UB op-ed: Changing the language of higher ed

How the meaning and impact of words has evolved in today’s colleges and universities
By: | Issue: June, 2019
May 16, 2019
Troy A. LeMaile-Stovall is chief operating officer at the University of the District of Columbia.

I love etymology, which is the study of word origins and how word meanings have changed over time. Here are some intriguing items I found in a recent Google search:

  • Tragedy comes from a Greek word for “song of the male goat.”
  • Curfew comes from two French words combined to mean “[to] cover fire.” (Since I have two teenagers, I can understand how that word evolved.)
  • War comes from a Germanic root meaning “to confuse.” (I will let you ponder that one.)
  • Mortgage comes from a French word meaning “death pledge.” (Amen.)

We continue to use words or phrases that no longer mean what they once did. We have such language in higher education, and there are several terms that need to evolve. This need for evolution is based on these foundational points:

  • We no longer serve only 18-year-olds at a single campus for four or five years until they graduate. We need to serve anyone, anytime from anywhere during their career or life journey.
  • We can no longer assume that the only source of knowledge comes from being in the classroom. Students take in information from a variety of sources, and education is another information source.
  • We must stop saying that higher ed is not a business. We are all multimillion- or multibillion-dollar enterprises. Changing this mindset makes us more aware of the economics that have to be managed to enable the experience we all want for our campus communities.

So, with these three foundational points, allow me to discuss a number of terms and phrases which, unchanged are inhibiting our evolution as a sector.  Let me begin with a word that is related to my last foundational point.

  • Nonprofit. The last I checked, revenue minus expenses revenue better be positive on a fairly consistent basis if we want to be a continuing enterprise (I’m not trying to have an accounting class on non-cash items; work with me folks). The phrase “nonprofit” sends a message about how we supposedly manage resources, and how we manage the talent that manages those resources (more on that below).  And by the way, I get that this isn’t restricted to higher ed, but that’s what we are focused on today.

And the term “for-profit” in our sector has come to be demonized due to the actions of some in the sector. I understand the need to be seen as “separate” from these institutions, but this isn’t the right label for that differentiation.  

I am an engineer by training who went to the “dark side” and got an MBA, so I am no English genius, but I believe these labels limit what we do and how we are perceived.  

The labels “public” and “private” for the “traditional nonprofits,” are used to differentiate how those institutions are funded via government entities (and there is a high degree of inconsistency of that funding from state to state), but why can’t those be “traditional higher education” and the so-called “for-profits,” be “non-traditional higher education” institutions?

To use an economic label for the entire sector minimizes the focus that should be on the underpinning fiscal model actually driving the higher ed conversation today – whether it is per FTE funding, financial aid, faculty and staff salary levels, or debt loads both for students and institutions.  In the end, our institutions have to have a long-term sustainable economic model that is profitable for the institution and the communities we serve.

And the key resource to make that model occur is the investment in our people, which brings up the next term that needs evolution:

  • Human Resources. 

This is another term that isn’t limited to higher ed.  I have been a consultant to some of the largest and smallest firms across multiple sectors, and the basic model I have seen consistently is  – we buy stuff so our team can use the stuff we bought to create a product and/or service that brings enough of a value to customers to cover the investment in the stuff we buy and the team we hire. It’s the investment in the team that is now the focus.

It isn’t “human resources,” it’s not the clerical functions to ensure folks get paid, get vacation, get benefits, grieve a perceived injustice, etc.

Our institutions need to evolve to a more comprehensive view of the investment in our people, our talent – for most of us our single largest investment.  I am purposely not calling it an expense but an investment as we need to see the true-life cycle of these investments – identifying, sourcing, on-boarding, compensating, evaluating, developing, coaching, training, promoting and dismissing/leaving—and their alignment to our institutional strategies.

This isn’t “human resources” but “talent management.” It is an intentionality that makes talent management—and that is faculty and staff—the investment that must be made and managed to ensure we use the stuff we have bought to its highest potential such that our students, faculty, staff, alumni and other stakeholders have the experience that generates the value to justify the investment in our stuff and talent to make further investments.

One last term that extends beyond higher ed is:

  • Cost versus value

In the last section I was intentional in using the word “investment” versus “expenses.”  The same holds true for the word “cost.” We have allowed the conversation about higher ed to be centered on “costs” versus “value.”  We actually do double-speak. We trumpet the lifetime salary differentiation between those who earn a degree versus those who don’t (that’s value) but we then get caught in cost of attendance and discount rate debates (that’s cost).

Let’s start with “cost,” which is defined as “an amount that has to be paid (with time, money or reputation) to buy or obtain something…. the effort, loss or sacrifice to obtain something.”   So, the “cost” requires giving up a current resource— time, money, and reputation—to obtain something (a sacrifice that you “stand firm on”).  

Now let’s look at “value”— “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something…a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.”  Thus “value” entails using one’s principles to determine the usefulness or importance of something (or someone) before determining what resource and how much of the resource to expend to obtain the object in question to reach the desired end goal. 

What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of “cost”?  My guess is “lowest.”  If you are trying to cost something, you are looking to limit the “sacrifice” of your current resource to obtain the something (think about that eBay search and running the filter “Lowest to Highest”).   

Now, think about the word “value.” The first words that come to mind will be different for each us given those words will be based on your principles (also known as our value set) and what the something you are trying to gain has to do with obtaining and/or maintaining your principles.   

The point being value and cost may not be synonymous, and many times are not. Something is not more or less valuable based on the resources (cost) used to obtain it.   We need to change our language to one of value and not cost.

Outdated terms

A discussion of other higher ed-specific language begins with the end goal.

• Graduation: The No. 1 metric that parents ask about (after tuition) is the graduation rate. They want to know that if they make this investment, their child will be getting out in four to six years.

However, we are also serving transfer students—whose first stop wasn’t the right fit or who had matriculated at a community college—and individuals who are entering college later in life or are seeking to improve their career skills. In these and other cases, the traditional four- to six-year graduation measure for a cohort is no longer a valid indicator of value.

The traditional four- to six-year graduation measure for a cohort is no longer a valid indicator of value.

We need a measure showing the average time required for an individual—not a cohort—to attain a degree. That is a measure of value.

• Retention: The idea of knowing whether a student in college for the first time returned the following fall semester is important, but it raises questions. Why do we only use the fall entry portal as a starting point, and isn’t progression to a degree the real value assessment? Isn’t a measure of the rate at which a student progresses from freshman to sophomore to junior and, finally, to senior status the measure that students and their families really need to know? A new progression metric aligned with the completion rate would provide a far more complete picture of the actual value, and not the costs, of the higher ed experience.

• Deferred maintenance: Have you ever been around people who like to compare scars and tell stories about how they got them? Deferred maintenance is the scar we all have, and we all want our story to sound worse. We all have years, or decades in some cases, and millions of dollars in deferred maintenance. The issue isn’t the maintenance; it is the investment required to meet our institutional strategies.

I am advocating for a language evolution that looks forward, not backward. A facility investment metric that is aligned with institutional priorities and outcomes is a far better story to tell over drinks at NACUBO.

We need to find new ways to measure who we are, we must define success, and we have to tell the world about the true value we bring, individually and collectively, and how we are evolving to better serve our communities.

Troy A. LeMaile-Stovall is chief operating officer at the University of the District
of Columbia.