Ford_assembly_line_-_1913What would Thomas Edison do if he worked on an assembly line? That is the strange question that popped into my head on Tuesday morning. My first thought was that he would do the same thing as everyone else, because an assembly line does not celebrate expressions of genius, innovation, or individual preference. As far as I know, it doesn’t recognize or reward extraordinary thoughts or actions. It depends upon compliance, conformity, and predictably ordinary actions. There is a narrow scope of what a person can or can’t do on an assembly line. Either you get the work done, or they find another person to do it.

Is there a lesson here for how we think about school, the design of learning experiences and workforce development? Some argue that not everyone can or will be a Thomas Edison, so we need to prepare them for reality. Prepare the masses for jobs with repetitive tasks and a narrow scope of actions. Teach them to listen, follow instructions, and have a strong work ethic. This is a good list of qualities. Followership, listening and hard work are commendable traits. Plus, I don’t want to disrespect the noble work of people of the past and present in factories. Martin Luther King’s famous words about work apply in the factory as much as the board room.

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Why not “Here lived a great assembly line worker?” Yet, factory jobs in the United States are on the decline. While 1 in 4 worked in factories back in the 1970s, that number has dwindled to less than 1 in 10 today. This is a worldwide trend as more factory jobs are automated. When it comes to workforce development, many workforce training companies focus on the fish distribution approach. Give them specific skills for a specific job. That makes for good return customers, because when they need new skills for a new job, how will they get them?

I’m reminded of John Taylor Gatto’s list important abilities for people in today’s world (in Weapons of Mass Instruction). He argued that people need to be able to frame problems without a guide, ask hard questions, challenge assumptions, work alone, and work in teams with little or no direction. They need to be able to create and use heuristics, extract meaning from large collections of data, and discuss important issues and work toward decisions that benefit society. They need to be able to categories and imagine new ways to categories or make sense of information, and to think in complex ways with the goal of solving problems. In other words, people need to be have abilities like Thomas Edison.

The web and education conferences are full of declarations that it is time to leave behind the factory model of education if we want to prepare people for a largely post-industrial world. In fact, we’ve been having such a conversation for 40-50 years in education. Many K-12 schools have changed curricula in response to the challenge, but the processes and environment lags further behind, continuing to reflect the attributes of the factory: bells, scripted schedules; segmented tasks and topics; rating and evaluation of student performance using a system not unlike how we rate milk, meat and bonds; heavy emphasis upon rules, structure and protocol.

Menlo_Park_Laboratory_of_Thomas_Edison_site_of_the_Invention_of_the_light_bulb_in_Dearborn,_Michigan_at_Greenfield_Village_The_Henry_Ford_Museum_from_Menlo_Park,_New_JerseyThere is room for order, system, and rules; but perhaps we are better suited to take a few notes from Edison’s real workplace instead of the assembly line approach to education. As we think about the design of learning communities and spaces, and as we think about workforce development, what if we instead looked to Edison’s labs? His Menlo Park research laboratory no doubt had rules, and there were certainly technicians at work. Yet, it was a place of experimentation and exploration. It was a place with almost every imaginable type of material of the day, everything from screws to sharks teeth, chemicals to silk. It was a place that expected, celebrated and nurtured disciplined, curious minds.

Ever since President Obama made a public challenge to pursue a plan for two free years of community college, the most frequent critique has been that it is not free. Someone has to pay for it. I appreciate healthy debate, but I’m not sure any informed citizen thought it was free in the sense that there would be no cost associated with it. We all know that public P-12 education is not free. Current community college tuition certainly does not reflect the full cost of operating such schools. The same is true for four-year state schools. Government funding is the dominant strategy for keeping these the teaching and learning arm of these schools operating.

What President Obama meant by two free years is that it would be no or extremely low-cost to the students, removing one potential barrier to young people pursuing higher education. Once we move beyond straw man arguments, then we can have candid conversations about whether we can afford such a proposal, the potential return on investment, how it would impact 4-year institutions, and other important considerations.

As I see it, the most important critiques of the proposed plan relate to questions about whether this is the best solution to a social need that requires more clarification. As such, it is time for us to have public, deep, and substantive conversation and exploration of other questions. Here are ten to get us started.

