Mitch Daniels, the Harley Davidson-riding, state-touring, cost-focused former governor of Indiana has hung up his political boots (for now) and embraced his role as the Harley Davidson-riding, state-touring, cost-focused president of Purdue University…
He’s also one of a very few Republicans who are actually liked by the media… always the subject of “what if” scenarios around the runup to presidential elections. Politico called him the most important governor who didn’t run in 2016… and the Washington Post said similar in an article headlined “Purdue has the president America needs.”
As governor, he turned a $200 million deficit into a $2 billion post-recession surplus, lowered taxes, and kept debt low.
Now, he hopes to pull the same sort of trick with higher education. Mitch has graciously given us permission to run an edited and condensed version of his 2018 Annual Open Letter to Purdue University.
Read on for how one man is changing education… and taking bold steps to do so.
Managing Editor and
Purdue Class of 2009
2018 Open Letter to the People of Purdue
By Mitch Daniels
One of these years, maybe I’ll be able to begin this letter by reporting that it was a placid, relaxed year across the higher education landscape. Not yet.
Again, total enrollments nationwide dropped, by another 1%. This makes a 1 million, or more than a 5%, loss in five years. If it weren’t for the growth in nonresidential online education, the plunge would look even steeper.
It’s not yet clear that this is the “tsunami” that Stanford President John Hennessy predicted for traditional residential education a few years back. But it might be, in which case our duty at your university is to identify higher ground and strive to gain safety by reaching it. All the new projects and goals we set for ourselves these days have this basic purpose.
Innovation Within and Without
As a sector, American higher education is home to a number of ironies. Perhaps the most discussed in recent years is the sad extent to which the places where free inquiry and the clash of ideas should be most revered have often become bastions of conformity and groupthink. But another paradox is that so many of these hothouses of scientific and technical innovation, which give birth to so many miracles, are themselves so antiquated in the way they organize and manage their own affairs.
At Purdue, we work constantly to improve what has now been internationally recognized as one of the premier ecosystems for innovation anywhere. Late last year, we held our annual Inventors Night, when we honored the faculty who received patents the previous 12 months. Purdue is now No. 12 in the world in U.S. utility patents. The only institutions ahead of us that, like us, do not operate a medical school, are Caltech and MIT.
Shortly thereafter, we threw a party to celebrate the 165 companies that have started on our campus the last four years. Here, too, is a record achieved by only a few universities anywhere in the world.
Our affordability policy, which we see as simply a matter of duty and common sense, is regularly described as some kind of breakthrough.
At Purdue, we seek to behave as we encourage our students to do, as experimenters and innovators. Our affordability policy, which we see as simply a matter of duty and common sense, is regularly described as some kind of breakthrough.
Better examples include our transformed Purdue Polytechnic Institute (formerly the College of Technology), with its hands-on, project-based learning model, that is headed toward granting degrees on the basis of competence, not on the traditional calendar and credits system.
Another of our unique endeavors advanced this year when the second cohort of Back a Boiler Income Share Agreements were signed by 280 sophomores, juniors, and seniors. This is a potentially less expensive funding option for students who agree to pay back a set percentage of their post-education salary over a set number of years, up to a capped amount. This brings the total of ISAs in effect to $5.8 million in a project that is attracting extensive attention nationally. The Back a Boiler program has begun to contribute meaningfully to the steady reduction in student debt, replacing nearly $6 million that would otherwise have been borrowed by undergraduates.
Proving that innovation is not the exclusive province of scientists and engineers, our College of Liberal Arts debuted its “Degree in 3” initiative, offering to all future students the chance to graduate in three years. Those who seize this opportunity will get a year’s head start on career and life, earn an extra year of income, and save thousands of dollars in so doing.
Of the many unusual actions Purdue has taken in recent years, none has attracted more attention than our announcement last March that we would purchase, for $1, the online Kaplan University. As both a higher education and business story, the move became national news from its first day and has remained a topic of discussion ever since.
Although we have stated our reasons for the move many times, they bear repeating as Purdue Global, the new permanent name of the acquisition, nears its launch this spring. First, in this era, we recognize that we cannot fulfill Purdue’s land-grant mission, to bring higher ed opportunities to the widest possible audience, if we stop at age 22. Tens of millions of adult Americans started but never finished college. Neither they as individuals, nor our society in a global, knowledge-driven economy, can realize their potential if they go no further in enhancing their education and skills.
