This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.
In a book titled "Pursuing Quality, Access, and Affordability: A Field Guide to Improving Higher Education," author Stephen Ehrmann examines three challenges that nearly all colleges and universities face, including: improving the learning outcomes of students, expanding equitable access to higher education, and making academic programs more affordable. "Quality, access, and affordability are crucial to overcoming the challenges facing higher education now and in the coming years. Unfortunately, many in the field seem to believe addressing these three challenges together creates conflict or is not feasible. This has been referred to as the iron triangle, reflecting the idea that the three are integrally linked and changing one will significantly affect the other two," writes Jacob Smith, who read the book and shared his opinions of its content with NASFAA.
As a financial aid administrator, I have few priorities higher on my list than assisting students in the practical pursuit of affording higher education. After all, the financial aid profession was founded to help students achieve their educational dreams. At the same time, like most higher education professionals, I have a responsibility to contribute toward the institution's priorities of providing quality instruction, retaining students, and expanding access.
These three pivotal pursuits are at the heart and the title of Stephen Ehrmann's "Pursuing Quality, Access, and Affordability: A Field Guide to Improving Higher Education."
Quality, access, and affordability are crucial to overcoming the challenges facing higher education now and in the coming years. Unfortunately, many in the field seem to believe addressing these three challenges together creates conflict or is not feasible. This has been referred to as the iron triangle, reflecting the idea that the three are integrally linked and changing one will significantly affect the other two. For example, according to Ehrmann, many higher education leaders believe "gains in access water down standards. Changes in quality require more resources per student, which makes education less affordable" (18). However, he has long believed in tackling these challenges as a "constellation of aligned initiatives," rather than the individual siloed approach used on many campuses.
The constellation approach, which Ehrmann calls 3Fold Gains, incorporates the three desired outcomes into a single, integrative learning model outlined in the book and demonstrates how the achievement of one of the three can positively influence the others. Rather than individually pursuing actions to improve one outcome, the goal is to take action that improves all three. For example, he highlights Georgia State University's use of learning communities, interactive learning environments, and advisement centers to boost graduation rates of underrepresented students, bolster the university's reputation as a research-oriented institution, and improve access to underrepresented and Pell Grant students. In this guide, Ehrmann does a remarkable job of combining effective arguments and case studies to illustrate how to leverage quality, affordability, and access together to create exponential results.
For financial aid administrators, discussion of learning models and outcomes may appear to be a non-starter. After all, with the many hats worn in the profession, adding another may seem daunting. But the constellation approach outlined in the guide illustrates how different offices working together toward common goals can improve outcomes at the institutional level. Ehrmann uses six comprehensive case studies, which follow several model and aspirational institutions, to demonstrate that the 3Fold Gains approach is achievable. The book also includes practical maps and examples to guide in implementing this approach.
A common concern when reviewing models and theories surrounding institutional effectiveness is whether they are practical to implement. A strength of Ehrmann's work is that it demonstrates the model can work, allowing the reader to use it to communicate urgency and strategy at their own institution. Ehrmann outlines how rollout of 3Fold Gains could look at an institution using practices that are effective and seem to follow some of the principles outlined in contemporary change leadership literature. While I wish the author had spent more time on implementation at the institution level, I recognize that he chose to focus on demonstrating the model with which he believes these challenges can be addressed.
Higher education also faces the unique challenge of many offices working in a "siloed" structure. One of the key obstacles of creating a constellation approach to 3Fold Gains is overcoming the barriers between offices. The first section of the book and its six case studies show how constellations can cross office barriers; however, Ehrmann missed a critical opportunity to demonstrate how offices can work together to overcome the barriers that hinder 3Fold Gains.
Overall, the approach and concepts illustrated by Ehrmann are not only exciting but also well thought out and applicable to any institution looking to overcome the most pressing issues facing the financial aid profession today. This book should inspire anyone in the field looking to be a part of the myriad discussions of how to overcome the challenges of quality, access, and affordability. Financial aid administrators may need to make some leaps when considering how to contribute, as the work is primarily focused on curriculum and learning models. But the core concepts and argument are clear: Higher education faces numerous key challenges, and the best way forward is a methodology that leverages the goals and desires of the profession's plurality of voices.
Pursuing Quality, Access, and Affordability: A Field Guide to Improving Higher Education, Stylus Publishing, Mar. 1, 2021, pp. 264.
Jacob Smith is a senior financial aid counselor at Milwaukee School of Engineering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After serving in youth and nonprofit leadership, Jacob transitioned into the financial aid profession and is motivated to serve students and remove barriers to higher education. Jacob holds a Master of Arts in organizational leadership from Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois.
Publication Date: 4/12/2022