  1. If the primary objective is to increase access to more education for more people, to what extent is cost the largest barrier to increasing access and opportunity to formal education?
  2. What other barriers exist that would not be solved by reducing cost?
  3. What plan(s) must be considered to address all the top barriers, implementing them together with the goal of increasing the likelihood of success?
  4. Is this mostly about decreasing the debt burden of those who would already go to college? If so, what if we start with a long, creative list of possible solutions? The idea of two free years of community college is bold and intriguing, but we want to move forward after being well-informed and having a plan that is likely to give us the best chance of accomplishing our goal. Let’s start by lengthening our list of possibilities far beyond one.
  5. While starting the national conversation with a specific proposal is a great way to prompt discussion, is it time to step back, clarify, and list our primary objectives? If we don’t do that, how do we measure our progress and success? Let’s start with the end in mind, and build our list of the possibilities means from there.
  6. How are current students performing in community colleges? If we drop the cost and send more people to under-performing institutions, what good would that accomplish? Or, are there exemplary models of high-performing community colleges that might need to be modeled and replicated for something like this to work?
  7. What are more of the possibilities for increasing access, opportunity, and gainful employment? There are hundreds of options. Let’s get them on the public table and explore them together.
  8. Who are the people and what are the organizations that are already doing amazing work this area? What insights can we glean from them?
  9. To what extent can informal, “outside-of-school” and other options help us make significant progress with such goals? The US is a wonderfully entrepreneurial country. It only make sense to tap into that mindset to address some of our most pressing challenges and pursuing our most valued goals in education. Education companies and startups might play a valuable role in some of the most promising solutions. How can we nurture an entrepreneurial ecosystem around addressing more access, opportunity and gainful employment needs?
  10. If the two free years of community college turns out to be the most promising way of accomplishing the measurable goals (that we still need to establish), what are the possibilities for various funding models?

There are dozens of other questions, but this list will help us deepen the conversation while embracing the spirit of President Obama’s challenge.

I’m excited to guest host the #TxEduChat tonight at 8:00 PM CST (2/15/15) on the topic of “Learning Beyond Letter Grades.” For those who are participating, I’ve put together a collection of articles that I’ve written on related topics and included them below. I also listed the discussion prompts below, just in case a few people wanted a peek preview.

Where did I get this topic? I’ve been fascinated with educational innovation, student-centered learning environments, and alternative education for two decades. However, over the last several years, I started to notice that grading systems, testing, and assessment practices often seemed to get in the way of many promising innovations. So, I started to look into the subject further. I studied the history of letter grades to find out how we got this system in the first place. I was amazed at what I discovered. Then I started looking at many alternatives to letter grades along with ways to supplement, bolster or enhance the existing system. That eventually led me to sharing some of my discoveries in 2013.

I led a Massive Open Online Course on the subject in 2013 where we explored the limitations of letter grades, the important role of formative versus summative assessment, narrative feedback, peer assessment, self-assessment, competency-based education, digital badges for learning and more. It was a wonderfully engaging learning community of around 1000 participants from  more than a dozen countries. It included k12 educators, University faculty, school and University administrators, instructional designers, along with leaders and innovators in education startups, non-profit organizations, and successful education companies. I’m happy to be offering that MOOC again this spring. While all are welcome, it will have a bit more of a higher education focus this time around. I hope to able to soon announce an exciting potential partnership with a well-known organization for Learning Beyond Letter Grades 2.0.

The purpose of the course was to challenge us to consider the possible of learning beyond letter grades. We explored what it might look like for schools to be less driven by a culture of earning [grades] and more focused upon a genuine culture of learning. Is it possible, I suggested, that the letter grade system is outdated, and that there are worthwhile alternatives today? Or, even if we don’t set aside letter grades, might these alternatives serve as valuable supplements and enhancements to how we think about and use feedback and the documentation of student learning? This is what I mean by learning beyond letter grades. I’m looking forward to what I hope an expect to be a lively and rewarding chat!

