The New American University

I had the pleasure of stumbling upon the work of Michael Crow, Arizona State University’s president, earlier this year, and I so enjoyed his thoughts on knowledge production that I immediately wondered how his philosophy would translate to ASU as an organization. Turns out, President Crow was many steps ahead of me and not only co-authored a book about it in 2015, Designing the New American University, but has been leading the charge in higher education to rethink the modern university.

If you were like me, applying to college over a decade ago, you might remember ASU’s reputation as a party school for hot people. In 2002, Crow was appointed ASU’s 16th president, and he set about both developing and implementing a vision for reform. Today, ASU ranks as a top 100 research university worldwide [1], and has managed to do so while increasing affordable access to higher education.

ASU is an example of what President Crow and his colleague, William Dabars, call the “New American University”, a model that they hope other public research universities will emulate. There are a bunch of interesting aspects to this model, but the most striking, in my view, has been to throw away the Ivy League playbook, rejecting the idea that a university’s prestige is defined by whom they exclude. Instead, ASU has significantly improved their rankings while accepting and graduating more students.

Given the widespread critique of academia, especially within tech, I was surprised that, after asking around, none of my peers had come across ASU as a case study for reform, despite its reputation among university administrators. So I’m summarizing what I’ve learned about ASU here in hopes that it might help others learn from their efforts. [2]

Please note: I am not a scholar of university reform. I’m writing this post as someone who’s interested in research but side-eyed about academia, and who found ASU’s model to be inspiring and enlightening. I admittedly lack the context to understand how ASU stacks up against similar efforts; in researching this post, however, I did not find any red flags. If you have additional context to share, please send it my way!

Tech still needs academia

The declining state of academia has received its fair share of critique from just about everyone at this point. TLDR: the cost of a respectable degree is spiraling upwards, while the value of that degree is spiraling downwards. Universities, once thought to be our guardians of knowledge, are quickly becoming synonymous with uninspiring and expensive bureaucracy.

The relationship between tech and academia, however, goes much deeper than “how does one disrupt yet-another outmoded industry,” especially when we consider the value of universities as research institutions. At their best, tech and academia are intertwined in a symbiotic relationship, mutually driving towards the production, maintenance and distribution of knowledge. A crude characterization would be that academia is about knowledge discovery (i.e. R&D), while tech is about distribution (i.e. commercialization), but I think that does a disservice to what tech culture increasingly stands for today: a beacon for people who care about finding and spreading great ideas.

There’s a reason why I prefer being in tech, even though I might have otherwise found a comfortable home in academia: 1) everything moves faster in tech, and 2) people in tech actually care about making ideas happen, not just talking about them. From this lens, my experience in tech has been more uniformly positive, whereas my experience with academia is that it seems to have become an uneven, unreliable source of great new ideas, while still cashing in on some ambiguous notion of “prestige.”

Despite its modern shortcomings, however, I have no deep-seated qualms with academia, and my frustrations come only from my disappointment that it is supposed to be so much more than it currently is. Love it or hate it, academia is the closest we’ve ever come to having a multigenerational professional sector dedicated to the production of knowledge. I have Kevin Simler’s excellent writing to thank for reminding me of this point:

For years I’ve been fairly dismissive of academia. A short stint as a PhD student left a bad taste in my mouth. But now, when I step back and think about it (and abstract away all my personal issues), I have to conclude that academia is still extremely important.
Academic social networks are some of the most refined and valuable structures our civilization has produced. Nowhere have we amassed a greater concentration of specialists focused full-time on knowledge production….This is the beating heart of progress. It’s in these networks that the fire of the Enlightenment burns hottest.

From this perspective, academia should be one of tech’s closest allies! [3] It’s one of the great longstanding feats of human civilization, and like tech, it succeeds by enabling more people to find and spread great ideas. Academia’s middling reputation today, to me, is a sign that there is room for improvement – not that we should throw the concept out altogether.

Young people still need college

Thus far, tech’s fallout with academia has taken the form of developing alternatives to college, like a jilted lover looking for a rebound, or simply ignoring degree requirements altogether. [4] If you’re coming from tech, a sector that likes to reinvent itself, it might seem easier to circumvent outmoded status games by burning them all to the ground and starting over.

Dropping out of college is celebrated in tech more than any other knowledge-oriented industry I know of. While the Thiel Fellowship, which offers $100,000 to talented students to drop out of college, gets the lion’s share of media attention, I’ll add that there are what seems to be a high prevalence of college dropouts in tech, even among the non-founder, non-software developer set. A precocious college intern, for example, might decide not to return to school after the summer and instead accept a full-time job at their employer.

