Why University Strategic Planning is So Damn Hard

Warning: If your MBTI type includes the letter F, you’re likely to not like this post.

If you’ve been around a University long enough, you’ve heard about strategic planning.  And at some point, you’ve heard people like me complain about strategic planning.  Some typical observations:

  • Too many people approach strategic planning like a five-year old approaches Christmas: An opportunity to get what they want, without any understanding of trade-offs. 
  • The meetings get bogged down in minutiae, where a person from department x or division y gets on a soap box about the futility of the process, or the importance of her area to the success of the University.
  • A camel is a horse designed by committee. (variously attributed)
  • What emerges from the process is seldom strategic, and never a plan.

There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the collaborative nature and shared governance structure of the University.  Don Randall, the former president of the University of Chicago once observed that as president of a billion dollar corporation, he couldn’t give anyone a direct order.

I used to blame the central limit theorem of mathematics: That is, the large sample of people pretty much ensures that the outcome is going to be average.  (Suppose you had a jar filled with 100 marbles with the numbers 1 to 100 printed on them.  If you wanted to ensure that the average of the numbers drawn is closer to 50.5, in general, you’d want a larger sample.)  My own personal preference involves more risk tolerance: Find a couple leaders with visionary ideas, and take a gamble.  Your results are less likely to be average, but more widely variant.  That is, the ideas could be great, but they could also be total flops.

However, it’s recently occurred to me that the more likely reason is that strategic thinking is a specific skill, maybe even innate.  This article suggests it is simply habitual, and while I like the points, I’m not so sure I agree that it is simply a matter of different activities. You can’t learn how to be Wayne Gretzky by watching how he anticipated movement; you can’t become Larry Bird by seeing how he made perfect passes without seeing his teammates. And I don’t think you can make someone strategic any more than you could make me comfortable at a cocktail party of complete strangers.  Coaching me about walking up to that group and joining in is not going to help.  Trust me on this one.

To draw widely from a group of people at the university (or any group) and expect them all to be adept at the core skill required to do strategy seems naive at best, self-destructive at worst.  Wishing won’t make it so.

What do you think?  Is strategy innate? Is it a series of learned activities? Is it something anyone can do if they set their mind to it?  I’d love to hear your reactions.

In Praise of Logic

This is dedicated to Father Anthony Lang, the professor who taught me logic and aesthetics in college.  The two classes combined to show the beauty of clear thinking.

Mount Holyoke College has received a lot of press in the past week or so for announcing that it will freeze tuition next year.  Here’s just one article on the topic.

On the surface, this would appear to be a good thing for students, who have been subjected to rapidly rising tuition rates since the early 1980’s.  And, when something appears to be good on the surface, it’s typical that praise follows for the person (or the institution) doing the good.

So, while the idea is, in fact, good, all other things being equal, the praise is in some ways seriously flawed.  Having loved my logic class and my management decision classes in graduate school (the textbook for which was written by this guy, from whom you should never ever accept an offer to buy a $20 bill for a dollar in a contest), the problem seemed obvious.  It’s this: The problem of anchoring.

The assumption is that Mount Holyoke was appropriately priced in the first place.  If they were, then my argument falls to dust.  But if they were dramatically overpriced, then the praise should turn to scorn for just freezing, and not cutting it.

An example for you: A trustee once made the comment to me that “The administration has grown faster since 2005 than the faculty.  That’s clearly not right.”  Well, maybe.  But there are two problems with that statement: The first is that there is no reason to start with 2005; it just happened to be the first number in the report he looked at.  The second problem is that your implicit assumption is that in 2005 the levels of faculty and staff were appropriate.  If we were 30% under-staffed or 10% over-facultyed (not a word, I know) in that year, then what appears to be an inappropriate increase may in fact be just right.  Or even not enough.

To be honest, I don’t know whether Mount Holyoke was over-priced or under-priced this year; we in higher education really have no way of determining such things.  My data analysis might lend a clue, but I’m not sure it’s rigorous enough to publish. That’s not really the point.

