This year’s Vision Project report focuses on an attainment gap that we can see emerging and growing as we look to the horizon. Even in America’s leading higher education state, the number of residents attaining a four-year baccalaureate credential lags significantly current demand by employers for those skills, and the gap will grow considerably in the years ahead unless we successfully adjust our course, in scale.
There are literally dozens of exciting and intriguing model programs across our 29 campuses, each worth celebrating for the effort and the anecdotes of success. But there is a worrisome lack of scale to the work, taken as a whole.
I have seen this tendency towards exciting, promising but small-scale and often unsustainable programs addressing major needs throughout my career in K–12 education. I think it may even be more the norm in higher education. Because K–12 systems are obliged to educate all students in their cachement areas and students are legally obliged to attend school until they are 16, system leadership is held accountable across the board. By contrast, higher education is voluntary and students choose the schools they attend. Further, Massachusetts has one of the nation’s more decentralized higher ed systems with most of the decision making taking place at each campus. No one among us is clearly responsible for the sum of the parts.
"There are literally dozens of exciting and intriguing model programs across our 29 campuses, each worth celebrating for the effort and the anecdotes of success. But there is a worrisome lack of scale to the work, taken as a whole."
I would point to three main issues we must face if we are really serious about taking the most promising practices to scale to the extent needed by our Commonwealth. Firstly, we should only start experimental programs aimed at addressing large-scale problems with a plan for success and for failure. Many will struggle or fail—we should expect that when we try new things—and our goal should be as much to learn from our efforts as to hope we find quick success. Programs should rapidly evolve based on evidence and be improved or shut down. Equally importantly, we should define in advance the level of success sufficient that we would not only sustain the program but shift it from experiment towards mainstream.
That’s where change will always hit the real hurdle for scale—to do more of something new in scale will require doing less or even abandoning some of our old ways of doing things. And there are guardians of the status quo and changeover costs that will resist that conclusion. For example, even as we are in the midst of very promising experiments with changing our approach to assessing which students are ready for college-level courses, many campuses continue to use Accuplacer as well and many high schools don’t know that the colleges their graduates are most likely to attend now often value GPA and courses taken over Accuplacer scores. While the period of experimentation is not yet complete, every campus and the DHE should be preparing a plan that we will implement if the experiments continue to succeed where we can rapidly change over entirely to a new, better paradigm. Ending a remediation approach which has far too rarely succeeded and trapped thousands of students every year who never go on to degree completion should be very high on our list of areas where scale will matter.
Finally, we need leadership at both the system and campus levels who are able to provide adaptive leadership where it is needed. Leadership gurus define adaptive leadership as the approach needed for thriving in challenging environments “when you realize that your organization’s aspirations cannot be attained through your current approaches” (Heifetz & Linsky). Adaptive leadership focuses on helping organizations diagnose the structures that worked under past conditions but are now barriers to the changes we need.
Large-scale change and gains cannot happen without adaptive change. What worked to make us the leading state in the nation for higher education won’t alone be enough to support the level of success we need in this century. We need the experiments, the commitment to scaling what works and the adaptive leadership such an odyssey will require. Our students, our society and our industry, together truly our Commonwealth, demand no less of us.