Paul LeBlanc on Equity, Access, and Opportunity for Students [podcast]

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Community Conversations | Season 2, Episode 1

John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE CEO and President, talks with Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University, about his new book, Students First: Equity, Access, and Opportunity in Higher Education.

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John O'Brien: Welcome to another community conversation. I'm thrilled today to be joined by Paul LeBlanc, the President of Southern New Hampshire University. Someone who is well-known across the world. Someone who has been active in the EDUCAUSE community. Paul, I remember the series of articles you wrote a few years for EDUCAUSE review. It was widely-read and very influential by which... I mean, to me. So I'm excited to have you here to talk about your new book, Students First. So welcome, Paul.

Paul LeBlanc: John, thank you so much for having me. It's really good to see you. I wish it was in person, of course.

John O'Brien: We're all dealing with that. I love the book. I love the title, Students First. Actually, one of the best jobs I ever had was as the director of Students First as a project for a large statewide system, and I think we're seeing with COVID as a catalyst students, increasingly being put in the center of more and more conversations. Your book starts off with the story of a student, which is one of my favorite things about the book as students are literally in the book page to page. But talk about that first story, and what it meant to you, and why you used it to kind of frame the book.

Paul LeBlanc: Yeah. I opened with it because it was so critical to my own understanding and learning. It's with a student who I call Miriam in the book, but when I met her, she was, at the time, a single mom from the poorest neighborhood out of Boston. She had a seven-year-old, I think, at the time, daughter who had chronic respiratory illness. Miriam didn't have any social capital. There was no family. There was no support. She was by herself. She was struggling with a low-paying job and she was trying to complete a degree, and when she came to our competency-based program that we didn't partnership with Duet in Boston, I saw her transcripts and they were... She attended both the community colleges that are in the Boston area. And they're fine colleges. This is not a criticism of them, but her transcripts were littered with Ws and Fs, withdrawals and failures.

If you looked on paper, you would've concluded that Miriam maybe wasn't ready for college or just wasn't a good fit. Whatever. But it was not a story of success, and when I asked her about it, what she explained was that every time her little girl got sick and she would get, again, chronic respiratory illness, she would miss class, maybe for a few days, maybe even for longer than a week. She would fall behind. She'd miss exams. She couldn't get caught up, and then if it was early enough in the term, she would take the W, the withdrawal, and if it was too late, she would have to take the F. When we put her in a program that was self-paced, that untethered from time, she actually flourished. She was really smart and she was hard-working, and she said to me what she loved about the program was that anytime her daughter had a flare up, she could hit the pause button without penalty. She said, "I'm the schedule."

What I came to realize with Miriam's story is that there are inequities that are baked into our system throughout, and we can talk about some of those if you like, but a fundamental one is that when we tether learning to time, we disadvantage low-income people for whom time is a privilege that they don't have much of. If you think about it, everything takes longer if you're a low-income. If you don't have a washer-dryer in your apartment, takes longer simply to have clean clothes. If you don't have a car, it takes longer to have food in your refrigerator, and in Marion's case, she didn't have this control off her time, and then think about people who are in retail jobs or fast food jobs, part of the implication of the great resignation that's underway, they might not even know what their schedule is next week or the week after.

But if we say you have to be in class every Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 5:00, I don't know. Maybe I can. Maybe I can't. So that led me on this path of looking at the question of the credit hour and the inequities that are built into it, et cetera.

John O'Brien: There's an underlying tension in the book that, I think, grab a random 10 presidents and they're going to say students are at the center of everything we do, but it feels like your book is saying that may well be in our hearts in the right place but if there's a structural problem with the way we measure are learning and give credit for learning, you're not going to be able to really put students in the center instead of structural form.

Paul LeBlanc: Let me give you one quick example of this. If we were to ask my colleagues, and by the way, with all the right intentions. Nothing disingenuous. It's rare that I meet someone working in higher ed who doesn't believe that they put students first, but then you sort of have to square that with the fact that for a community college graduate with an associate's degree transferring to a four-year college, on average, they're going to lose 43% of the credits that they earned in those first two years. So you can say your students first. You can say put students at center of things, but if your transfer credit policies disadvantages low-income students who now have to pay more and take longer to complete their degree, are you really students first?

If we, as an industry, are failing 45% of the students who start with us creating a pool of 37 million Americans with some credits, no degree, and a record level of debt, are we really putting students first? So I think, as you say, it's sort of in our hearts, but it's not always in our practice.

