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Death Spirals or Virtuous Circles?

By Russell Olwell — May 04, 2009 4 min read
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In many ways, the problems of K-12 and higher education institutions are more similar than ever. Both face accreditation pressures, money problems, enrollment issues, and rising health-care and pension costs. On some days, it seems as if both public education and public higher education are legacy-carrier airlines—high-cost, low-profit, maybe even dinosaurs.

The two share similar dynamics as well. The situation most dreaded by school systems and universities alike is a “death spiral.” Under such a scenario, student enrollment declines, leading to budget cuts, program cancellations, and further enrollment declines as a result. This cycle is hard to escape from, as the funding to develop new programs might simply not be there, prompting the school or university to offer less and less to fewer and fewer students.

School districts or universities in a cycle of decline are often extremely isolated. They find it difficult to trust outsiders and are loath to accept help from institutions that try to aid them. A kind of “groupthink” often develops, in which wishful thinking replaces real planning for the future. Without intervention from the outside, these situations do not turn around on their own.

But there is an opposite dynamic that can be seen in both K-12 schools and universities. Let’s call it a “virtuous circle,” after the use of that term in systems dynamics. In this scenario, two or more institutions begin to work together to collaborate and bring about change. When these changes take place, both institutions gain in enrollment and offerings. As the relationships deepen, both also see new opportunities that would not have existed without the collaboration.

In the K-12 and postsecondary sectors, the institutions known as early colleges are the best example of a virtuous circle. An early college allows high school students to attend school on a college campus, but remain socially attached to their high schools. Most of their classes are at the college, but they can still participate in high school sports and clubs. Students in an early college can earn up to 60 credits before graduating from high school, a serious draw for students worried about paying for college.

On my campus, Eastern Michigan University, the Early College Alliance has already shown some powerful benefits in its two years of existence. Right now, ECA is a bright spot for the university’s enrollments, generating a much-needed number of credit hours at a time when the sinking Michigan economy has lowered enrollments overall. The program promises, over the next four years, to ramp up by the thousands the number of credit hours produced, as new cohorts of 100-plus students join early-college students already on campus.

The program has paid dividends for the school districts involved as well. ECA students still count as members of their high schools’ student bodies, and this has raised enrollment numbers at several local districts. Home-schooling and charter school families are turning to early college, bringing them back into the regular public system. One community foundation has also seen merit in this approach, delivering a $300,000 grant to help the high schools and university work together better, and to bring some lessons from the alliance into middle schools.

We are also learning through the program about how to help ease the transition from high school to college. A “soft skills” curriculum in ECA shows students how to take responsibility for their own learning, and how to act maturely and responsibly in a college classroom. This curriculum has already migrated to our campus’s GEAR UP program, where we use it with 9th graders aspiring to attend college. It also holds the promise of helping transfer students and traditional undergraduates adjust to the differences between passive sitting and active learning.

Having high school students on campus helps in ways we did not predict when the program was first implemented. Teacher education students can interact and work with high school students more easily. My own history students get to meet sharp, responsible, diverse high school students through ECA, a benefit never considered in its development.

If this virtuous circle is so much better than life in a death spiral, why is it more the exception than the rule? The reason is that building the virtuous circle takes trust, patience, and hard work. Many institutions are more comfortable in a death spiral than taking a chance on deep and lasting collaboration. For many high schools, the thought of losing smart kids is too painful to consider, and at many colleges, the thought of working with high school students is similarly distressing.

In bad economic times, however, the middle ground between death spiral and virtuous circle appears to be shrinking. K-12 schools and universities face a stark choice: Trust one another and collaborate, or die a slow death separately.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week


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