Righting the “Rot” in Higher Education

John Comerford of Otterbein University joins the podcast to discuss the real value of higher education, and how to rethink it.

52 minutes
By: Higher Voltage
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John Comerford doesn’t pull his punches.

“A focus on rankings and prestige is the rot at the heart of American higher education,” the president of Otterbein University declares within the first minute of this week’s Higher Voltage, and he doesn’t let up from there. “It leads us to a model where all the incentives are perverse. All the incentives in American higher education that most institutions respond to end up doing harm to students, harm to society, and harm to the institutions themselves.”

Comerford and host Kevin Tyler discuss how to reassess and realign the fundamental value of higher education, and Comerford urges institutions to rethink their very purpose, and return to a service ethic of teaching. He argues for putting students first with courses and programs that provide them the education that they actually need – which may not always align with what higher ed has long been selling. Partnerships are fundamental to this effort – with local school systems, with local governments, with local businesses – to create valuable experiences for today’s students and to make greater contributions to the surrounding college communities and to society at large, Comerford says.

  • The issues with higher ed rankings (0:35)
  • Ideas on how higher ed institutions should be assessed (4:27)
  • Transparency behind the real cost of college and the pricing game colleges play (7:25)
  • What it’s like to be outspoken on issues regarding prestige and price (11:47) 
  • The impact these initiatives have on Otterbein’s rankings (14:28)
  • Otterbein University’s progressive history (16:42)
  • Additional initiatives that have been put into place regarding access and affordability (18:58)
  • An overview on the role partnerships play in an educational experience (21:11)
  • What K-12 partnerships look like at Otterbein (24:51)
  • What Adult Learner partnerships look like at Otterbein (30:41)
  • A deep dive into The Point, a state-of-the-art facility and hub for community activity (35:16)
  • The opportunities available to students at The Point (38:15)
  • How The Point is funded and supported (40:32)
  • How these initiatives have shifted the storytelling and marketing of Otterbein (43:33)
  • An overview of filling gaps in the workforce based on student needs (46:28)
  • The roadblocks and challenges university leaders face when making decisions (48:54)

Read the full transcript:

Kevin Tyler:
Hello, and welcome to Higher Voltage, a podcast about higher education that explores what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to change in higher ed marketing and administration. I’m your host, Kevin Tyler.

Kevin Tyler:
All right. President John Comerford, thank you so much for joining me today on Higher Voltage. It’s so great to see you again. We had a conversation a couple of years ago when I lived in Columbus, Ohio. I appreciate you making the time to have another chat with us about all things higher ed, but mostly about partnerships. It occurred to me while I was reviewing some of the material for this conversation that we had scheduled this interview the day after rankings had been released. I know that you have some very significant and direct thoughts on rankings. So, I thought we might expand this topic area from not just partnerships but also in terms of having conversations about prestige and price.

Kevin Tyler:
Just a little background, and we’ll have a link to this on our page for this episode, but a little background, President Comerford from Otterbein University penned an op-ed for The Hill, talking about the higher ed’s need to return to service ethic approach to teaching. It was published on the day of the presidential debate coming to Otterbein’s campus. I just want to talk to you about some of the thoughts that you included in that piece, particularly around prestige and price, coming off the heels of yesterday’s rankings releases. Can you talk about just your general perception of the way that higher ed is ranked or assessed, and your thoughts on how it could change moving forward?

John Comerford:
Well, sure, Kevin. I’m glad to be back with you to have another conversation. It has taken me some time to get over you leaving central Ohio, but you’ve landed with a great firm, and so I’m glad to talk to you again. We’ve got lots of ground to cover, as usual. I, fundamentally, think that a focus on rankings and prestige is the rot at the heart of American higher education. It leads us to a model where all of the incentives are perverse. All of the incentives in American higher education, that most institutions respond to, end up doing harm to students, harm to society, and harm to the institutions themselves.

John Comerford:
At the heart of it is, if it’s all about input variables, and that’s what the rankings primarily measure, is input variables, how selective you are, how much money you spend, what other schools think of you in this silly reputational score and things like that, if those are all the variables, then nowhere are the outcome variables, are the process variables, about how well do you do for your students. It rewards schools for trying to attract the best and brightest, and then guess what? They graduate the best and brightest. I’m, frankly, not impressed. We ought to be creating an incentive for schools to serve underrepresented populations and to do the work of lifting up our society, and making the American Dream more achievable for more students.

John Comerford:
Instead, the rankings don’t reward any of that. Yet schools spend so much of their time chasing them that they’re led to do things like create merit aid programs that go to higher ACT, SAT scorers and high GPAs, that we know, we know, Kevin, you know, are highly correlated to family income. So, most financial aid in American higher education goes to students without financial need. Then we want to claim to be charities. I just find the whole thing outrageous, and I think it’s well past time for higher ed leaders to rise up against the system, because it’s not helping anybody.

Kevin Tyler:
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Kevin Tyler:
So, how, instead, would you recommend or suggest that higher ed would be assessed for families who are trying to make the best decisions for their students? What’s a new way to quantify quality?

John Comerford:
Okay. So, if I were in charge of the world, which is never going to happen, but let’s just pretend for a second that you could actually do such things … This will be fun. The things that occur to me would be looking at whether you truly have a representative campus. I would be looking at racial diversity. I’d be looking at Pell Grant recipients on your campus. I mean, there are campuses with less than 10%. There are campuses with two percent of the student body has a Pell Grant, which means they’re from low to moderate income. If the average is around, as I understand it, about 30% or so of all college students have Pell Grant eligibility, if you’re below that, there ought to be some accountability to that.

