Transcript: Dr. Clark Gilbert on innovation in education

June 7, 2019

The following is a transcript of Dr. Clark Gilbert’s keynote presentation at Innovation in Education (a Sutherland Institute event) on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 at The Hinckley Institute of Politics.

CLARK GILBERT: [First few seconds not recorded prior to microphone being activated] … but there is tremendous pressure to replicate and imitate other universities, other institutions, that keep a lot of innovators from venturing out. And I thought I’d just share this little clip as a way of demonstrating what I see happening in so many parts of the academy. I’ll play this, and then I think you’ll see the implications right away. [The Power of Conformity: 1962 Episode of Candid Camera Reveals the Strange Psychology of Riding Elevators]

All right. Now you know a little bit what it’s like to try to be an innovator in today’s higher education. This is a funny clip; I’ve seen it and I laugh every time I see it. But it would be much funnier if it wasn’t so true to life. And there are tremendous pressures to imitate and replicate and make everyone look the same in higher education. I’m going to just give you a little insight to that. In the Church Educational System, which I’m a part of – three institutions, very different strategies, and should be very different given their mission from the Church Board of Education. You have BYU in Provo, which has selective admissions, graduate programs, research faculty, emphasis on thought leadership, and a football team. And all of those things are what is expected of a traditional university. Even at BYU, though, there are tremendous pressures to imitate others in the academy and not be distinctively different, particularly around its religious mission. Then you created BYU-Idaho – and it was interesting – BYU-Idaho was created in 2000. When I was called as its president, I noticed the innovative things they did at BYU-Idaho: the three-track system, the year-round calendar, online learning. All of these innovative  things they did at BYU-Idaho  were from President Hinckley when he announced BYU-Idaho, and they’re in a one-page announcement. That obviously led me to study that one-page announcement very deeply. Inclusive admissions – at BYU-Idaho, they think that’s open access; it is not. We’ll talk about the difference between that and BYU-Pathway in a second. Student-centered university: all of the incentives are aligned around the student. In fact, Clay Christensen wrote a book about BYU-Idaho called The Innovative University. And in this book people would read about us and come study us and they’d meet me at a conference and say, “I heard about BYU-Idaho, I hear you guys are really innovative.” And I’d say, “Yeah, we are cutting-edge at BYU-Idaho. Now this is such a breakthrough idea, but wait for this – we think our faculty should be good at teaching.”

It’s like this cutting-edge idea in the academy, but that is actually – if you know anything about higher ed – it is hugely distinctive, unfortunately, in the academy. BYU-Idaho, it’s unambiguously student-centered, it’s teaching-focused, works on a year-round calendar, and it’s online-supported – which again is going to be different in a minute from BYU-Pathway. Now, at BYU-Idaho, standing in the elevator, where we were facing this way with everyone else facing that way. And the pressure to turn around and face the other way is tremendous.

For example, we’re increasingly getting at BYU-Idaho an amazing pool – we had on average 60 applicants for every faculty position. Very qualified people, very well-educated people, most of them coming out of top-tier Ph.D. programs. And we had to learn how to ferret out of the interview whether they really wanted to be teachers. Because the ethic coming out of the academy is, “Research is way more important.” And in fact even people who don’t believe that get in the elevator, realize they’re facing the wrong way and turn around and join everyone in this. And if I had to look at the challenges for BYU-Idaho in the next decade, one of them will be having the courage to stay student-focused and teaching-centered as a university. Every dollar, every cost, every faculty-time, every measure of the university is targeted at student outcomes and students who come to that campus.

Then comes BYU-Pathway, which is open access. That’s very different than inclusive admissions. At BYU-Idaho you had to have a 2.0 GPA and 17 or higher on the ACT. And they think – and probably rightly so – that’s pretty open. But at BYU-Pathway, literally you don’t have to have a GED, you don’t have to have graduated from high school. You don’t have to have an ecclesiastical endorsement, which is a standard we use in the church to show religious commitment to the school. None of that’s there – it’s “Come as you are.” It’s online-centric. In other words, all the courses are online. The students gather locally in locations all around the world. It’s certificate-focused instead of bachelor’s-focused. Every degree starts with a certificate, and we unambiguously, unapologetically say we are focused on entry-level job placement. This isn’t always attractive to academics who want to focus on the four-year bachelor’s degree, who want to focus on things that reflect their training. But this is unambiguously the purpose of this institution, and we don’t apologize for it, and it makes us different. If you look at this – and all three of these institutions have tremendous pressures on them to imitate each other. Schools in the Utah system have tremendous pressure on them to imitate each other.