Then there are the developer bootcamps, such as Lambda School or Flatiron School, which exploded in popularity in the mid-2010s and have helped fill the growing demand for software developers in tech. (The widely-cited statistic here: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 22% increase in job demand for software developers from 2019-2029, much higher than the average of 4%.)

Bootcamps address a specific hiring gap for software developers within tech, and it’s possible they will expand to a longer list of hireable skills. Flatiron School, for example, offers courses in product design and data science, and Udacity offers nanodegrees in cybersecurity and product management, among others.

I’m very proud that tech is the kind of place where talented people are taken seriously, regardless of their formal education or credentials, but I’m not convinced these options obviate the general population’s need for a college degree altogether.

In Designing the New American University, Crow and Dabars point out that many young people would still benefit greatly from a college education. The Brookings Institution reports that at the median, college graduates earn more than twice as much as those with a high school degree. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2013 that college graduates aged 25 or older have less than half the unemployment rate of high school graduates.

Vocational schools are, by definition, focused on training people to a specific set of skills. They don’t necessarily offer everything that a college student would receive from an undergraduate education, especially one with a liberal arts focus, which (theoretically, anyway) prepares students with foundational skills like critical reasoning and problem solving. Crow and Dabars argue that socioeconomically disavantaged students especially benefit from a liberal arts education, as graduating from college is correlated with positive traits like lower divorce rates and regular exercise, and that an overfocus on STEM “reflects a simplistic view of the role of higher education in the economy.”

While tech offers a valuable path for some students to pursue their interests outside of a degree, there’s probably a much bigger set of young people that may not necessarily be served by dropping out of school or becoming a software developer. College enrollment has been declining over the last decade, but it’s hard to say whether that’s because college degrees are actually no longer valuable, as critics would claim, or because the current options for college are not very good. (For what it’s worth, Arizona’s public university enrollment has been increasing.)

However, upholding this point shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of the status quo. Having established the value of a college degree, Crow and Dabars turn their attention to the current state of higher education, arguing that students are being sold a product that is overpriced and mismatched to their needs.

Crow and Dabars don’t hold back in tearing down what they call the “Harvardization” of universities, where schools are responding to the higher education crisis by decreasing their acceptance rates and increasing their price tags, instead of trying to develop a better product that’s designed for the scale and type of demand we’re seeing today. They blame this behavior on filiopietism, or the “excessive veneration of tradition” endemic to academic culture, where administrators assume that universities have already been optimized over time, instead of looking at the opportunity with fresh eyes today.

These institutions fall into the trap of what Crow and Dabars call the “Generic Public University”: a watered-down version of an Ivy League school that every institution seems to converge upon, whether research universities or liberal arts colleges, driven by an “obsession with prestige” that comes at the expense of higher education. They attribute this behavior to isomorphism, or the “paradoxical tendency” for institutions to emulate each other and become increasingly homogeneous.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that Crow, far from being an embittered outsider, previously served as Executive Vice Provost at Columbia University for a decade, and his ability to move fluidly between these worlds is impressive.)

Borrowing a restaurant metaphor from Harvard physicist Atul Gawande, Crow and Dabars explain that most universities aspire towards offering a Michelin star experience to students, but what we actually need is a ‘fast casual’, Cheesecake Factory-like option that can provide an affordable, quality education to millions.

It’s as if hungry customers were banging down the door of the French Laundry, whose owners throw up their hands and say “Sorry, we don’t have any reservations available!” An enterprising restauranteur would look at that opportunity and think, “Hmm, how can I offer a quality dining experience to serve all these customers at a more affordable price?” And that’s exactly what ASU is trying to do.

A blueprint for reform

In 2014, ASU’s board of regents approved a new charter for reform, and in 2015, Crow and Dabars published Designing the New American University, which serves as a philosophical foundation for their work.

Their charter states (emphasis mine):

ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom we exclude, but rather by whom we include and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.

