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E Kamakani Hou higher education summit

Dennis Jones on Making Higher Education More Productive

Billing himself as Dr. Doom, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems President Dennis Jones said he was at the summit to provide the bridge between goals, expectations, reach and vision and “the dirty work” of getting things done.

Watch the video of his presentation below.

Summarized highlights: Higher Education Must Be More Productive

“The bottom line,” Jones emphasized, “is that lack of resources is not an excuse for not making progress.”

Productivity, a word rarely uttered in polite educational society five years ago, is the key, he said—getting more degrees and certificates from the higher education enterprise with the resources that can be made available. “Another way of looking at that is how do we increase outputs, reduce costs, without reducing either access or quality.”

The University of Hawai‘i can’t meet the goals set out by President Greenwood without taking many more students into the enterprise and making them successful, he said. But you can’t do that by backfilling with tuition dollars, or becoming more successful with fewer students, he stressed. The objective is more graduates (although a higher graduation rate is part of the answer.)

Revisiting data presented by UH Vice President Linda Johnsrud on the rapidly increasing educational levels in other countries and while educational levels fall in the United States, Jones pointed out that the U.S. must educate a both young population and a replacement workforce for the retiring baby boomers, making the lifelong learning opportunities more important here.

Reaching Hawai‘i’s goal requires educating 30,400 more citizens by 2020 than the current level of production, he said. Holding tuition constant and doing business as usual, that would take 34 percent more money in constant dollars to fund the increased—$750 million dollars in total. With a lower taxbase and higher tax rate relative to other states that’s not likely, which is why it’s very much in the university’s interest to expand the economy of the state.

Conversely, doing business as usual and holding state funding constant would require increasing tuition by 50 percent at UH Manoa, 74 percent at UH West O‘ahu and UH Hilo and 83 percent at the UH community colleges to serve increasing numbers of students.

“States can’t afford to lag in their stock of education or human capital,” he said. “States can’t afford to create human capital under the cost structure of business as usual. So the thing that has to change is business as usual. That means to me, in the language that I use, that productivity has to improve.”

Postpoing the issue isn’t the answer, either, he added. Employment recovery always lags economic recovery; state tax collections lag economic growth; and funding for higher education lags state tax revenue recovery, coming after other priorities. Recessions driven by the collapse of financial institutions take a long time to recover from. “There’s not a state in the United States that does not have a structural deficit,” which means none can continue funding at a current services level with the tax structure they have.

Is there room for improved productivity in Hawai‘i? Yes, Jones said; the question is how to get there.

Compared to the rest of the country, Hawai‘i spends more per degree produced and more per full time equivalent student; even adjusting for higher cost of doing business in the islands, Hawai‘i is in the middle of the pack, Jones pointed out.

Jones outlined four approaches to improving productivity—

  • Build cost effective systems: Align capacity with priorities, as UH has begun to do, and continue to improve collaboration between institutions. Confront the cost of benefit packages.
  • Change the way that education is delivered: Create programs of cost effective size, such as by using technology to bundle small classes in various locations. Involve faculty in rethinking curricula to teach what’s needed, reducing excessive credit requirements without reducing content. Consider the University of Phoenix model (narrow curriculum with few choices) or Western Governors University (competency based programs).
  • Reduce the demand that each student places on the system: P–20 is a good first step in reducing need for remediation. Accelerate learning; minimize rework. Consider changes to academic policy about when drops and adds can occur. Give credit for what students already know through credit by exam, portfolio assessment or other options, particularly for adult learners.
  • Patch the leaks in the pipeline: Pay attention to student support systems. For example, Western Governors University assigns a case manager, one person who sticks without a student throughout their career helping deal with the all of the things that get in the way of success.

The good news, Jones said, is that there are good examples of these things being done. “The question then makes it a question of will, not of knowledge. If the political will is there, then you have yourself a doable agenda,” he said, calling on Hawai‘i to strike a new relationship between higher education and the state “that lets you say ‘here are the goals we all agree on, here’s how we know if we’re making progress, and now can you give us the autonomy and the freedom to in fact drive ourselves to those solutions without the you’re telling us how to do it.’

“I’ve been around here long enough to know that that’s a major unfilled agenda.”


About Dennis Jones

Dennis Jones headshot

President of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Dennis P. Jones has been a member of the NCHEMS staff since 1969. He has more than 40 years of experience in research, development, technical assistance and administration in higher education management and policy-making. As NCHEMS president since 1986, he has led the organization in the development and promulgation of information-based approaches to policy-making in higher education.

Jones is widely recognized for his work in developing public agendas to guide state higher education policy-making; developing financing, budgeting and resource allocation methodologies for use at state and institutional levels; linking higher education with states’ workforce and economic development needs and developing and using information to inform policy-making. He has written many monographs and articles on these topics; presented his work at regional, national and international conferences; and consulted with hundreds of institutions and state higher education agencies on management issues of all kinds.

A graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he served as an administrator in business and institutional planning there for eight years prior to joining the NCHEMS staff. He has served as an advisor to the U.S. secretary of education, Lumina Foundation for Education, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and to numerous other associations, policy organizations and state agencies.