Over the past decade, Ithaka S+R has established itself as a key source of strategic insight on academic libraries, scholarly communication, and the changing landscape of higher education in the U.S. Recently, Catharine “Cappy” Hill succeeded Deanna Marcum as the organization’s managing director. In this two-part series, NewsBreaks explores key issues in higher education and the information industry with these dynamic leaders.
Part 1 featured a conversation with Marcum, and in Part 2, we talk with Hill. Before coming to Ithaka S+R, she had served as president of Vassar College since 2006. Prior to that, she was provost of Williams College and a member of the economics faculty there. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Dave Shumaker: Cappy, congratulations on becoming managing director of Ithaka S+R. What are your thoughts as you join the organization?
Cappy Hill: Thank you, Dave. I’m delighted to be joining Ithaka S+R. Perhaps the first thing to say is that I’m no stranger to it, having served on the board and worked with it on several projects related to the economics of higher education. I’ve developed the greatest respect for the staff, and I believe strongly in its mission. As it happened, Ithaka’s search for a successor to Deanna coincided with the completion of my 10-year term as president of Vassar, and I was eager to get back into research on higher education, including access and affordability and improving student outcomes. The focus of Ithaka S+R on these goals was very appealing to me. So, it was a good match.
Shumaker: Speaking of the economics of higher education, at Vassar you had a great deal of success in bringing students with lower economic means into the institution. Will increasing economic accessibility be part of your portfolio at Ithaka S+R?
Hill: Yes, in that the mission here involves improving student outcomes, worrying about costs, and increasing access.If we’re going to get completion rates and educational attainment up in the U.S., it has to involve a more diverse group of students getting a bachelor’s degree. Right now, the degree attainment among higher-income students is pretty high. The only way to raise it overall is to increase success more broadly across the income distribution. So, I think that’s absolutely part of Ithaka S+R’s mission. We have a project going on right now to do just that. It involves a group of institutions working to increase the socioeconomic diversity of their student bodies as a way of increasing educational attainment.
Shumaker: What are some of the keys to success in achieving that goal?
Hill: To start with, it’s important to realize that the liberal arts colleges such as Vassar, while they’re wonderful institutions, are very expensive. Private, nonprofit institutions educate only 15% of the undergraduates, and their model probably isn’t going to scale up to let us increase educational attainment more broadly. It’s important for them to be leaders and do everything they can educationally, but they can’t solve the problem. We have to look to the public institutions, where 85% of the students are being educated. Figuring out how to offer a really high-quality education, and increasing completion rates and student success at a reasonable cost in the public sector, is the challenge. And it’s in that effort that Ithaka S+R can play an important role. We can both help institutions evaluate projects to do those things and scale them across higher education. As a trusted, nonprofit research group, we’re in a great position to do that.
Shumaker: These are important societal goals, to be sure. Often, though, when there’s discussion of educational transformation, it involves technology. Do you see technology playing a role in achieving these goals?
Hill: Absolutely. Higher education is often given as an example of a sector where technology hasn’t increased efficiency or productivity. Despite the introduction of technology, we’re still doing many things the same way that we always have, and we haven’t figured out a way to reduce faculty per number of students, or administrators per number of students, to get costs down. So our costs have been going up relative to other sectors of the economy, and that creates a real problem of affordability. Technology is going to play a major role in helping us bend the cost curve in higher education. We just have to figure out how to use it productively, to get costs down while maintaining the quality. There’s been a lot of experimentation, and breakthroughs are going to happen. It’s just a question of the rate of change and how to help that transition.
Shumaker: Are there any current projects you’re excited about?
Hill: We’re involved in a first-in-the-world grant to use large datasets to figure out what advising strategies and interventions are needed to increase student retention and completion rates. The point is, we’re beginning to do better at getting more diverse students into college, but that’s meaningless unless we do better at keeping them. In small colleges, there’s a great deal of personal attention from faculty and administrators to ensure that students don’t fall through the cracks and don’t drop out. That’s often lacking at larger institutions. They just don’t have the resources to provide it. Using data and artificial intelligence, we can substitute and leverage that personal attention. We can identify patterns that may indicate a student at risk and target advising efforts to work with that student to avoid or resolve a problem. If we can turn a 40% graduation rate into a 60% or 70% graduation rate, that has a huge impact on reducing costs as well as the increase in student success. The role of Ithaka S+R in that project is evaluation, so we’re helping set up controlled, randomized experiments to test the effectiveness of interventions, which will be ongoing for the next few years.
Shumaker: It’s interesting that your first example of technology has to do with advising, not instruction. It seems that most of the discussion of technology application focuses on the instructional side. Are there some promising initiatives in instructional technology?