There’s a lot to unpack in the New University model; I think the easiest way to explain what’s different about ASU is by looking at their three “pillars of education”, the departments which form the basis of their organization:

  • Academic Enterprise: Focused on “degree-seeking students and the faculty who teach them,” including MBAs and 4-year degrees
  • Knowledge Enterprise: Focused on research, entrepreneurship, and knowledge production
  • Learning Enterprise: Focused on building a “lifelong learning ecosystem,” outside of those seeking a degree, at any age or stage of life

Why is ASU organized this way? In their book, Crow and Dabars cite Clayton Christensen, who says there are “three fundamentally different and incompatible business models all housed within the same organization” which make it difficult for universities to change over time: “knowledge creation (research), knowledge proliferation and learning (teaching), and preparation for life and careers”. Wherever one draws these lines, it’s clear that universities do serve a few different functions that have been awkwardly bundled together. ASU makes these distinctions clearer by organizing their efforts into three different “enterprises”: academic, knowledge, and learning.

This is a new organizational framework at ASU, announced just this year, well after Designing the New American University was published. However, I think it’s a pretty good way to discuss how ASU works, and is consistent with the values laid out in their 2014 charter, so I’m going to use it to organize my thoughts here.

Academic Enterprise: Increase access – and make sure students are graduating.

Academic Enterprise (AE) is home to what is arguably ASU’s boldest innovation: ignoring every other university’s definition of success by resisting the temptation to establish prestige through exclusivity.

ASU is unapologetically maximalist in its approach to the modern university: more students means more resources means more people doing more things. They point to the University of Toronto as an example of a strong public research university that serves more than 80,000 undergraduate and graduate students across three campuses, while also spending $1.2B+ annually on research.

Crow calls this “shutting off the force fields that have traditionally kept people out of higher education,” and instead replacing them with arrows that illuminate the path to success, wherever students are at. That means everything from helping a first-generation college student stay on track to graduation, to offering opportunities for exceptionally motivated students to explore their interests in research or entrepreneurship.

ASU embraces a high acceptance rate, admitting 86 percent of applicants, compared to Harvard’s 5 percent. Far from “lowering their standards,” Crow and Dabars see this as a fulfillment of their mission to provide a quality, affordable education to more people. The high acceptance rate is a starting point for ASU, not a backwards reflection of their value. And increasing the denominator ultimately helps ASU educate more qualified students than their counterparts can. As they point out, “a cohort with these academic qualifications comprises more freshmen from the top decile [of their high school class] than the total number of students in the freshman class of Harvard University.”

From 2002 to 2013, ASU increased its enrollment by from roughly 55,000 to 76,000. They managed to accomplish this goal despite massive cuts in state spending nationwide: between 2008 and 2013, Arizona cut its higher education spending per student in half, tied with New Hampshire for the biggest state cuts nationwide.

ASU made up their funding losses by switching from a model of “low-tuition/low-access” to one of “moderate-tuition/high-access.” They also focused on recruiting more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition than in-state students (and whose enrollment numbers doubled during this same reform period), and increasing enrollment in online degree programs (now roughly 27% of enrollment, a number that grew significantly even before the pandemic).

By raising these funds, ASU was able to help make college accessible to even more students. From 2012 to 2014, ASU more than doubled the percent of freshmen whose families met federal poverty guidelines, thanks to support from the President Barack Obama Scholars program. They tripled financial aid to undergraduate students from FY 2002 to FY 2013, spending $773 million per year. And they grew minority undergraduate enrollment by 137 percent, with students from “typically underrepresented ethnic backgrounds” making up 39.5% of their fall 2013 freshman class.

Finally, ASU prioritizes not just enrolling more students, but helping those students stay on track to graduate. They developed a tool called eAdvisor to track students’ progress and flag anyone who’s falling behind. They invest heavily in tutoring centers, where student peers are available to help with classwork. And they use an “adaptive education” model, where students follow a curriculum that’s responsive and personalized to their needs, rather than one-size-fits-all. With this model, ASU can not only help more students stay on track with schoolwork, but also fast-track students who are ahead, instead of forcing them to sit through classes they already understand.

ASU’s retention efforts have been successful so far. Their four-year graduation rate increased more than 20 percentage points during this reform period and is well above the national average, which is especially remarkable considering that ASU, by increasing access, also accepted many more students who are at higher risk of not graduating. Focusing on retention is aligned with ASU’s business incentives, too: it’s cheaper and easier to retain an enrolled student versus acquiring a new one.

Knowledge Enterprise: Make research useful to society.

The Knowledge Enterprise (KE) is focused on research and applied learning. It’s built upon the philosophical values of pragmatism, or what ASU calls use-inspired research.

ASU’s focus on pragmatism is one of my favorite things about the organization, and a large portion of Crow and Dabars’ book is devoted to the idea that knowledge should be actionable and have a real-world impact. Research, as they envision it, is undertaken with the goal of addressing problems. As someone who pursues independent research because I want to have an impact on my areas of interest, this aspect resonated especially well.

