How to design a university: A conversation with Doug Becker of Cintana Education

Florida A&M University moves up to No., 7 among historically black colleges and universities in the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings released Sept. 9, 2019.636646057260592110 Famu Campus Jpg

About 220 million students are in higher education around the world today, but there are tremendous challenges in scaling those numbers. Nine out of 10 students globally do not have access to ranked universities, which tend to be the ones with the greatest resources in teaching and research. One solution is pairing unranked universities with ranked universities to lift up the quality of higher education for students across the globe.

In an ongoing exploration of trends in higher education, I recently sat down with Doug Becker, the founder and former CEO of Laureate Education, a company dedicated to expanding access to higher education around the world. Today, Doug has embarked on a new venture dedicated to advancing the science of university design and giving more students around the globe access to a high-quality education. Given the increased demand for higher education coupled with the rising costs and questions about the relevance of the skills required in a fast-changing world, there is considerable need to examine the design of higher education institutions globally.

Doug Becker
Doug Becker

Q: You have deep experience in higher education globally. What are some of the biggest challenges you see with higher education outside the United States?

A: In many of the countries that should be seeing the greatest amount of growth—for example, because of a growing middle class and workforce demand for higher education—the supply of qualified employees isn’t sufficient to meet the needs. Supply might be constrained by people’s ability to pay, by rapid change in workforce demand, or the absence of faculty with the prerequisite skills. So, it is really a question of what we should be doing to strengthen the universities which serve the vast majority of students but are not top-tier, ranked institutions with substantial resources necessary for scaling and innovation.

One of the biggest challenges to scaling access to quality learning is the design limitations of the current higher education system. The vast majority of institutions weren’t designed with today’s reality in mind—in other words, for an age of rapid technological change, global interconnectedness, and shifting labor market needs. So, the question is: What refreshes design? In the private sector, we know that what refreshes design is the market price and competition—the invisible hand of Adam Smith. This is difficult to recreate in the public sector, but it can be done through visionary leadership, and I am obsessed with helping institutions figure out the answer.

Q: Tell us more about how you’re envisioning tackling this university design and scale question.

A: One answer is to pair unranked universities with ranked universities—but that’s hard because many elite universities don’t want to work with an institution that they see as inferior to them in quality.

So, the idea behind Cintana, my new venture jointly developed with Arizona State University (ASU), is to create a network of ranked and unranked universities based on a significant two-way commitment. When a university chooses to join this network, we ask them to involve us in their strategic planning. Ultimately, it’s their design and their university, but we want a seat at the table during planning and design.

And once a design is in place, the network can help the institution tackle constraints. For example, most institutions aren’t working with the world’s best digital marketers, but our network will have the scale to attract that talent. As a network, we can anticipate things that the individual university might not. Through sharing intelligence and insights, we can bring new options to students around the world, including dual degrees from institutions in two different countries. If, for example, you’re a student in Egypt and you end up with both a local degree and an American degree of good quality, that could really help differentiate you in the job world.

While ASU is the core academic partner for Cintana, we will also find other ranked institutions that can contribute to this network and that seek to increase their own international impact. But participation in the network will also bring direct benefits to the ranked universities too. For example, most universities in the developed world want to engage more effectively with the world and increase their impact outside of their home country in the areas of teaching and research. That’s where a partner like Cintana can be extremely effective in helping expand their work.

Q: Are constraints such as changing workforce demand, cost models, and outdated university design consistent across the globe, or do they vary region to region?

A: I would say that these issues tend to always be there. The one area where there’s the biggest divergence from country to country is cost. Typically, to do higher education well, it is expensive no matter where you are. But containing costs is only one part of the equation; the other is the question of “who is going to pay?” In developed countries, the government has room to decide whether the person who is benefiting should pay for it, or whether society or employers should pay for it. In many emerging countries, especially the poorest ones, who pays is a much shorter conversation because the individual student just can’t pay—and certainly can’t pay at a level that would deliver the kind of quality that she wants and deserves.

Q: What do you think are some of the biggest opportunities for accelerating change?

A: One word: technology. I hesitate to say it because it is so obvious, but it does solve many challenges. Take faculty qualifications, for example: If nurse educators are available in the United States and math educators are available in India, technology can now match those supply sources with demand around the world. Of course, you have to be mindful that technology-based education may not deliver academic results unless you do it really well.

Beyond technology, I would say that design itself is an opportunity. What I learned at Laureate is that if we created a high-quality, highly visible university that grew quickly because of the strength of its offerings, it made the rest of the competitive market better. And that’s what is so exciting about this work on university design that I am engaged in now in partnership with ASU, a leader in innovation and design. I have seen how the power of a network can help drive improvements in quality and ultimately serve students better.