Episode 103 - Alternatives to Traditional Higher Education: An Introduction

In the first episode of the spring 2021 season, Southern Utah University President Scott L Wyatt and Solutions for Higher Education host Steve Meredith introduce this semester’s topic, Alternatives to Higher Education. The two discuss the upcoming season and begin to dive into the variety of options available for people outside of higher education.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined for this first podcast of 2021 by my friend and leader, Scott Wyatt. President, how are you?

Scott Wyatt: [Laughs] Steve, it's terrific to be with you again. This is fun.

Meredith: Yeah, it's been fun since you and I last recorded a podcast, we've had an election, we've had the holidays, today is actually Inauguration Day in the United States where, fingers crossed, we will have a peaceful transfer of power from one group to the other as America is noted around the world for doing. So, it's a proud day to be an American in some ways.

Wyatt: Yeah. And I might add, if this is the beginning of a new semester, that it would be nice of me to acknowledge that you do most of the work. [Both laugh]

Meredith: Well, President, I don't…

Wyatt: I show up and you've got all of the technology set up and working and help get things scheduled and then stay up late at night editing.

Meredith: Well, mostly…

Wyatt: This wouldn't happen without you, so thanks, Steve.

Meredith: You're very kind, thank you. Mostly there are others that do the work of editing and that, but yeah.

Wyatt: We do have a whole crew.

Meredith: We do have a crew and we're always happy for their help. So, this is the kick-off for our upcoming Spring 2021 season. And you and I kind of regularly chat about what we want to discuss next on the podcast, and it's always an interesting set of discussions, because we bat things around a little bit. And sometimes, we'll say, "Nah, we've already done that." Or sometimes we'll say, "Let's save that for another time." But we came pretty closely and pretty quickly almost of a same mind that we did want to discuss the thing we're going to discuss this coming spring, which was taking a look at our competition, those who are trying to drive us out of business I think is how I phrased it. [Both laugh] And you, because you're a lawyer and smarter than I am said, "Let's call it 'alternatives to traditional higher education,' that sounds less combative." And so, that's what we're going to be talking about: Alternatives to Higher Education. What made that interesting to you, the idea?

Wyatt: Well, we've talked over the last while about innovation in higher education, what we are doing, what other universities are doing to try to improve the quality of the experience for students to have better outcomes, to reinvent ourselves, all of those kinds of things, but we've never really drilled down on looking at all of the groups out there that are trying to replace us.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: In one form or another. And I had a brief conversation with one of the individuals that we're going to interview during this semester, and I said to him, "You know, you're kind of the competition for higher ed," and he said, "Well, I don't really see it that way. I don't think we're in competition with higher ed, we're just offering something else." Well, in my definition, that's competition.

Meredith: That's right. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: And that's…

Meredith: Pepsi would say that same thing about Coke, right? "Yeah, it's just…" [Both laugh]

Wyatt: Well, it is true that not everyone should go to a college or a university. Not everyone should go to a technical school or anything else. There has to be a wide variety of options to meet the needs of a wide variety of people.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And so, we…the very fact that we formed the closest, most generous partnership with a non-credit granting technical college of anybody we know in the country suggests that we really are genuinely interested in helping what might be thought of as our competition.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Because our goal is to help students and serve the community, and we want people to get what's best for them.

Meredith: Even if it's not best for the university in terms of collecting revenues or headcount or those kinds of things.

Wyatt: Yeah, it's…if you say that your mission is to help students, then you help students in the best way that you can, and it might be through someone else. But what's fun about this topic is we're going to have a chance to explore all of the kinds of things that are happening out there that are different from the credit-granting institutions.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: Different than what we're doing. I was, in anticipation of today and in anticipation of this semester of podcasts, and you know, we have a pretty good entrepreneurship program…

Meredith: We do.

Wyatt: That's super successful and growing, so we spent quite a bit of time talking about entrepreneurship and how entrepreneurial are we or is our university? And I was looking for articles on competition and read a bunch of articles that were written by entrepreneurs and what I found was, is that they all sort of have different opinions about this.

Meredith: Right.


Wyatt: Articles saying, "The most important thing you can do is to stay your competition." And then I bump into another article that says, "Ignore your competition," you know, "They don't exist." You should…on the one hand, you should study your competition to see what they're doing well, to make sure you know what's happening in the space, what the threats are for you and how you can be as good or better and all of these kinds of things. And then another article says, "Nah, you should never look at your competition. It will drive you to be unsuccessful. You should look at non-competition success and failures." So, if you're…whatever you're selling, if you go to a completely different industry and study success and failures in another industry and then pull what you learned into yours. All these writers are incredible people, and I guess we could all side one way or the other.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But if we blend the two together, what we hope to do this semester is on the one hand, look at what we could describe as threats to higher education.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: Although that's a fairly negative way of describing it, what we really would say is, "What is it that others are providing for students that draws them away from us to another type of learning or credentialing? What can we learn from them? What are we not doing for our students that somebody else is taking them away? And we want everybody to be successful, so, what can we learn from them and do better?" That's on the one hand. On the other hand, because a lot of these groups are really in other, almost completely different kinds of worlds, "Why are they being successful in their own right?" And just the same way that we would study why is any other business being successful?