John O'Brien: There's a longstanding view that higher education has always been thinking of students. For those who have been interested in competency-based education for a long time, there's sort of an underlying belief that competency-based education is great for some fields. Those that really sort of are vocational. Whatever that means, which is an interesting question why we call this vocational? What are the other things? But do you believe that that CBE only really works well for certain disciplines? What about sort of philosophy or art history? Can that be done the same way? Feels like we've been asking this question for a long time.

Paul LeBlanc: I know, and I find it... It's such a tired question in some ways because I think... You use philosophy as an example. If I think about philosophy, there's a reason that McKinsey and other consulting firms, elite firms recruit from the philosophy departments of great universities. Why is it? Because philosophy graduates have some of the most coveted competencies in industry. Right? They're critical thinkers. They understand logic models. They understand symbol systems. They understand language and communication, and McKinsey, and Accenture, and others, they'll pay a lot for those competencies and yet if you ask the philosophy department, it often wants to shy away from actually owning, embracing the claims it could make for its graduates.

So yes, and certainly feels like technology, software engineering, it is perhaps easier to measure competency, and certainly, we measure competency in all the places where lives matter. If you think about airline pilots, and nurses, and doctors, we don't trust their transcripts from college or their GPAs. We make them do a whole lot of other things. But I would argue that the humanities, and that's my background, has actually made a poor case for itself, historically, and we see it reflected in the national discourse. Right? Remember when Obama made a joke about art history majors? He took it back, by the way, and apologized. But in reality, the humanities are actually teaching the hard stuff.

We often call it soft skills. I would actually do the hard skills because they're fundamentally around culture, and human beings, and meaning making, and symbol manipulation, and all of these things that are very hard to teach and that are very, very bad valuable in the workforce.

John O'Brien: So students are in the center of your book, as I say, page to page. The faculty are in your book as well, and I think you're saying that higher education is not going to be able to transform the lives of the students you're talking about without a structural change in how we measure and conceive of learning broken from that old nation notion of time. I think there's also an underlying sense that we also need to reconsider pedagogy itself and andragogy, how we teach and how subjects are taught. Is that true from your perspective?

Paul LeBlanc: Yeah, that's right, and I think... I'm very careful and about to say that I'm not making an argument for any particular pedagogical approach. I think competency-based education is an architectural question. It is not a pedagogical question. When we talk about CBE, which is so central to my argument, it's really asking two things. What are the claims you make for what students can do with what they know? So think about that as a performative question. What can they do with what they've learned from you? And then it's ask us, there's a second question, which is how do you know? How do you assess that?

So now to go to your question, I think when we shift the focus from what students will know and we will presume or infer what they can do with it, that's kind of historically where we've been, we're shifting the spotlight over and we're saying, "No, we actually want to make claims for what students can do and we'll infer or presume what they've had to learn along the way in order to do that." So it's a bit of a shifting in the weight, if you will. But if you do that, then as a faculty member, and I think about my pedagogy, it's going to steer me to things like project-based learning, hands-on learning, real world learning, and that's going to, in turn, steer me to assessments that aren't about getting the right answer because getting the right answer isn't about performance, right?

It's about, "Do I understand how to do something? Can I demonstrate my ability to do a thing?" That's really the rich ground of assessment, and it's honestly the place where we probably lag for this behind. In other words, if you take a look at project-based learning, hands-on learning, workplace learning, we've really done a pretty good job moving the ball down field in higher ed. Right? I think about a place like Wooster Polytech, WPI, and Wooster, really wonderful engineer in a school, has a center for project-based learning that's nationally known. They're doing really good work in this front and lots of other places as well. But on the assessment side, we still rely too heavily on getting the right answer on exams.

We live in a world of ubiquitous information and search. Getting the right answer is easy, but actually knowing how to do a thing, how to get to that answer, that's real learning, and we need to do a much better job on the assessment side. So as I said, if you think about the places where we really care that you know how to do a thing, I'll use airline pilots. It's great that you get a 4.0 from Embry–Riddle, a really leading flight school aviation program, but we still want you to take the FAA exams. We still want to get a lot of time in the simulator. We still want you sitting in the right hand seat in the cockpit under the watchful eye of an experienced pilot captain before we let you move to the left hand seat, and what is that?

That is we need to see you doing the work. We need to see you putting the knowledge to work. We need to know that you can land a plane as well as everything else that goes into taking off and flying a plane. It's all important.

John O'Brien: Given how much we both travel, this is not a rhetorical story.

Paul LeBlanc: No, it is not. No, it is not.