But I am guessing most of the people praising them for freezing tuition don’t know either, and doing so might be like praising Al Capone for not shooting more people.

In a world where tuition is often set by the things we think we need (climbing walls, or lazy rivers), or the tuition our competitors get away with charging, this may in fact be the first, important step. So good for Holyoke; even a cynic like me can admit that not raising it is probably better than raising it.  For now.

It would be great if someone could take it a step farther and set college tuition in a more rational and fair way.  We have a lot of history to overcome, and a lot of dramatic increases to turn back to get any where near that.

What does Illinois get for its MAP Investment?

If you live in Illinois, you should know about the Illinois MAP (Monetary Award Program), which has helped millions of students earn a college degree.

And you should know that almost every year, someone suggests that the funding should be removed from private universities, which they apparently think of as bastions of the wealthy.  So, in response, a couple of things:

First, MAP Awards.  Take a look at the data for yourself.  When you go to the dashboard, it’ll look like this:

I’d suggest you start by filtering out the community colleges, so that you’re comparing four-year private colleges to four-year public colleges and universities.  What you’ll notice along the top is a couple of things: First, the number of students who receive MAP is about proportional at private and public four-year colleges.  More important, look at the employment numbers (far right) and you’ll see the economic impact of the MAP Investments each year.  Compare this expenditure (total MAP awards) to total jobs.  Then ask where the state gets any better return on its money, both in terms of economy and educated citizenry.

And, in case you’re interested, you can see the mean family income of the recipients for each individual college in Illinois.  Surprised that the publics and privates are so similar? You shouldn’t be.

This made me wonder about studies I remember from Minnesota and Ohio that showed median family incomes of students at public institutions in those states were actually higher than at private institutions.  Look at this chart from for instance from the report by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education:

So, of course, I looked at IPEDs Data.  And came up with this.  Take a look at the whole visualization here (instructions on the site).  And prepare to be surprised.

IPEDS 2011

I’ve updated my IPEDS Data Visualization.  I am never completely happy with it, but I think this does a nice a job of showing important information in a concise manner.

But it takes a few minutes to learn how to use it.

When you click on the link, you’ll go to a page that looks like this:

College Admission Data

First, the data shown: The red label indicates the college or university. The grayish bar shows the freshman admit rate, sorted from lowest to highest (left-to-right).  On that same lower pane is the six-year graduation rate for that institution, shown as a orange diamond.

On the top panel are SAT and ACT scores of enrolling freshmen, shown as math and reading (SAT) 25th and 75th percentiles  and composite score (ACT), also shown as 25th and 75th percentiles.  That means that if you lined enrolling freshmen students up from lowest to highest, a quarter would be below the 25th percentile, and a quarter would be above the 75th percentile.  The rest would be in the middle 50%.

Note that when you hover over a bar, a box pops up, with all sorts of good data, like this:

This is what happens when you hover over a bar

Right now, it’s important to note that IPEDS data is not adjudicated.  I know there are some mistakes in here, either caused by human or technical errors, or even, willful deception.  It happens, so don’t place any bar bets on this data being correct.  If you work at a college and you see mistakes, talk to the person who fills our your IPEDS Surveys.

With regard to interaction, you’ll find that you get better insight into the data if you filter to look at smaller sets.  That’s what the boxes on the right side panel are for.  You can seek a particular college by typing its name in…try Harv just to see what I mean (and you know you want to anyway…).  Just backspace out to get back to normal.

You must choose either public or private, and a region.  You can also choose urbanization, selectivity ranges, or state (but note that these last three are driven by other filters.  For instance, if you choose “New England” you won’t be able to choose “Iowa” because it’s in the Plains group.  Got it?

Give it a go.  Click here to get started.

The Myth of “Need Blind Admissions” and “Meeting Full Need”

I like Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s blog The College Solution, because Lynn does a nice job of pulling out data and looking at things objectively.  I think we need more of that.

But a recent post of hers pointed out to me how frequently we use terms in higher education that are disingenuous, and how data can be misleading: Click here to read Lynn’s post about the colleges and universities that meet full need.  Think about it a little, then come back.

