Do the Right Thing

Volume IV, #18

Higher education is about more than learning a subject and gaining the skills required to become gainfully employed. Judging from recent media coverage, it’s also about football and basketball. More important, it’s about learning to do the right thing. In college, I didn’t have to go far for this lesson. My roommates served as both positive and negative examples.

Yale has a foreign language requirement: every student needs to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language. Back in the early 1990s when it seemed we all might all end up at Japanese employers, one roommate, Alex, decided he wanted to be able to banter with his future corporate overlords. Japanese at Yale was no joke. Classes met every day and Alex carried his Japanese workbook everywhere. One spring day another roommate had removed a box of ice cream from our freezer (so he could scrape the frost to form snowballs – the subject of a future Letter), placed it atop my stereo speaker and forgotten about it. The next day, we awoke to find the ice cream melted down the front of the speaker, Alex intently focused on carving Japanese characters into the crusted ice cream. For the next two years, every time I looked at the Japanese on my speaker, I thought they added insult to injury. Looking back, it’s clear they represented absolute dedication to mastering Japanese as well as a totally novel learning style.

Chris took a different approach to the language requirement. Chris chose German, a less intensive language and one that required students to complete weekly computer exercises and save the work to a 3.5-inch floppy disk. Highly technologically adept, rather than do the work Chris figured out how to crack the program’s algorithm and completed the weekly exercises for himself and friends in the class with the click of a mouse. Although Chris didn’t learn much German, he was dedicated to German culture – as evidenced by the cold winter day he stripped off his clothes except for a Viking helmet and went out onto the Cross Campus Lawn to ask passers-by where the German Club was meeting.


As with Yale’s language requirement, in regulating higher education at the state level, there’s a right approach, and a wrong one. Let’s start with California, birthplace of the MOOC. In January 2013, Sebastian Thrun was applauded when he announced that Udacity would pilot remedial and introductory MOOCs with San Jose State University (SJSU) and offer them for credit. Thrun said he hoped the $150 price point would change higher education, while California Governor Jerry Brown said: “Whatever it costs, it’ll be cheaper than a high-speed rail.” The much ballyhooed project made a ton of sense: 50 percent of entering SJSU students cannot meet basic requirements. Unfortunately, the partnership ended with a whimper after reporting course pass rates between 23.8 and 50.5 percent, well below comparable SJSU courses.

In response to the Udacity-SJSU partnership, Assemblyman Richard Pan, Democrat of Sacramento has authored Assembly Bill 46. The bill, which passed the State Senate and is currently in the Assembly, would require providers of online courses at state institutions to share information about course enrollment, completion rates, grades, student demographics and the use of university resources with the faculty senate. Pan says he wrote the bill in response to concern that faculty lacked sufficient access to data during the San Jose State pilot.

There is no question that the current Holy Grail in higher education is figuring out how to utilize technology in order to dramatically improve developmental education and therefore increase persistence and completion for the students who need the most help. These students are predominantly enrolled at state-supported institutions like San Jose State and community colleges. This is the reason the Robin Hood Foundation has established a $5M prize for the most “innovative, scalable and technology-enabled tool to improve the academic performance of underprepared college students.” (Semifinalists were announced last week.)

However, this bill does nothing to further this quest. In fact, it raises obstacles. First, the notion that the Udacity-SJSU partnership failed because the faculty senate didn’t have sufficient access to this data is the most absurd thing I’ve heard since someone called me for a reference on a potential hire and then, at the end of the conversation, asked for references on me (recursive reference loop). Perhaps the reason the partnership failed has something to do with the idea of using the MOOC – a medium with a course completion rate of 5% – as a solution for students who typically complete degrees at a rate of less than 25%. Second, if providing faculty with access to this data proves important, why regulate instead of letting the market drive out the bad providers? Maybe the market would have a better sense than Assemblyman Pan of what data is relevant, and for whom. Third and most important, the bill will further discourage online service providers from working with California state institutions, which need even more help developing innovative online programs than private colleges and universities. (Although Lillian Taiz, Professor of History at CSU Los Angeles and President of the California Faculty Association is more sanguine, saying companies will not be more reluctant to form partnerships with CSU because “there’s just so much money to be made here.”)


In stark contrast to California, Louisiana recently passed Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy (WISE), legislation that adds $40M of funding to workforce-related academic programs with the stipulation that funding can only be drawn when corporate partners fund a 20% match. This is an innovative way to encourage U.S. employers, famously reticent about any kind of pre-hire training, to actively engage in shrinking the skill gap. This comes on the heels of state-directed elimination of 700 programs at Louisiana community and technical colleges that were not workforce related. For example, Louisiana community colleges no longer teach cosmetology; students are directed to private institutions for these programs. Eliminated programs have allowed colleges to focus on high-demand areas like welding, computer science and construction.

Similarly, I’m proud to report that my home province of Ontario, Canada has required its 44 public colleges and universities to enumerate their 10 strongest programs and identify the five – only five –they hope to expand. The goal is to make each university focus on what it’s best at and not try to be all things to all students. It’s expected that increased funding will be directed primarily or exclusively to these program areas.

There is no state or province that can’t significantly improve its current system of higher education and there’s no question that legislation and regulation can play an important role. But while California does the regulatory equivalent of standing in the cold naked but for a Viking helmet, Louisiana and Ontario are diligently carving Japanese characters in dried ice cream. Fortunately, states don’t have to go far to find examples of doing the right thing, and the wrong thing.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.