The Company You Keep….

Fulbright_StudentProd14_350There are 2244 bachelor’s degree granting institutions in the country (according to our data guru Jon McGee). Each one has its own unique character and personality, and each is the right fit for a certain group of students.  But one thing every undergraduate college tries hard to do is provide opportunities for its students to achieve their full potential, to discover how good they can be.  Often these successes are unique to institutions.  Saint John’s, through the Abbey, offers the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, for example.

But there are also opportunities for undergraduates to compete for national awards like Rhodes, Marshall or Gates Scholarships. Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s students have had recent success in winning Truman Scholarships, with Rachel Mullin winning one in 2013 and Tyler Brown winning one in 2014. Additionally, we have two Truman finalists this year who will be interviewing later this month.

This year was an exceptional one for CSB and SJU students who applied for Fulbright Scholarships to research or teach abroad after graduation.  Five Bennies and three Johnnies won these very competitive scholarships.  With 8 total winners, CSB and SJU had the most Fulbright Scholars in the state of Minnesota, after the University of Minnesota, and were in the very elite company of some of the best liberal arts colleges in the country:

Pitzer College 19
Smith College 15
Amherst College 13
Oberlin College 13
Occidental College 13
Middlebury College 12
Scripps College 11
Williams College 11
Bates College 10
Pomona College 10
College of the Holy Cross 9
Grinnell College 9
Hamilton College 9
Lewis & Clark College 9
Wheaton College (Mass.) 9
Claremont McKenna College 8


The recipe for success at the national level is one that most schools work to discern.  Our success is surely due in significant part to great faculty who undertake these very time and labor intensive applications in support of our students.  The Fulbright success is also linked to great study abroad options and our highly globalized campuses.

There is also a bit of luck involved whenever one applies for such competitive national scholarships and while we have had a number of Fulbright winners in the past, eight in a single year is truly exceptional.

It is great to know that the educational experience at CSB and SJU, our great faculty and our talented, ambitious students combine to provide these wonderful opportunities for students to pursue their dreams of living and working abroad.

By |March 3rd, 2015|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

MIT Looks to the Future

photo: John PhelanUnless you are a college administrator or maybe a university trustee, you probably don’t spend much time reading university strategic plans.  And to be honest, I would not recommend giving up even a mediocre novel and replacing it with the world’s best strategic plan.  But if you are interested in the future of higher education, strategic plans do provide a glimpse into what different institutions think about that future.  This can be especially helpful at a time when there is much debate about the challenges in higher education and uncertainty about what the future will look like. MIT’s strategic planning task force recently completed its work on “The Future of MIT Education.” At first glance, it is not apparent what residential, liberal arts colleges might learn from these efforts since MIT’s mission is so different.

MIT is one of the world’s finest research universities with an emphasis on education and research in the STEM fields. Faculty are focused primarily on graduate students and their own research.  A multi-billion dollar endowment and numerous grant opportunities make MIT significantly less dependent on tuition dollars than most institutions. But for all the apparent differences, the MIT task force sees a future for its undergraduates that is in many important ways not so different than the one we are discussing at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

The MIT task force does recognize the ways that technology might change higher education. They argue there is a strong international demand for online learning and a significant part of the report looks at how MIT can leverage its world-wide brand through its own online and blended offerings (MITx) and its collaboration with others (edX is its collaboration with Harvard, among others). But of most interest to those of us at small, residential, liberal arts colleges (SLAC) is how MIT envisions the future of its undergraduate education, also a significant part of its mission, though one that exists in the context of a R1 research university.

The first two recommendations the of the report focus on the establishment of “an Initiative for Educational Innovation” that will “engage in bold experiments to catalyze ongoing research, learning, and innovation about the future of MIT residential education.”  The emphasis will be “not just about curriculum, technology, and policy, but more generally about teaching.”  There also seems to be a particular interest in reviewing MIT’s Core Curriculum and encouraging interdisciplinarity. This Initiative is what most observers would recognize as a center for teaching and learning, which have been around for many years at SLACs, where special attention has been paid to the core or general education requirements and interdisciplinary learning.