I did a review of one university president here in Utah and I talked to one of this president’s deans, and they kept comparing themselves to the University of Utah. And finally, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I’m like, “You’re not the University of Utah; you have a different mission. Stop saying ‘We don’t have to do this; we have to do things they don’t have to do at the University of Utah.’ You have a fundamentally different mission.” But they didn’t want to work with students with lower GPAs. They didn’t want to work in applied fields. They all wanted to be the University of Utah, and it’s insane. We can’t as the state of Utah afford to have six University of Utahs; it doesn’t work economically. So the pressures we can’t afford at BYU-Idaho. You know I get faculty saying, “Well, we need to do some research because it’s part of our professional development.” No, it’s not. Your job is to be a teacher to undergraduates. We don’t need to do peer-reviewed academic research – if you want to do that at BYU-Idaho, you are signing up from the day you start for this institution to be mediocre. If you want to stay teaching-focused, we’re the best university in the country. There’s no – I believe there is no university teaching undergraduates on a residential campus better than BYU-Idaho, and we have tons of measures to show it. So, do you want to be mediocre and join everyone in looking the wrong way in the elevator, or do you want to be the best in the world at something different? And it’s very hard in higher education. By the way, differentiation is strategy, and it’s very hard to have a strategy in higher education because everyone wants to mimic and imitate each other. And if you don’t have the resources of the University of Utah, or you don’t have the resources of Harvard University, and you try to compete using those strategies, you’re just signing up to be mediocre. And that’s the challenge of having a distinctive institutional strategy in higher education.

Just a little more context on our system, and then I’ll talk about what it means for innovation. [Referring to a projected chart] This is BYU – it’s our flagship institution, with investments and research graduate programs and outreach that bless the whole system. Anyone want to guess what that dip is about two-thirds of the way through that chart – that’s the missionary-age change. And BYU realized, well, you can’t bring that up because the missionaries do come back after their missions. So that took a dip. But otherwise its annual unduplicated head count is about 45,000 students. BYU-Idaho is this blue line, and this year-round calendar allowed them to serve more students with high quality at a lower cost. In fact, if you want to look at this from a policy standpoint, from about 2002, the annual operating costs of that university, even though it’s more than doubled, have grown below inflation. So if you know anything about higher education, that is not going on in higher education. So what it basically means is that university experienced that growth while actually in inflation-adjusted dollars its total costs have gone down every year. We could spend the whole day just talking about that model. And then BYU-Pathway comes along in 2009, and you can see what’s happened to the growth of BYU-Pathway with a target to serve students who weren’t being served by traditional higher education. By the way, what percent of Utahns do you think have any college degree – associate’s or bachelor’s? It’s higher than that – it’s about 40 percent. National average is about 43 percent.

And so you have all these institutions built to serve that 43 percent. BYU-Pathway domestically was built to serve over half of the population who didn’t have a degree. And internationally, almost 85 to 90 percent who don’t have a degree. The growth, by the way, up until 2017 BYU-Pathway was part of BYU-Idaho. So when I was president of BYU-Idaho I had both the red line and the green line reporting to me. While I was there, those lines crossed. Our board started saying, all we hear about is this Pathway thing and I’d be out having, I’d want to tell people about the red line. It’s one of the more amazing stories in higher education. But everywhere I went I got consumed with, tell us more about what’s happening with Pathway. And our board felt that too and in 2017 I was asked to step away from BYU-Idaho to become the first president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide.