John Comerford:
That ought to count against you. Not just because you’re not doing much for society, but because you’re weakening the educational experience of every student on your campus. If you attract a heterogeneous group of students, all from the same socioeconomic status, all sharing these certain background characteristics, and then you pretend you’re giving them a well-rounded education, when we know so much of the educational experience is based on peer group, and those out-of-classroom interactions that are so important, and those relationships that form, you’re not providing a well-rounded education. You have to be able to provide that diversity on your campus. Yet that’s not an incentive in the current ranking systems.

John Comerford:
I would then look at how those students perform. This is not entirely self-serving at Otterbein, but I think we would do really well on a measure like that, that over a third of our student body is Pell Grant-eligible, who are a little above-average there, and then our Pell Grant-eligible students, our students of color, which our last incoming class was 28% students of color, so that makes us much more diverse than the state of Ohio, our first-generation college students, and each of those cohorts, our retention rates, first year, second year, are equal to or better than our average. That says there’s something going right. We can talk about what may or may not be going right at a place like Otterbein, but I’d look at are we not just getting students into college but getting through college?

John Comerford:
I would then look at outcomes. I mean, I like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the CLA, and some other instruments out there over the years that try to measure critical thinking skills, that try to measure the skills that employers are actually looking for. Is that what you’re delivering in your education, as opposed to just assuming that a 30 ACT student, an input variable, is necessarily going to be great on the other end, but we never measure it. That doesn’t make any sense. So, those are a few things off the top of my head.

Kevin Tyler:
I love all of those points that you just mentioned. One of the most striking points about your response there, and also that you bring up in your piece from 2019 in The Hill, is about the way a person can stay in school, the way that a school can retain a student, is by making sure they know what the costs are going to be all the way through. Right? In order to be able to stay in school, you have to be able to afford it all the way through. So, those points around price, your perspectives there, what does that look like at Otterbein? What do you think about it as an industry issue that people are looking at far more closely than ever before?

John Comerford:
Yeah. I mean, if you look at the stats, the trust in American higher education and colleges and universities has never been lower. That’s our fault. It’s because of things we do, like the pricing game was play. I’ll totally own our sector did this. Independent four years invented this in the ’90s, where there’s a sticker price that no one actually pays, and then the discounts, our vast majority of that aid, is in merit aid. So, the discount all goes to students without any measure of financial need. What that does, it creates this artificial inflation where that sticker price goes up, and up, and up, even though the net price, for the most part in higher ed, hasn’t really changed, as I understand.

John Comerford:
Now, public universities, chasing prestige in their own right, are picking up that model, as well, and providing lots of internal discounts, primarily in the form of merit aid. It would be really nice if we could stop playing that game. However, we need a better educated consumer base. Unfortunately, students and their families have bought into this. They assume the $40,000 school is better than the $30,000 school, even though one might have a 75% discount rate and one might have a 50% discount rate, so the net price is very similar, if not the same. It just doesn’t resonate. So, we need a better educated consumer base. We need to be honest with the students coming to us.

John Comerford:
The problem for an individual institution, like Otterbein, is we can’t be the one that bucks the model, because given the consumer’s understanding of price equals quality, we don’t want to be the highest in the group, but we also can’t really afford to be the lowest and be perceived as the least quality in the group. So, we’ve done a couple of things. One is who’s really punished in this pricing game we play is first-generation students, who don’t understand the sticker price isn’t real. What they understand is, “Oh, that’s $30,000, $40,000 a year. I could never afford that. My family doesn’t make that much in a year. I can’t even look at that school.” So, they don’t apply. We can’t package their financial aid. They’re blocked out of schools like ours.

John Comerford:
So, we’ve done something we call the Opportunity Scholarship, where how do you get to that population and make them understand you’re affordable? You don’t. The FAFSA, and then waiting six months for a financial aid package, and all these forms, and the federal government’s made this very complicated, how do you cut through that? We just said, “Hey, if you’re from a family income in Ohio that is $60,000 or less, Otterbein will meet your full need for tuition. Period.” That’s clear, understandable, and that’s where we’re seeing the growth in our classes, especially pre-pandemic, was all from these underrepresented populations, because we had found a signal into them about our affordability.

John Comerford:
Then for all of our other students, one of the games that schools play with price is we will give you a steep discount your first year, but then one of the reasons that sticker price goes up year, over year, over year, and many times the rate of inflation, is because that discount stays the same. Let’s say I have a 50% discount rate. If I raise my sticker price five percent, your out-of-pocket has gone up 10%, because we’re not discounting that five percent increase. Right? That’s a really unfair practice, because that means by the time you’re a senior, you’re often paying 30%, 40% more than you were as a first-year student. That’s not fair. That’s just unconscionable.

John Comerford:
So, we’ve got to be able to let students plan for the four years ahead, and rather than locking in that senior year price upfront, which is what some of these tuition schemes where you pay one rate for four years, what we’ve done is switched to transparency. We’ve just said, “Hey, listen. It’s going to go up two percent a year. It’s inflationary. The price of things goes up.” You can plan for it, no surprises, two percent a year, so you know what you’re dealing with. That’s called tuition transparency.

Kevin Tyler:
Which I think, I mean, it feels revolutionary, but it’s not at the same time.

John Comerford:
Yeah.

Kevin Tyler:
Being able to plan for expenses is something that we’ve all tried to be taught, et cetera, and I think from a higher ed perspective, it’s just not talked about as much as you are talking about it in the world. I’m curious about what it’s like to be a president of a university with viewpoints and perspectives around prestige and price, like the ones that you have. Have other people jumped on your bandwagon to join this conversation? Do you get a lot of pushback? What is it like to be a person who thinks like you in this space?

