Review of “Designing the New American University”

Since Michael Crow became the president of Arizona State University in 2002, he has worked to reorganize and grow the institution into his vision of a `New American University.’ ASU has grown to over 80,000 students during his time as president through a commitment to admit all students who meet a relatively modest set of academic qualifications. At the same time, the university has embarked upon a number of significant academic reorganizations that have gotten rid of many traditional academic departments and replacing them with larger interdisciplinary schools. Crow has also attracted his fair share of criticism over the years, including for alleged micromanaging and his willingness to venture into online education. (I’ve previously critiqued ASU Online’s program with Starbucks, although many of my concerns have since been alleviated.)

Crow partnered with William Dabars, an ASU professor, to write Designing the New American University (Johns Hopkins Press, $34.95 hardcover) to more fully explain how the ASU model works. The first several chapters of the book, although rather verbose, focus on the development of the American research university. A key concept that the authors raise is isomorphism—the tendency of organizations to resemble a leading organization in the market. Crow and Dabars contend that research universities have largely followed the lead of elite private universities such as Harvard and the big Midwestern land-grant universities that developed following the Civil War. Much has changed since then, so they argue that a new structure is needed.

Chapter 7 is the key chapter of the book, in which the authors detail the design of Arizona State as a ‘New American University’ (and make a nice sales pitch for the university in the process). Crow and Dabars celebrate the growth of Arizona State, which has been matched by only a small number of public research universities. They note that a stronger focus on access has hurt them in the U.S. News rankings, a key measure of prestige—while celebrating their ranking as an ‘Up and Coming School.’ (In the Washington Monthly rankings that I compile, ASU is a very respectable 28th.) The scale of ASU allows the possibility for cost-effective operations, something which the university is trying to measure through their Center for Measuring University Performance.

It certainly seems like some elements of the changes at ASU could potentially be adopted at other research universities, but it is worth noting that research universities make up only about 200-300 of the over 7,500 postsecondary institutions in the United States. I am left wondering what the `New American’ model would look like in other sectors of higher education, which is beyond the scope of this book but an important question to answer. Some other questions to consider are the following:

(1) How would a commitment to growth happen at colleges without the prestige or market power to attract significant numbers of out-of-state students?

(2) ASU seems to have done more academic reorganizations in research-intensive departments. How would this work at a more teaching-oriented institution?

(3) How will the continuing growth of ASU Online, as well as the multiple branch campuses in the Phoenix metropolitan area, affect the organizational structure? At what point, if any, does a university reach the maximum optimal size?

(4) Will ASU’s design remain the same once Michael Crow is not president? (And is that a good thing?)

Overall, this is a solid book that is getting a substantial amount of attention for good reason. While the book could have been about 50 pages shorter while still conveying all of the important information, the final chapter is highly recommended reading. I plan to assign that chapter to my organization and governance classes in the future so they can understand how ASU is growing and succeeding through an atypical higher education model.

Review of “American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know”

I recently had the pleasure of reading American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press) by Goldie Blumenstyk, senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Goldie has a well-deserved reputation as perhaps the best higher education journalist out there, and this book reflects her ability to summarize complex topics in higher education for a broad audience. Veteran researchers in higher ed finance and policy probably won’t come across too many new things in this book, but it serves as an excellent primer for policymakers, students, and the general public.

The book consists of four main sections, in which Blumenstyk quickly moves through key questions of interest to the higher education community and the public. Each section focuses on an overview of the topics at hand and brings in data and research in an easily accessible manner. In the first section, she examines students, with some of the following questions being considered:

–Who enrolls in college? How have demographics changed over time?

–How does the college admissions process work?

–Are students academically prepared for college, and what is the extent of “undermatching?”

In the second section, Blumenstyk examines higher education finance, paying attention to both student and institutional finance. Some of the questions considered include the following:

–Why does college cost so much? She gets extra credit from me for explaining the difference between cost (the amount of money spent to provide the educational experience) and price (what students and their families actually pay). This is a crucial distinction that is rarely made with the general public in mind.

–What do student loan burdens look like? And are they reasonable?

–Are institutional finances stable? What types of colleges may be in trouble going forward?

The third section of the book centers on leadership and governance. The following questions are considered:

–What is a typical governance structure like? What are the roles of internal stakeholders such as faculty and administrators?

–What are the roles of external stakeholders such as policymakers, foundations, and accreditors?

–What do state and federal accountability policies look like?

In the final section, Blumenstyk looks at some practices and policies that may represent the future of higher education. While some of the items discussed below will probably not have as large of an impact on higher education as we think right now, this section serves as a great reference regarding some of the buzzwords in higher education. These topics include:

–What do MOOCs (massive open online courses) look like, and how have they been adopted to this point?

–What is competency-based education, and what are other ways to earn college credit without sitting in a classroom (or in front of a screen online) for a semester?

–How are “big data” and predictive analytics being used to change educational practices and policies?

–Will traditional campuses survive? And what types of colleges are most at risk?

This book provides a great overview of the state of higher education and directs readers to additional resources for further reading. Not only do I recommend this book to those looking to learn more about higher education, I plan to use parts of this book for my organization and governance and higher education finance classes in the future.