Tentative Prompts / Questions for the #TxEduChat Twitter Chat at 8:00 PM CST on 2/15/15

  • Q1 What role do letter grades currently play in your classroom/school? Good, bad, neutral? #txeduchat
  • Q2 What are the strongest arguments for or against the role of letter grades in school? #txeduchatPossible
    • Q2 sub-prompts to keep things lively.
      • Q2.1 Letter grades keep the unmotivated students motivated? Good or bad argument? #txeduchat
      • Q2.2 Letter grades prepare students for the “real world” Good or bad argument? #txeduchat
      • Q2.3 The next level of education uses grades, so we need to do it too. Good or bad argument?
  • Q3 To what extent might letter grades be an outdated 17th century technology? #txeduchat
  • Q4 Not that all our schools will abandon grades, but what alternatives have you explored? What are their benefits/limitations? #txeduchat
    • Possible Q4 sub-prompts to keep things lively.Q4.1.
      • Thoughts about these options? standards-based, #gamification, #openbadges, #cbe #txeduchatQ4.2
      • Thoughts about these options? #portfolios, self-assessment, peer-assessment. #txeduchat
  • Q5 How might some of the A4 alternatives enhance or supplement (not replace) the use of letter grades in your classroom/school? #txeduchat
  • Q6 Grades are more summative. What are creative ways for students to get more formative “How am I doing?” feedback? #txeduchat
  • Q7 Regardless of letter grades, what can we do to foster a culture of learning more than a culture of earning grades? #txeduchat
  • Q8 Final Question: As a result of this chat, what is one thing that you want to do or explore within the next week? #TxEduChat

Related Articles from Etale That Might be of Interest

 Shameless Plug: Did I mention that I work at Concordia University Wisconsin where we offer a fully online Master of Science in Educational Design and Technology that is built around competency-based digital badges? You can learn more or inquire here.

Since I’ve been involved with online learning for twenty years, I confess that I sometimes find it frustrating to engage in the persistent conversation about whether online learning is as good as face-to-face learning. Yet, it is still an important question. New people are joining the conversation who are largely unaware of the possibilities and the thousands of conversations that came before them. This conversation remains an important discussion regardless of the no-significant-difference studies because education is about more than looking at student scores in a class. There are countless psychological and social elements to learning that warrant our consideration. It is just that we’ve been having this conversation for over two decades and it is time to deepen it, to add more complexity and nuances. The answer to the question remains the same. Yes and No. Changing modes of educational delivery and interaction for learning results in gains and losses. There are affordances in various online contexts just as there are limitations. The same is true for different face-to-face contexts.

When we explore questions like this, it is critical that we consider an obvious fact. Not all face-to-face courses are alike. Not all online courses are alike. This means that a simple comparison of broad categories like face-to-face and online does not lead to a substantive answer to the question. Consider the following five factors that impact  both online and face-to-face courses.

1) Size of the Class

Look at the following image. Do these two face-to-face classes have the same affordances and limitations? They have some things in common, like the fact that the sessions are likely synchronous in nature, but there are many distinctions. Yet, people who compare face-to-face and online courses often make the argument that all face-to-face courses are somehow much more intimate and personal, or that nonverbal communication is possible with face-to-face and not online.

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 8.12.41 AM

2) Tools, Strategies, and Methods

Are we looking at a face-to-face seminar with lots of discussion and interaction in a small class? Are we looking at a larger lecture course? Are we looking at a course that makes use of well-planned small group projects and peer-to-peer interaction? Does the course include time for each student to conference one-on-one with the professor? There are so many ways to design learning experiences, and every one that I listed can be done in online and face-to-face courses. Online, I’ve had rich and vibrant synchronous conversations with groups using everything from Blackboard Collaboarate to Google Hangouts and Adobe Connect. They are qualitatively different from a small group seminar discussion face-to-face, but most of the comparisons between online and face-to-face are not exploring the comparison at this level of depth.

Once we start looking at the affordances of different methods and strategies between online and face-to-face, then we start to cultivate a more nuanced understanding. Look at something as simple as the asynchronous discussion boards used in many online courses. We can look at the benefits and limitations of asynchronous interaction as a way of nurturing critical thinking. We can look at the time students devote to a discussion online compared to many face-to-face facilitated strategies. We can examine the ability to have a persistent archive of entire discussions for continued review. We can look at the ability to continue a discussion over days, weeks, even months.

My point is not that one is better or worse against some universal standard. It is about understanding the complexity of designing learning experiences of all kinds.