John Comerford:
Well, the first key, Kevin, is don’t take a job at a school that’s elitist, because you won’t last long. Right? If I count my lucky stars about anything, it’s that we can introduce these types of programs, really put access and affordability in the front of our mission, and not have to be abashed or ashamed about that, and to be on a campus where there has been no meaningful pushback, the faculty, or alumni, or whoever, haven’t organized against this because they want prestige. I’m not saying everyone here walks around with exactly the same thoughts on this issue, but as a general rule, Otterbein has always had this bend to it.

John Comerford:
I guess, Kevin, I came to it, as you know, I was president of Blackburn College in Illinois before I was here. That’s a work college. That’s a school where 75% of the students were Pell Grant-eligible, where it was proudly the lowest sticker price, private, in the state of Illinois, and really, as a work college, was able to break that model. So, Otterbein is not, and would not, be a work college. That’s a whole different model. But how do you take some of those mentalities, where you don’t have to be shy about this? Certainly, when this opportunity came along, that was one of the primary things I was testing. Is this a school that’s going to be a match for me in this regard? I don’t want to play the elitism game and the rankings game.

John Comerford:
Have other schools? It’s interesting. One of my theories is that, and maybe the pandemic accelerates this, or maybe it delays it, I don’t know, that as the demographics of 18 year olds continues to decline in Ohio, and the Midwest, and now, as I understand it, 49 of 50 states, the demographics are moving in the wrong direction for growth, that other schools who are trying, fighting over those 30 ACT students, and we do, too, will wake up one day and say, “Hey, Otterbein and a few other schools, they’re still growing. What are they doing?” We’ll say, “Well, we’re doing need-based aid. We’re doing tuition transparency. We’re trying to change the game here, and chase a different population of students.” So, I can’t say there’s been some groundswell, but I’m working on it.

Kevin Tyler:
I think that’s a worthy cause to work towards. I’m wondering about these initiatives that you have, and the way that the school is performing under these new kinds of policies around need-based aid, and diversity, et cetera. Has Otterbein seen a drop in rankings because of those decisions? I mean, based on what you say, it sounds like you’re okay with that, but I just wanted to see if there has been that drop because you’re focused on different things that feel more substantive for the people you’re serving.

John Comerford:
Interestingly, no.

Kevin Tyler:
Hm.

John Comerford:
It’s funny. Have you heard, Kevin, Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History?

Kevin Tyler:
Yes.

John Comerford:
Because he did a few episodes on the rankings. One of his theories, which I don’t know if it’s true or not, is that US News, in fact, punishes schools that speak out against their system, in the rankings. I don’t know that anyone at US News is paying attention to a small liberal arts college north of Columbus, Ohio. So, maybe we’re just not on their radar. Maybe they don’t punish schools. I don’t have any idea. We’ve seen our rankings increase. In fact, you just mentioned that rankings came out in the last week or so. We’re in the regional comprehensive, the Midwest comprehensive university list. We went from 21 to 12 in just one year.

Kevin Tyler:
Wow.

John Comerford:
Which is a huge jump in a year. So, I have a couple of theories. One, it’s doing things like hosting presidential debates, hosting former governor John Kasich, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John Kerry, and Chris Evans of Captain America fame, have all been on campus. That elevates, probably, some reputational scores, I’m betting, as other schools are like, “Oh, I didn’t know Otterbein hosted a debate,” or whatever. It might also be that not just me but other leaders here are speaking out and being leaders in the region and in higher ed, or trying to be, raises the awareness of a place like Otterbein, and might change its reputational scores. That’s just a theory though. I have no idea.

Kevin Tyler:
Sure. Sure. I’d like to have you just talk about here a little bit of Otterbein’s history, because even as a Columbus native, I was not clear, or aware, of how progressive a university, or a college at the time, Otterbein was. You have shared some facts with me about Otterbein that I never knew about. Can you share just how Otterbein has stepped into the future before some of the other institutions in the area?

John Comerford:
I’d love to. This is one of the reasons I was encouraged to come here just a little over three years ago, is because of this … It matched what I was looking for. Otterbein was founded in 1847, and was the first school founded co-ed. There were a few other schools that were co-ed before us, but we were the first founded as a co-ed institution. We were the first to put women and men in the same classrooms. Co-ed institutions at the time, there were very few, and the general mentality was that men and women were preparing for different fields of work, or perhaps even that women couldn’t keep up with the studies that men could keep up with. While there were women at the school, they were in very separate curricula. We’ve never done that at Otterbein. There’s never been sex-separate courses or curricula based on gender.

John Comerford:
We were the first to have women on our faculty. From the very founding, we had two women on the faculty. Our first graduates were women. So, there’s gender equality from the beginning. That extended to we enrolled students of color before the Civil War. I can’t claim that it’s always been a straight line, we’ve always done the right thing there. But our founders were abolitionists and wanted, deliberately, to send a message in those first years about this being an inclusive community. So, that was important from the beginning. You fast forward a little bit into, say, World War II, and Otterbein deliberately recruited students of Japanese descent out of internment camps. As we all know, it’s one of the national shames in the history of our country that we interred Japanese Americans during the war, and we had a strong population of students.

John Comerford:
In fact, when the students first came here, one of my predecessors, who was president in the ’40s, had the campus chaplain assigned to escort those students to class to make sure that they would not be harassed. Once that worked for a few weeks, then that stopped because, in fact, they were so welcomed and supported that they recruited their friends and colleagues of similar ancestry. So, one of the phrases you’ll hear around here is, “Do the right thing before it’s popular.” There’s points in history where Otterbein did that, and today, there are areas where we need to do the right thing before it’s popular. I think, first and foremost, our access and affordability issues.

