Preparing for Spencer (or baseball and hockey are better in person)

Today is Spencer’s birthday. He is eleven years old and as the youngest in the family, he will be the last to enter college. Mom is already dreading the day and just might move into the dorm with her baby. Sometimes being the youngest in the family sucks. For Spence this includes the concern that the traditional college experience may not be available to him when he graduates high school and alas, on-line programs don’t offer soccer scholarships.

It has become fashionable to depict the traditional university as a dinosaur facing extinction. Honestly, I probably read ten a week. Mark Cuban, for example, had a provacative post on Linkedin the other day expressing concern that colleges may go bankrupt in the next few years (to read it click here), the latest victims of the internet revolution. If so, Spence won’t have a dorm to move into and will have to get an education on-line while sitting on mom’s couch next to an unemployed me.

To give Cuban his due, he advocates college for young people and I like his idea of encouraging students to have a well-thought out plan. His primary concern is that our institutions of higher education are taking on way too much debt in the race to create an ever more appealing campus environment for students. He believes these costs are needlessly driving up tuition rates (along with high-priced administrators) and resulting in empty seats. Cuban appeals for lower cost alternatives and sounds the alarm by comparing the future of higher education to the newspaper industry.

Like many others who predict the demise of traditional universities, Mark Cuban is wrong. Television didn’t kill the movies. Baseball and hockey are way better in person. Cuban and all his owner buddies keep wanting more expensive stadiums and charge ever higher ticket prices even though they know you could sit home and watch the game for free (or for twenty-five bucks per month if you buy the cable company’s sports package). While the owners capture a lot of revenue from television deals, these guys also know nobody would watch if the arenas were empty. So why do we all behave this way? Why do we go to the movie rather than wait for it to come out on Redbox? Why do we pay a small fortune to take a family of four to the ballgame rather than just watch it at home? It’s the experience go for the experience.

The newspaper comparison is flawed. The newspaper isn’t an experience. It is a method for getting information and these days it is rarely first to the scoop unless it tweets local breaking news like the Sentinel. A transformative education, on the other hand, is an experience. It is about how to create, analyze and use concepts and tools to make sense of the world, expand your horizons, and construct a better future. It must be shared with others and works best when guided by someone who has novel experiences and a provocative vision of the future.

The dirty secret of on-line education is that it’s not cheap. It is not offered at a discount relative to the bricks and motor alternative at the same institution and typically generates large margins at for profit institutions by employing contingent faculty who earn very low wages. (You want to learn from someone who makes more than you do.) I have yet to see a really big name professor earn a living off of an on-line course. And before you say MOOC, hype is way out in front of revenue there . Maybe some day a famous person’s massive on-line course will be brought to you by the ACME Corporation or some other sponsor, but until then I’m not worried about products that don’t generate revenue–that has bubble written all over it. Correspondence courses, by the way, were going to revolutionize education and realize many of these same alleged benefits back in the day.

But where I think Cuban is right (despite some recent evidence) is in his argument that better work-out facilities and a winning football team aren’t going to save higher education. The key to a sustainable business model for higher education lies in embracing the notion that the person in front of the classroom matters. That the people in the seats matter and that the interaction between and among them matter. It is not the dorm or the coffee bar that is at the center of the college experience, it is the classroom, student clubs and well-integrated co-curricular activities that drive the experience. It is the opportunity to sit on a log next to someone with interesting stuff to say and engage in a conversation. Success will come by investing there.

So what of Spencer? Where will he show up in 2021 and what will his college experience be like? How about flipped classrooms with jelly? A flipped classroom uses technology to complement what faculty do rather than try to replace them with cheaper labor and it opens classtime for engaging discussion around the most recent developments. Jellies, on the other hand are casual work events. They are popular with freelancers, home workers, entrepreneurs and people running small businesses who meet up in order to get out of their normal space, meet different folks and work together in a social environment. Jellies solve the isolation problem and encourage innovation through proximity to diverse sets of people with common interests. Applied to higher education, jellies are experiential learning venues positioned at the crossroads of campus where you go to get out of your comfort zone, take risks, and learn from each others’ failures as well as successes. Universities will need to create different kinds of spaces to provide these experiences and faculty who are skilled coaches and mentors rather than lectures, but the institutions that offer scalable models of this type of college experience will kick on-line’s butt.