Now we’re today over 40,000 students; this year we’ll approach close to 50,000 students in over 500 locations around the world. If you look at where BYU-Pathway operates, it’s basically a heat map of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You can literally go anywhere in the church but about nine countries and BYU-Pathway operates. I’m going to just play a quick game; Pathway is an online program for the students gather locally and small cohorts. Anyone want to guess where this group is? This is called “Name that Pathway location.” It is in Latin America but not Spanish speaking. Brazil; this is in Rio. In fact, in Brazil we have almost 5,000 Pathway students. The church leadership there set a goal to take that to 20,000 over the next five years. We are down there all the time. Our vice president over curriculum is a Brazilian who ran Laureate Brazil and Laureate Mexico. This will continue to be a big growth place for Pathway. How about this group? Testing your geosensitivity and awareness. This is the Dominican Republic, in Santo Domingo. I was in Santo Domingo just before Christmas a year and a half ago. And it’s been amazing to watch in the Caribbean – and I’ll talk in a minute about our certificate program – but if these students can speak English and have a travel and tourism certificate – we’re placing over 95 percent of them one year into the program.

Where’s this one, by the way? Africa? No, this is Malad, Idaho. No, just joking, this is Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Just on the other side of the island – if you’ve ever seen an aerial map at night of the island of Hispaniola, you’ll see Dominican Republic on the east side all lit up with lights. On the on the west side, you’ll see a little bit of lights around Port-au-Prince and almost nothing else. In fact, my area managers who work with poverty all across the world will tell you the poorest place they’ve been is Port-au-Prince. And yet, you see the hope and excitement and power of what’s happening in their lives through Pathway. By the way, our international average placement rate out of our certificate program is over 70 percent.

How about this one? This is India, Bengaluru. I like this one because if you look right in the middle, the woman in the black outfit, right center, with her hand on her belly, this was the last night of her PathwayConnect year, and she had her baby that night after the gathering. And she said, “I’m finishing before I have this baby.”

OK, how about this one right here? Yes, it’s in the U.S. This is in Orem, Utah, our largest Pathway site in the world. We sometimes get up to close to a thousand students in the Orem Pathway location. People ask me, well, where’s Pathway growing the fastest in the world? And it’s growing really fast in the Philippines and in West Africa and Brazil, but the fastest place in the world it’s growing is right here in Utah. We have around 10,000 students. And if you – Kim Johnson right here is head of Utah for BYU-Pathway – and if you look at our whiteboard, your head just spins because there’s so much growth happening here right at home. We have over 20 percent – sorry that’s so bleached out it almost looks like you can’t see the state – but 20 locations here in Utah where the gatherings happen. Last year we had almost 10,000 students, two-thirds of whom were female. BYU-Pathway is disproportionately educating women who didn’t think they had access to education or didn’t think they could finish their education.

And you can see the Hispanic enrollment, 20 percent for PathwayConnect – because a lot of the Hispanic students use it for English – and our online degrees, overall it drops to about 10 percent.

Now I want to talk a little bit of why Pathway is growing. We’re less than 10 years old. This year we’re going to be 47-48,000 students. So how in the world is it growing this fast, how in the world did a thing that didn’t exist in Utah till eight years ago suddenly have 10,000 students in it? And we surveyed these students when I was president, when I was at BYU-Idaho we – the first time; sorry, I go back and forth; I don’t know what they’ll send me back to Rexburg to do next – but the first time I was there we started the Pathway program. And I was over online learning at the university, and we said, we need to look at students who never come to campus, who never thought they could access a university, and create a different educational opportunity for them. And so we started out interviewing students who were active – involved in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – but weren’t getting an education. So again, this is over 50 percent of the US church. And we did focus groups with them. When we asked – in fact, we’d read a quote from a church leader that says, you know, President Monson: “Get all the education you can get.” President Nelson: “For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an education is a spiritual and religious responsibility.” We’d read that statement, that’s pretty heavy stuff. Elder Uchtdorf, for members of the church: “Getting an education is not just a good idea, it’s a commandment.” So, we’re reading these quotes where these people aren’t going to college but they’re going to an institute somewhere across the United States. And we’d say, “Do you believe this statement?” “Oh yeah.” “Do you believe this is an inspired leader?” “Oh yeah.” “Why aren’t you going to get an education?” And they’d say, “Well, those statements aren’t for me, they’re for smart people” – and it would break your heart. And in fact, the formal data showed the three largest constraints to pursuing an education were first, cost – they cost too much – second, fear or lack of confidence, and third is, you want me to move to Provo or Rexburg? You can probably talk me into moving to Hawaii, but I can’t leave where I live. And in international places the cost of an airline flight is going to be more than the cost of our degree. And so BYU-Pathway was designed specifically for this population, like its design rules from the ground up. So if you look at cost, it’s meant to be affordable. It’s about half the price of a typical community college. By the way, just as a critique on the higher education system, we can price it at half the cost of a typical community college, and we actually create variable contribution margin for every student we add in the U.S. Internationally it’s subsidized. But that means – think about it – what happens to the church’s support for this program if the variable costs are less than the variable tuition? What happens as it grows, in the United States at least, it costs less and less and less.

