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Higher Education Context

The Landscape of Higher Education: Emerson's Distinctive Place

August 2013

To achieve our vision of being the world’s leading higher education institution for the arts and communication, it is essential that we understand the environment in which we are working. Knowledge of the broad higher education landscape and of the factors—external and internal—that are shaping the work of colleges and universities helps us to articulate strategic priorities, and to develop appropriate goals and tactics for realizing them.

Emerson’s road to excellence and even our strategic priorities resonate with and at times resemble those at other institutions of higher education, and this is reasonable: we are all moving to adapt to the globally connected, fast-changing, economically pressured world that we live in. At the same time, our distinctive focus on the arts and communication infused with the liberal arts, along with our focus on an education that links theory to practice, leads to a distinctively Emersonian way of realizing them. What exactly does this mean? What would it mean to be the best in the world at what we do and how will we achieve that goal?

This short essay seeks to answer these questions by:

  1. offering an overview of higher education today, with attention to the most pressing issues facing American colleges and universities; and
  2. moving from this overview to a more specific look at Emerson’s priorities, our strategies for achieving them, and what success will look like.

I. The Environment for Higher Education

The 4,280 institutions of higher education in the United States include public and private institutions, 4-year and 2-year institutions, for-profits and not-for-profits, research institutions, liberal arts colleges, professional schools, art schools and conservatories (Aud et al.). This is a vast and varied landscape, and while there are some forces strong enough to affect virtually every sector of higher education, they are felt differently in different institutions. Morrill (2007) offered a brief analysis of those over-arching forces, and six years later it is still a useful basis for analysis. What follows builds on his work.

External Political, Social and Economic Forces Affecting Higher Education: This is a complex moment for higher education in the United States. On the one hand, as a society we clearly still have great faith in the power of a college education to empower us as a society and to empower individuals. One of the first things President Obama did when he came into office was call for an increase in the college graduation rate (see his “Remarks” to a joint session of Congress on February 24, 2009) and that endorsement of the importance of higher education for the US as a nation and for individual citizens is powerful. We have record numbers of students enrolling in colleges across the country (U. S. Department of Education, IES, “Fast Facts”).

At this same time, we are seeing significant governmental and public scrutiny of higher education, especially around questions of quality and cost. The question of whether a college degree is a consumer good like any other is in the air (Schuster & Finkelstein, loc. 581), and people want to know what the return on their investment in a college degree will be.

On the quality question, there are a number of concerns:

  • Graduation rates that are lower than anyone would like to see (59% nationally and 65% at private not-for-profit institutions) (Aud et. al, 182);
  • Persistent achievement gaps across racial / ethnic groups even as the diversity of the college-going population increases(Kim);
  • Publications documenting low levels of learning for college students generally (Arum & Roksa).

On the question of costs, there are also a series of concerns that are much discussed:

  • Tuition levels (College Board, Trends in Pricing 2012);
  • Rising levels of student debt (College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2012);
  • Overall operating costs (Davis Educational Foundation);
  • Diminishing federal and state funding (College Board, Trends in Pricing 2012) (these do not have a direct impact on Emerson, though shifts shift in levels of federal support for students do affect our campus, since many of our students receive that aid in the form of Pell and other grants);

These concerns for higher education’s quality and affordability have been discussed for many years now—they began well before the Obama administration--and shape the climate in which we do our work (Ewell 2012). Like other institutions, we need to be able to demonstrate that the education we offer justifies the cost.

The Purpose of Higher Education: Perhaps prompted by those powerful forces outside the academy, those of us within it are explicitly grappling with a fundamental question: what is the purpose of higher education? Is higher education primarily about job training or should it prepare people for lifelong learning? These questions are answered in various ways by various institutions. Perhaps the most comprehensive comes from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which calls for undergraduate education to be a “liberal education,” which they define as an education that develops a series of cross-cutting skills that range from strong written and oral communication to a capacity for critical thought to a well-developed ability to work across cultures in an ethical way (LEAP, 3, 12-14). “Liberal education” defined in this way prepares students for success immediately after college and long beyond, and may be gained in almost any institutional setting, be it a professional school or a liberal arts college.

Student Access and Success: Questions about the purpose of higher education, related to those about its value relative to the financial investment required, do not diminish its desirability. Indeed, the power of a college education is perceived as being so strong that one of the biggest pushes of the past several decades has been to expand access to higher education, and we know how to get students into college, although we do not always deploy our knowledge as well as we could.

Student success in college is the necessary corollary to the access discussion, however, and we need to do better in thinking about and devising paths to ensure success for all students. A recent report from the American Council on Education points to continued and disturbing achievement gaps: “The students who earned bachelor's degrees from American colleges in 2007-8 were substantially less racially diverse than all undergraduates who were enrolled in college that year” (Budryk). These achievement gaps must close.