So don’t worry Spence. Go have some chocolate ice cream. Two bowls if you’d like, its your birthday. We will figure this out and a vibrant UCF will be here waiting for you.

The Economics of Ignorance: Why Johnny Can’t Choose

The cold fact is that we live in a world where our wants exceed our resources. We must all choose what wants we will let go unfilled, which we will satisfy, and how we will do so. And since individuals have different wants, all societies must have mechanisms for deciding which resources are going to be used to satisfy which people’s wants. Economics is the study of these choices by both individuals (micro) and societies (macro). That most Americans don’t understand how these choices are made or how the economy works was recognized more the twenty years ago when the Council on Economic Education sounded the alarm about the poor state of economic literacy in the U.S.. Taking a page from a highly successful campaign to raise awareness about illiteracy (Why Johnny Can’t Read), they began to explain: Why Johnny Can’t Choose.

Five years ago, economic illiteracy came home to roost. Too many people and companies had made poor decisions because they didn’t understand the consequences of the choices they were making. The cumulative effect of those bad choices combined with poor government policy and a regulatory environment that looked the other way to put us in the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. Foreclosures skyrocketed, employment plummeted, government bailouts and big budget deficits ensued. Lots of people suffered and are still suffering.

As we begin to climb out of this huge hole, some of the hardest hit states including Florida have vowed to diversify their economies and return to prosperity through targeted investment in entrepreneurial activity. Universities in these states have been asked to help achieve this objective by educating more students in the STEM disciplines and imbuing them with the entrepreneurial skills and acumen that will lead to the creation of scalable businesses that will become pillars of a new economy.

So when a committee of higher education leaders were asked to recommend ways to streamline the set of courses all students must take to graduate from a Florida college or university, guess which subject was among the courses they decided to remove from the general education requirements? Yep, economics. Anthropology, comparative politics, psychology, sociology and world history were deemed more appropriate to students general education. Really? Really.

When faced with constrained resources and a diverse set of wants, a committee that lacked even a single economist, recommended we eliminate the discipline that studies the exact problem that confronted them. They did this despite the experience of the last five years and the current emphasis state policy makers are placing on entrepreneurial activity and economic diversification.

Business students will of course continue to get a healthy dose of economics. We control these requirements and UCF may still require economics as part of its approach to general education. I would hope so. There is no crime in being economically illiterate, but it is irresponsible for our institutions of higher learning to claim that they are preparing citizens for leadership roles in the twenty-first century, a century that will be driven by a complex world economic system increasingly based on free markets, without providing these same students with a firm grasp of how this system works and influences the opportunities and choices that will confront them. That all UCF students would take these courses at UCF would also offer us greater quality control (and ensure full employment for UCF economists).

But, as UCF business students you should care that with this change many more Floridians will be allowed to graduate from college economically illiterate. These new graduates will vote on government leaders and their policies just like you and as the last five years made clear the decisions these people make about how they allocate their resources will impact your economic and financial future. In short, economic illiteracy generates negative externalities. A course on financial literacy would be useful too, but I don’t want to be greedy. Besides if you understand the economics, you can pick up the finance, while the reverse is less true.

The good news is that it’s not too late to influence the committee’s recommendations. So far, the committee has only asked for comment from faculty but a period of public comment is coming and it would be good for the committee to hear from students, alums and interested citizens. Watch for it. Or if you are so inclined, I would suggest you leave a comment here and I will make sure the right people see all of them at the appropriate time.

Lunchtime Roulette

Last Thursday I hosted my first faculty lunch of the semester. The idea is to bring together small groups of people from different departments who might not normally interact to get to know each other better, discuss issues of common concern, and begin to build a more cohesive sense of identity and purpose. Eighteen of the twenty people chosen for the first event accepted my invitation.

Among the topics we discussed were efforts to better coordinate curriculum, Ph.D. student recruitment, infrastructure needs and the elimination of economics from the general education requirements. In each of these discussions there was a desire to spread awareness, bring more people to the table, and generate momentum around ideas. The hour flew by and I was impressed with everyone’s willingness to engage in the conversation.