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3) The Skill and Commitment of the Teacher

Teachers and professors are often the ones making the arguments about the benefits or limitations of online compared to face-to-face. As such, it continues to confuse me that few of these arguments give much consideration to the skill, commitment, and impact of a specific teacher. Look at the image below. Doesn’t it make a difference if we are talking about the teacher on the left or the right? The behaviors, habits, skill, creativity, care, and competence of the teacher plays an important role in the effectiveness of a learning environment, whether it is face-to-face or online.

By the way, it is usually true that we can better track and monitor teacher behaviors in an online course. That leads to a different conversation about teacher autonomy and accountability, but it is interesting to note that being able to observe, measure, and document teacher actions helps us predict and understand the rigor and quality of online and face-to-face learning experiences.

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4) Student Learning

If you browse the web for articles comparing face-to-face and online learning, you may be surprised to find a minority that take into account performance of students as part of the comparison. Are students learning as much across delivery systems? Of course, a simple answer doesn’t end the conversation because of the three factors mentioned above. More factors impact student learning than whether the course happens to be online or face-to-face. Yet, this is the time when people in the conversation are wise to look at the past and present research comparing student learning outcomes across modalities.

5) Access and Opportunity

Early literature about distance learning (dating to pre-Internet days) were full of discussions about providing education to broader and more diverse audiences. There was a vision of increasing access and opportunity through new forms of education. Yet, many of the comparisons between face-to-face and online assume that both are equally viable options for everyone. Family and life circumstances, location, travel and flex schedule requirements of work, physical and health considerations, work commitments, and dozens of other factors come into play. One question that drives the exploration of online learning is how we can increase access and opportunity to learning that benefits people and helps them reach their goals. It doesn’t take much research to discover that online learning is indeed helping people accomplish things that would have otherwise been more difficult or impossible.

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 8.56.09 AM

Access and opportunity are not always strong factors. There are plenty of instances where a person has the time and flexibility to choose between an online or face-to-face course. Yet, access and opportunity is a large enough part of the vision behind distance learning that it warrants a place in the discourse about online versus face-to-face.


There are differences between online and face-to-face learning, thousands of them. There are also thousands of differences between face-to-face and and other face-to-face courses. It is still just as important to explore these similarities and differences as it was when online learning was something new in the 1990s. Yet, given the fact that this is a 20-year-old conversation, it is time to deepen the discourse. What if we enriched our conversations and explorations by looking at more of the factors that I mentioned above?

moon-landing-60543_64066 years. That is the time between the Wright Brother’s first flight and the 1969 Apollo 11 landing on the moon. 66 years is also the time between 2015 and the year they invented the airsickness bags that sit in the pocket in front of you on the plane. While there have been subtle changes to the latter innovation, it pales in comparison to the rapid evolution of first flight to landing on the moon. So, why is it that innovation skyrockets (pun intended) in some areas but gradually develops in others?

1) Capturing the Imagination

The first one compels people to imagine and dream, and that is a powerful lever for innovation. The latter addresses a real need, but who gets excited about designing the next innovation to help capture the result of mid-air emesis? There are probably a few people, but the other was enough to generate completely new fields of study.

2) Meeting a Need or Embarking on an Adventure

We need simple and practical innovations, at least we can and do benefit from them. However, one taps into a thirst for adventure, discovery, and “going boldly where no man has gone before.”

3) Leverage a Broad Community of Innovators Toward A Compelling Vision

The first one is an example of a grand dream, large enough to create an entire community of people who gathered to do something about it. It didn’t start overnight. It came from centuries of musings about flight, and the build up to the moon landing relied on many smaller innovations. It was not just the grand vision of flight. It took a diverse community of innovators who contributed everything from the communication technologies to the work of rocket scientists. Yet, without that central and driving vision, these micro-innovations may have never come together to result in such an accomplishment.

4) Find the the One that Leads

These two innovations that I mentioned go together. Who needs an airsickness bag if you can’t fly? And yet, the innovation around that 66 year-old airsickness bag is not such a small innovation after all, not if you look at the broader problem, that of airsickness. Look at the innovations around motion sickness. Consider antiemetic medicines created over the last half century. Consider the scientific knowledge gained about emesis since the invention of the first airsickness bag. Yet, it is clear that one of these innovations is inspired by a grand dream. The other helps address practical challenges along the way.