Crow and Dabars imagine the university as an institution that is flexible, responsive, accessible, and adaptive to public needs: “A true public university would be an institution defined by its alignment with public values as well as service to the public interest.”

Implicit in their pragmatic approach is a focus on community. ASU calls this leveraging place, and it’s one of the eight design principles underpinning the New American University model, along with social embeddedness. One way of understanding town-gown tensions, for example, is as a signal that the university – an institution of public service – has failed at its mission. So ASU built research centers that focus on regional issues, such as the Stardust Center for Affordable Homes and the Family, which “works toward solutions in providing affordable housing to support families as the backbone to stable communities.” While this is an example of practical efforts aimed at local communities, I think this principle applies to researchers and their subjects as well. If you’re trying to understand how a community works, but haven’t actually gone out and interacted with them, that’s a failure to deliver on your goals.

Another effect of ASU’s pragmatic research culture is reducing overspecialization among academic disciplines. Crow and Dabar recognize that “specialization has been the key to scientific success” and that disciplines have historic value, but they worry that “such specialization simultaneously takes us away from any knowledge of the whole,” leaving us ill-prepared for the future. Disciplines make it harder to synthesize information, and if a university wants to remain a flexible knowledge enterprise, they need to be prepared to take a holistic approach. During Crow’s tenure, ASU consolidated quite a few academic departments, such as history and political science, or English and modern languages, in order to encourage these fields to solve real problems together - which also had the added benefit of reducing administrative costs. [5]

Finally, ASU recognized that in order to become a competitive public research university, they needed to invest heavily in, well, research. From 2002 to 2014, ASU increased research expenditures by 250 percent, without significantly increasing their faculty size. (And again, they did this during a time of significant state government cuts to higher education.) ASU spent nearly $640M on research expenditures in FY2019, ranking #6 in the country for total research expenditures among universities without a medical school, and #43 for universities overall.

ASU is young as far as research unversities go: they first obtained university status in 1958 and “conducted no significant funded research prior to 1980.” In 2002, ASU didn’t even appear in the top 200 universities in the global Shanghai Rankings; they broke into the top 100 for the first time in 2006. Given their relatively late arrival as a research university, the fact that they’re now ranked as a top 100 university is impressive.

Learning Enterprise: Support lifelong learning, beyond formal degrees.

Learning Enterprise (LE) is the third and final pillar of the ASU organization. It’s arguably the most experimental of the three, focused on serving “lifelong learners” throughout their entire lifespan, from kindergarten to post-retirement. Their goal is to create a space for all the other ways that people learn, outside of formal degrees or research.

Vocational training is an example of something that might fall under Learning Enterprise, such as online bootcamps and continuing education. Another example is K-12 college prep, ensuring that younger students are prepared for higher education. (Apparently, ASU even started chartering their own K-12 school, ASU Preparatory Academy, in 2008!)

Learning Enterprise is still new, so I wasn’t able to find much information about it, but one interesting program to highlight is the idea of “earned admissions”. Instead of charging thousands of dollars to enroll in ASU and take an online course, anyone can take classes for as little as $25 to start. Students only pay the $400 tuition if they want to receive academic credit and count it towards their transcript. This gives people flexibility to experiment with new classes without worrying about grades: if you don’t like your grade, you don’t have to count the class.

Instead of having to apply to ASU first, then, a student can start by doing the coursework, then enroll when they’re ready, with part of their degree already completed. This feels well-aligned to me with tech’s focus on prioritizing output over credentials. It’s also worth noting that because this experiment lives in Learning Enterprise, it doesn’t detract from the more traditional degree work that lives under Academic Enterprise.

Good marketing or good outcomes?

ASU hasn’t made progress without its critics, namely the claim that it’s become a moneymaking credentialing machine, handing out degrees to anyone who pays and corporatizing The Great American University. And again, because I don’t have experience with university administration, I certainly wondered, while learning about ASU, how many of their claims are marketing versus substance.

Firstly, their efforts are generating positive results. The business critique might be concerning if ASU were churning out graduates who were ill-prepared and saddled with student debt. But ASU has ranked well in terms of preparing students for life after college, and was named a Best Value College by The Princeton Review this year. As discussed in this post, they’ve significantly improved their rankings as a research university, while also increasing college access and affordability. ASU might run like a business, but they seem to actually be running well.