As the discussion unfolded, I mentioned an article I had read a few days ago where a company had implemented what they called lunchtime roulette. The idea was to randomly assign people to go to lunch together at the company’s expense. The goal was to drive innovation through idea generation from people who don’t normally get to talk to each other. I commented that I couldn’t afford to send pairs of faculty to restaurants for lunch, but that given our discussion I was willing to set aside some money from the Dean’s Excellence Fund to buy pizza or sandwiches for small groups of people from different departments to discuss an issue of common interest or concern. So here’s the deal:

1. If you want to hold such a working lunch, you need to get three other faculty or staff to sign on to a meeting. The four people must come from at least three different departments so that we know the issue cuts across a number of disciplines. The group cannot be a standing committee of the college or a subset of a standing committee. I want it to be an organic group of at least four.

2. The issue must pertain to students, teaching, curriculum, cross-disciplinary research, or infrastructure.

3.Email your names and a short description of the agenda to Anne Marie at least a week prior to the proposed meeting.

4. I will review the request and if it meets the guidelines, we will send out a notice to all faculty with the topic, time and place of the gathering so other interested parties can attend. People will need to RSVP by the day of the before the meeting if they want a lunch. We will buy up to ten. If the meeting draws the interest of more than ten people we will provide an alternate forum for the topic.

5. It is the responsibility of the four requesters of the meeting to provide me with an appropriate summary of the meeting including action steps. The summary will be due one week from the end of the meeting. This summary will be posted on our website.

6. Failure to comply with item 5 will bar all four of the original requesters from being part of another group to request a similar meeting.

7. If you do post the summary and justification for a subsequent meeting exists, you can request a follow-up working lunch under these same rules.

It will be that simple.

This policy will be in place for calendar year 2013. At the end of 2013 we will evaluate the program and decide whether to extend it for another year. So get talking.

From the MBA: Reports of my Death have been Greatly Exaggerated

This is the first TweetBack Thursday of the semester, but the title of this post was too long to fit it all in the header. The question comes from a new Twitter follower @Knightstu, who asked me to comment on a recent Wall Street Journal article on the declining value of the MBA. You can read that article here.

I have no doubt that the data in the article is true: that the supply of MBA grads has grown, that some of this supply is of a lower quality, that starting salaries are flat or down a bit, and that some students are dissatisfied with their post-graduation job experiences. Times have been hard for everyone. Median household income fell by two to three percent in nominal terms between 2008 and 2010. Job offers are hard to come by and competition for openings is brisk.

But it is important to note that saying MBA starting salaries are falling right now isn’t the same thing as saying you won’t benefit from getting an MBA. Let’s first understand what an MBA is and what it is not. No degree, including the MBA, has ever been a guarantee of success. A typical MBA experience is designed to give you a set of conceptual, analytic, communication, and social skills that help prepare you to compete as a business professional. When taken at an accredited institution, the degree certifies a certain level of competency in these skill sets. What you do with this new toolkit is up to you. The degree is not a substitute for motivation, perseverance, a walkabout, or your lack of relevant experience. So if your plan is to pursue an MBA so that you can find yourself and what you want to do just in time for the program’s career services people to hand you several high-paying job offers, you do not have a plan–you have a wish. Stop being stupid and get a plan.

A plan involves asking yourself what you want to accomplish and if an MBA is the best way for you to get there. Do you just want more income? If so taking on a second job to supplement your income until the economy rebounds, or you get a better primary job might be your best choice: cash now with no tuition costs. If you are just not sure what you want to be when you grow up, job shadowing, mentorships, and interning at a few places is the way to go. These methods will help you better understand what the job is like and where you need to invest to compete. If you are short on communication or social skills, a variety of non credit workshops or short-programs might get you what you need. If the greatest needs are conceptual and/or analytic, or you want to greatly expand the variety of options available to you, school is likely to be the best choice.

But if the choice is school, there are still career issues to factor in. All MBA programs are not alike. Do you want to be a CEO or an independent small business owner? The former would suggest going to a big time school with a high-priced program and high-placed alumni network. The latter goal would in all likelihood make that a bad buy–the local university seems the better choice. Think about where you want to fit on this spectrum– the cost of the right answer and therefore the size of your bet changes accordingly.

So, my main point is that you cannot evaluate the MBA or a specific MBA program in isolation like the WSJ article does. Nor should you base it on the disappointing job prospects of an MBA graduate in Louisville. You have to ask yourself what are my alternatives both in terms of costs and benefits and make your choice accordingly. MBA starting salaries may be falling, but prospects were falling everywhere over this period. It is the difference between alternatives, not the direction of the base of just one option that is important.