Educational Applications

Now what if we apply these simple (and maybe too obvious) lessons to educational innovation. I’ll offer four.

1) Lead with a Grand Dream

Before you start investing in countless tablets, technologies or new models for education; clarify your dream. Is it big? It is worthy of your life’s work? Is it clear and compelling? Is it capable of rallying a group of diverse people to accomplish it? If so, get to work. You might be the one to lay the groundwork of exploring the possibilities. You might be one who helps make one or more of the possibilities a reality. Either way, use what you have to contribute to the dream.

2) Focus on the Grand Goal

It is easy for us to invest the bulk of our energy working on the educational equivalent of airsickness bags, small innovations that make educational life a little more convenient or bearable. In fact, it is possible to spend an entire life doing that without realizing it. Then there are others who are willing to “shoot for the moon,” to dream grand visions of what could be in education, ignoring the naysayers, gaining inspiration from the possibilities and the nobility of the vision, and persistently driving toward that goal. Along the way, you will likely need many of those micro-innovations. Embrace them, learn about them, but keep putting them in the context of the grand goal. As Mark Twain once wrote, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

3) Invite Others to Join You

You don’t get to the moon on your own. The Wright Brothers represent an important step in that direction. So do countless others. Find inspiration, support, and encouragement from a growing group of others who have a shared vision. Many of the grandest innovations in history have this in common. We also see this with some of the boldest visions for education today. They build a small community around this shared vision, and it very often spreads into something bigger.

4) Embrace Your Place

It is hard to tell what role you play on a truly grand vision. Sometimes you are the Da Vinci, sketching out possibilities hundreds of years before they happen. Sometimes you are a pair of brothers building early prototypes inspiring a generation of others who will take your work to an unimaginable next level. Sometimes you are the one building that first rocket. You might be part of the support crew for the first launch. You might also be the first one to step foot on the moon. Sometimes it is hard to tell which one you’ll be. Embrace the dream, commit to the goal, identify and use your gifts in pursuit of it, and enjoy your unique role. Hopefully, one day you will be able to sit back and take pride in the small or significant ways that you helped make that happen.

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863In honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday today, I’ll share a little test that I use when I am thinking about equity, access and opportunity with regard to credentials. I call it the “Lincoln test” for credentials in society. It is a simple test. Abraham Lincoln had less than two years of formal education and practiced law without earning a degree. He took the road less traveled to becoming both a lawyer and the President of the United States. The Lincoln test can be summarized in a few simple questions.

  1. To what extent can someone have access to this through self-study and alternative pathways?
  2. Does this career, group, ______ leave room for modern learners who are the equivalent of Abraham Lincoln?
  3. Is competence given a higher priority than credentials?

While some might question the answer to number three, I like to think that the American government, for example, passes the Lincoln test. Even to this day it is possible for one to run and be elected or appointed to most posts in the government apart from holding most credentials (with the exception of a US birth certificate or other credentials associated with citizenship). The same is true for starting a business and even practicing law in some parts of the United States.

Still many other parts of modern society quickly fail the Lincoln test. These are the ones that restrict access on the basis of specific credentials that often have prescribed pathways for learning.

The Lincoln test allows us to challenge our assumptions about credentials, to beware of mistaking a symbol (diploma, certification, license) for actual competence to perform a job with quality. Abraham Lincoln certainly provides us with an historical example of one who was indeed competent without holding the standard credentials.


The 4-year college experience is far from the norm in the United States. It has never been the norm.

A minority of people in the United States and around the world go to a traditional residential undergraduate higher education institution, persist for 4-5 years, graduate, and then move into full-time work.  Less than 65% of high school graduates in the United States attend college. Less than 60% of those students will graduate. 80+% of full-time college students are working, with an average at 19 hours a week. Many of those in college are doing so part-time, juggling school with family and full-time work. Quite a few college students today are veterans, recent immigrants, and single parents. Many in college are people who once held the label “at-risk” and they are trying to change that. Furthermore, a significant percentage of undergraduate students are 25 or older.

