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A Democratic Society for Students: The intersection between societal needs and market economics.

Does anyone remember the Students for a Democratic Society? In 1968 a radical student organization wanted to upend the prevailing structure of the capitalistic system. Many of those same students later became industry and government leaders.  But that term could be modified for the current lot of students wanting greater access to our institutions of higher learning. The recent Bloomberg article identifying over 400 universities in the nation headed down a path toward insolvency is a clear indication our higher ed system is now under great pressure.

Public education has historically considered students as “beneficiaries” of public policy, as opposed to “consumers” of education choices. Students today are prominently on-line as information is now ubiquitous independent of institutional control. And there is a misperception that government sponsored budget appropriations directly equate to successful outcomes.  Universities have grown accustomed to purchasing names every year to initiate their enrollment process, and that more “names” directly equate to an increase in “yield.” These are simply false assumptions, given the marked shift in public perception of the cost and importance of a university degree the situation is becoming a huge concern for American competitiveness.

Our research at Stanford University (Cohen, Garcia, Steele, Brown) indicates that legacy systems and organizational silos actually prevent the democratization of the interface for high school student families into higher education. In other words, the structures in place actually prevent the efficient matching of students to the program's colleges have to offer. Michael Porter at Harvard wrote on the topic of Shared Value back in 2010 stating “Shared value is fundamentally about aligning the success of organizations with the success of the community — through the recognition that organizations have a responsibility — and an opportunity — to improve the environment and the fundamental health of the supporting community structure.” 

This observation juxtaposed against the finding that of all the research disciplines, education ranks dead last in its desire to share information within the guardrails of public education is in fact anti-democratic. Especially considering the data ultimately belongs to the student family, they should have the right to their own property to communicate to colleges and universities their desire for their guidance and help. Holding onto data is a source of political power for administrators controlling the paths between secondary and postsecondary. But if we truly consider ourselves progressive in the sense of a Tom Hayden or a Jerry Rubin, in our beliefs that "power to the people" really should be about empowering the student family, their interests and their goals for access, regardless of race, ethnicity, color, creed, or CEEB code, we must look beyond the status quo and innovate. The irony that colleges and universities have the same desire as students and parents needing to find each other, much earlier in the process. We should ensure their pathways to success connecting them to opportunities when we finally realize student families are our ultimate customers, and the ultimate investors of higher education.

One prominent university CFO insightfully stated recently “Our ultimate goal is not simply a balanced budget, but rather the creation of a sustainable model.” The irony is that the silos created since I was at Palo Alto High School nearly 50 years ago are still in play today. I was fortunate to have come from a family of researchers who could afford SAT test prep. But it is clear the institutionalized systems depending on purchasing names, the 500 to 1 student to counselor ratio, public policy studies and massive budgets wedded to old bureaucracies no longer serve the same needs of a generation ago. This generation is screaming for innovation. They are predominantly 1st gen minority students who are tech savvy with the same goals and dreams we had years ago. While the university remains wedded to systems and processes dating back to my time, institutions of higher learning are encountering extreme pressure to stay solvent. While on the other hand, student families of this generation are in great need of direct contact and nurturing from our postsecondary partners.

Democratizing the interface means opening up access much earlier, to include what is termed "pipeline engagement" and the sharing of information within the guardrails of public education, championing their postsecondary options like dual and concurrent enrollment, career and technical education, transfer degree programs, scholarship opportunities and clear pathways to a degree and a career. Our research shows we can successfully democratize the interface matching postsecondary institutions with the student family, matching their interests and desires much like what LinkedIn does for employers. The creation of such a sustainable model is imperative for our students and our communities if this nation is going to effectively complete into this century. 

Timothy Michael (de la Ossa) Kral - Graduate of Palo Alto's Windy Hill College Prep Academy, Post Graduate work in Social Ethics and Market Economies, is the founder of Siembra, a Silicon Valley educational technology company with the mission to help universities connect with students.

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