By John Lucas, Provost, SIT (School for International Training), a division of World Learning
The urgent global question for education today is—how do we prepare our high school students, our college students, and our master’s students to make real and lasting change on the global stage? How do we ensure our nation’s academic health, financial health, and provide meaningful, accessible, affordable opportunities for students—all types of students—to participate in an intercultural experience abroad, to engage with other cultures, to learn how to conduct independent research, and become the problem solvers of today … and tomorrow? At the same time, how do we ensure that education is deeply connected to communities when so much interaction is mediated by technology?
50 years ago, Donald Watt trusted Gordon Boyce and Jack Wallace to take his vision of non-formal, experiential education and transform it into the School for International Training—an accredited and degree-granting institution of higher education in the state of Vermont. Today SIT is a leader in international education, with a mission focus and model of instruction that are unique and powerful.
Over the past year, we have enhanced the breadth and depth of our academic mission. We are part of World Learning’s mission to build a continuum of study from high school through graduate study. Collectively, our programs are developing student expertise in sustainable development, intercultural management, international education, TESOL and teacher education, and post-conflict transformation—vital skills for the world today. Each of our programs contributes to the macro mission of World Learning. The Experiment in International Living is in a period of re-birth and renewal. It has aligned its themes with those of our other academic programs and is sharing resources, cutting costs, reshaping programs. We now have our high school exchange program working in collaboration with the rest of the institution and with youth programs in Washington, DC.
All of the progress we are making with our programs comes against a current landscape in higher education that is rapidly evolving. US and foreign universities are developing new programs and increasingly competing for the same students. At the same time, the forces of technology are upon us—which can be either empowering or disempowering.
Our challenge is to adapt, as we always have, by following a unique, innovative, and creative path that makes experiential education meaningful in a world where relationships are increasingly reliant on technology. We have to shape study abroad to harness technology as a tool of engagement rather than a force for isolation and disconnection from the world. We need to accept that the very best ideas 50 years ago are not the best ideas of tomorrow. Therefore, we must integrate technology, whether it is Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr. FaceTime and real time are just two different ways of engaging with the world, and we need to use them in culturally appropriate ways.
One of our donors this week told me about an encounter with four Nigerian students from Harvard whom she is hosting. She asked them please if they could not bring their devices to the dinner table, and they said that really would not work for them. Their parents expected them to be wired and connected. This is not a US phenomenon. It’s a global one. So we will see more devices on The Experiment and SIT Study Abroad. We will see more low-residency and blended-learning programs on campus, and we need to invest in these to stay competitive.
Another trend is that education is a data-driven endeavor today, and we will need rigorous evaluation and assessment of independent study, SIT Study Abroad, and all the projects associated with World Learning including capstone programs and foreign language training. That does not mean simply amassing more numbers. It means setting clear objectives that are measurable over time and defining outcomes using our thought leadership and practical experience. We also need to collaborate and to create partnerships that further our goals and values around global citizenship, social justice, inclusion, and empowerment.
In addition to technology, competition, and evaluation, the School for International Training faces many of the same structural challenges that we see across the landscape of higher education in the United States today. Increasing regulations and the rising cost of compliance drive our costs up. In order to stay competitive with larger, better-funded competitors, we must make innovations in the areas I have discussed, like educational technology, IT, faculty and staff training and development, and our campus facilities … all of which fuel further cost increases and overhead increases.
We cannot allow our portfolio of academic programs to grow beyond the ability of the market to sustain these programs or in a way that drives up our overhead and further fuels overhead costs. To do so would mean we have to charge our students more and more in tuition, putting them into debt or making it impossible to enroll a diverse group of students. That is a social justice problem of another variety. Addressing the cost of education for SIT is an ethical issue as well as a business model issue.
We need to be very strategic, control costs, and manage our price increases carefully. We are almost entirely dependent upon tuition revenues. We must become more effective at individual donor, foundation, and corporate fundraising.
We also must find a cost-effective way to build alumni engagement because they open doors for us, send us students, and become the donors of tomorrow.
Finally, the global economy is fragile, and we are exposed to many political and social instabilities around the world. Enrollments in our programs are going to fluctuate. Larger institutions with more financial resources face the same challenge. Yale University, down the road, projects a 40 million dollar deficit this year. Of course, they have an endowment of 20 billion dollars as well. Nevertheless, they will have to cut costs just as we have done. We must address the challenges of our financial model so that we do not run regular budget deficits through these measures: cost control, new or revised financial aid and pricing models, enrollment growth wherever possible. Finally, through careful planning, budgeting, and fundraising, when we have the resources available to do so and there is clear mission fit, we can consider strategically opening new programs or lines of business. But we must be careful not to create new programs just because they are exciting or interesting areas for us to work in but rather when it is strategically imperative to do so in order to fulfill our mission.
Fulfilling our mission also means remaining true to the value of community—something I mentioned in the opening paragraph. There is a parable, a teaching story that I want to repeat here today because it is illustrative. There was a community of monks that worked for social justice and over time, the community became less and less vibrant. People stopped coming to their retreats. Educational programs languished and fundraising slowed to a trickle and then a drop. The monks turned against one another. Bickering ensued. One day the abbot realized something had to be done. Now there was a Jewish rabbi down the valley in another community who was very wise and had been successful building community. The rabbi was now retired. So, the abbot went to have tea with her and explained his situation. At the end of a wonderful conversation about life and death and philosophy, the abbot said, “You know, you haven’t given me any advice.” The rabbi replied, “My advice is this. ‘The messiah is among you.’ ” “What does that mean?” the abbot cried. The rabbi repeated, “The messiah is among you.” So, muttering, the abbot went back down to his community and said, “Well, this great sage said the Messiah is among you.” A great stir arose in the community as the monks began to wonder. Well, clearly this can’t be true. Brother Richard is grumpy. Friar Tom overeats…. Fred is lazy. No way. But the abbot, scratching his chin, began to wonder … well perhaps this could maybe be true. Gradually the monks began to believe it and, you know, just in case…. Friar Tom went on a diet. Fred got up early and started a new literacy program. Some of the bickering stopped. You know, maybe we better be nice, you know, just in case the rabbi knew something we didn’t. Slowly the valley was abuzz with activity. Tourists returned first. The local press was interested in the new programs. Outreach led to interest. And slowly the community was back to health again.
We have our own parables to tell—real stories of real people. Last year, Sefakor Komabu Pomeyie was a student at SIT Graduate Institute. An amazing and talented young woman from Ghana, tenacious and fearless. She certainly helped me to be more mindful of different abilities on campus. She not only graduated, but she also won an Advancing Leaders Fellowship here at World Learning to help educate policy makers in Ghana on including people with disabilities in civil society. SIT is 50 years strong. 50 years vibrant. 50 years proud and 50 years rich in stories of the leaders and change makers shaping society today—over 100,000 of them.
Our challenges are very real. But so are our successes. The lessons of the past five years indicate that we can successfully produce a balanced budget and be financially healthy knowing that health is always fragile and thoughtful use of measurements will matter. The lessons of the past five years should also give us hope and incentive to build an even more robust set of programs and skills that endow individuals with the capacity to bring about positive global change.