Nonetheless, many conversations about the state of higher education today focus on the traditional 4-year residential college experience as the gold standard for higher education. Perhaps it is because those writing about higher education and reporting on it are not a representative sample. Could it be that they are writing from their own experiences as if those are the norm. Being one in higher education, it is easy to mistakenly think and act as if the 4-year residential college experience holds some secret to the future success of a nation or a thriving person. History and a broad view of life around the world suggests otherwise.

Some who recognize this reality focus instead upon the concept of workforce development, a phrase that I sometimes use to describe my own interests around developments like progressive credentialing. However, this is a phrase that quite often places the attention upon addressing an economic crisis or a broader social problem. The traditional college is frequently seen as an opportunity for people to explore and grow as thoughtful, educated people; while other efforts are about getting people jobs or addressing unemployment.

I’m concerned about those issues, but my writing largely focuses upon education as a force for empowering the individual. I do not see education as a servant of the state or national agenda as much as empowering people to become self-directed, self-regulated individuals and citizens. This is a building block of a free and healthy society. It is from this perspective that I write about workforce development…not as a means of winning some global competition, but instead as a way to help people reach their goals, gain independence, make progress toward their dreams and aspirations, and discover their unique contributions to their neighbors in this world. As such, much of my work comes from an interest in personal development by embracing the broader spectrum of learning experiences, those that extend beyond traditional higher education or even formal academic study.

I write as an advocate for the democratization of education and alternative credentials like open badges partly in response to the exclusivity connected with existing education. While I see the aims of education as a form of empowerment, the current systems sometimes creates losers as much as they create winners. Credentials often serve as a form of status and exclusion for those without them. I recognize and respect that they can play a meaningful role in society, but my concern resides with the current state of academic credentials.

  • You don’t need a bachelor’s degree in social media to be a social media guru.
  • You don’t need a BA in English to write the great American novel.
  • You don’t need an MBA to be the next Steve Jobs.
  • You don’t need a M.S. in Educational Design & Technology (yes, a program that I started) to be an amazing educational innovator, instructional designer, or technology coach.
  • You don’t need a Washington State teaching license to be a competent, ethical and effective middle school social studies teacher.
  • You don’t need a degree in leadership studies to master the art and science of effective leadership.

Please note that I am a champion for higher education. I serve in a leadership capacity at a University and proudly promote our programs, even some of the ones that I just listed. It is just that I believe that what higher education provides should stand on its own, appreciated because of the actual value it creates for people, not by holding the keys to credentials not available elsewhere. I stand for higher education as a learning community and valued means of personal growth and development, not as an organization that lives or dies on its role as a credentialing service. My point is that there are many pathways to competence, confidence, and effectiveness in various careers and positions; and I oppose closing doors to people who take the road less traveled to competence in those areas. Yet, too many jobs and opportunities are restricted to those without the standard academic credentialing pedigree. There is why we need a demonopolization of academic credentials.

As it stands, American higher education leans too much on credentials to claim a monopoly on pathways to certain careers and aspirations. This is done in conjunctions with countless regulatory and accrediting agencies. Again, while I understand the need for such agencies to some extent, the gatekeeping mentality of issuing higher education credentials seems to be about protecting the well-being and financial status of the learning organization and the jobs of those in the organizations as much as anything else.

This is part of why I cheer for alternative credentials like digital badges. They work alongside a larger set of movements like self-directed learning, unschooling, the DIY movement, peeragogy, heutagogy, the maker movement, entrepreneurship efforts, and even contemporary definitions of blended learning. They do so as a means of giving students more control of time, pace, place, and pathway of the learning. Badges can also be twisted to sustain higher education’s pursuit of a monopoly, but the larger democratization of learning and information in the digital age is, I suspect, too strong to be monopolized for much longer, at least in many fields and disciplines. We may soon see this through trojan horses like competency-based education, the charter school movement on the K-12 level, and the growth of a need breed of education companies that bypass schools and aim straight for the learner. I’m not even convinced that a formal movement is necessary for the forthcoming demonopolization of higher education. It may well be the unavoidable result of life in a world of democratized knowledge. Either way, I’m a cheering for it even as I’m working hard to prove and maintain the deep and persistent value of higher education. I want you to study at my University because it is a great place to learn and grow, not because you have no other choice.