Student Learning – Knowledge, Skills and Outcomes: Closing achievement gaps focuses our attention on student accomplishment, and on the fact that we want to ensure that all students are learning at the highest level possible. Evidence suggests that—at many institutions across the country—they are not (Bok, Arum & Roksa), though there is robust discussion and disagreement around this point. That said, higher education institutions across the country have responded to calls for evidence of student learning with increasingly sophisticated assessment practices and increasingly systematic ways of using the evidence gained through those practices (Thompson).

There is also a national push to educate students for citizenship and civic responsibility, brought to the fore with the 2012 White House meeting on the publication of A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future by The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, and the accompanying US Department of Education publication: Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action.

Questions about what it means to educate students to thrive in a global society are also much discussed nationally. The “numbers game” approach –“defined by the number of students going abroad, the number of international students and the amount of revenue they generate, and the number of campuses abroad or courses offered with an international focus”—sits alongside an approach that seeks to assess the learning associated with study abroad and with “internationalization” efforts on the home campus (Green, 2013).

Teaching and Technology: Lurking behind all of these issues is one that is asked almost daily: what difference does technology make? In 2001, we had what has been described as the beginning of the “open education movement,” when MIT “decided to put its coursework online for free” (Kamenetz x), and in the little more than a decade since then, online education has become a major part of higher education. At this point, people are looking to technology to make college more accessible and affordable, even as they are asking questions about the quality of education that online education does / can provide. The ongoing discussion about MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – as the latest disruptive innovation (in the phrase of Christensen and Eyring) that could ‘revolutionize’ education makes this particularly evident (Grossman, Kolowich, Rivard).

The technological changes that we are seeing are not just about the delivery of educational content, but about changes in instructional modes, and indeed, in the nature of the institutional frameworks through which higher education is even offered. That there is a value in face-to-face learning is indisputable, but we (all of us in higher education) need to make the case for that value. The online movement is foregrounding the learner rather than the teacher and creating a new type of engaged learning. Software tools, modality, structures and class size all have an impact on the quality of online learning and increasingly faculty are understanding that ‘online’ is not a monolithic endeavor. The alternative to face-to-face education in real time is not necessarily (or exclusively) a fully online degree, however, but may well be a “hybrid” learning experience [source], or even an “unbundled” education– one that recognizes that the discreet parts of a college education can be obtained in a variety of ways, outside of the single institution of a college (Kamenetz, Staton).

Faculty: Finally, any scan of the higher education landscape must take into account the changing nature of the professoriate itself. It is well known that over the last several decades the composition of the faculty as a whole has changed: the percentages of part-time and full-time term faculty have increased even as the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty has decreased, and there has been much discussion of the reasons for this shift (Schuster & Finkelstein). Equally important, the shifting balance among these different kinds of faculty appointments on campuses across the country has gone hand in hand with changes in the nature of faculty work itself. Schuster and Finkelstein note that the once normative understanding of faculty work as “combining teaching with equal measure of research and service” is yielding “increasingly to staffing institutions of higher education by teaching, research, and service specialists” (Loc. 3556) and call for additional research on the effects of this “redistribution in the types of academic appointments” (Loc. 5405). Certainly it is incumbent on all of us in higher education to engage actively with the questions raised by ongoing changes in the nature of faculty work and careers, and to ensure that we are supporting faculty as effectively as possible.

Classifications and Rankings: For better or worse, one way that the college landscape is understood by the broad public is through ranking systems. These have been much critiqued, not least by Lloyd Thacker in College Unranked, who insists that rankings skew understanding in unhelpful ways. And that may be true, but they do have a communicative power, so it is worth understanding them.

In the Carnegie Classification system, Emerson is in the category of Master’s Colleges and Universities (Large) institution, one of 414 currently in this category. This is a reasonable generic descriptor but doesn’t really capture our institutional identity.

Similarly, US News & World Report identifies Emerson as one of 198 “Regional Universities” in the “north,” and assigns us a “score” that places us 13th in that category. This is a good ranking, but again, the ranking says little about who we are.

Arguably more relevant to Emerson are rankings that compare similar departments or programs across the country. In 2013, the Hollywood Reporter ranked Emerson #8 among film schools, for example (up from #9 the year before, and from #18 the year before that).