Meredith: Right. "Why is Microsoft so successful?"

Wyatt: "Why is Microsoft successful?"

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: "What can we learn from all of these different groups?" So, I think that will make it a very interesting semester for us.

Meredith: Yeah, I agree. So, I think sometimes when people hear us say "competition," they might think we're talking about Dixie State or UVU or our sister institutions, and certainly there's friendly competition there on the athletic fields and even in the administrative offices, right? [Both laugh] We all want to grow and there's friendly competition there, but that's not what we're talking about. We're not talking about our traditional competition, we're talking, as you have suggested, about people who are doing things that we are not doing. And when I say "we," I mean sort of the "royal we." And so, we in higher education, that royal we, in my opinion, would do well to study our competition from the two perspectives that you just suggested. Either just generally about success or specifically about what they're offering that we are not offering and why they're being so successful at offering it. So, with that in mind, some of our guests this semester, you mentioned one, we're going to have Aaron Osmond on to talk about the Amazon Web Services Academy, the AWS Academy. Increasingly, companies are saying, "You don't necessarily need a college degree to do what we need you to do, and so let us train you. Let us train you in the things that we need, because there's a shortage of workers and we desperately need to have these slots filled. And so, we're going to offer these training things and we're going to call them academies and they're going to be more or less like traditional online programs now are at universities, but they are sponsored by companies. That's fairly common these days, and it's not necessarily a direct competition to us except that we wonder, "OK, so how could we partner with an organization like Amazon Web Services?" And, full disclosure, we're in discussions with AWS, as are all the other universities in the state of Utah, to figure out how to bring the Amazon Academy into the university. In other words, how can the university help a particular employer have a ready stream of employees available? Now, for some people at the university, the idea of preparing people to work is not why they think we exist, right?

Wyatt: Right.

Meredith: They think we exist for other reasons.

Wyatt: It's a big mixture.

Meredith: It is a big mixture.

Wyatt: Because some of our programs, accounting, engineering, are literally…

Meredith: Absolutely.

Wyatt: A vocational type program. And then we have others like…

Meredith: Most of our teaching degrees are vocational. The expectation is that you'll get a job specifically in this industry at the end of the degree.

Wyatt: Yeah. And then we have a variety of liberal arts degrees that aren't targeted to a specific career, even though they are great preparation for a job, and some of the faculty in those areas would like to think that nobody is preparing for a job, that they're just coming for the love of learning and developing themselves. And so, you get a wide variety of opinions on campus.

Meredith: You do, yeah. And a wide variety of opinions as to whether or not we should partner with industry on that. But the truth is that the market seems to be moving colleges and universities into these types of partnerships. Some are large—Google has its own university and there are ways that universities could partnerships—some are small. We're going to talk with a local learning organization called The Workflow Academy based out of St. George. Their sole purpose is to create high-tech remote jobs for people in Southern Utah. So, the creation of higher paying jobs that can be done remotely using a certain set of software programs. And so, it will be interesting to talk…you know, Amazon is a very big company with the fingers in many, many, many different areas. This is a fairly narrow, smaller company that is training on a fairly narrow range of software applications. And it will be interesting, I think, to talk to the CEO of that smaller company and say, "Who are your students? Are there opportunities for us to help, to assist? Because we're in favor of creating high paying jobs in Southern Utah that can be done here locally." We love it when the university is an economic driver for the region, right? That's one of the things that we're charged with doing, right? Anyway, that's…we'll be talking with companies large and small. We'll probably be talking with Purdue University, and particularly Purdue Global. In our world, that's an interesting discussion because Purdue Global is what happened after Purdue purchased the Kaplan Corporation, the testing prep company that had existed for many years when you were taking the LSAT and so forth and I was taking the GRE, there were Kaplan prep tests, things that the company provided if you wanted to pay for that extra training before you took your test. And Purdue purchased that organization and we're going to talk to somebody from Purdue Global about how that has worked for them and how that…it's not a public/private partnership because one engulfed the other, but how they've been able to move that organization into the public sphere into a public university. And so, I think that will be an interesting discussion. You have been particularly interested in wanting to talk about NOLS.

Wyatt: Oh, yeah.

Meredith: And what does NOLS stand for?