To be fair, MIT’s focus has not traditionally been on undergraduate education, but such experimentation and research on teaching is already widespread and to suggest this idea is a significant innovation is to ignore much of what has been going on elsewhere in higher education.  (See for example the Center for Research in Learning & Teaching at the University of Michigan and the Understanding Science Research Library at Berkeley as well as research reported in The Academic Commons, among many others.)

The recommendations that follow in the task force report focus specifically on the undergraduate experience.

The third recommendation is that “MIT build on the success of freshman learning communities and consider future expansions of the cohort-based freshman learning community model.”  Again learning communities are already widespread in higher education, but, interestingly, MIT foresees a future in which cohorts learning together will be important. These learning communities could, in theory, happen online but seem to be most effective in a residential setting where students live together and interact face-to-face. (See Virginia Tech – Housing and Residence Life and Purdue University – Learning Communities.)

The fourth recommendation calls for strengthening the teaching of communications.  MIT hopes to achieve this in part through the use of online and blended learning, though they recognize that face-to-face interactions with faculty may be important too. I strongly suspect that research and experience will show that teaching writing and oral communication skills is a very faculty intensive endeavor, but the important point here is that MIT thinks its students need to improve their communication skills.  Again, this goal is a learning objective that has long been held at SLACs who devote significant resources to the teaching of these skills to undergraduates, especially in their first year.

The final undergraduate recommendation has to do with service: “The Task Force recommends that MIT create an Undergraduate Service Opportunities Program (USOP).”  The goal, beyond providing service in the community, is to have MIT students connect their service work with their academic experience.  Another name for this pedagogical objective is service learning or community engagement which, again, is widespread in undergraduate higher education.

The rest of the task force report focuses much of its attention on how “to extend MIT’s educational impact to the world.”  MIT has an enviable brand and reputation, especially in science and technology.  It is clearly well-positioned to “reach a global audience” if the challenges (which they honestly note) of online education can be overcome.  But the task force’s discussion of strengthening the MITx and edX models focuses on extending MIT’s reach and not on replacing the residential experience, of either undergraduates or graduate students.

In fact, MIT expects the on-campus population to grow.  The task force asserts:

We have to reach more students. In 2013, MIT received over 43,000 total student applications for undergraduate and graduate school combined, and only 10% gained admission to their program of choice. Undergraduate applications topped 19,000, and only 8.2% were admitted. For the upcoming 2015 academic year only 7.9% of applicants were admitted. Clearly, there is a vast unmet need for access to high-quality education.

The Task Force specifically encourages MIT to evaluate possibilities for increasing its undergraduate class size so that more students can experience “the rich magic of an MIT residential education.”  The issue for MIT is clearly not a lack of faith in the “magic” of a residential experience; the challenge is more prosaic–too little housing in Cambridge.  (Their monks were not as wise as ours and didn’t buy 2500 acres at their founding.)

The task force ends the report with some observations about the MIT economic model.  Even with an endowment of roughly $13B, making it the 6th richest educational institution in the world, MIT has many of the same challenges other universities have.  The task force specifically addresses costs:

In a market that focuses on excellence, MIT incurs high costs. These costs result from the Institute’s need to attract and retain the best faculty and the brightest students, to provide premier research and educational facilities, and to perform the unparalleled research that is integral to the research university model. Providing the facilities required for our exceptional faculty, students, and researchers to advance research discovery and innovation is inherently expensive. Nevertheless, we will need to continue to invest in our world-class teaching and research infrastructure and remain competitive in recruiting top talent if we are to maintain our preeminence.

But they make no apologies for these high costs, confidently asserting that the returns to students and society are high:

This investment pays off in terms of educational outcomes. The MIT model produces outstanding students and advances knowledge in remarkable ways. MIT contributes significantly to educating some of the brightest engineers, scientists, and businesspeople of our time. Moreover, graduates from MIT perform exceedingly well in their life pursuits. These outcomes not only influence the formation of companies, job creation, patents, and inventions, but also advance the boundaries of science and engineering.