So the church pays for a fixed cost, but it’s self-funding while being half the price of a community college. So if you want to understand one of the challenges in higher ed, it’s just the out-of-control cost structure. One university president in Massachusetts said, “We are so committed to affordable education we’re going to raise a half-billion-dollar endowment to subsidize the poorest students.” And I’m like, “Why don’t you just lower your cost structure?” They want to lower price; they don’t want to fix costs. That’s the problem in higher education. If you look at free education as an idea, the problem with that isn’t the good motivation to help people access university. It’s that it takes all of the governance away from higher educational institutions to be cost-effective. So, at BYU-Pathway we lowered the not only the price but also the cost.

Second is the curriculum, designed from the ground up to build confidence, and you can do this wherever you live in the world because it’s both online and supported by local gatherings. This is our degree structure. We start out with a one-year preparation program called PathwayConnect. I’ll describe what that is. This is basically where the students who didn’t think they could go to college come in and build their confidence to do so. Then the very next thing you do is a certificate – non-negotiable – like, by the way, what do you do at every other university in the first year? What’s your first year likely entailing? General education. By the way, they’re all in the elevator, and they’re all facing the wrong way. And I’ll show you in a minute, if you’re serving first-generation college students and students below the poverty level and you wanted to systematically screen out – like programmatically filter out – first-generation and lower-income students and you wanted to have a program-wide way to discriminate, you would start with general education. And I’m not being facetious. I’ll show you the data on this in a second – and then you do an associate’s, then you do your bachelor’s degree.

So on that first year, the gold part, the PathwayConnect part, let me just describe how the program is structured. There are three core courses – a life skills course, a professional skills course, and a college skills course. Now we do teach writing and math, and I’ll talk about that in a second. You do need writing skills and quantitative reasoning skills to be successful, but in most universities, if you don’t have them, they say, well, great, go through this door – it’s called remedial education. And that does wonders for a student’s confidence, right? So, we’re going to do that; the students just aren’t going to think that (a) they’re in remedial program work and (b) they aren’t going to feel like they’re a lesser person for doing it.

So, in the life skills, professional skills, and college skills course, we teach additional learning outcomes including the purpose of education. Why are you doing this? By the way, this is the first time most of them have ever actually paid money for school. And if it feels esoteric and difficult, they’re like, I’m out of here, which is especially true for the first-generation and lower-income students which are disproportionately our students. So, part of what we’re doing through this is teaching why education matters.

Second thing is to build a connection to the institution. I’ll talk about why that’s important in a second. You have to in your first year identify a job skill and a program path. Students who don’t do that in their first year don’t make it to the second year, overwhelmingly. It’s not like a little change in the outcomes. It’s like a two to three X increase of the probability you drop out. You have to develop the ability to learn how to learn, and you have to build some self-reliance and some grit to persist. So, we’re going to teach life skills, professional skills, and college skills. These are woven all through that curriculum as well as quantitative reasoning, which goes throughout the program and writing and communication. Now about quantitative reasoning, we used to say, “Well OK, they’ve got to have math.” If you don’t have some math you’re not going to be a successful college student and the data is pretty clear on that. People who don’t pass freshman math don’t graduate – it’s like 85 percent who don’t pass freshmen math don’t graduate. You have to have that baseline skill. But instead of having a remedial math class we’ll weave it through the curriculum. For example, in the college skills course, we calculate the annual earning difference of having a degree and not having a degree. We calculate the lifetime value of a certificate on your earning stream, and we teach algebraic substitution but we’re teaching it in the context of an applied skill. Same thing with writing and communication. Rather than having your freshman English class where you’re reading Beowulf – and I have nothing against Beowulf, right, I love my general education and we’re committed to general education – but as the Chronicle profiled our program, the headline they used was “General ed can wait.” We’re going to do it in the third and fourth year of college, not in the first year, because in the first year if you do it, students say, “I’m out of here, this doesn’t make any sense, and I’m paying for this and I’m not making a job or making an income?” And they quit.

