The supply chain of higher ed: an interview with Dr. Ross Aikins of Penn GSE

December 13, 2019 Matt Vermeulen


Adjusting the equitability of admissions

If we’re to consider higher education as a supply chain, what would it’s output be? There are a lot of really important supply chains to consider in higher education, whether the supply chain of books and lab materials, or the whole host of materials a mini-city like a university needs to feed and house thousands of students.

But in this episode, we explore an entirely different supply chain of higher education: the supply of students entering into the university and all the challenges and complexity that come with that.

Ron Volpe sat down with the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Ross Aikins to discuss the implications of tuition, inequality, admission hurdles, and medication on the supply chain of higher ed. Here are a few highlights from the episode. 

If higher education is a supply chain, what is the end consumer product delivered? 

In this altruistic field of higher ed, we often don't like to talk about students in marketing terms because students aren’t simply products or consumers. But on the other hand, there's no doubt that this consumer mentality has seeped into higher education especially given the huge exorbitant cost of tuition. I can't blame students and families for thinking of higher ed this way. So certainly to answer your original question, there's a lot of ways to think about supply chains in higher ed. 

How vital is transparency in admissions to ensure we have an equitable supply chain of higher education?

If you're looking to engage in the college admissions process, you first need to know it's even there, and that it's something that could help you and help your future. The thing is, college admissions may seem transparent to some families and students and opaque to others. But a lot of people who could benefit greatly by attending our colleges and universities either don't know how to engage with the process, or are more likely turned away by the prohibitive costs of attendance. 

It's not like a lot of these families haven’t heard of college, it's more like a huge number of American households are working paycheck to paycheck and can’t even fathom taking on tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt or loans. It just seems like an impossible thing to justify. From figuring out how to fill out FAFSAs, getting bogus information from “net price calculators” on college websites, dealing with short-staffed high school counseling departments, to navigating standardized testing, there are myriad roadblocks for families to try to overcome. 

Who does the supply chain of higher education leave out?

Educational attainment is associated with economic prosperity, earnings, quality of life and job satisfaction with ever-increasing levels of degree attainment, and on the whole, people live longer and earn more. The problem is that higher ed has been too slow to broaden its reach to those who could really benefit from participating in it like underrepresented minority populations: Native Americans, Latino, Chicano, or Latinx, Black or African Americans, and then Asian Americans. But once your family or community begins to reap the benefits of exposure to higher ed, those benefits can really be enduring, which is why many institutions are rightfully prioritizing and emphasizing bringing more first-generation students into the fold. That's an expensive thing. 

This is important because the US Census estimates that white Americans are actually going to be a minority in the United States by the year 2050. You know, higher ed has been historically very efficient at educating white students from middle and upper-class backgrounds. But we have to get better and adjust equitability to change these demographics. Otherwise, who's going to fill these jobs that the economy will need in the future? 

So higher ed is becoming more and more difficult for some families to access in large part because it's becoming more and more expensive. Back in the day, the UC system was free for all Californians and a lot of public universities used to be this way. But state appropriations for higher ed dwindle more and more every year. Some of this is because of the projected cost of Medicaid, some because of prisons and other public services. And when state budgets get tight, as increasingly they do, governors tell chancellors to just raise their tuition. And that's what's been playing out for decades. We also have public institutions that are spending sometimes hundreds of millions of taxpayer and tuition dollars to build state of the art facilities, while also paying million-dollar salaries to football coaches and presidents at public universities just to compete with other elite institutions. So you need more administrators and more staff for these almost university mini-cities. 

And all of this compounds to raise tuition more and more and the cost of going to college. I keep coming back to that family who may have talented college-age students who've never been a part of this system before, but believe correctly that this is perhaps a ticket to a career and prosperity. But they may be seeing this rising price tag, and they decide they’re unable to afford it. 

So higher ed has always been efficient, but only for certain segments of our population.

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About the Author

Matt Vermeulen

Matt Vermeulen writes about B2B commerce for Tradeshift. Whether he's writing about Accounts Payable best practices or debunking AI myths, Matt enjoys making complex topics easy to understand and fun to read.

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