John O'Brien: You've been part of, I'll say, tectonic change in higher education for a long time and you've gone from sort of a skeptical discussion of competency-based education back when, and then everybody sort of continued being skeptical, maybe, but then saw your university grow, and grow, and grow, and become such an influential player. Am I right or does it seem, though, that the CBE conversation has stalled a little bit?

Paul LeBlanc: Yeah, for sure, and I think, in the book, I described this as really being a good example of the Gartner curve. Right? Which is we get this sort of rational exuberance and that's when CBE is going to change the world, then it's like, "Oh my God, CBE just really sort of petered it out." Then if you look closely, though, what you see is, quietly, this proliferation of CBE programs that are going on across the country, and they're a little bit... There's less exuberance. There's less of the sort of grand claims that I was as guilty as anyone for making, and you see a leading institution like WGU. Right? They're as large or larger than we are, 170, 180,000 students. I mean, CBE is happening writ large, but it's also happening at lots of other places in more modest ways. I liken it to what we saw with the MOOCs.

If you remember, when MOOCS came out, we had the same exact irrational exuberance. They're going to change the whole world overnight, and I was like, "Oh God, MOOCS, were they a terrible disappointment." And where are they today? Well, edX just sold for $800 million to 2U. Coursera's worth a lot of money and it's actually expanding and having influence,, and it's now part of enterprise sales. So do they look different? Sure. Are they an important part of the educational landscape? Increasingly so, and I would argue that that's what we're seeing with CBE as well. It will look different, but next week is the big CBE conference and I'll be speaking there, and we will have it educators and institutions around the country come together to talk about the work they're doing on CBE so I do think it's going to be critically important.

The other thing that I think is going to drive this forward is employer demand. Employers are no longer willing to put up with amorphous claims for graduates. They want to actually know that they're hiring people who can do the work they're supposed to be doing, and I was talking to, I think, the second or third largest healthcare system in the country recently, and even in nursing, this kind of example I use all the time. No, they get it right. They're focusing on demonstrating what nurses can do. Even with nursing, they can't hire a freshly-minted nursing graduate and put them to work on the floor. They have an internal academy that then takes those nursing graduates and have them working for weeks with experienced nurses so they know for sure that they can do what they're supposed to be able to do.

Employers are sometimes called the accreditors of the future, and I think they will have a big influence in moving us towards competency-based models.

John O'Brien: So the book is great in telling this story of higher education, putting students at the center. It feels very much sort of both a defense of a career and of a university that has made its mark for competency-based education, and then there's the chapter on the demonstration project that is, I'll call it the wonky chapter.

Paul LeBlanc: Yeah, it's very much the wonky job. I apologized at the beginning of it, I think.

John O'Brien: So yes, wonky, but maybe in some ways, to me, it felt like the center of the energy, in a way, of the book, and it seems to be making a case for something new. So say a little bit about that.

Paul LeBlanc: We're in an industry like healthcare that changes, frankly, pretty slowly because we're a highly regulated industry with a third-party payer. In this case, mostly the federal government, $155 billion a year of federal financial aid. But in a regulated industry, we are unlike music or journalism, which had disruptive innovation almost overnight and change dramatically. Maybe that's a good thing, but if we are going to actually do the kinds of substantial changes for which I call in the book, we're going to have to make safe spaces for that to happen. So Congress has this ability to create what are called demonstration projects, and the demonstration project says, "We're going to take all the rules that get in your way, and we're going to allow you to waive some of them to sort of... We're going to waive those rules for you in a very controlled way so you can demonstrate that there's a better way to do the thing you want to do."

Part of what's gotten in the way of really pushing us towards the next generation of CBE is that all of our rules for financial aid still tethered to time. So we talk about things like satisfactory academic progress, term definition, credit hour definitions, time, time, time, and if we want to move away from that, we're going to need to have a different set of rules to play by. So what I called for is a demonstration project that would actually be based more around competencies, and their completion, and performance. The reason why I think demonstration projects are powerful is, and now recall the example that I do in the book, is that there was one something called the 50% Rule. The 50% Rule said that if you're completing a degree, at least 50% of it had to be on the physical location of the campus.

In other words, no more than half of it could be online, and then there was a famous demonstration project that said, "We're going to lift that cap. You can do more than 50% online. You can do 100% online. That was the first fully-virtual degrees. That demonstration project demonstrated that we could do fully-online degrees with quality and rigor, and it opened the door for what is now common. Right? Which is that online learning at large institutions like us, WGU, University of Maryland Global Campus, and then lots of schools with, maybe not fully online, but lots of online programs. That demonstration project unleashed all kinds of new innovations, and they served us well during the pandemic. I think demonstration project around financial aid for CBE could unleash next generation of non-time based programs.