Kevin Tyler:
I can’t agree with you more. I think that’s so true. Are there other efforts or initiatives that you’ve put in place, or that have been put in place maybe before your time there, that get at that, beyond the need-based tuition, et cetera? Are there other things that you want to mention here about access and affordability that you’re doing?

John Comerford:
Well, I think I would dig a little deeper on our strong retention. At most American colleges and universities, you would see some achievement gap for first-generation students, students of color, low to moderate income students. We don’t see that at Otterbein. If you look at our data, because sometimes I’ll say that to a colleague from another school and they’ll say, “Really? How did you do that?” I can’t really point to something “we did,” except for intentionally recruit and achieve critical mass. One of my favorite stats is if you were here, I think, eight years ago, at Otterbein, before my time … This place was doing great things long before I was here. In the incoming class eight years ago, there would have been a grand total of four students that were coming from Columbus City Schools.

John Comerford:
As, Kevin, you would know, Columbus City Schools is the largest school district in the state of Ohio. It is literally our next-door neighbor here in Westerville. They’re right next to us. We had four. Now we regularly get 70 or 80 in every incoming class from Columbus City Schools. That goes to something else I know we’re going to talk about, which is partnership, is making sure that we bring these students and then they are successful. That success, at least we think, is largely due to you see our retention numbers and that gap close, as we achieve critical mass. You go from being one, maybe the only student in your class who is a student of color, or the only student trying to join a fraternity or sorority, and maybe you don’t have extra money or whatever it is, to suddenly, you’re not alone here. Right? This is normal and acceptable, and we want you for who and what you are. It is very Otterbein, and it also is the key to those students being successful when they arrive.

Kevin Tyler:
This is, I think, a perfect segue into the third P of our conversation. We’ve covered prestige and price, but there are some really exciting initiatives around partnerships that exist at Otterbein University. I’d like to start by just you giving a high level of your view of the role partnerships play in an educational experience for the students, faculty, and staff at Otterbein.

John Comerford:
Well, let me start with … Because we’re very excited about this in general, and it’s a big topic. I think where we have been traditionally in higher ed is the “ivory tower on the hill.” Right?

Kevin Tyler:
Yeah.

John Comerford:
We’ve prided ourselves on our disconnection from the society and world around us. Right? That doesn’t come from a bad place, Kevin. It comes from a place of we walk around thinking about philosophy, and we live at this 30,000 foot level, and that’s part of what we teach, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Right? We’re not a training place. We think big thoughts, and that’s a good thing. But the disconnection part of it is not. So, how do we, through the entire life cycle of a student, the entire life cycle of a human being, connect in partnership to serve people when and where they need to be served?

John Comerford:
So, the mentality can’t be, “Well, you bring students to us, and we want them to be a certain type. They need to be prepared in a certain way and be able to pay a certain bill,” and whatever. So, we’re choosy on that end. Then we’ll put on a program that we think is important, but we’re not going to talk to employers about what they want. We’re just going to just teach what we think is important, and what the workforce demands are, what the economy needs, what employers want, we’re not going to ask those questions. That has to stop. I think it has on many campuses. At Otterbein, it’s bout partnership with K through 12. If we’re in a declining demographic environment, how do we get through that? It’s by getting more students to go to college. Right?

John Comerford:
So, that’s about K through 12 partnerships. We can talk more about that, if you want to. Then it’s about workforce development. That’s what we are. We’re workforce developers. So, how do we bring employers into that conversation? In our case, actually onto campus in a building we call The Point, where they work with our students hand-in-hand on R and D projects. Right here is part of that experience. Then it goes on to adult learning. Gone are the days where you can just go to college and say, “Well, that’s it. Done with that. I don’t have to go worry about school anymore.”

John Comerford:
The economy, everything about our world, is changing so fast. Anyone with that mentality is going to get left behind. So, how do we get more into adult degree completion, graduate programs? How do we break out of the degree mold? We’ll still do degrees, but not everything we do has to be a degree program. Not everything we do has to carry an academic credit. Maybe there’s just something we can do that’s an up-skilling, six-week session for whatever profession, and we can be that, because that’s what we do. All the way through, we have a very robust lifelong learning community at Otterbein that serves retirees. So, you recognize you’re a part of a system. You’re not the ivory tower on the hill. You’re an important part of this ecosystem, and the only way this works well is from intentional partnership.

Kevin Tyler:
Oh, my word. Whenever I hear you talk about this, I get so excited that there is a space and a person who is championing these kinds of things. It just seems so common sense and so, “Of course, schools would think about this,” but it just isn’t that way. So, I just get super amped when you talk about it, and the way that you do, because obviously, it’s a passion of yours. The way that you’re doing it at Otterbein is pretty fantastic. Let’s start with the K through 12 partnerships, because I really want to save The Point for last. I think that is just absolutely fantastic. So, let’s dig into K through 12 and what that looks like at Otterbein University.

John Comerford:
So, K through 12, we intentionally cultivate relationships at the school district level. We do. We have admissions reps, like every other school does, and they go in, and they know high school counselors, and they visit the schools. We do that, too. Right? That’s important.

Kevin Tyler:
Of course. Yeah.

John Comerford:
But we’re talking at the district level about what are they worried about, what are they trying to do? A few things emerge from that. It depends on the school district. Some school districts are very worried about teacher professional development and retention. We have contracts with several school districts where their teachers take Otterbein graduate courses, sometimes even offered onsite in that school district, and it’s on the topic that the school district wants to emphasize. So, it might be serving students with disabilities. It might be gifted education. You name the topic, we can deliver it with our great education department faculty members.

