Looking at the Future of Georgia Tech Through the Lens of the Pandemic Experience

The pandemic is an experience I have no interest in ever having again. Nevertheless, I must say that I have learned a lot, and it has clarified and crystalized some ideas about the future of Georgia Tech and higher education that I would not have been able to articulate just a few months ago.

What I Have Learned

Let me begin with some of the things I have learned, or have had confirmed, from the experience.

1: Remote education environments, even when developed during a surprisingly fast transition, can deliver quality education. Yet remote learning is not sufficient, particularly for undergraduates. First, to be most effective, remote learning has to become online education. The latter implies a very different model with significant changes to delivery and assessment, as we have done with our Online Master of Science (OMS) series and a few others at Georgia Tech. Second, and most importantly, it is evident that undergraduates and their parents value residential education because of the social and personal growth that occurs during the period of transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Our residential undergraduate education is a high-value, premier product that will always be in demand. Its value comes not only from the delivery of content by talented instructors, but also largely from the opportunity students have to be part of a community of like-minded, driven, ambitious individuals. The value of the Georgia Tech resident undergraduate experience comes from rubbing shoulders with people who intend to change the world; from a common culture and pride in “belonging;” from the extracurricular, co-curricular, and myriad other opportunities; and from the network that develops within this unique community.

2: Graduate education is a different animal. Doctoral degrees are about the creation of knowledge. For the most part, that requires laboratory or fieldwork for those involved, no matter the area of study. Master’s degrees come in two flavors. Some are research- and laboratory-centered, but increasingly, many revolve around the delivery of content to what is generally a far more mature audience, many of whom have had the undergraduate residential experience and probably some work experience as well.

Our OMS programs in computer science, analytics, and cybersecurity are a case in point, where mature professionals engage in excellent education opportunities with a significant amount of virtual social networking, all in an online environment. Covid-19 reinforced the wisdom of that model.

3: The nature of office work is changed forever by Covid-19. The reality is that a large proportion of our work, and certainly back-office work, does not require being on campus. I have been able to conduct the managerial part of my work, mostly with my direct reports, remotely. In some respects, working remotely is better, allowing for very large informational meetings with hundreds of people, as well as more frequent leadership group exchanges that would be difficult to accomplish in a physical office environment. Those meetings are informational and transactional, relatively fast and effective, and they can be engaging. Digital platforms are nevertheless not particularly good for “first meetings,” interviews, or design and brainstorming – just as they are not effective for labs. They are useless for socializing, and they are not helpful in creating loyalty and culture. The implication of these insights is that universities will increasingly rely on remote workers, and the demand for office space will be reduced.

One last comment on remote work: It can be very efficient and focused when done well, and when the individual has the right personal discipline. What I have found, though, is that remote meetings can easily become space fillers, consuming time that could otherwise be used for more strategizing and thinking about issues – that is always harder.

4: To a greater or lesser degree, all of higher education has too narrow a revenue stream. Public universities like ours have two main revenue streams that support the educational enterprise. One is the contribution of the state, which depends on the value the state places on higher education. The other, true for both private and public institutions, is tuition. We all depend on tuition. Total tuition income is the product of the rate per unit (or student) times the total enrollment. Those are the only two knobs all universities can control, to a greater or lesser extent.

If you are a public university, you do not fully control the price of your product (tuition), since it has to be balanced with the accessibility and affordability missions of the university and the state’s contribution to that mission. When Covid-19-like disasters occur, the budget model falls apart; every element is affected, but the impact on tuition income is compounded. Tuition is generally frozen in times of crisis, in recognition that families are stressed. At the same time, enrollment numbers are at risk and state contributions go down. It is a triple hit, a spiral, with few controls to arrest it. Higher education needs to diversify, and more importantly, increase its revenue stream.

5: This is the time to think big and outside of the box. Covid-19 has broken the model, and I venture to say it will be dangerous to put it back together the same way. The higher education institutions that will thrive and excel are those that have the brand name status to take some bold risks. I am proud to say that we are in that position.

 

Can You Imagine?

So, what should the Georgia Tech of the future look like? In its report, “Deliberate Innovation, Lifetime Education,” the Commission on Creating the Next in Education (CNE) outlines a bold and exciting future that revolves around a culture of innovation: the concept of “Georgia Tech forever”: a commitment to the lifelong education of our own and others, the use of technology to improve and scale services, and an expanded projection of Georgia Tech beyond Atlanta.

Using the Commission’s ideas and the lessons learned during the pandemic, let me propose a few provocative ideas.

Undergraduate Education

Presently, there are about 16,000 residential undergraduates at Georgia Tech (and close to 20,000 graduate students of all types). Over a period of 15 years, it is possible to bring that number gradually up to about 20,000. This should be our premium undergraduate offering: fully residential, with all the services and the rich experience of campus life. One difference from a pre-Covid-19 world would be the elimination of all lecture classes with more than, say, 70 students. All such lectures should be redesigned as online offerings of high quality. These offerings should be an inverted classroom experience, where the students meet with an instructor or tutor twice a week in small cohorts to discuss and learn by practicing what the remotely delivered lecture covers. In this proposed future scenario, assessments would also be delivered online. The role of teaching assistants, some advising and some mentoring, would be filled by AI agents, as foreseen in the CNE report.

