BYU-Idaho: Leading by innovation

Published: Monday, Oct. 17 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

"The idea 'They won't come,' we've heard and proved wrong," Clark said, adding that if colleges want to save money by going to a year round model they will have to figure out different ways to make the calendar work for them. That could mean offering lower tuition during the summer or paying faculty who will teach year-round more money, as BYU-Idaho does.

Oldham was just a few doors down in the executive offices at the school when Clark established a team to implement a campus-wide teaching and learning method that most people have only seen implemented on a smaller scale — by one teacher or perhaps a department at a university. Yet research shows when such a method is used in class, students develop higher-order learning skills, such as comprehension and critical thinking.

And Oldham was also around when the school decided to outsource their online learning and presented a plan for students all around the nation to access a BYU-Idaho education, thus reaching more students at a lower cost.

The total operating cost per student at BYU-Idaho has risen just three percent since 2000, and in that time, the college became a four-year university and added about 9,000 students and just over 100 faculty. Compare this to universities in Texas, which saw about a 34 percent increase in operating costs per student from 2000 to 2008, which policy makers say was the result of increased salaries of faculty and administrators, an emphasis on research over teaching and increased operational costs.

All of which BYU-Idaho has fought against.

"I am awe-struck at times," Oldham said of the innovations.

But Oldham is not the only one taking notice.

Claremont McKenna College in California is currently hosting discussions on how to possibly create a year-round model after hearing Clark speak about his college's implementation at the Aspen Institute last year. Bill Sederburg, commissioner of higher education for Utah, recently had a copy of the innovations at BYU-I on his desk in Salt Lake City, saying that while some of the ideas would be harder to implement in public colleges, he could see others working quite well. Henry J. Eyring, administrator at BYU-Idaho, and Clayton M. Christensen, Harvard Business School professor, co-wrote a book that came out this summer about the innovations at BYU-I called "The Innovative University."

College presidents at places like Arizona State, the largest public four-year institution in the nation, and Babson College in Massachusetts, with a top-rated MBA program, have applauded the initiatives at BYU-Idaho.

Yet others are a little skeptical of this model, saying that while BYU-Idaho is doing innovative things, it is hard to replicate.

Some, like Sederburg, wonder if students would really come during a summer semester, especially at a public school. "Students are programmed to work in the summer," Sederburg says, adding that the government recently took away Pell Grants for summer terms making it even harder for students to go during that time.

Robert Weir, history teacher at the University of Massachusetts, recently tried a different way of teaching that is more like the new model that BYU-Idaho has implemented, but says "it can be quite daunting."

"American education has been front-focused with the teacher in front and students in the back for so long," Weir says, "and when you start walking out among students, interacting and asking them questions kind of like Oprah, it takes a little courage."

And some critics question the sentiment of "higher education for all" including George Leef, director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy based in Raleigh, N.C.

When the government pushes students who are not ready for college to go to college, he believes it weakens the college experience and leads to credential inflation. Currently, 60 percent of students entering community college need to take at least one remedial course, said Tom Sugar, with Complete College America.

And many of these kinds of students end up in jobs that shouldn't or don't require a degree, Leef said, citing that 35 percent of college grads are underemployed.

Yet, within the next 10 years, research shows that more than 60 percent of new jobs will require some kind of college education.

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