Hill: Certainly, there are lots of opportunities to apply technology to instruction that promise to reduce costs as well as increase student success. It enables us to save the faculty-student interactions for the individual and small-group mentoring and instruction, which is the most meaningful. As a former faculty member, I often felt that standing in the front of a classroom and delivering the same lecture to different sections of a course wasn’t the most productive use of my time. With the flipped classroom, we can save faculty time for interacting with students on issues where they need more individual attention. Or take the traditional mode of teaching and assigning problem sets in some subjects. Traditionally, students would go to a lecture about a problem-solving technique, then solve problems as homework, then turn in their problem solutions at the next class, and then wait for the instructor to grade and return them. There were delays built in throughout the process, and because of those delays, by the time students received feedback, they were on to the next problem set, and it would take a lot of discipline to go back and review and learn from the feedback. Technology enables them to do the problems online and get immediate feedback, and all the evidence suggests that that’s a much better way to learn.
Shumaker: Those are great examples. Are there other initiatives specifically addressing the needs of “nontraditional” learners?
Hill: Yes, in a couple different ways. For one thing, the cost and affordability initiatives are important. Another instructional initiative we’re involved in is looking at introductory math requirements. There are several parts to this. First, we’re focusing on statistics as perhaps a more appropriate math requirement for many majors, rather than the traditional advanced algebra or introductory calculus. The course was developed by faculty from 2-year and 4-year institutions, so that it will be consistent and transferable if a student transfers from a 2-year community college to a 4-year university. This makes the course more responsive to the needs of some nontraditional students. Finally, we’re applying an adaptive learning package to reduce faculty time and costs. Our partners in this include 2-year and 4-year public institutions as well as the for-profit software provider, so it’s a great example of the kinds of innovative partnerships we hope to foster and participate in.
Shumaker: Scholarly communication is the second strategic program area for Ithaka S+R. What do you see coming in that area?
Hill: That emphasis originates with our sister organization under the ITHAKA umbrella, JSTOR. JSTOR has been truly transformative in scholarly communication and has contributed tremendous expertise. It’s also one of the areas of higher education where technology has had its earliest impacts. Digital technology completely changed the discussion on preservation of the scholarly record. So we’ll continue to be involved in that area.
Shumaker: One of the major debates, or innovations, in scholarly communication has to do with open access. What are your thoughts on that?
Hill: As an economist, I see the issue as a market failure. There are market failures across the economy when something can be produced and distributed at zero marginal cost, because there isn’t a way for the private market to recoup the costs of producing it in the first place. So there have to be solutions to let people recoup their initial investment. The open access discussion is part of figuring that out. I think that retaining peer review is really important. We’re suffering from too much information that’s not filtered and verified or reviewed. So figuring out how to retain incentives for publication and peer review, in this digital environment where it costs almost nothing to reproduce and distribute content, is really complicated, and the open access movement is part of that discussion. I think there are challenges for institutional repositories and for other models that have been proposed. From an economics perspective, I’m not sure the incentives are present to make them viable. However, what we need are ongoing dialogues and experimentation to find our way through the changes taking place.
Shumaker: Some see new roles for libraries in the future of scholarly communications. How do you see the role of libraries in these dialogues and experiments?
Hill: Libraries have a very important role to play. They have transformed sooner than the rest of higher education, and as a result, they are in a position to show the way. They can help the rest of higher education with the role of technology as changes continue.
Librarians were faced with tech changes in their world sooner than the rest of higher education was, and they’ve adapted. They’re developing the library role not just as places where books are stored on shelves, but as places where students and faculty come for information in a variety of different forms. They are helping the rest of the higher education community think about teaching and learning and research given the transformation that has taken place in scholarly communication and data. They can help faculty and students wrestle with these changes.
Shumaker: I noticed in comparing Ithaka’s most recent faculty survey with the previous survey that there was an increase in support for the importance of librarians, combined with greater concern over the information literacy and preparedness of students. What are your thoughts on that?
Hill: I think that’s an important point. It used to be that faculty filtered information for the students. They chose a textbook, developed a syllabus, and required students to work through the text, chapter by chapter. That world has changed. Students are going online for information. Faculty are using a variety of digital sources. That means that students need to learn how to vet all the available information. That’s where librarians can really help—in making students understand what is available and helping them think through what resources have different levels of vetting. It’s so easy to Google something, and you get the most popular stuff. It may not take you very deep. So the students need to understand what they are accessing and how to evaluate it. Students are being challenged by this abundance of information from very early in their academic careers. They’ll also be expected to evaluate information wisely when they go out into the workplace. Librarians have a key role in equipping them for that responsibility.
Shumaker: It sounds as if there’s plenty of work for Ithaka S+R to do. What challenges or changes are on the horizon?
Hill: As a small organization, a primary challenge is to continue balancing our funding sources, primarily fee-for-service and grants. We aim to maintain our strategic focus, which is to be as helpful and productive for higher education as we can be. We’re continuing to look for the best ways to do that.
Shumaker: Cappy, thanks again for sharing your thoughts. We’ll continue to look to Ithaka S+R for news and insights.