In the end, though, Emerson’s identity is distinctive. We have some of the characteristics of an arts school, some of the characteristics of a liberal arts college, and some of the characteristics of what have been called the “New American Colleges and Universities,” that are distinguished by their linking of professional and liberal arts education. We are not one of these institutional types, however, but something quite distinct, and while we define appropriate peer groups by which we can benchmark our performance in various areas, our story deserves to be well known beyond our particular niche (where it is already established). Ensuring that it is will help us leverage other opportunities as they arise.

II. Emerson College: Becoming the World’s Leading Institution of Higher Education for Studies in the Arts, Communication, and Liberal Arts

In his inaugural address, President Pelton mapped out a plan to take Emerson “from excellent to extraordinary.” That plan developed from the college’s existing Strategic Plan, from a year of intensive listening and consultation with Emerson faculty, students, and staff, and from his—and our—acute understanding of Emerson’s distinctive strengths and opportunities as an institution of higher learning.

Strengths: Emerson’s great strength lies in the specialized nature of the education we offer. Our combination of disciplinary expertise in arts and communications fields, combined with our integration of the liberal arts, means that we offer an education that simultaneously prepares students for the jobs they will get immediately following graduation and for rich and meaningful lives in which they are always learning. Our six-year graduation rate of 88% is well above the national average of 65% for private not-for-profit institutions (and even more about the overall national rate of 58% -- Aud et. al, 182).

More particularly, we specialize in fields with clear and distinct outcomes – the skill of our filmmakers, performers, novelists, journalists, speech pathologists, marketing specialists, etc. are evident in the products they create during their time here. In this accountability-driven climate, we are well positioned not only to show success, but also to show particularly rich success: the outcomes that result from our conjoining of these specialized disciplines with the liberal arts.

Finally, we have available to us the remarkable resources of the College itself and the benefits that come from the location of our home campus on the Boston Common; from our new Center in Los Angeles, located in the heart of Hollywood; and from our beautifully restored castle in the Netherlands. And we benefit greatly from our ties with other colleges, especially through the Pro Arts Consortium, which develops shared academic and other programming, and through the Boston Consortium, which focuses on best practices, cost saving and quality improvement in college operations.

The Logic of our Strategic Vision: All of our strategic work is grounded in the knowledge that institutional excellence is inextricably tied to the diversity of people and ideas at Emerson, and this commitment to inclusive excellence informs our work across the college (see our website and also Albertine & McNair).

Academic excellence is the sine qua non of any first-rate college. Our focus on arts, communication and liberal arts gives us a distinctive presence within higher education, but it is the level at which we work in those fields that establishes us as a leader. Increasing the size of our full-time faculty while also strengthening support for faculty research, creative work and teaching will make the college an increasingly vibrant community and will allow still more intense faculty-student engagement. Focused attention to curriculum development, especially to inter-disciplinary work, the rapidly changing communications fields, and the relationship of liberal arts to the arts and communications, will ensure that the education we offer our students is not only current but forward looking. Thoughtful and nuanced assessment of student learning, will let us—and others—know that we are achieving what we set out to do, and ensuring that our students achieve at the highest level possible.

Our commitment to civic engagement is a natural extension of our long commitment to education that engages students in the world around them. Our decision to ground that work in the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning and Research, highlights our dedication to the legacy of Elma Lewis, an Emerson alumna whose work in the arts and arts education was transformative for the city of Boston and won national recognition. That focus on our disciplines of expertise—on the social engagement and change that the arts and communication make possible—will lead to our success and distinction

Internationalization is another natural move for Emerson. Our purchase of Kasteel Well in the 1980s signaled a lasting commitment to undergraduate educational opportunities abroad, and more recently formed partnerships with FAMU in Prague, and with the Communications University of China build on that promise. Our population of international students is small but growing: at the undergraduate level it was only 4% in 2012 (up from 3% in 2010), but at the graduate level it is 20% (up from 14% in 2010). At least as important as internationalizing our demographic profile will be the chance we have to internationalize along a number of other axes: further professional development for staff and faculty, development of the curriculum, co-curriculum, and student support services, and—key—assessment of the effects of such interventions. These efforts will sit easily alongside the work we are already doing on campus through our “Inclusive Excellence” initiative.

The imperative to be on the cutting edge is in our DNA (so to speak). Given our current tag line—“Bringing innovation to the arts and communication”—we have announced a commitment to innovation that we want to live up to, and can. We have an immediate focus on enhancing our online educational offerings. We are also focused on developing a means for students and faculty to incubate and develop their best ideas for the marketplace. And finally, we have a longer-term vision for creating at Emerson a “culture of innovation” – a culture that is defined at every level by its capacity for nimble and creative problem solving, the ability to identify and address needs in ways that grow out of our intellectual and creative strengths even as they avoid the slow motion and even stasis that can hold back an academic institution. This culture is already manifested on our home campus in Boston, where we have moved with clarity and speed over the last year to launch work on many of our strategic priorities, and will be equally visible at our new home in Los Angeles, a living and learning center that will provide current students with learning experiences not available anywhere else (including our signature internship program), and will offer alumni and friends of the college opportunities for lifelong learning, in the form of lectures, convenings, and professional certification programs.