John Comerford:
The school district pays the professional development cost. The teachers then get to choose, actually … I love this innovation that our faculty had here. The teachers choose halfway through the experience whether or not they want graduate credit for it. Some teachers are working towards a master’s degree. Some aren’t. There’s some different requirements. So, you can do it just to better yourself as a teacher, or you can actually work and apply that towards a graduate program. Again, it’s, I think, an innovation that you don’t have to … Those programs can run parallel to one another for a while.

John Comerford:
So, there are other school districts where we are very interested in increasing access and affordability. Columbus City Schools was our natural partner in this regard, but we launched a program called the Urban School Districts Initiative, where we partnered with a number of schools, serve higher-than-average student bodies with free and reduced lunch and other family income issues, that we know are going to get in the way of their chance to go to college. We targeted financial aid. We targeted that need-based financial aid. We made sure to reach out to the high school counselor staff and parents to put on programs about how to pay for college, recognizing that in these lower income school districts, often, the counselors are overwhelmed. They have 500 students assigned to one counselor. They need help, and we need to be there to help them.

John Comerford:
It’s even gone so far as a really cool thing that happened here a couple years ago. We were seeing, as I mentioned before, these increasing numbers of students coming from Columbus City Schools. We noticed that they weren’t doing well in our math classes, the college algebra course that most new students have to go through. It just wasn’t clicking for these students, for whatever reason. So, again, our education faculty and our math department faculty went to Columbus City Schools, put on a Summer program, we got a grant for this, where they worked with the high school math teachers, so that we could better understand how they were teaching math in the high schools, and those high school teachers could better understand how we were teaching math at Otterbein, in higher education.

John Comerford:
After that program, those performance gaps closed, because we reached out to a partner, and we figured out what the problem was, and we worked together to solve it. We didn’t complain. “Oh, well, these students aren’t ready for college.” You don’t hear that phrase here. We talk about being a student-ready campus, not college-ready students. Because the deficiency is not on those students. They have been admitted to Otterbein. We believe that can be successful. The deficiency is in us trying to understand how best to help them overcome whatever obstacle’s in their path. It’s a mentality shift, and you have to work through partners, as opposed to just pretending that these students come to us as empty vessels. They don’t come to us as empty vessels. They’ve been educated. They’ve been supported. They have gotten here through a variety of systems that we need to tap into, so that we close those gaps.

Kevin Tyler:
You know this, because I’ve said it already during this conversation. I’m so moved by it. It makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense. I don’t know what every single college or university is doing, reaching back into the K12 system and saying, “Here’s how we do it here,” but hearing you talk about this is … I hope everyone understands how important this is, and I hope everyone hears it, because that thinking, and that partnership, and collaboration between two different kinds of educational systems is so important to a student’s success. Understanding the environments that people are learning in, the environments that people are teaching in, all of that, those are all inputs into the students that show up on Otterbein’s campus, or any other campus. This is really important work. It just gets me super excited.

John Comerford:
Well, Kevin, just to hammer on that just for a second, because obviously, we’re agreeing with you on this stuff. When I talk about the prestige and elitism thing that’s the rot in the center of higher ed, that’s the kind of thinking that gets in the way of these partnerships.

Kevin Tyler:
Exactly.

John Comerford:
If we were an elitist institution, and a student wasn’t able to perform in our math class, we would assume the problem is the student. Right? We’re right. They’re not ready. If we’re elitist, it’s our job then to be filters, to decide which students are worthy and which are not, as opposed to being pumps, pumps that help those students overcome those obstacles and solve those problems moving forward. That’s the difference in mentality that dropping elitism will get you.

Kevin Tyler:
Exactly. Exactly. I love it. What about adult learner partnerships? We’ll save The Point for last, because I think that’s one of my favorite parts. What do adult learner partnerships look like at Otterbein University?

John Comerford:
This is a work in progress for us. If you went back 20 years ago, Kevin, you would have found at Otterbein an adult degree completion program called The Weekend College that had almost 1,000 students enrolled. It’s gone. It’s gone. I regret that it’s gone, but what happened, as best I can piece together, is our traditional population was growing. So, there was no financial pain to losing it. Other players came into that marketplace, places like the University of Phoenix. We have some local institutions. I admire them. Franklin University does a great job in this space. Right? So, they came into this space. Otterbein didn’t fight for the market. So, it went away. At this point, we don’t have many adult learners on our campus, in undergraduate programs. In graduate programs, certainly, we do.

John Comerford:
So, we need to get back into this space. This is an important extension of our mission. A lot of the students do well here. But again, it’s in partnership. If we just decided tomorrow, “Hey, let’s put up an adult degree completion program. Let’s put it out in the market. We’ll advertise it a little bit. It’ll be great,” I don’t think that’s going to work. It’s a competitive space at this point. We don’t have the right course structures. We would have to have faculty with better understanding about how to serve this population. We don’t have a reputation in this space anymore. So, our partner in adult degree completion is going to be Columbus State Community College. Columbus State Community College has actually moved their Westerville Education Center, which used to be on the other side of town, onto our campus.

John Comerford:
In their former location, again, pre-pandemic, 1,500 students a year would run through that location. It was just a hodgepodge of courses. You couldn’t get a whole associate’s there. What they’ve moved now to our campus in Westerville is going to be entirely two plus two programs with Otterbein. If you’re a Columbus State student on this site, you will have been dual-admitted as a new student to Otterbein. So, you don’t have to go for two years to Columbus State and hope you get in. Right? We’re going to admit you immediately and make you part of that campus community. We’re going to assign you a joint academic advisor to make sure you don’t take the wrong course, you don’t lose stuff in transfer. We’re intentionally building these two plus two pipelines so you can have the same advisor, the same parking spot, and work through, on a four-year basis, a degree program that will be less expensive than any of the public universities in the state of Ohio, right here on-site.