It’s true that these institutions do a great job of funding poor students they admit.  The problem appears to be that they don’t admit many of them in the first place.  This is the myth of need-blind admissions: All these institutions (I think) claim to be need blind, but when they make admissions decisions, they only pay attention to the income part of low-income, not the residual effects.  If you use SAT or ACT; if you favor students who have lots of AP courses; if you effectively reward expensive test-prep programs; or even if you prize activities that can only be mastered if you have lots of time because you don’t have to work, you’re overlooking a lot of things that come with being poor, or even middle-class.  Need blind admissions is a nice, noble-sounding term. It’s not so pretty in reality.

What also shows up is that these institutions tend to be fairly well-resourced, yet enroll far fewer low-income students than other, less wealthy colleges and universities.  So, the double whammy is this: They could afford to support many more low-income students if they wanted to.

As you might expect, I went to Tableau and the IPEDS data sets from 2010.  And I created this visualization.  I kept it really simple to drive home the point.  If you don’t want to go to the live visualization, here is a screenshot of it:

The x-axis shows institutional wealth: The farther to the right, the wealthier an institution is (using net assets per student). The y-axis shows percent of students receiving Federal Aid. The lower you are, the richer your student body is.  Note that the y-axis bottoms out at 30%.

The bubble is sized by the percentage of the student body that is African-American or Hispanic; and it’s colored by group: Red bubbles are those institutions that meet full need; while blue bubbles are a set I work with frequently: Large Catholic Universities that do not claim to meet full need. BC and Georgetown are red, as they were on the “meet-need” list.

Note that the institutions that “Meet Need” have very few students with need, in general. And they are, ironically, the institutions who would have the means to support more of them, should they choose to do so. Strike you as ironic?

Stop Talking About Disruption in Higher Education

In the past several years, an idea has taken hold among many, many people in and even outside of higher education: The prediction that disruption for our industry is just around the corner.  The idea has been a hot one in business for a while, as you know if you read Harvard Business Review.  Clayton Christensen fancies himself as the next Michael Porter, and beats his one-note song at every chance he gets.  I liked his Blue Water Strategy concept, but disruption was a tired idea a long time ago.  And I’m not sure it’s applicable to higher education at all.

It’s not that the concept of disruption is invalid, of course; disruption is otherwise known to laymen as innovation (although old, common words are never as sexy as new ones, of course). Clearly, being able to zig when everyone else is zagging has made a lot of people wealthy.  Bill Gates disrupted a new industry by realizing the money was in software, not hardware; Steve Jobs making aesthetics and experience the thing changed how we thought about machines; and Google giving away services in exchange for information seemed an impossible business model.  All brilliant, in retrospect, of course.

But disruption works best when there are a few, major players in an industry.  And it works best when one person–a true visionary–can be the philosopher king.  Don Randel, former president of the University of Chicago, famously remarked that despite being in charge of a billion dollar corporation, he couldn’t give anyone a direct order. Higher education is neither small nor friendly to autocratic management, and if we know one thing, it’s this: When governments attempt to impose disruption (Net Price Calculators, anyone?), the vision–if there ever was one–gets lost in politics.

Clearly, change in every industry takes hold, eventually.  No one who went to medical school in the 70’s or 80’s could have anticipated that they’d be co-prescribing drugs with an insurance company.  There was no day in the auto industry when robots took over for humans; it happened over a long period of time.  There were still elevator operators working long after elevators got push buttons; there are still many working in IT diligently creating “reports” despite the fact that self-service BI is growing rapidly.  And even though we’ve witnessed seismic shifts in technology and communications, college admissions is still dominated by personal interaction.

But humans are strange; they tend not to change things in anticipation of what will be.  Instead, they react to what is (those who are the outliers are the disruptive, of course).  And given that many decisions about how things get done on a university campus require consent of a large body of faculty (a group of people proud that education has changed little since 1500), change won’t happen over night.  (As an aside, I’ve always felt that the central limit theorem, in which a large sample pretty much ensures central tendency, or “average” results, is why nothing astonishing ever comes from a large committee).  Even if it does change dramatically at a few places, it will still take a while to trickle through the thousands of institutions of higher education in the nation.