This enrollment ramp-up would require about 250 more instructors, the majority of whom would be tenure-track, but a significant number of non-tenure-track faculty would also be involved. This effort will require administrative support, and necessary student services, offices, labs, and dormitory space would also be required. This model is not out of the question based on past history. It could be done, gradually, on a nearly breakeven basis.

The bigger obstacle to increasing enrollment may be finding the pool of in-state candidates – the best have many options – and finding the financial aid necessary to guarantee affordability to the best students around the state and elsewhere. The financial aid issue can only be resolved if new revenues become available.

In a major departure from our traditional business, I would propose that Georgia Tech develop a STEM Undergraduate Academy that is non-residential, strictly online, affordably priced, and offered worldwide, at scale. The Academy would offer high-quality associate’s degrees in technical areas with the Georgia Tech imprimatur. It would be staffed by dedicated instructors, not tenured faculty, with few exceptions. The credits offered by this Academy would be recognized by Georgia Tech and others. Depending on their performance, graduates could move into the Institute’s residential program. Individuals not interested in an associate’s degree could package some of the course offerings into a series of certificates, like computer sciences.

Graduate Education

The doctoral program is another of Georgia Tech’s premium offerings. Research at the doctoral level (involving students, staff, and faculty) is what makes our reputation. The additional tenure-track faculty required for the enrollment increase will bring additional research and a significant number of new Ph.D. students. All of which adds revenue.

The OMS series of at-scale professional master’s degrees can be expanded – say, by adding four new programs and another 8,000 students.

Residential master’s degree offerings can still grow modestly, in some areas.

Professional Programs

When we launched the OMS series, we discovered a population of adult working learners that we were not serving as well as we could. They are interested in pivoting to new professions or positioning themselves for a better opportunity in their current jobs. CNE spoke about the need to recognize the gig economy in our offerings.

To best serve those needs, I suggest creating a not-for-profit affiliate out of Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE). If empowered to hire and develop business, this unit could bring in significant revenue and touch tens of thousands of new students.

As part of this effort, we must put in place a program to promote alumni engagement with our programs. There are a variety of business models that could support this concept.

Research/Industry Relations

Georgia Tech is one of the few institutions in the nation with a nonprofit, applied research division like the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). I cannot emphasize enough the advantage and opportunity that GTRI represents. But we must recognize that GTRI is distinct and must operate under different rules. GTRI has been growing at over 20% a year. If allowed to hire, promote, and pay, GTRI could grow to become a $1.5 billion annual research operation (from about $650 million now) reasonably quickly.

The bulk of GTRI’s work is defense-oriented, and much of it is classified. An applied research laboratory could be spun out of GTRI, called Georgia Tech Applied Research Institute (GTARI). The purpose of GTARI would be to work on non-classified applied research and possibly serve as an intermediary for faculty high-level consulting. An organization like GTARI could establish a formal relationship with one of the dominant technology companies. Such an alliance would employ our faculty, support research, require professional education, and hire our students. The potential of such a relationship could be vast.

I would venture that GTARI could generate very large revenues. The challenge is to develop the policies that would regulate it within our public university environment.

The Campus

Going forward, the nature of our classroom space inventory will change. If what I described above comes to pass, we will need fewer lecture halls, more medium-sized classrooms with flexible configuration, and technology for lecture capture in every classroom. Office space needs will be far more moderate. Private-public partnerships will increasingly be the norm. Demand for university-supplied dormitories will be moderate and not proportional to the growth of the student population. We would need space for new initiatives and affiliates like the expanded GTPE, GTARI, and partnerships with high tech industries.

Development on the west side of campus lends itself to housing the new frontier of Institute growth. My vision would be a commercial border on the west side of Marietta Street that morphs into a live-work-play strip between Marietta and Tech Parkway. In that strip I can imagine housing targeted to young families, the offices of the new initiatives mentioned above, greenspace, and a Tech-sponsored (not run) high quality school, ideally a public (charter) school, but possibly a private school if it can be made affordable. I would argue that hosting the school in Georgia Tech-controlled land and facilities would make the emergence of a true community possible.

Conclusion

The above is informed by my experience as provost, by what I have learned from this moment of crisis, and by the ideas and discussions that led to the Commission on Creating the Next in Education report. I should emphasize in closing that these are exclusively my opinions, not the official position of Georgia Tech or the rest of the leadership, who did not play a part of their formulation. This picture I have painted for Georgia Tech’s future may very well be a pie in the sky – but it is still a pie worth dreaming of and thinking about.

-Rafael L. Bras

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