And so that’s our core curriculum, and by the way look at that gray list here [referring to a projected chart]. And compare this to a guy named Tristan Denley. Tristan’s a mathematician at the University of Georgia. He’s the provost for the entire system. He worked in the Tennessee Community College system before this – and that little fan cluster is actually some really interesting mathematics doing cluster analysis on what predicts whether a freshman makes it to their sophomore year. And it turns out that cluster analysis reveals some things that should sound really familiar to you. Perceived purpose of education – if the freshman doesn’t understand it, he’s not likely to make it to his sophomore year. They’ve got to feel a connection to the institution – in fact the data says they’ve got to know someone. They’ve got to believe they’re capable of learning. Confidence and interacting with faculty staff. Identify work interests. Functional writing and quantitative reasoning skills after the first year. And build grit and persistence. It’s almost identical to our curriculum. We’re just really glad he showed it in this mathematical model. We see it in the lives of our students.

Now the second thing I’m just going to highlight here is bachelor’s degree attainment. This data should make you really mad. If you look at this, this is six-year completion rates for students by family income quartile. If your parents were born in the top income quartile, in 1970, that was 40 percent; it’s grown to 58 percent. So if your mom and dad were in the top income quartile, that’s your odds of completing college; we’re at 58 percent. What do you think it is if your mom and dad were in the bottom income quartile? It’s 11 percent, and we’ve made some modest gains in the last few years but it’s almost a six-fold difference between first and fourth quartile. Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking. The first income quartile ain’t that good either, but 11 percent isn’t embarrassing – it’s morally and ethically unacceptable. It is an absolute ethical failure of the U.S. higher education system to be doing this. Eleven percent of children, one quarter of the nation, who were born into the bottom income quartile of the country, 11 percent completion rate. That means not only have we made them feel like a failure from dropping out of college, we’ve also layered them with cost, debt, and opportunity costs for not going into an employment. So, in the op-ed I did this week in the Deseret News I said, “We don’t have an access problem, we have a completion problem.”

These are the Utah grades; I put us in here. This is BYU-Pathway. On any demographic measure, we have the most risky profile of students of any institution in the state of Utah. We have the third-highest graduation rate. The red line is the national average – I can’t do the state average. If you do a straight-line average, which isn’t accurate, you get about the national average. The national average would be weighted by enrollment. The state of Utah would come in a little bit below the national average, but not way off, so we’re close to that red line. Now I at one point had the names of all the schools, this is their six-year completion rate at all the schools. I won’t spend time going through that. I’ll tell you the highest is BYU and the lowest is Salt Lake Community College. You can fill in the blanks on the rest of these – by the way, they’re all publicly available. You don’t have to go to the state of Utah or to the institution, go to College Scorecard. The federal government several years ago, worried about for-profit universities fleecing students, put this data out; the only problem is it made everyone accountable. And it turned out the for-profits weren’t all the problem. Now I’m not actually as worried about this as I am about another phenomenon, and I’ll show you that by showing the students who don’t graduate from our Utah schools, that’s highlighted here in the blue. Those are students who started at one of our schools in Utah and didn’t complete. So yes, we have a completion problem. Yes, frankly, it’s a crisis. And if you cut this for first-generation college students or low-income students, it’s a disaster. But I want to show you something we’ve done, because we knew we would always have this issue. We are above the national average and four times our demographic profile in our completion rate, but even then I still have just barely half of my students who don’t graduate with a bachelor’s degree. So why should we be celebrating? This is not good for us, we can pound our chest and say, “Great, we’re four times better than what we should be.” This is not good. I’m going to tell you a story and then I have to wrap up.