Second, after years of attempts, an honest assessment told us that Purdue was far behind many peers, to say nothing of the schools that specialize or are exclusively online, in the techniques and technologies that lead to effective distance learning. We have a world-class faculty, many of whom are eager to extend their teaching beyond campus to new audiences. What we do not have is a competitive means of delivering that content. The chance to acquire overnight that delivery competence was an opportunity not to be missed. As one longtime leader in the online education field told me, “You were 15 years behind. You caught up in one day.”
Any major change generates debate and disagreement. Some members of the Purdue community have raised questions about the wisdom or the propriety of the Purdue Global acquisition. Ultimately, 10% of our tenured or tenure-track faculty and 6% of all our faculty and lecturers signed a petition challenging the idea.
Their opposition has been criticized as “arrogance not based in fact” or as one member of the Purdue University Senate put it as “academic snobbery.” But for the most part, their concerns have been natural and appropriate, and clearly sincere, reflecting the very same issues the Board of Trustees examined before agreeing to the transaction.
Some misinformation (in some cases, disinformation) to the contrary, we found no reasons for concern about either the integrity or the academic quality of the people soon to join the Boilermaker family. As a financial matter, the deal is very favorable and low-risk to Purdue.
The most serious question revolves around Purdue’s reputation and whether it might be diminished in some way by expanding the range of students to include more working adults. It’s not the first time such objections have been raised.
Maybe these statements sound familiar:
- These “colleges are resorting to all kinds of devices to get students.”
- [These institutions] are really universities “in aspiration rather than fact”; They pretend to the title of “university.”
- These schools are “robbing the U.S. Treasury.”
- “A foolish effort to substitute an imitation and a counterfeit article for the genuine…”
You might guess that they come from the current Purdue Global debate. But in fact these are criticisms from the Morrill Act debates of the 1850s and 1860s, when Purdue and its land-grant counterparts were created. Similar disparagements likely accompanied the post-World War II expansion of Purdue’s mission to take in the returning GIs in the regional campuses that we operate today as Purdue Northwest and Purdue Fort Wayne. The democratization of higher ed, and its broader accessibility to wider sections of society, has always drawn detractors from within the incumbent system of the day.
Penn State has operated its online Penn State Global Campus for 20 years. The University of Maryland has served adult learners online through the University of Maryland University College since the mid-1990s. Neither university has suffered reputational damage. Rather, each has brought vital opportunity to working adults, military servicemen and women, and disabled citizens for whom coming to a residential campus is simply not an option.
Typically, voices of criticism have received vastly disproportionate attention compared to the many, highly credible statements of support for our Purdue Global move.
Ultimately, it won’t be either the supporters’ or the critics’ forecasts that matter, but rather the results.
Ultimately, it won’t be either the supporters’ or the critics’ forecasts that matter, but rather the results. Kaplan University graduates achieve excellent results today in better jobs and higher wages. If we do our job well, these outcomes will continue and improve; as part of our governance of Purdue Global, we plan to constantly analyze and report them publicly.
Rigor at Purdue
The striking phenomenon of “grade inflation,” in which average college grades keep drifting up and up (despite documented lighter reading and homework loads) runs counter to the longtime Purdue culture of challenging students and pressing them to reach their full potential. As best one can tell, our average grade may no longer be substantially below the national average. If so, and if this shift is evidence that our traditional culture has softened over recent years, it presents the question whether this is a desirable, inevitable, or troublesome trend.
During 2017, members of the University Senate performed a tremendous service by gathering a wealth of data about grades at Purdue. Among many fascinating findings the committee reports:
Between 2002 and 2016, “A’s” rose from 35% to 45% of all grades given. DFW’s (dropped/failed/withdrew) have declined slightly, but in the biggest shift, C’s have become B’s, while B’s have become A’s.
Freshman grades have escalated dramatically. Startlingly, the average freshman GPA is now higher than that for sophomores, a phenomenon rarely seen until recently.
Summer school grades are higher than those in the longer semesters. Is this because of more motivated students? Students retaking courses in which they were dissatisfied with their first performance?
In English 106, taken by a sizable majority of all students, 69% of recent grades were A’s. This despite the seemingly unanimous faculty view that today’s students as a group write poorly, noticeably worse than their predecessors.
Previous analysis has suggested that perhaps half the recent upward movement in GPAs at Purdue is attributable to the steadily increasing quality of entering freshmen. As I often say to visiting applicants, “Your dad probably couldn’t get in here today, but I’m sure you can!” (The father invariably agrees.)