I think what's powerful about that is it moves us away from thinking about learning as measured by time, how long someone sat with all those variability of actual learning and a lack of clarity about actual learning. It says, "No, we're going to actually measure learning and not time." What I like about this is that if you think about the credit hour, time is fixed. You're getting a 15-week term. We may give you an incompletion, John. You can go a little bit longer, but not a lot longer. Time is fixed and your learning is variable, A, B, C, D, or F, and then in our model I argued for, it's actually the learning that gets fixed and the time becomes variable. If you can demonstrate that you've mastered something more quickly, great. Move on.

If it takes you a year and a half to master the writing competency, well, it takes you a year and a half, but when you graduate, you'll know how to write, and I think there's more integrity in that model in the end, but it's also harder. It's harder work.

John O'Brien: It seems like the book is animated by the idea that online sort of unleash different thinking about education, which made CBE possible as a model to go forward. I mentioned that I loved a series of articles you wrote for EDUCAUSE review, and I've probably quoted one of them half a dozen times. It's where you say that role of technology... Technology allows you to do what you've been doing, but do it better. It allows you to do what we've been doing, but do it less expensively. But then the third part says, "And it also allows you to reinvent what you do. In other words, to transform what we do." Is technology part of what it means to be Students First into 2021?

Paul LeBlanc: Yeah, completely, because I think it does a lot of things. So one is it allows us to free students from the constraints of geography. The idea that I have to be at a place. So if I'm working all day, I got a couple of kids. I'm racing home. If I have to race to campus, maybe eat a fast food lunch in the parking lot and dinner in parking lot, I may or may not see my kids before they're in bed depending on what time my class gets out. If I can instead be untethered from that place, and in our world, our asynchronous classes untethered from a tight time schedule, now I can make learning happen in the ways that fit my life. That's incredibly powerful. That only happen when we could sort of move to online education. Then on another level, when I think about the secret sauce of what we do, it's actually quite human and relational. It's in the relationship of advisors to their students.

I will say, it's say it's our secret sauce. But undergirding that relationship is a very powerful CRM where we're collecting data. We're monitoring student progress. We know when someone hasn't logged in. We know when someone has underperformed in a particular assignment, and that advisor's going to get a flag that says, "Hey, you need to reach out to John and see what's going on." Look, you might just say, "Hey, Paul, terrible week. Work was crazy. My kids were sick. Yeah. Sorry. I blew it on that midterm, but I'll get it together. I'll figure this out." But if instead you say, "You know what? I tried college a few years ago and I wasn't college material. I'm struggling and I don't think I can do this." Boy, that's a critical moment of intervention if I'm going to save you as a student.

I think we have to realize that for so many of our students, it's not about their academic preparation. It's about the emotional, psychological baggage they carry and, oftentimes, this sort of social capital is this thing, and we have to be there for them or sometimes it's, "Hey, my old computer is not working very well and I couldn't get that assignment done." And we get to say, "Hey, can we send you a Chromebook? I'm going to put something in the mail to you tonight so that you can have something that at least will get you through to the end of the term. Let's get you taken care of." So those human... I think technology is so critical to what we do. It permeates what we do, but it's in service of very fundamental human interactions and relationships.

John O'Brien: Yeah. The story we both know far too well that's probably far too more common is that student ends up withdrawing from all the courses, probably getting sent to collections, and now they had started a college degree, didn't finish it and have a bunch of debt.

Paul LeBlanc: That's right. 37 million Americans fall into that pool, and I recall being on the stage at EDUCAUSE some years back and I remember saying to the audience that day that technology is so critical to what we do and too much of higher education thinks of it as a utility. So I just want things to work. I want my computer to work when I turned it on. I want that application to come up and I call it up, and if leaders of our IT operations are not at the table and thinking about IT as a strategic enabler, as unlocking new ways of supporting students and new ways of putting students at the middle of things, then respond during an opportunity. So I think that either Chief Technology Officer, Chief Digital Officer in our parlance is really critical to thinking about how we reinvent the models to be much more student-centered and student-focused.

John O'Brien: So I think I've heard you describe the landscape of higher education using the I word, industry, several times. Are you able to talk that way on your campus?