(Ironically, the places that could institute disruption–Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale–are least likely to do so.  Budget surpluses that are larger than almost every university’s operating budgets make them a little too comfy.)

So, rather than disruption, let’s talk about punctuated equilibrium, a term popularized by Eldredge and Gould, that suggests evolution (in their case, real evolution) goes for long periods of time in stasis, with little change, but then sees things move rapidly over short periods of time.  I think it’s a far more reasonable way to think about change in higher education: Not expecting a sudden, dramatic, sweeping change; but rather fairly dramatic, incremental changes at periodic intervals that collectively make a difference.

Unlike disruption, we can see punctuated equilibrium coming.  We have lots of examples of it.  And almost everyone anticipates more of it.  So, can we change our language?

What do you think?

Can SAT Fibbing Make Students Happier?

As I continued to think about the Claremont McKenna “scandal” and the attention it  has received (including, of course, from me), some things occurred to me, not the least of which is my gut instinct that there’s no way this was pulled off by one person acting alone.  Maybe more about that later. But if you’re interested, here is a visualization of how the scores were altered,

First, in case you didn’t know, many variables in higher education are tightly tied together: A college with low admit rates has higher graduation rates, for instance.  This is due to selection effects more than treatment effects, despite the implicit claims to the contrary by the colleges with high graduation rates.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote a little about the difference between the two:

Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful.

In other words, selective institutions merely admit those most likely to graduate.  But I digress in making this point…

Suppose you really wanted a particular car.  You did your research, and you found out that although the average list price is $45,000, the average person actually paid $43,000.  Armed with this information, you go to the dealer and negotiate a price of $42,500 and free oil changes for a year.  You feel good–even better than you might have just by purchasing a new car–because you managed to achieve something others haven’t.  You are thrilled: You have a new car AND you saved some money.

But later, you learn that the data you looked at was wrong.  In reality, the average price buyers paid was $41,500.  And you learn that the data you were looking at were planted by the manufacturer.  How do you feel?

You know how you feel: Duped and stupid, and you don’t like your new car so much any more.  This, despite the fact that the car is exactly the same as it always was.  All that has changed is your perception, based on the value you now think you received, or in this case, the value you did not receive.

Now, a similar example: You are looking at College X, and note that the median SAT score is 650 V and 650 M, or 1300 total.  Because you went to an American high school and don’t understand statistics, you fail to understand that this means exactly half the students enrolled are above that line, and half are below: Median is just a midpoint.

But even if you did understand that, you’d think (and would probably be right) that your scores of 620/630 put you at a decided disadvantage.   Still, you apply, and amazingly, you’re admitted.  You didn’t get any merit aid, of course, because you are below average.  But hey, you got into a school with median test scores higher than yours.  You did it.  You are very pleased with yourself.

If you never learn that the actual median score at College X was actually 600/600, you are likely to become a happy alumnus.  You are, after all, someone who got in despite those scores, and you proved those scores wrong.  The pumping of your ego continues, blissfully unabated.  You, and perhaps 25% of your classmates, are happier than you have a right to be.

Suppose, however, in your junior year you learn the truth.  The real scores are revealed.  You were above average, you were lied to and your decision was influenced by the perception that you had pulled off quite the accomplishment in getting admitted.  How do you feel now?

And how do you feel about turning down the other college to which you were admitted: The one with a real median score of 630/620 (where you were average) and where you got some merit scholarship money?

Perhaps there is some value in lying about test scores, provided you can keep the lie going for perpetuity.  But as the old saying goes, the easy part about telling the truth is that you only have to remember one story.  It’s better, I think, to be honest.

The real tragedy, of course, is our national obsession with test scores; they do have some value, but they were never intended to be used the way they are today.  In this case, it appears one obsession is feeding another.  And it’s not good for anyone.