To be sure, other factors, such as the amount of reading and writing demanded, can figure in any calculation of overall rigor. And as a campus we’ve made efforts to improve the learning outcomes of all our students, especially those at most risk. We must attempt to gather information on those fronts as well. But the preliminary committee findings leave little room for doubt that, overall, high grades are now easier to come by at Purdue. Which leads to the question, should we accept this trend or look for ways to resist it?
Nationally, the grade inflation effect is now even more pronounced in the K-12 setting. A study last year revealed that “A’s” are now the most common grades given in American high schools. This comes in spite of poor performance for American students vs. international students on standardized tests, and SAT scores stagnant at best for decades.
In too many places, “self-esteem” has apparently taken precedence over candor in student assessment. For many of our arriving students, anything less than an A comes as a jolt and a rude surprise. The student evaluations of our faculty which are collected at the end of each term are thought by many to be heavily tilted toward professors who are less demanding or inclined to easier grading.
I believe that, in a sea of leniency, a university that maintains tough standards of performance will set itself and its graduates apart in a highly positive way.
My bias on this topic is evident. I believe that, in a sea of leniency, a university that maintains tough standards of performance will set itself and its graduates apart in a highly positive way. Purdue’s record of nearly universal job placement supports this contention.
But, as much as any issue we face, the degree of rigor Purdue demands is a matter for our faculty as a whole to determine. With more than 2,000 individuals giving grades, no policy anyone could enunciate would make much difference. The answer must be cultural, a collective expression of commitment to a somewhat different standard, to which at least a large majority of our faculty subscribes. It’s an important discussion; simply having it at all probably separates us from most other higher ed institutions.
Affordability and Access
One area in which Purdue is plainly differentiated from its competition involves our philosophy about student cost. Our tuition freeze will enter its sixth consecutive year this fall; in May, the third of what will be at least four classes will graduate having never seen a tuition increase. And we recently announced that we were extending our freeze for a seventh year – extending to 2020.
In fact, due to reductions in food and book costs, it will be less expensive to attend Purdue in 2019 and 2020 than it was in 2012. Put another way, if we had raised tuition and fees at the average national rate, resident students would pay $1,400 more annually.
As a consequence, total student debt is down 37% (despite a significantly larger student body). That amounts to $232 million since 2012 that would otherwise have been borrowed and carried into adult life by graduating Boilermakers. Of 2017 graduates, 56% left debt-free. That’s the highest percentage in the 20 years for which we have comparable data.
But a Purdue education is still not cheap, and still a major challenge for many low- and middle-income households. So our campus-wide commitment to affordability continues to produce ways to bring our costs further into financial reach.
In November, our Division of Financial Aid unveiled the Boilermaker Affordability Grant (BAG). It provides a guarantee to every Hoosier family with up to $70,000 in adjusted gross income that Purdue will close whatever gap remains after the Expected Family Contribution (a standard calculation under the federal loan system) and any grants or scholarships the student has received. It’s our hope that this new assurance, easily understood and known well in advance of an enrollment decision, will bring to Purdue a number of qualified Indiana students who might otherwise have hesitated to join us.
Obviously, the time will come when some upward adjustment of student charges will be necessary. But our philosophy will remain: As long as we are balancing our operating budget, growing our faculty, investing in necessary capital projects, increasing staff compensation competitively, all without tapping our cash reserves, why would we raise tuition?
2017 brought many reasons for pride in your university. Again, we saw new records for research, applications, patents, donations, and more. Again, the Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education ranked Purdue in the nation’s public top 5, with Michigan, UCLA, North Carolina, and Cal Berkeley. As far as I’m concerned, those schools should be thrilled to be listed with us.
But Boilermakers believe in continuous improvement, always reaching a “brick higher.” As our 150th birthday approaches, what better way to celebrate than with another year of even greater achievements, and a growth of Purdue’s service to state and nation by bringing quality education to additional thousands of our fellow citizens.
Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.
President of Purdue University
Prior to his election as Indiana’s 49th governor, Mitch Daniels held a variety of top-level positions in business and politics. He worked as a senior executive at Eli Lilly and was CEO of the Hudson Institute. And he served as an adviser to President Ronald Reagan, director of the Office of Management and Budget for President George W. Bush, and chief of staff for Indiana Senator Richard Lugar.
He is also author of two books, Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans and Notes from the Road: 16 Months of Towns, Tales and Tenderloins, about his trip around Indiana during the race for governor.
You can read his complete, unedited open letter to Purdue here.