Redefining Excellence and Transforming the Institution

The EvoLLLution | Redefining Excellence and Transforming the Institution
Higher education rankings do not adequately represent the factors that identify student-centric institutions; they are based on an outdated ideal of institutions that must change to represent the needs of today’s students and today’s economy.

Since the first release of institutional rankings, colleges and universities have competed to climb the list and invest in the factors that would allow for higher placement, all the while cementing standards to define a successful institution. But how well do these rankings measure the elements that are truly necessary for today’s students and economy? In this interview, Arizona State University President Michael Crow reflects on the importance of student-centricity for today’s institutions and shares his thoughts on how the ideal institutional model needs to be redefined to suit the modern context.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How relevant are rankings when it comes to defining the relative success of an institution in today’s postsecondary environment?

Michael Crow (MC): In general, we don’t obsess over rankings because most of them are measuring the wrong things—selectivity, inputs, the most dollars spent. Rankings would be better focused on outputs, particularly student performance and producing more graduates.

The U.S. is facing significant shortages of educated workers as well as inequalities that minimize chances for success based on zip code. Expanding the pool of capable graduates should be a valued measure of success. Two years ago ASU joined forces with 11 public universities to share best practices, find innovations that can raise quality and expand the number of graduates. At a White House summit, we made a shared commitment to graduating an additional 68,000 students by 2025. Alliance members are already sharing ways to improve student success across our campuses. But the goal here is to improve outcomes for our students, not to climb rankings.

Evo: Why is access more important than exclusivity for today’s higher education institutions?

MC: Many leading research universities deem it appropriate to maintain limited enrollments while excluding the majority of applicants, some of whom surely would be capable of succeeding. Recognizing this, other research-grade academic platforms must emerge that offer accessibility to substantially greater numbers of students—especially among public research universities, which typically serve more first-generation and socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

Moreover, limiting accessibility to research-grade institutions fails to recognize workforce projections that indicate a shortfall of five million educated workers by 2020. The idea that these institutions should pursue a path of producing millions of highly qualified, workforce-ready critical thinkers threatens their current business model.

Lastly, as de facto national policy, excluding the majority of academically qualified students from the excellence of a research-grade university education is counterproductive and ethically unacceptable.

Evo: How else does the institutional model you describe in Designing the New American University get away from the standard institutional model?

MC: Most universities are trying to emulate relatively small “elite” universities. They have become faculty-centric instead of student-centric, and as a result they are misdirecting scarce resources and excluding capable students. Students can receive a quality education at many of these institutions, but they are not designed to educate young people at the scale needed today.

What we need is an alternative vision for American universities that is focused on access, excellence and impact. We need to create institutions dedicated to accessibility and public service that are more adaptable to a rapidly changing world and a knowledge-driven global economy. This new kind of institution has to be able to operate at scale and ensure that every qualified student has the opportunity to pursue a degree, regardless of their background. We see Arizona State University as the prototype for this model.

Evo: What does it take to match the commitment to enrollment with student retention and success?

MC: We have set aggressive targets for expanding access and raising graduation rates and producing thousands of master learners with the mental agility to adapt in a rapidly changing economy. The corollary to those plans is our commitment to continuously improving student success. Our current freshmen retention rate of 84 percent—aided by a powerful eAdvisor tool that helps students stay on track and make progress toward their degree—gives us reason to be encouraged. We also have achieved a 20 percentage-point gain in four-year graduation rates since 2002. Our involvement in and attention to improving the K-12 system will also increase the numbers of college-ready high-school graduates, especially important to expanding the numbers and success rates of traditionally under-represented minority communities.

Evo: To your mind, what are the factors that must be in place for an institution to be truly student-centric?

MC: We look to a future in which universities will be measured based on how their students succeed, and not only on how much research their faculty produces. In addition to touting faculty achievements, schools should expand their focus to emphasize student achievement and completion rates.

The ideas of accessibility and student-centricity are closely related. Our commitment to providing a high-quality college education at a leading research university to as many qualified students as possible is a key part of this. Our expanding approaches to teaching and learning through a combination of full immersion on-campus, digital immersion online and a hybrid of these two is another critical piece of making higher education accessible, useful and capable of providing increasingly meaningful educational experiences. So is our intense focus on solving real-world challenges to both expand our societal impact and give students a chance to make a difference during their studies and afterward. We also are continuing to look for partnerships with other institutions both in the U.S. and around the world to expand the offerings and opportunities available to students. Our new PLuS Alliance with King’s College London and UNSW is an example of our focus on expanding student access to world-class learning.

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Key Takeaways

  • Institutional exclusivity is counterproductive to the national goal of increasing the number of degree holders in the labor market. It’s also ethically unacceptable.
  • Rankings should be focused on student performance, outcomes and graduates rather than inputs and institutional spending.
  • Access, excellence and impact at scale should be the defining characteristics of today’s ideal institution.