But lest one think that MIT has any “magic” to use on the economic model of higher education, among their last recommendations they suggest both expanding “fundraising activities” and evaluating “revenue opportunities surrounding technology licensing and venture funding.”  While acknowledging that MIT has significantly better licensing and venture capital options than most, it should be noted that these recommendations are almost boilerplate in the planning documents of all higher educational institutions.  Clearly the economic challenges of higher education are just as real on the banks of the Charles River as they are for the tuition-driven world most of us live in.

The Task Force summarizes its discussion of undergraduate education by saying:

We see a future in which the MIT residential education model is not threatened, but rather strengthened, as the Institute is guided by our core values and principles.…By pursuing the Task Force’s recommendations…the magic of MIT will shine even more brightly.

MIT is most certainly not representative of the 2000+ baccalaureate granting institutions, but its vision of the future is especially interesting precisely because it is not typical.  MIT, with its technology focus, financial resources and world-wide reputation, is among a handful of institutions that might well dominate an online, technology driven, distance learning model of higher education.  Yet the MIT vision described in “The Future of MIT Education” does not seek or foresee such a world.  While MIT is not oblivious to its strengths and certainly hopes to use technology and its reputation to extend its world-wide reach, the vision for undergraduate education is one of strengthening the current residential experience and even making it more “liberal artsy.”*

The MIT future is one in which new technologies will provide additional options for some students, particularly international students who don’t always have great choices now, but where the magic of MIT for undergraduates will be built on a residential experience, one that, while not identical, sounds a lot like that provided by the finest residential, liberal arts colleges today.

*Interestingly, this MIT vision is consistent with stories colleagues and friends report of visiting R1 universities with their college-bound children and hearing tour guides describe, plausibly or not, the undergraduate experience as being much like that on a small liberal arts campus and of the increasing trend towards honors colleges inside of large public universities. (See the Honors Program at the University of MN or the Honors College at Arizona State University.)

By |February 23rd, 2015|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Thiel’s Kids: A Follow-up

1433914_83310280Peter Thiel’s fellowship program to encourage young entrepreneurs to skip college has generated lots of interest in the press and significant discussion about the merits of a college education. Most educators are decidedly skeptical both of Thiel’s critique and of the scalability of the model. Thiel himself, though he has called college “snake oil,” never argued that his Thiel Scholars program would be scalable. “Our thought was, ‘This is going to be a very idiosyncratic, small program,’” he said during a “60 Minutes” interview.

This realistic assessment of his own program does beg the question of what Thiel’s alternative to the “snake oil” is.  He himself concluded. “…to compete within the system would be tremendously expensive and probably futile.”

While Thiel does not offer a realistic alternative to a bachelor’s degree, it is worth looking at how Thiel Scholars have done in the four years since the program began. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article explores this question. In “The Rich Man’s Dropout Club: Whatever happened to the teenage entrepreneurs whom Peter Thiel paid to forgo college?” we learn the results are about what you would expect. Some Scholars have continued to work on their entrepreneurial projects while others have returned to school.

Of the 24 inaugural Scholars only 6 came directly from high school. The rest came from college and most of them from highly selective institutions like the Ivies and MIT. They were not so much a group that did not value education but young people that were impatient to start working and found it hard to pass up the cash and connections that Thiel’s program offered.

As observers have noted:

The most valuable part of the fellowship for many wasn’t the freedom or the money but the network they were plugged into. Although less structured in its early days, the fellowship now offers retreats, internships, summer housing, and teams of advisers who work in and around the industries to which the fellows aspire.

The unique nature of the program really make it less a small-scale alternative to higher education than a one-off entrepreneurial seminar funded by a quirky venture capitalist.

Despite the national conversation Thiel has spurred, most Scholars seem to share the views of Yale dropout Daniel Friedman. “We didn’t think about it as a grand statement about the value of education. It was just that here was an awesome opportunity to learn something about what we love doing and maybe challenge ourselves. And if a year or two later we messed everything up, we could go back to school.”

Paul Gu, another Yale dropout in the first cohort says, “Are there alternatives to college? Yes, but you have to work pretty hard. It’s pretty unrealistic that most people would find those things on their own. Most people would be better off going to college.”

By |February 16th, 2015|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments