NEJHE Executive Editor John O. Harney had the chance to catch up with Lasell College President Michael Alexander about the small Newton, Mass. college’s plans to challenge the higher education business model.
Harney: NEJHE recently published a piece on how data on colleges in NEBHE’s 2018 Guide to New England Colleges & Universities—namely their acceptance rates, percentage of freshmen in top 25% of their high-school class and student-to-faculty ratio—can be calculated to determine value, which can be compared with actual price. You were concerned by the Guide’s use of “published price,” compared with “net prices” and the use of the term “value” in the analysis. Can you elaborate?
Alexander: With regard to the concept of value, I think of it this way: Value equals Quality divided by Cost, where Cost is the net out-of-pocket cost a student or family must pay for an education. The published cost is irrelevant. Only the very wealthy families pay it, and it varies widely by institution; whereas, net cost has much less variability among institutions—the average net cost per student is clustered around $25,000 to $30,000 for private institutions. To give one an idea of how deceiving the published cost is, consider that two of the three lowest net cost colleges in the Boston area are Harvard and MIT. Quality means the quality of the students’ academic and personal experience. Input statistics such as acceptance rates, high school grade point average and SAT scores do not determine quality, except as they reflect the peer effect of learning from fellow students. Better measures of quality would be the amount of intellectual and personal growth from matriculation to graduation, and the degree to which students obtain desired learning outcomes.
Harney: Tell me about your work with similar independent colleges to experiment with new business models?
Alexander: Lasell College was a founder and is still the organizer of the Lower Cost Models for Independent Colleges consortium (LCMC). We began LCMC as a response to a looming set of external factors: falling family real income; severe reductions in state support for higher education; and demographic changes, including a long-term decline in the number of high school graduates. It adds up to families finding it increasingly difficult to pay for college. Started in June 2015 and formalized in January of 2017, the LCMC comprises 19 small- to medium-sized independent colleges from New England to California and has two objectives. One is to support each other’s experiments with new, lower-cost models through constructive criticism, moral support, advice on overcoming impediments and sharing data from assessment of those experiments. The second is to develop collaborative programs, sharing development and delivery costs, in order to lower the cost per student in hopes we can eventually pass those savings onto the students. Two collaborative programs are currently in development: one, set of courses that would prepare students to take the exam to become Certified Financial Planners and two, the fundamental set of courses that students would take in a computer science or information technology major. The LCMC has received grants from the Davis Educational Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Harney: How about your “sophomore alternative semester”?
Alexander: At Lasell, we have for two years run a pilot project, the Sophomore Alternative Semester, in which rising sophomores in good academic standing have the option of living off campus, working at a paid, part-time job, taking five prescribed online courses, and paying approximately 35% of the normal tuition rate. For most students, the out-of-pocket savings for one semester ranged between $8,000 and $12,000. This pilot was the precursor to our newest lower-cost initiative, Lasell Works.
Harney: Tell me a bit about “Lasell Works” ….
Alexander: Sophomore Alternative Semester was an option for students already enrolled at Lasell. Lasell Works is an expansion and variation on that theme. Students will choose to enter the Lasell Works program when they enroll. It features a declining tuition rate each year after the first year. Instead of the normal tuition hikes from year to year, students in Lasell Works will see their tuition reduced $4,000 in the second year, $8,000 in the third year, and $10,000 in the fourth year for a total reduction of $22,000 in the published tuition rate. Actual savings will depend on each student’s financial aid situation, but we are guaranteeing that their net out-of-pocket costs will go down each year. Lasell Works is a professionally oriented program. Students will live off-campus for the entire sophomore year, work at a paid job 16–20 hours per week, and take five online courses per semester. One course in each semester will be aligned with the work experience. The others will be courses sophomores are required or likely to take. The college will save money on course delivery because the students are not on campus, and will pass that savings on to students through the declining tuition rate. The students should come out of the program more prepared to enter the workforce, with a deeper resumé (from the Lasell Works experience, plus one or two internships), and more cognizant of what it takes to be successful in the world or work. The first cohort of students will enter the Lasell Works program in the fall of 2018.
