Series – Post 9: Are We Taking the Easy Way Out?

February 29, 2016

Operational Models and Educational Debt in ATS Seminaries
Why do we care? What do we know? What can we do?

Are We Taking the Easy Way Out: Challenging the Status Quo, Facing Hard Realities

In a recent research project, Dr. Harriet Rojas and I looked at various operational models across higher education.  After looking over our research, talking with more individuals, and reviewing the efforts that some schools have made to address the issue of the rising cost of theological education, we have come to the conclusion that schools may, at times, choose to take the easy way out rather than dealing with the hard realities that are facing the industry.

Three Areas of Focus
Put simply, if seminaries are going to adequately address the issue of student debt, they must attack it from all sides: cost reduction, revenue generation, and curriculum development.  We understand that what we are suggesting has huge implications, and there are many unique challenges that must be accounted for in each context.  However, we believe it is safe to say that, at times, schools have been reluctant to make necessary changes.

As stated in other posts, cost reduction alone will not impact student debt.  At the same time, unless we wean ourselves off the steady flow of revenue we receive from federal student loans, our institutions will always be the bridge between education and crushing debt.  We must take seriously the fact that the cost to deliver theological education has skyrocketed in the past few decades.  How are we going to reverse that trend?  Most of our costs are wrapped up in people and buildings, which makes it difficult to adjust costs without dramatically impacting the institution or the faithful servants who are invested in the lives of our students, which is unfortunate.

At the same time, we must be thinking about the ways in which we generate revenue.  When thinking about revenue generation we cannot focus on one aspect of our institution.  We need to think broadly about how we generate revenue, which includes enrollment, giving, auxiliary income, investment income, and other categories that may be relevant to an individual institution.

However, efficient and effective systems that reduce costs coupled with robust revenue generation will not impact student debt unless we include curriculum development.  We need curriculum that addresses this issue.

Rethink Innovation
While it is true that there have been some attempts at change, even modifications that address the topics of cost reduction, revenue generation, and curriculum development, most have not resulted in much change (as we explained last week).  It seems we may need to rethink what it means to be innovative.  Let me suggest three areas that might help us shift our innovation efforts: 1) our mindset and approach, 2) our expectations versus the actual results, and 3) the catalyst for innovation.

New Mindset
Our mindset or frame of reference when it comes to innovation and change needs to be reoriented.  Tackling the issue of student debt is not something that will require tweaks here and there.  We would argue wholesale change is probably required in some areas if we are to have any meaningful impact.  Research has shown that innovation efforts tend to focus on individual components of an organization.  In seminaries, that could mean we focus on innovation as it relates to a specific program, course, or degree.  Other times we may focus on a staffing change.  In each instance, we are segmenting innovation efforts rather than integrating them across the entire institution.  We would argue that integrated innovation, as described by Doblin Group, is definitely required.  At the same time, we need to determine if there is a gap between our expectations and the results.

New Expectations
There is no doubt that schools intend for their innovation efforts to have a greater impact.  The same tends to be true for most innovation efforts across most industries.  In our western context, expecting great things from our innovation efforts seems to be human nature.  Our suggestion is for institutions to think critically about their efforts while they are in the midst of building them.  What is the specific innovation?  Is it innovation or a tweak on an existing model?  Did we do the research to find if there are others already doing what we plan to do?  What change are we hoping to see, and how will we monitor results using real-time data?  Student financial aid and its connection to the enterprise model of a school is an area in grave need of innovation.  We must balance the need to rapidly iterate and fail, a hallmark of good innovation, with the need to match expectations and results.  It could be that reconsidering our catalyst for innovation is the best first step.

New Reasons
In recent years, innovation in higher education has become a very hot topic.  Indeed, the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools has seen a substantial increase in the number of applications for exceptions and experiments.  It may be time for us to ask what is acting as the catalyst for this change.  In our experience, innovation efforts tend to be a reaction to a threat or an effort to get more revenue. We would suggest that institutions should proactively pursue innovation efforts in all aspects of the operation at all times.  More is not a good reason for change.  Change and innovation should never stop.  Jack Welch once said, “Innovation is not a big breakthrough invention all the time.  It is a constant thing.  If you don’t have an innovative company, coming to work every day to find a better way forward, you don’t have a company.  You’re getting ready to die on the vine.”

Next Steps
We couldn’t agree more.  Student debt is not an issue that will be solved and then never appear again.  We must proactively seek out ways to move forward rather than wait for the need for change to spark movement.

To spur us on in this direction, our next two posts will provide several practical examples of how we might move forward in the areas of cost reduction, revenue generation, and curriculum development.

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