John Comerford:
As Dave Harrison, their president at Columbus State, and I like to say, we want this to be the most innovative partnership between a community college and a private institution in the country. We think we have the ingredients to do that. Oh, by the way, we’re going to build a building that will house them, and we’ll have another partner, South Side Early Learning, that is interested in bringing in a childcare center.

Kevin Tyler:
Stop.

John Comerford:
It’ll be an 18 hour a day childcare center, Kevin. So, during the day, it can serve faculty, staff, and other people that need childcare during the day, because we don’t have that on campus. We need that. It’s high-demand. In the evenings, it can serve adult learners who need some place to put their kid while they go to that three-hour class. So, South Side gets to use our facility 18 hours a day. It’s a much more attractive financial model for them. We get, in the same building with Columbus State, a childcare center to serve that population. We couldn’t do this without partnership.

Kevin Tyler:
Oh, my word. Oh, my word. I love this. I love conversations like this, about innovation, and understanding not just what people need in their educational experience but what they need in their lives, so that they can get the educational experience. I think, granted, the role and responsibility of higher ed has ballooned. Right? Higher ed is now responsible for mental health, food security, and all these other things, which yes, I agree with. If there are resources to be invested in those spaces, yes. I fully agree. But the way that you’re going about addressing these needs just makes so much sense, because there’s shared skin in the game. Everyone gets a benefit, especially students, can take the time they need to study, get educated and graduate, and move on to whatever is next in their lives.

Kevin Tyler:
I think that is the most incredible benefit to all of this, is that it’s so student-centered. That’s the only thing that these partnerships are about, is making sure that students succeed. Of course, the secondary motivation is that there’s benefit for the universities and colleges and nonprofits that are participating. This is fantastic. I guess, lastly, is The Point. This facility is absolutely mind-boggling to me. Just please explain, from a high level, and then we’ll dive deeper into that, because I think the model is fantastic.

John Comerford:
This is my predecessor, Kathy Krendl, gets full credit. I showed up just in time to cut the ribbon and take all the credit. The conception of this thing was not mine, but it matches … Again, I came here for a reason. This was really exciting stuff.

Kevin Tyler:
Yes. Shout out to Kathy Krendl. Yes.

John Comerford:
That’s right. Hopefully, she’s listening in. So, we were going to launch an engineering program four or five years ago. Obviously, to launch engineering, you need new labs and a new facility and all that. The university had bought a former manufacturing facility, 60,000 square feet, on the west side of campus, just to control the land, some decades earlier. It was just there. It was literally housing … It was furniture storage. All the old bunk loft beds from the residence halls, I guess, were stacked in there. “So, okay, well, this would be a good place for the engineering program, but we don’t need 60,000 square feet. What else are we going to do with it?”

John Comerford:
So, in there is engineering and classrooms and labs, and other programs were based out of there, too. Then there’s a maker space, which is laser engravers, and 3D printers, and a wood shop, and a metal shop, and all this crazy expensive stuff that I’m not allowed to touch because I would hurt myself, but it’s all very cool to see the students working on it. Engineering students use it. Art students use it. It’s designed as a STEAM center, because think about artists. They’re doing sculpture, and they need all this equipment. It’s great for them. It is open to the community. So, you can buy a membership to it. Then most of the square footage in this building though, Kevin … I think this is what you’re driving at. It’s dedicated to corporate partnership.

John Comerford:
So, we have everyone in the space from start-ups that have spun out of … We’re near Ohio State, which is a research institution. So, a start-up spins out of them and needs a place to land. They’ve landed in The Point. We’ve had Fortune 500 companies in the building, and everything in between, all different fields, different industries that they’re working in. They lease spaces in the building. In exchange for them leasing in the building, one of the things we ask of them is, “You need to work with Otterbein undergraduates in your company.” So, they hire interns. They work with classes on R and D. The companies are really excited about it because it’s a lot of R and D work. So, there’s a lot of PhDs that work for these companies that always love the campus environment. Here, they get to come, and they get to be part of a campus environment, work with students again but still get their good paycheck from their private employer. Right? So, they get the best of both worlds.

Kevin Tyler:
Right.

John Comerford:
Our students get these hands-on, applied experiences, and it is a game-changer. Then it’s a community center, too. We have all sorts of event spaces. This has become the hub for community activity in Westerville, Ohio. If there’s a community meeting, Lifelong Learning Community, state of the city address, it’s all happening at The Point.

Kevin Tyler:
So, what are some of the projects or products or things that the students get to work on? I mean, it’s not just like interning. Right? It’s actual employment. Can you talk a little bit about the opportunities that exist in the space from the partners that are in the building?

John Comerford:
Yeah. It’s all over the place. I’ll just give you a couple of examples from different ends of the spectrum here. Right? We’ve had JPMorgan Chase in the building. Obviously, they’re a Fortune, I don’t even know, 10, 25 [crosstalk 00:38:07] They’re huge. Right? Just huge. Beyond our understanding huge. What they’re doing at The Point, or have been doing at The Point, is financial technology. They’re working on cryptocurrency, virtual branches. So, we have a bunch of virtual reality goggles and things, so you walk into a virtual branch. They’re testing all that out. Our students are working on these projects. In fact, one of my favorite pictures is we got a visit from Jamie Dimon. The CEO of JPMorgan Chase was on campus. A bunch of Otterbein students had him in a corner, and he’s wearing a virtual reality headset and groping at the air around him. I’m taking pictures of Jamie Dimon doing this, which is pretty entertaining to me.