Harney: How does your recent agreement with Major League Lacrosse come into play?
Alexander: Major League Lacrosse (MLL) and Lasell recently announced an affiliation through which Lasell will become the first preferred internship partner of MLL and will offer discounted tuition rates to current MLL players and employees who wish to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees. Our expectation is that Lasell will also become a source of future MLL employees.
Harney: I was always intrigued by the intergenerational Lasell Village activity. How does that fit in the bigger picture?
Alexander: Lasell Village is a premier continuing care retirement community at Lasell College, which is unique among retirement communities throughout the world. Why? Because residents are required to engage in a minimum of 450 hours per year of educational coursework or activities. That requirement makes the Village a much livelier and interactive place than other communities. It also results in an extraordinary amount of intergenerational activity between residents of the Village on the one hand, and students and faculty of the college, on the other. We also have two early childhood education programs at Lasell, so we sometimes like to brag that we educate students from the age of five months to 103 years old.
Harney: Lasell has also earned support for its initiative for teachers of color, right?
Alexander: Under the leadership of Associate Professor of Education Claudia Rinaldi, the Pathways to Teacher Diversity (PTD) program was launched at Lasell thanks to an initial $50,000 grant provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Lasell was one of four schools in the state—and the only private college—to receive this grant. The program is intended to help address the lack of diversity in the state’s teaching pool, which is 90% white and not reflective of today’s student population, which is approximately 40% nonwhite. What sets PTD apart is its approach. Working with high schools and one middle school in four districts, the program seeks to identify students of color who may be interested in pursuing a teacher preparation program in college. These students are invited to Lasell’s campus, partnered with our undergraduate education majors, and given the opportunity to cross register into introductory teaching classes. Dr. Rinaldi also built into the program a college counseling service to ensure that these students have the information and tools needed to transition successfully to college. The importance of this work cannot be overstated, because we have a developing shortage of teachers in Massachusetts, caused by a wave of retirements. As a testament to this initiative, Lasell recently secured an $800,000 grant from the Flatley Foundation to provide scholarships to Massachusetts students coming here to pursue a degree in education.
Harney: And how about the resort and casino internships?
Alexander: Lasell has one of only three bachelor’s degree programs in Resort and Casino Management in the country, and the only one east of the Mississippi. It is therefore natural that we would develop affiliations with Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and with Wynn Resorts, currently in the midst of building a major resort in Everett, Mass. These affiliations call for internship and field experience opportunities for Lasell students, industry input into Lasell’s curriculum, Lasell educational opportunities for industry employees (including on the work site), and a source of trained new employees for the companies.
Harney: Does Lasell have any changes in mind considering the controversies surrounding Wynn Resorts?
Alexander: Lasell is committed to providing a safe and welcoming community for its students and employees, and we do not tolerate sexual discrimination, harassment, misconduct or assault in any form. We were shocked by the allegations and are closely monitoring the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) as they conduct their investigation and determine the suitability of Wynn Resorts to maintain the gaming license going forward. The investigation’s findings, which MGC promises will be comprehensive, are likely to influence our decision making.
Harney: You were recently appointed to the New England Board of Higher Education … what do you see as the promise of interstate, regional collaboration?
Alexander: In this challenging environment, where families are finding it harder than ever to pay for high-quality higher education and where the number of high school graduates will continue to fall for many years to come, it behooves all institutions to find ways to lower their costs and pass those savings onto students and their families. There are only so many ways to lower costs: build economies of scale; collaborate with other institutions to save money or to improve services without increasing cost; develop new lower cost business models; or teach in wholly different ways than we have been for thousands of years, since the time of Socrates. An example is EdHealth, a collaboration of colleges that each self-insure their medical health plans for employees, and pool their risk management to protect each other against high claims. At Lasell, participation in EdHealth resulted in improved coverages for employees without increasing the premiums employees paid, for more than four years. EdHealth started out as a partnership of Massachusetts colleges, but has now added an institution from Rhode Island and has just started talking with colleges from other states. For colleges and universities, innovative collaborations like EdHealth—or the programs being developed by the LCMC—represent one of the important ways we can make education accessible to the next generation of students.