Wyatt: NOLS. It's the…they changed their name to NOLS.

Meredith: Oh.

Wyatt: NOLS used to be NOLS, but now they've formally changed their name to NOLS. It used to be the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, Lander, and they do something completely different than what we do and so hopefully we can talk to somebody there. But they take students all around the world and teach them in outdoor settings, no classrooms. They also teach a lot of emergency medicine…

Meredith: Oh.

Wyatt: There's a variety of things they do. But there are so many of these interesting organizations that have been around for a long time…

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: Or are emerging, and as we talk with…I don't know exactly how many, but a dozen…

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Of these different organizations this semester, hopefully we'll gain a tremendous amount of knowledge about what's happening in the world around us. So, you might say, in a way, if we're an ostrich, we're pulling our head out of the sand and taking a look around. [Laughs]

Meredith: That's right. You know, one of the other sets of organizations that really are sort of a direct threat, if that's the right word, to us are the inexpensive, non-credit online training organizations. Udacity, or Udemy or we have one here locally called Pluralsight that's actually quite a large company now, they're based up in Layton, Utah I think, and these are organizations that look at either the needs of industry in the case of Pluralsight and they provide training specific to a certain industry, or, "What would you like to do?" In other words, little learning modules like Udemy. Would you like to learn Pro Tools? Would you like to learn how to make your own record? And they have these online courses that are a certain number of, not credit hours, of course, but just seat time, and you pay $15 to learn how to do a certain thing. And it ranges from woodworking to darning socks to literally just almost anything you can find someone who has put together a course for that. The more that people are able to sectionalize learning into the ways that they want it…President, I always hearken back to the music industry because that's my training, so please forgive for going back there one more time, but as a young man, as young men, you and I had to purchase a record or a tape or CD…

Wyatt: I didn't purchase any CDs as a young man.

Meredith: You didn't?

Wyatt: No, that was when I was older. [Laughs]

Meredith: Yeah, well that's right. We were in our mid-20s by the time that happened. Yeah, I was giving us the benefit of the doubt. [Both laugh] Anyway, the record company decided what we should listen to, right? They decided how to gather the learning, right? They put the 18 songs on there or the 12 songs on there, and there might have been only the two that we were interested in, but you had to buy 14 more of them because you had to. Steve Jobs and iTunes and Napster and the ability to easily file share destroyed that industry. Destroyed that model of that industry. And now, people, when they pay for music at all, they pay for exactly what they want, and that's it. And they are able to carry it around with them and own it forever, at least ostensibly, it never gets old, it never wears out. It never melts like a tape. So, in some ways, I think that's what Udemy and some of these others are saying. If you look at Udacity, they have very, very…like, self-driving cars. How would you like to make a self-driving car? I mean, these are heavily technical things. It's not woodworking, it's not darning socks, these are taught by top minds at Google and at Tesla and other places, and you have to pay a little bit more for that education, but people just want to know the thing they want to know. It's the iTunes version of education, and they're willing to pay for it, but they don't want all the extra stuff that a university would, as I say nicely, force them to take. And that model is…that's a threat to us.

Wyatt: Yeah, and we don't normally like that.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: Because we, in fact, think there are 14 good songs and you should listen to all 14.

Meredith: Absolutely.

Wyatt: And unless you listen to all 14 songs on the CD, you're missing an opportunity to expand your mind and develop an understanding that you didn't otherwise have.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: So, we do have some of these little conflicts, because we think you should have a general education and we think you should learn something about life sciences and physical sciences and literature and whatnot. So, some of the things that we're going to study this semester are of a different culture than ours.

Meredith: That's right. And we may never be able to come together.

Wyatt: No, and we may not want to.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But we still have a lot that we can explore with them. In addition to who we'll be visiting with this semester, we, and we would encourage our listeners, to be constantly on the lookout for what's happening because the world just keeps changing. You mentioned…as you were talking about wood, I went down and visited a cabinet shop.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: That's not the cabinet shop that my uncle.

Meredith: No.

Wyatt: My uncle cut boards and put them together into cabinets. The cabinet shop I visited? I don't think they cut a single board. They put the boards on a machine and the computer flipped them all over the place.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: Tagged them and everything. It's just a different world.

Meredith: It is.

Wyatt: And our world is changing.

Meredith: It is.

Wyatt: And to preserve what we love and to embrace what we should and to resist what we think is not helpful, we need to fully, completely understand what they're doing.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: That's critical. That's really important. We need to understand what everyone in our space is doing so that we can be better and have better outcomes for all of our students.

Meredith: I'm looking forward to it.

Wyatt: It will be fun.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. We'll be back soon with another podcast and we're looking forward to the Spring 2021 series. Thanks for joining us, bye bye.