Finally, none of our work—that which we aim to do and that which we already do every day—would be possible without a strong financial base. We are a tuition-driven institution and will remain so, but at the same time we are expanding our fund-raising efforts. At the end of FY13 celebrated our best year to date, having raised $6,344,570 (33% more than the preceding year), and launched a $20 million campaign—“The Future Has Your Name on It!”—for our new Los Angeles Center.

What Will Success Look Like?

This is the big question and the possible answers are many. Looking to external measures of success, we will expect to see increased name recognition, increased understanding of our mission and focus, and an increase presence in national and international conversations about higher education and other issues of high public significance.

Looking to our own campus, we will expect to see:

  • An increasingly diverse community that is thriving precisely because of its diversity;
  • An expanded faculty, and enhanced excitement about and support for research and creative work in disciplinary as well as multi-disciplinary configurations;
  • A series of strong partnerships between Emerson and Boston communities, with demonstrable benefit to both;
  • A series of strong partnerships between Emerson and colleges, universities and other organizations internationally, with demonstrable benefits to all;
  • An innovative curriculum that crosses disciplines and incorporates the liberal arts;
  • Strong student learning outcomes that we track systematically and work to enhance when warranted;
  • A strengthened financial base and a strong physical plant.

This is challenging work, but the challenges are of the best kind. We are engaging them with vigor and purpose, and will report regularly on our progress.


Works Cited

Albertine, Susan and Tia McNair. “Making Excellence Inclusive: An Evolving Framework for Student Success.” Making Excellence Inclusive: A Vision for Equity in Student Success and Quality Learning. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Fall 2011. Accessed 8/23/13.

Arum, Richard and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2011.

Aud, S., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., Kristapovich, P., Rathbun, A., Wang, X., and Zhang, J. (2013). The Condition of Education 2013 (NCES 2013-037). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC. Accessed 8/6/2013.

Bok, Derek. Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006.

Budryk, Zack. “Graduates Less Diverse than Peers,” Inside Higher Ed, May 17, 2013.

Christensen, Clayton and Henry J. Eyring. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2012. Accessed August 8, 2013.

College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2012. Acccessed August 8, 2013.

Davis Educational Foundation. An Inquiry into the Rising Cost of Higher Education: Summary of Responses from Seventy College and University Presidents. Yarmouth, ME: Davis Educational Foundation, 2012. Accessed August 8, 2013.

Ewell, Peter T. The “Quality Agenda:” An Overview of Current Efforts to Examine Quality in Higher Education: A Discussion Paper Prepared for the American Council on Education (ACE). Accessed 5/21/13.

Green, Madeleine F. “Rethinking the Bottom Line for Internationalization: What Are Students Learning?Chronicle of Higher Education, March 21, 2013. Accessed July 16, 2103.

Grossman, Sara. “New Research Effort Aims to Examine Effectiveness of MOOCs.Chronicle of Higher Education, June 10, 2013. Accessed August 8, 2013.

Kim, Young M. Minorities in Higher Education: Twenty-Fourth Status Report, 2011 Supplement. Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2011.

Morrill, Richard L. Strategic Leadership: Integrating Strategy and Leadership in Colleges and Universities. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2012.

Kamenetz, Anya. DIYU: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010.

Kolowich, David. “The MOOC 'Revolution' May Not Be as Disruptive as Some Had Imagined.” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 8, 2013. Accessed August 8, 2013.

Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) – National Leadership Council, College Learning for a New Global Century. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Obama, Barack. “Remarks of President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery Address to Joint Session of Congress, Tuesday, February 24th, 2009.” Accessed 8/6/2013.

Rivard, Ry. “Beyond MOOC Hype.” Inside Higher Ed. July 9, 2013.

Schuster, Jack H. and Martin J. Finkelstein, in collaboration with Jesus Francisco Galaz-Fontes and Mandy Liu. The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers. 2006. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008 (paperback). Kindle edition.

Staton, Michael. “Unbundling Education, An Updated Framework.” Accessed 8/23/2013.

Thacker, Lloyd. College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005.

Thompson, Robert. J. Jr. Changing the Conversation About Higher Education. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES), “Fast Facts,” “Back to School Statistics” for 2012. Accessed 8/6/2013.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary and Office of Postsecondary Education, Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy. Washington, DC: 2012.