REXBURG, Idaho — Betty Oldham has seen her fair share of changes at BYU-Idaho.
She came to this campus in Rexburg as a student in the late '60s and she's amazed to see how much it's changed.
Now the assistant to the president, she recalls that 40 years ago all her main classes were in one building. There was only one grocery store in town and none of the students had cars.
Today, Oldham has bright blue eyes, bronze-rimmed, oval glasses and curly white and gray hair. She's still as pretty as she was in the 60s, but she has something she didn't have then — perspective.
When she went to school, higher education nationwide was much more affordable. Take Harvard, for example. In 1963, a full year of tuition cost $1,520 or $10,564 in today's dollars. The current cost of tuition there is now over $33,700 a year. Even the University of Texas, a public institution, has inflated its price. Tuition at U.T. cost just $100 a year in the 1960s, which would be the equivalent of $695 today. Now, tuition at the University of Texas is $7,630 a semester.
But it's not just the cost of higher education that has skyrocketed over the years. Quality has also diminished, according to authors of the book "Academically Adrift," who found that students learn very little in college today. According to the book, 45 percent of students in colleges nationwide "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" in the first two years of college, and 36 percent of students showed that same result over four years. The authors came to these conclusions after analyzing thousands of students' responses to the Collegiate Learning Assessment survey, which measures gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning and other skills taught at college. After looking at surveys and transcripts of thousands of college students, they argued that students are trying to pursue the easiest course possible and teachers let them get away with this because professors are more worried about getting a good rating by their students and pursuing their own research agenda (which helps in securing tenure) than they are about implementing rigorous course work.
"If we continue on in the direction we have been on with having a much narrower focus and not as much support for innovation and new approaches to solving problems, I am afraid we are not going to have the same quality of higher education that got us to the same political, social and economic prosperity that we had in the past," said John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors.
And while many governors and even President Obama have made it a goal to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently released a report that shows the U.S. dropped from the 12th to 16th place in proportion of young adults ages 25 to 34 who hold a certificate degree or higher.
While Oldham has seen this crisis unfold in higher education, she has also been a part of a college that is bucking those trends.
She was in meetings in 2005, just after President Kim Clark became president of Brigham Young University-Idaho, where administrators discussed how to make the school year-round, thus serving 50 percent more students and saving 20 percent of fixed costs per student.
At that time, even Oldham thought there was no way the university could convince students to come during the summer, which was essential to making the plan work. Six years later, there are nearly 15,000 students on campus during that time.
"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.
Even if colleges do believe in reaching more students, many are struggling to serve the amount of students necessary to meet such a goal as funds from the state and from endowments are lower than ever, resulting in the elimination of many programs. Last year, states nationwide cut about $1.2 billion from higher education budgets, and for fiscal year 2012, there is an expected cut of $5 billion nationwide, according to the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities.
Despite these cuts, and the long-term challenges for colleges nationally, many university administrators are reluctant to change much about the traditional higher education model.
"There's so many vested interests among faculty, alumni and legislatures, that it's become easier to spend a few tens of thousands to keep programs going than to get grief down the road," said Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College.
At the same time, Lewis calls what BYU-Idaho is doing "courageous" and even "inspired."
"It's certainly an example of an institution that decided to think differently and to not follow slavishly the standard and the paradigm of excellence and success that has been defined by what we have historically thought of as great universities," Lewis said.
Henry J. Eyring admits that not every college can implement BYU-Idaho initiatives the exact same way, but says that everyone can and needs to innovate.
Most colleges need to realize that they cannot be everything to everyone, that states don't need every public university to be focused on research and offer every degree available.
"Choose student subjects you can be the best at doing and make sure your incentives align with what you care about," he suggests.
He also recommends that every institution look into operating year-round.
"What would healthcare be like if it only operated seven months out of the year or any other business for that matter?" Eyring says, adding that institutions can offer a higher salary to teachers who work year-round or offer a lower tuition price in the summer months.
He said some have told him that BYU-Idaho only works as well as it does because it is owned by the LDS church.
"You can get people to do this because they are committed to the church," is something he said he often hears. "But no one get into higher education without a high level of commitment."
He said colleges need to look at what they incentivize — is it innovation and teaching or is it just research and personal prestige?
Traditionally the only way to improve quality was by increasing cost, but this can't be the attitude any longer, Clark said. Innovation and technology are the keys.
"You really have to rethink almost everything," he said.22 comments on this story
The problem for many institutions is they tie the cuts and innovations to the economy, but there must be a higher mission and reason to push change and innovation besides economic needs. Schools need to have a mission that professors and faculty members can get behind.
"The only way is to have a strategy," Clark said. "Define who you are and want to be and who you are not. Too many colleges and universities have been driven by external measures of performance and external measures of quality. But it's important that institutions figure out what they are good at and be focused."