Crow also appears to have a unique talent for navigating both sides of university design, challenging the notion that academia is somehow above business logic, while also recognizing what makes academic culture special:

Universities are commonly thought to conduct their affairs in monastic seclusion. Nothing could be further from the truth…Because academic institutions operate in the real world, they need be no less entrepreneurial than corporations….But academic enterprise is not about replacing an archaic academic culture with an efficient corporate variant.

Certainly, some of ASU’s journey is attributable to marketing. Rewriting the rules instead of playing by everyone else’s is a smart move for an incoming president, and proposing a brand-new model for the modern university attracts more attention than quietly making some changes on the backend. But that’s actually one of the things I find most admirable about their story.

Institutional reform is hard is because everyone is stuck in the same way of thinking (Crow’s “isomorphism” at work), and bureaucracy is hard to improve incrementally. ASU’s vision is fresh and ambitious: they’re clearly not afraid to blow things up and experiment with new ideas. They realized they couldn’t win the prestige game by competing directly against the Ivies, nor did they want to become a Generic Public University, so they made up a new status game.

ASU also seems to share a lot of values that I cherish about tech, such as optimism, entrepreneurialism, and responsiveness, as well as being results-oriented, and it appears to be a culture that’s enforced from the top. While ASU might not run as fast as a startup, their culture of testing, prototyping, and reinvention seems rare for such a large institution. This sort of language, for example:

“Universities are very risk-averse,” said Phil Regier, executive vice provost and dean of ASU Online and former executive dean of the business school. “Here, the only mistake a dean can make, the biggest mistake, is not taking risks.”

We could attribute it to ASU being a newer research institution, or Arizona being the sort of state with favorable policies that enable this sort of experimentation, but its recent success and impact also seem directly tied to decisions made by Crow’s administration specifically, not just its starting advantages. There’s probably an organizational case study to be written in there somewhere.

Learning about ASU helped me reexamine my assumptions around the role of universities in a modern world, as well as how to build successful organizations: the idea that prestige doesn’t have to correlate to exclusivity; that longstanding institutions are capable of reinventing themselves; that my values aren’t as divergent from academia as I previously thought; and that there is, perhaps, hope for universities after all.

P.S. If you’re as curious about the New American University model as I am, I’m co-scheming on organizing a trip to ASU’s Tempe campus to get a closer look at how it all works. Drop me a line if you’re interested!

While learning about ASU, I came across a few other books about universities that seemed interesting, but I haven’t read them yet. If you’d like to go deeper on this topic, here are a few suggestions:

Notes

  1. According to Shanghai Ranking and U.S. News and World Report. For the pedants, ASU currently ranks at #102 and #103 respectively, but has hovered above and below this ranking in previous years.

  2. A caveat on stats in this post: for the most part, I tried to focus on the 2002-2013 period of reform that characterized President Crow’s first decade at ASU, but that means some of the stats in here may feel outdated. I’ve included more recent figures in sections where it seemed important to have them, but in general there’s a bit of flipping back and forth in here between “What did the first decade look like” and “What is ASU today” that may not feel the smoothest. Also, any stats not cited are from Crow and Dabars’ book, Designing the New American University.

  3. And tech has historically been closely intertwined with academia. Silicon Valley is nestled between two major universities, UC Berkeley and Stanford. MIT, among its many other tech contributions, was the birthplace of free software, the predecessor to open source. Facebook, the archetypal startup, was started in a Harvard dorm room. When things are working well, academia and tech stand to benefit quite a bit from each other, and that’s why I think it’s a relationship worth fighting for.

  4. This section mostly focuses on the value of an undergraduate degree, even though my heart (and interest in academia) mostly lies in research. For brevity’s sake, I’ve omitted a bunch of other examples that could be included here, such as college alternatives like Minerva and Make School; startup accelerators like Y Combinator; corporate R&D like Google AI, Microsoft Research, and Protocol Labs; and informal research collectives like Recurse Center, the School for Poetic Computation, or Other Internet.

  5. I imagine this move was pretty controversial, especially in the sciences. I don’t have a strong opinion on whether consolidating fields is a good thing: while my interests are more interdisciplinary in nature, I recognize the value of specialization as a Gell-Mann antidote, and I wonder if smashing these fields together, much like ‘globalization,’ is detrimental to the necessary formation of subcultures. However, I admire ASU’s willingness to experiment in such a high-stakes way. Even if it ends up being a bad idea, how many universities are willing to try something radically different, instead of sticking to ‘the way things are’?