then the median has a lot less meaning for everybody. So then do even fewer students submit their scores over time? Or do application trends change because students don't think they could get into certain schools and so they just stop applying altogether? I think this third thing I'm watching takes some time to play out, but if fewer end up submitting scores, does that mean eventually that fewer also take the test overall?
Super interesting set of reactions there, Jeff, that I don't think most people are highlighting right now. But it raises another question that I have about application trends based on another headline that I saw. But we'll talk about that when we come back on Future U.
This episode is being brought to you by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Today's college students are more than just students. They are workers, parents and caregivers and neighbors, and colleges and universities need to change to meet their changing needs. Learn more about the foundation's efforts to transform institutions to be more student-centered at usprogram.gatesfoundation.org.
This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a non-profit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. Ascendium believes that system level change and a student-centric approach are important for our nation's efforts to boost post-secondary education and workforce training opportunities. That's why their philanthropy aims to remove systemic barriers faced by these learners, specifically first generation students, incarcerated adults, veterans, students of color, adult learners, and rural community members. For more information, visit ascendiumphilanthropy.org.
And we're back on Future U after a brief break and we're talking college applications. This got sparked for me, Jeff, after reading an article in Inside Higher Ed about Central College in Iowa where applications dropped in half but yield increased substantially. So 22.5% this year compared to 11.4% in 2017. And they were much happier with these results. And so I just want to know what's happening here. I kind of like this idea on the surface of intentionally getting your overall number of applications to reduce because you're doing a better job of maybe finding the best fit for your college in the application numbers as opposed to the vanity metrics, but there's also risk, I imagine. So break it down for us what's really going on in this story and others like it.
So Michael, I think colleges have really created a mess for themselves in so many ways. So let's look at the data for the 1,700 or so research universities and four-year colleges in the US. Enrollees to those colleges grew by about 30% in the last two decades, but to get to that number, the admitted had to be more than double as applications tripled. In other words, we had to get so many more applications, we had to admit so many more students just to yield the number of enrollees. And so just this number always kind of gets me. In 2002, there were about four million college applications filed in the US. Now there are more than 12 million applications filed and we haven't really moved the needle in terms of the number of high school graduates in the US. So the same number of students are just filing more applications, and colleges really created that message by encouraging more applications through all their marketing.
And I talk a lot about this in my book in chapter one. And I will tell you, boards and alumni loved it because they thought, well, more applications show popularity. It's one of those maxims in higher education. Just because you can measure it doesn't mean you should. And we did measure it. And perhaps in this way we shouldn't have been so obsessed with measuring application growth. To me, a better measure of popularity is yield because if a student is faced with a choice of multiple colleges in which to enroll, which one do they choose? If they choose you more often, then you can say that's a sign of popularity.
And colleges really started to realize this over the last decade, that predicting yield when so many more applications were flooding the system was a real problem. So among the selectives, they leaned much more into early decision because that's basically 100% yield and it means you don't have to admit as many kids overall in regular decision to make your enrollment. And less selective colleges, they can't play the early game because they don't have the market position to get that many early applications, but they can play other games such as getting a sense of how serious you are as an applicant.
So there's a lot more scoring now of applicants on the back end. They track them through the process. How many emails did they open up? Did they come to an open house? In other words, what's their demonstrated interest? So you can afford to encourage fewer applicants, like Central did, if you're sure, if you're more sure about how many are actually coming. And it also helps with financial aid because you don't have to put as much money out there on the street and really have no idea who's going to accept your offers of financial aid because you really have no idea who's going to come in the end.
Now the problem with all of these yield models is that also been upended by COVID, because again, now even more students are applying now to more schools than ever before. You also have fewer, as we just talked about, fewer students taking the SAT and ACT, and that used to help out with figuring out who would come. But either way, I think colleges are going to be a lot more focused on yields going forward than number of applications.
So before we wrap up this show, Michael, the final headline, and I think we're going to both weigh in on this one, is that who would've thunk it, but it's actually better to be a college president than a sitting US senator? Now, Ben Sasse, who's the Republican senator from Nebraska, was named a few weeks ago as the sole finalist for the presidency at the University of Florida. Now, just a note to our listeners, we're recording this on Friday, and you're listening to this probably on Tuesday or so, or soon after that, and a decision might have already been made on whether Ben Sasse is the new president of the University of Florida. So let's assume that he has been voted in as president. Do you think he finds a college campus easier to navigate than the US Senate?
