Give us your feedback
Would you like to give us your feedback? Fill out this form and share your ideas.
Josh Jarrett (’97), Deputy Director of Postsecondary Success at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
On October 4, 2011, Josh Jarrett gave two engaging presentations at Dartmouth co-sponsored by DCAL, Educational Technologies, and the MHCDS program exploring technology trends and their impact on higher education. Jarrett’s presentations were well attended and widely discussed by individuals involved in the Dartmouth’s strategic planning process. To follow up on his thought-provoking perspectives, the strategic planning effort arranged this interview, conducted by Michael Blanding. The slides from Jarrett’s presentations are also available for viewing at the end of the interview.
Higher education today is at a crossroads. Tuition costs are skyrocketing, even as the post-college job market is more uncertain than ever. Many students and policymakers alike are starting to wonder if it’s worth it at all. At the same time, new forms of postsecondary education, such as for-profit universities and modular degree programs, are challenging the primacy of the four-year liberal arts degree that Dartmouth and other elite universities hold sacred. No one, perhaps, has thought about these trends more than Josh Jarrett (D’97), deputy director of postsecondary success at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As leader of the Next Generation Models program, Jarrett has studied breakthroughs in education that use technology and other innovations to improve access to and success in college for low-income youth. As he discusses in a wide-ranging interview, those changes present both a challenge and an opportunity for Dartmouth as it considers its own future.
There are three that really stand out. One is the question of relevance and accountability in terms of what students are really getting. What are they learning? How is it preparing them for their adult life? That’s a question coming both from students and families and from policymakers who are looking for accountability for the billions of dollars they put into higher education. Issue two is affordability. We are seeing costs continue to increase faster than the price of inflation. Student debt is now greater than all of our credit card debt. So we are starting to see more people question whether college is worth it at all. And the third issue is innovation. The economy is increasingly globalized, and the role of technology, information, and creativity is becoming more important in the 21st century. Technology is providing all sorts of challenges and opportunities in higher education.
I think the data suggests pretty strongly that college is worth it. The reality is, if you didn’t complete high school then you have three times the unemployment rate of someone who is a college graduate. So broadly speaking, [the case for] education as a path for individual opportunity is pretty strong. What it really comes down to is: are the benefits worth the time or expense required to get them, or are there more accelerated and affordable ways to do so?
They will think about a couple of things more vividly: they will think of the connection to the rest of the world as part of their educational experience, as opposed to something that happens in a separated-off chunk like a foreign study program. Secondly, they will expect to have a clear understanding of “what I will get from this.” There is a saying from [marketing professor] Peter Drucker that very rarely is the customer buying what a company thinks it’s selling him. I think there is a certain truth to that when it comes to higher education. Educators are trying to sell a well-rounded education, and in many cases students are buying socialization and access to a network, entrée to the next step be it career or graduate school, and a stamp of approval that says I am smart I can do a lot. Beyond that, you have to convince me why understanding Kant is part of those pieces. It doesn’t mean we should punt on liberal education, but we have to do a better job of connecting why that’s relevant.
We are seeing much smaller chunks of learning and we are seeing them delivered in ways that are much more convenient and integrated into someone’s life. The idea that large parts of our population are going to be able to carve out 4 years to have a heavily subsidized, transformative experience on residential campuses will continue to be relevant—and there will be plenty of people banging down the doors at Dartmouth. But Dartmouth will be increasingly influenced by the modal higher education institutions. We already know that 75 percent of students are non-traditional as defined by the department of higher education. They are part-time, they are not dependent on their parents, they are not enrolling right after high school, they might have kids of their own… That means we are extending higher education to broader swaths of the population. But it also means that institutions like Dartmouth are increasingly the exception, even though in our societal mind’s eye we imagine the college on the hill as the prototypical college experience.
I don’t think it really needs to care about these issues—but it can care about them. There is an argument to be made that says what Dartmouth does really, really well is take 1100 high school seniors every year and give them this transformational experience in Hanover, New Hampshire, and we should stick to our knitting. And I wouldn’t fault Dartmouth for making that choice. But there is another option that says we have so much to offer, and if our mission is vox clamantis in deserto, what does that mean? Where is the desert in the 21st century, and how do we bring our voice there? Other elite schools are doing more with technology. MIT is putting its content online. Stanford is offering courses open to the world—its latest artificial intelligence course had 100,000 students enrolling. So those institutions are actually strengthening their brands, not with scarcity but with abundance.
Higher education has been based for thousands of years on scarcity. We only have a few professors, we only have a few books in the library, we only have a few seats in the classrooms, so we have to ration higher education. Those constraints are almost entirely relieved by the 21st century economy and the environment we live in, so now the question becomes do we preserve that same sense of scarcity because that’s where our brand and prestige comes? Or do we release that and say we can drive the same types of rich learning experiences from different mechanisms that are about opening up and sharing what we know and connecting populations that could never make it to Hanover to study with us?
Externally, institutions have more to gain than they have to lose. If Dartmouth put up 20 general education courses and offered them for free to the world, there aren’t a lot of people who would say that’s a bad thing. The problems are more internal—when the faculty says, wait a second, are students not going to come here now? We are not keeping our knowledge in the city limits of Hanover. The reality is there are thousands if not millions of people who have never heard of Dartmouth who would stand to benefit and learn about it, and it would strengthen the perception and brand of Dartmouth if they were to do so.
The question is can you do both things well. Institutions that are forward-looking and innovative can give away a little bit of the magic without giving away the pieces that really matter. MIT was brilliant—they gave away the syllabus and readings to their courses, but that’s like giving away a library card. What’s unique about Dartmouth or MIT is not the books in the library.
MIT gave away the learning materials of their courses, and MIT is on the top of many people’s lists in innovation because of that action. Now Stanford put the materials and the facilitation and the learning network. With 100,000 students it’s mostly peer-to-peer interaction, but now you have the materials and the “classroom” in quotes. We are just one step away from someone actually offering the credits, where you can validate that someone learned this. If you did all the material and participated in all of the conversations of a Stanford course on artificial intelligence, then you know artificial intelligence. If you come to my institution, why would I make you sit through another course just to earn the credit? An institution figuring out a way to accredit learning is going to be the next frontier in an institution putting a stake in the ground and being incredibly innovative. Institutions might do it through their extension school so there is an asterisk to the brand, if you will, but I would predict sometime in the next 5 or 6 years, there will be an institution that will create a much more affordable pathway to credits for basic education.
If your mission is to carry quality education to as many people as you can, then it benefits your mission. But in a more self-interested way, there are at least three other potential benefits: One, there are ways you could break even and maybe even make a little money. You could say, look, you learn for free, but if you want to take the exam and see if you mastered it, you pay $50. Another benefit is you now have this pipeline to attract these rich learners from around the world who might be great people to bring to campus as part of the Dartmouth community. Lastly, there’s the benefit of being seen as an innovator, which helps target your traditional student. If someone is going to choose between MIT, Stanford, or Dartmouth, then all things being equal, they will think about who is the most innovative, the most interconnected to the global world we live in. I’m not saying Dartmouth should plow into this without thinking it through, but it ought to be a question on the table that people are wrestling with. If they end up consciously deciding we need to preserve the unique Hanover experience above all else, that’s fine, but I’m trying to contribute to the process by putting a slightly more democratic view of Dartmouth’s mission on the table to provoke conversation.
"..if our mission is vox clamantis in deserto, what does that mean? Where is the desert in the 21st century, and how do we bring our voice there?" Josh Jarrett
Would you like to give us your feedback? Fill out this form and share your ideas.