John Comerford:
That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, another example was we have a company called [STABLZ 00:38:57], STABL with Z at the end, where it’s actually an Otterbein alum and good friend who decided to do a start-up where he was frustrated by everywhere you go, you find a shaky table at a restaurant. What do you do? You shove sugar packets or a bunch of napkins underneath to stop it from shaking. So, this is a new leg system. It’s called Tap to Adapt, where you just hit the side of it, and it evens any flat surface on any rough terrain. So, it’s being used, first, in construction environments. If you have a sawhorse on a construction site, and it’s a rough construction site, this will give you a flat surface on any rough terrain. It was developed in The Point. It was made, the prototype was made in the maker space. Students have been involved from the beginning.

Kevin Tyler:
I love it. I love it. So, then when you talk about funding an initiative like this, obviously, the build … It’s an expensive project, and it’s state-of-the-art materials, et cetera. How are you making it profitable, or worth the investment, or how is it paid for?

John Comerford:
Yeah. So, the renovation of the building was, obviously, an expensive project. So, we used university resources. We did fundraising. We actually found this pitch, to companies, was pretty compelling. We had American Electric Power and other big companies here in central Ohio that came in and wanted to be a part of this project. But actually, we got a big chunk of money from the City of Westerville.

Kevin Tyler:
Nice.

John Comerford:
They want economic development. The pitch was, which now we’re united with them, that a university should be an engine of economic development. You just have to be intentional about building that bridge. So, instead of our traditional model on college campuses, “Well, that’s the art building, and that’s the science building, and that’s the theater building,” this shook it up. It’s hard to describe The Point in a short way because it is the bridge from the university into the economy, into employers, into Corporate America, into the community. So, the idea, and this is the new building we’ll build with Columbus State and childcare center and other opportunities like this, we’re going to keep expanding on this concept, because you have the revenue from the tenants. It’s not free. If you want to lease space in there, we’re charging you. It’s Class A office space.

Kevin Tyler:
Right.

John Comerford:
Right? We have, obviously, the student revenue, because we’re using a bunch of classrooms. Engineering is in there. We have some modest revenue from the maker space, people joining that and getting access to all of those cool machines and equipment in there. Then the thing that I can’t quite quantify is I think it has a huge impact on student recruitment, because most campus tours, let’s face reality here, are the same thing. It’s a leafy green campus, and you’ve got an old building that’s 100 years old, and we’ve got one, too. It’s Towers Hall. It’s beautiful. It has ivy on it. You talk about faculty who know your names at a close, caring community. You talk about diversity. I mean, we’re all giving the same stupid tour. Right?

John Comerford:
It’s all true. We’re not lying, but you can’t tell the difference. You will not find another building like The Point on any other college campus anywhere near us. Maybe in the country. I don’t know. But certainly not in our market here. The tour starts and ends at The Point. You pass Towers Hall and the leafy green campus on the way. But The Point, seeing students in these environments, working with employers, we take your outcomes, what you want in your career goals, seriously, and we’re going to do these hands-on, applied things. That’s what makes, I think, it different. When you walk away from Otterbein, you’re like, “Huh, I saw something I didn’t see on the tour at that other school.” There’s an impact, I think, more broadly beyond just the revenue that square footage produces.

Kevin Tyler:
So, I’m glad you brought that up. So, I’m curious about when you take into consideration all of what we’ve talked about today, your thoughts on price and prestige, your views and action and initiatives around partnerships, at all levels of the educational spectrum, have these things changed the way that you market Otterbein University? Have the stories shifted? Do you say different … Is there a different language that you use because of the different way that you deliver an experience?

John Comerford:
That’s a great question from a marketing guy, too, Kevin. You’re absolutely right. You’re hitting on the right thing. Again, no one’s doing this on purpose. One of the other weaknesses of American higher ed is we’re not very differentiated.

Kevin Tyler:
Exactly.

John Comerford:
You can’t tell campuses apart. We already have a consumer base that is not well-educated in telling the difference. They turn to things like rankings as a result, because we don’t do a good job of telling them the difference. It’s not about being better or worse. It’s about being distinctive as your institution. I would never say that we’re better than Ohio State or worse than Ohio State, but we’re very different. We’re not better or worse than Ohio Wesleyan, or Capital, or Denison, or you name it. You know all the competitors around here.

Kevin Tyler:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

John Comerford:
But we’re different. Are you clear about that? So, the conversation we had over the last year was, “Okay, we think we’re different in this space that The Point has brought us. We’re going to be the school that deliberately links your career goals to experiential learning opportunities that tie into a great, broad liberal arts curriculum.” That’s a distinctive space. That’s a distinctive story we can tell. The problem in telling that story was we couldn’t say that every student would have those experiences.

Kevin Tyler:
Right.

John Comerford:
We could say, “Hey, look. We’ve got students working with JPMorgan Chase and The Point,” but we can’t tell every student they’re going to do that. Right?

Kevin Tyler:
Right.

John Comerford:
Chase isn’t … They’re big, but I don’t know if they’re that big. Right? So, what we’re launching and marketing this year, and then next year’s incoming class will be the first class in the program, is a program we’re calling Every Student Will. It’s just that. If you come to Otterbein, every student will have a career map and a mentor from the moment they set foot on campus. If you come to Otterbein, every student will attend a sophomore career and vocational exploration camp, like we bring them in early as freshmen for orientation. We’re bringing sophomores in early to do this. We’re going to match you with alumni mentors and make sure you’re finding not just a career but a life purpose and calling.