No and yes, Jeff, if I may take the easy way out of this. But no, in the sense that I think those first couple years could be pretty rocky for Sasse down there in Florida. I mean, there's going to be turmoil, skepticism and more, not just only from all those students who are protesting right now, but also faculty, who frankly in the University of Florida and all the Florida colleges and universities are trying to figure out just how political a shift his appointment, his hiring, this signals more generally for universities. And they're also trying to figure out, besides the political nature of this, hey, can this guy do the job? Because yes, Senator Sasse has been a college president, but it was a very different type of university, in Midland. It's smaller, it's not nearly as research based, it's Lutheran.
So I think it could be a rocky first couple years. I'm not sure that it will be easier than being a senator. The flip side of it is yes, in the sense that Sasse, in my take here, but he's not your kneejerk political party member. He is outspoken on his views and it's not always with political orthodoxy within the Republican party. That could be good or bad, to be honest with you, on a college campus. But if given the time to prove himself and if he can actually do the job, then I suspect skepticism might soften over time, Jeff. And I don't know if he's Mitch Daniels who is a real operator in public service and at Purdue with a strong vision.
But I will say Jeff Sasse is one of those people who at least based on his writing, has thought deeply about the future of higher education and has had some very interesting and nuanced takes that I do think would serve universities well. So that's my hemming and hawing, Jeff, my no and yes take. But what's yours? The process has come under heavy fire for how he was chosen. I think the big question that I'm asking on that, though, is the era over when there's any sort of open public search for a university president?
Yeah, I think so, Michael. I think we're seeing more and more closed searches both in private colleges and public universities, and there's three big reasons why. First, I think contrary to popular belief, it's not the search firms that are demanding closed searches, it's the candidates themselves. The candidates for good reason are worried about their followers back on their home campuses. The agenda of leaders in higher education lasts only as long as they're in the role. So there's this waiting out the term of a leader is a common way to resist change on college campuses. So if the attentions of a candidate are known and they turn out to be unsuccessful in their bid for a new job, well, they return to their old role in a much weaker position. Second, I think open searches don't really produce the transparency that the campus community hopes they will, nor do they really result, in my opinion, in better vetted candidates.
These are really dog and pony shows, even when you say, okay, we're going to bring three finalists to campus and we're going to put them in front of the community and we're going to ask for your feedback. Sure, they'll take the feedback, but I think the board or the search committee is going to kind of hire whoever they want to. And so while as a journalist, I really value and advocate for openness, increasingly candidates for the top jobs on campuses, they don't want to risk their careers in public searches. And then third, and I think Sasse is a little different in this way because he doesn't have a long career in higher ed, so let's put him to the side on this one. But few presidents come to the top job with perfect professional or personal records. And if perfection is our goal, we are likely to find only pretty uninspiring presidents with little tolerance to take risks when our institutions kind of need transformational leadership right now with people who are willing to experiment with innovative ideas, many of which will never succeed.
The best presidents come to the job with a record of accomplishments, but they also come to these jobs with a lot of failures as well. I've met many presidents who made personal mistakes and had professional failures early in their careers only to have those experiences kind of shape their academic lives and later presidencies. And I think of the person that I work with at Arizona State University, and that's Michael Crow. When he was at Columbia in the provost's office, he helped start Fathom there, which was kind of their foray into online education. They spent a lot of money on it in the early 2000s.
A lot of our good friends worked with him there, Ann Kirschner and Ryan Craig worked with him on that, but it failed. But yet he was able to get this job at Arizona State, and we all know what he's done since then. So I think that, again, Sasse is a little different because his "failures" or people that are concerned about his record, it's really in the political realm, not in the higher ed realm. But I think that we can't expect perfect presidents these days.
It's interesting, in the entrepreneurial sector, funders actually like leaders who have had failures and have learned from those failures because they think they make them better leaders. But all for a future conversation as we continue down this season of Future U. Hopefully we've provided you an off-day training episode perhaps for those runners who are listening to us, a shorter workout this week. But with that, just one more plug, which is that if you have a question that you want Jeff or I to answer on these episodes of Future U where we just break down a few headlines in the news, please go to our website, futureupodcast.com.
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