I would also encourage you to think long-term not short. This is difficult to do because the costs of education tend to be short-term and easy to identify (e.g, tuition, books, lost wages), while the benefits are in the future, have a distribution around a mean outcome and can change over time. Our economy and the job market may be experiencing fundamental shifts, but the best predictor of future performance is still past performance and professional masters degrees like the MBA have a very good track record when compared against the alternatives. Could the future be different? Sure, there are no certain bets, but I’m betting the MBA will continue to provide many people highly sought-after general skills at a fair price. If you think you have found a better bet for you, take it.

Acts of Kindness

I’ve had the unpleasant task of turning down appeals this week from students who have been told they can no longer pursue their major of choice in the College or in many cases a business degree at UCF. Seventy-five students in all have been impacted by our Lack of Progress Policy. Seventy-five out of almost five thousand upper division students is a very small number unless of course one of those seventy-five students is you.

The Lack of Progress policy was passed by the faculty before I came to UCF, but I support it. In short, the policy says that students must maintain a 2.0 minimum GPA to stay in the College and a 2.0 minimum GPA in their major to stay in that major. If they fall below one or both of these marks, they have one semester to get their GPA above the 2.0 threshold or they must come up with a new major and/or college. The full details of the policy can be found by clicking here.

Because application of the policy is new, the vast majority of the seventy-five students impacted have been struggling for many semesters. They have retaken courses multiple times and still haven’t brought their GPAs safely above the threshold level. Our experience tells us that students who can’t succeed in two attempts (absent illness or an unusual crisis) very rarely turn things around. Yet, some fall victim to the fallacy of sunk costs, are too embarrassed to admit they need a new direction or are convinced that by doing the same things over again they will get a different and better result.

Early in my career, I would yield to these students’ admirable displays of persistence and give them additional chances, but I have learned to view these very difficult decisions as acts of kindness. As I wrote to one student this week, there comes a time in everyone’s life where they must honestly assess their strengths, weaknesses and passions, reevaluate, and pursue a different path from the one initially selected. For students who fail to make sufficient progress toward their degree, the best thing they can do is look to new options. UCF is full of them. I know many successful people who have changed majors and careers in pursuit of the best fit. The sooner people do this, the quicker they can begin a more satisfying journey.

Promoting the welfare of our students and enriching their lives sometimes requires that we help them through difficult transitions. It is my expectation that each of the seventy-five impacted students were treated with respect and kindness during this process. And it is my hope that when they find the intersection of their talents and passions that they will remember us for helping them realize the need to start a new path to success.

These Little Wonders

These little wonders
These twists and turns of fate
Time falls away,
But these small hours,
These little wonders still remain

Rob Thomas

Next to baseball trivia, my mind is filled with song lyrics (then historical figures and events, then dean stuff, then to Suzanne’s dissatisfaction, her honey do list). I am a great admirer of the ability to turn a phrase and succinctly communicate in memorable fashion the power and emotion of ideas and events. One of my contemporary favorites is Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty. I saw him a few years ago in Las Vegas where he confessed that the song These Little Wonders was inspired by a walk with his dog in the rain. Rob didn’t want to go at first because he was grumpy and it was pouring, but the little guy wanted it so badly and loved it so much that the moment stuck.

I was reminded of these lyrics friday at lunch with David Withee and Blaine Strickland. I met David via alum Merrell Bailey and David was now introducing me to Blaine. Blaine is in commercial real estate, teaches at two well-known schools up north, and has done some work on socio-economic trends in Florida and what they will mean for higher education. David knew that I would want to meet Blaine.

As the conversation unfolded and we discussed the need to find a viable business model for higher education, Blaine revealed that he had a son at UCF who had experienced both the very large lecture capture environment and more traditional face-to-face classes. He then went on to describe an interaction his son had with Cameron Ford. Blaine’s son went to see Cameron on the spur of the moment. Cameron reportedly said that he had to hurry to a meeting across campus, but if Master Strickland had the time they could walk together and talk along the way. They did.

I do not recall the substance of the discussion other than it was an issue with a class assignment, but from both the look on Blaine’s face and his recount of the impact of the encounter, that one interaction with Cameron changed Blaine’s son’s perception of UCF: a big place became small; faculty became approachable, a sense of new possibilities became apparent and a parent had affirmation of his financial investment. One invite to walk together across campus: little wonders.

P.S. Just in case it’s unclear, Cameron is the puppy in my version of the story, Blaine’s son is Rob Thomas.