When I got to BYU-Idaho as president, we went down to Mexico and met with some of our students. This is Jon Linford, our online vice president, and I in this first trip, and a church leader came up to us and said, “Oh, President Gilbert, we love the Pathway program.” And he was really talking about PathwayConnect, that first-year program. He said, “But I’ve got 50 students across the congregations I’m responsible for who are stuck at 30 credit hours. There is no way they’re going to make it to 120 credit hours. What do we have for them?” And that conversation led to something we had in the curriculum, but it wasn’t programmatically structured, which we now call “certificate first.” So I told you we start with a certificate. So we have just around 50 percent get a bachelor’s degree, but we have almost 90 percent of our students leave with something in the form of first a certificate, then an associate’s. And our persistence rate on the certificate is 67 percent. What do you think happens to our students’ persistence rate after they get a certificate? They keep going. We created the certificate as an offramp so I could go back to that guy in Mexico and say, “Hey, we got something for your students.” But what’s actually happened is that they get a certificate; it jumps to 85 percent.

The certificate-first approach is a direct response to this data. Even if we get our completion rates up 5, 10, 15 percent, which would be remarkable for any institution, we’re going to still be looking at the majority of students in the state of Utah who do not complete, and the certificate-first approach is not, hey, you can get a certificate in addition to your degree; the certificate is the first step towards your bachelor’s degree. We have amazing applied-technology colleges in the state of Utah, but they can’t fill their enrollment – a 90 percent-plus placement rate, and yet they can’t fill their enrollment. Because what happens is people say, “Well, you’re going to give me a technical degree and I know I’ll get a job.” In fact, some of the programs at Davis Tech have higher average starting salary than almost every program here at the University of Utah. And yet they can’t get students to sign up for it because – why do you think that happens? A stigma? It’s part stigma, and there’s one other thing: students think that’s as good as it will ever be. And so even though it’s better than it’s probably going to be if they go somewhere else, because it’s capped opportunity, they never start. Certificate-first says, “We’re going to get you a job within one year of college; 72 percent placement rate; internationally, it’s a doubling of income; domestically it takes people from part-time to full-time employment. But if you get your certificate, the odds that you’ll also get your bachelor’s go way up.”

So Utah has some great innovation happening. It’s not all in the Utah schools. BYU-Pathway with an access-focused certificate for its curriculum. Western Governors University is absolutely the most innovative university in my mind in the country. If there are 15 innovative things happening in higher ed right now, at BYU-Pathway we’re doing two or three of them really well, but we’re learning a lot of other things too. At WGU that number’s like 7, 8, 10 of the 15 most innovative things are happening there, right here in our own backyard – 120,000 students at WGU – with outcomes that are amazing, that traditional academia is critical of because they have a different model. Well, let’s just look at the outcomes. What’s the graduation rate? What’s the placement rate? What’s the salary difference after graduation? What’s the student’s satisfaction? Would they refer to a friend? On those dimensions they’re superior to almost every traditional university.

Pluralsight saying, “Forget the academy. We’re just going to train you how to do tech and not give you a degree and get you right to work.” A $4 billion IPO in Davis County. Later, they’re growing all over the world.

You have the coding and boot camps.

Instructure created the learning management platform here in Utah. Seventy percent of all new signups for learning management systems are going through Instructure in the United States.

SUU is doing some remarkable things I wish the whole Utah system would do on counting applied technology college partnerships as part of their curriculum. You have UVU and Weber State working on a dual mission and applied associate’s degrees, but all of these institutions have pressure to turn around and face the other way in the elevator.

Utah is becoming an educational hub, but for it to continue, people are going to have the courage to be different in a sea of everyone copying each other.

So I’ll just close with this quote from Michael Porter on strategy. It says, “Strategy is about making choices, tradeoffs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.” To me, as I look at innovation in higher education, that’s the constraint. It’s not ideas. It’s not even funding. It’s the courage to stand up and do something different because you know it works and you know students need it.

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