Paul LeBlanc: It sort of depends on the audience. I think we, as leaders, have to always be mindful that we can get the same message across but our language can get in the way of that message. So for example, even I don't use the phrase customer service in my own organization though I think a lot of what we do is good customer service like making processes seem more seamless, taking the grit out of administrative processes. This is good customer service. Getting back to students quickly when they have a problem, I would argue that's not a good customer service. If I call it that, people will just... They'd get hung up on the term. So we can talk about, instead, student success. If I talk about this through student success, this is a student success imperative, I was like, "Yeah, we got to make sure that we're getting back to students when they in their moment of need."

So my language is really important, and I think, sometimes, I have learned that the hard way by not remembering and using language that's sort of raises the hackles. Marketing is something that no one likes to talk about in higher ed, and though we all market. I mean, what do you think D1 football on a Saturday afternoon is if not marketing? But again, it's an uncomfortable conversation, and yeah, I talk about all of these things, but I have to talk about them in ways that are appreciative of the audience and how they need to understand.

John O'Brien: Part of what makes the difference in the journey after the trough of inflated expectations is how you shepherd the conversation and whether you are able to bring people along or not, and you do it as I have say with the stories of students throughout which sort of grounds the reader in... When you get on the cover of the book, Ted Mitchell, the head of ACE saying, "If you read one book, read this book." I think it's because of the student voice that comes through so loud, and clear, and with authenticity. So you've talked about the one student who framed the book, what's your other favorite student story?

Paul LeBlanc: God, no. It's hard. It's hard to pick. I mean, I think I used pseudonyms in there just to protect the identity of students, but as you know, the student who was going to Rikers, and when one of our staff members was in the courtroom and we said, "Well, look, if we have this alternative, we can put him into this competency-based program, et cetera, et cetera." I think this is spring of the year and the judge says, "Well, what are we going to do between now and next September?" Right? Very conventional notion of school year doesn't start until September. I was like, "No, we start every month. He can start now." And the judge sat back. He's like, "There's a program that does that?" In that very simple structural thing, we opened up an alternative for this young man who would've been sentenced to kind of a hell hole, which is Rikers.

So I mean, there are stories. There's stories of another guy who sort of comes to us as a refugee, and struggles, et cetera, but going to Harvard business school out of our partnership program in Boston with Duet, and there are just these stories that of run throughout, and I think... I was, just yesterday, going back and forth with the woman who heads up our GEM program, which is Chrystina Russell and you've been kind enough to be on the advisory board, John. It's the purest expression of our mission. I mean, almost every one of those stories inspires me and I share some of them in the book, and all of them are about listening to student stories, I think, and really understanding what students need from us and then building educational programs for them as opposed to making them conform to us.

I think, fundamentally, when I go back to that first story of Miriam, Miriam wasn't failing because she wasn't right for college. We didn't have a model that was right for her. Right? We weren't putting her at the middle of it. We were forcing her to experience higher ed in the ways that we'd like to structure it and the ways that make our life easier as institutions, but they don't necessarily work for students in the ways we need them to, and I think that's really part of the learning I did in the journey of this book, in writing this book, and sort of thinking through it. Let me to ask this question, and it's sort of the source of a book that I'm working on now for next year, it's on a contract. So I'm aware of looming deadlines, but this question, how is it these systems that are meant to uplift people so often come to dehumanize them?

We would see this all the time in healthcare. We see it in mental health, certainly. Criminal justice doesn't even pretend anymore, and unfortunately, we see it too often in K12 and higher ed as well. So the next book is really looking at other industries to say, "Where are the example of how people are rethinking and rehumanizing the systems." Almost all of them go back to listening. Don't shortchange time with the people you're trying to serve. You really have to spend the time, and I could give you tons of good examples from it, but it's a fun project, and I think it's a great lesson for us as well. We can't shortchange our time with students.

John O'Brien: Well, I was going to ask you how in the world did you find time to write one book? Now you're telling me you're working on a second book. What?

Paul LeBlanc: That's probably a testimony to the abject nature of my social life and the fact that I was trapped in a pandemic and really couldn't travel the way that you and I are so used to so I discovered a lot of time, and you know in Students First, the book we're discussing today, that's a book that's been with me for a long time and didn't have the space and opportunity to sit down and actually write, and the pandemic, for as awful as it was and it was, it did allow me that.

John O'Brien: Okay, Paul, I'll let you get back to everything else. It's great to see you, and I hope our path is crossing in person one of these days.

Paul LeBlanc: Absolutely. John, thank you so much.

John O'Brien: All right. Take care. Bye

Paul LeBlanc: Nice meeting. Take care.

This episode features:

Paul LeBlanc
Southern New Hampshire University

John O'Brien
President and CEO