John Comerford:
Junior year, every student will, at Otterbein, have an immersive experience. Most of them will be in professional settings, but it might be study abroad. It might be something cross-cultural. Every student’s going to have that co-curricular, life-changing thing that doesn’t always happen in the classroom. Senior year, every student will have an intentional transition plan, working with alumni in their field. We’re going to do an adulting 101 thing. It’s part of the senior year seminar. Personal financial literacy, media literacy, so you know you’re being lied to. These are some life skills that we need, desperately, college grads to have, that we hope they get in the curriculum, but how do we make sure every student will? So, we’re actually doubling down not just marketing-wise but in developing the program to make sure we can deliver this for every student.

Kevin Tyler:
I have two more questions that your response has triggered for me in my brain. The first is as you start to broaden … I don’t want to call it offer. Broaden the spectrum of care that you’re offering students. How did you go about hiring and filling the gaps in the workforce to start to … That’s a major investment. Not every college can just start hiring people to meet these new needs for students. What did that look like, just from a high level?

John Comerford:
The first thing I’d say, Kevin, is we probably haven’t hired enough, and we have relied on a remarkable group of creative and dedicated faculty and staff who have gone above and beyond to make these things happen. Right? We’ve hired a few new positions. There are positions, say, for example, that run The Point and manage corporate relationships now and things like this. But it’s not some wholesale … As you know, we’re not a wealthy institution.

Kevin Tyler:
Right.

John Comerford:
We’re not a poor one either. We’re somewhere in the middle. Right? It’s not like we had a … The money tree that grows out back of Harvard doesn’t grow here. Right? I don’t have one. So, we have to make tough choices about resource allocations. So, it’s been about creativity. It’s things like we … This was not my idea. It was actually the staff’s idea. We had a Center for Career Development and a Center for Student Success. As we’re talking about a program like Every Student Will, the staff came and said, “We think we should merge. We think we should be a one-stop-shop for all things academic and career-related, because those things are so intertwined. We’re in two different offices with two different staffs, running two different programs. It doesn’t make any sense anymore. We have to be united around this.”

John Comerford:
It’s about faculty who have found corporate partnerships and brought them to us, and integrate those corporate partnerships into their classroom. Right? Sometimes it’s interns. Sometimes we’re getting great corporate experiences because a company will come to us and say, “Hey, we have this problem. We have this new product. We need this market research done,” and a faculty member will embed that into their course. Right? So, you’re not hiring someone to do that. You’re just reshaping a course to have that hands-on, real-life, non-theoretical stuff in the course. So, I mean, I’d be happy to go through details with anyone that wants to talk about it. We didn’t get a billion dollar gift that’s paying for all this stuff. We prioritized. We made some tough choices. But mostly, it’s been the dedication, creativity, of our faculty and staff.

Kevin Tyler:
And the commitment to being a student-centered organization, institution.

John Comerford:
That’s right.

Kevin Tyler:
I think that matters. The last question I have for you, if you could just speak to it from your perspective, is what do you think gets in the way of lots of other college presidents, leaderships, university leaderships, to make decisions like the ones that you’ve been making, and have made, and being student-centered? Is it the rankings? Is it just the historical nature of higher ed? Why does it feel like such a revolutionary act to behave the way that you’re behaving, and benefit to the student?

John Comerford:
Yeah. I don’t have a great answer to that question. That’s a terrible premise to an answer but I’m going to give it to you anyway, because I don’t pretend to understand that entirely.

Kevin Tyler:
Totally fair.

John Comerford:
I think it is such a challenging environment, for most institutions in higher ed, right now. The shrinking demographics, the more competitive environment, we’re all trying to out-discount each other. What you’re hearing, and what sounds exciting from Otterbein, is that we’re not going to play that game. We’re going to play our own game. Right? Because playing that game, I don’t really see a road, a path, forward there. There will be for some schools. If you’ve got a billion dollar endowment and a money tree out back, you might be able to make this rankings and prestige thing work for you. Hey, more power to you, I guess.

John Comerford:
For 99% of schools, that’s not going to work. You’re caught in this loop. The reality is, saying something like, “We don’t care about prestige,” is a scary thing to say. Oh, my God, what happens if … As you asked, what happens if our rankings fall? What happens if by serving first-generation students, our average ACT goes down by a point? Oh, my God. What’s going to happen? The reality is though, I don’t see another alternative. I just don’t. I look around at the competitive landscape. I don’t see a path forward otherwise. You’ve got to define your own game because you’re going to lose that other game. It’s not going to work.

John Comerford:
My goal at Otterbein is … What most schools think is build prestige and they will come. Right? We get higher in the rankings and then those students will come, and then they’ll be willing to pay money to come. Right? That’s the theory. Okay. So, I need to discount the heck out of 30 ACT students and give them all 90% discounts, and lose tons of money on every single student that comes here to drive up that average. I need to do silliness like spend all sorts of money marketing myself not to families but to other campuses, so that they vote for me higher on these rankings forms. Right?

John Comerford:
It incentivizes all these things that are only going to cost me money. Oh, I’ll add one more. I need to attract those 30 ACT students that are from higher-income families. I need to build a Disneyland campus. I need a Starbucks on every corner. I need a lazy river. I need a climbing wall. I need apartment-style residence halls. I need all this stuff that costs tons of money but has no impact on education. None. In fact, you can argue it hurts education. But that’s what you have to do to compete in that space. You are then stuck with declining revenue per student as you’re trying to discount and buy those high-ability students, and increasing costs to operate your Disneyland campus. Lower revenue per student and higher cost of operations is not a path I’m interested in. I think other schools will wake up to that fact.

Kevin Tyler:
That’s it for this week’s episode of Higher Voltage. We’ll be back soon with a new episode. Until then, you can find us on Twitter @volthighered. You can find me, Kevin Tyler, on Twitter @KevinCTyler2.

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage is the podcast of Volt, a publication that covers all aspects of higher ed marketing.

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