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Interview with SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher
Transcribed by Yehuda Bayme


Chancellor Nancy Zimpher
Chancellor Nancy Zimpher

Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): We are here with Chancellor Nancy Zimpher of the State University of New York (SUNY). Nancy, can you envision a college degree from any one of the SUNY schools that will be half residential and half done by the Khan Academy or EDX? Is that a possibility for the future?

Nancy Zimpher (NZ): I don’t know if I would say half, but the way we are thinking about the “Open SUNY” which is our massive online opportunities is that it could accommodate MOOCs and online courses from other entities and institutions. What we have to do is to find a way to access how that activity, that MOOC or that online course from elsewhere translates into credit in our degree programs.

PR: We know that enrollment is going down across the nation in all colleges and that translates into a loss of revenue. So, how will the revenue be apportioned between an online component and the college or university?

NZ: First I want to take issue with the enrollment decline. Not your statement about it, because the reality is that high school demographics are going to reduce the number of traditional college age students just by virtue of fewer of them, but there are so many adults who are undereducated that what I actually think that we are facing at the State University of New York is the opportunity to significantly grow our enrollments. And we will do it through what we would call a hybrid experience; a bit on campus, a bit online, and then pure online courses. So, we are actually contemplating another 100,000 students over the next three years. We are open to an open online enabled degree completion process where students decide which part of it they want to take where, but we are expecting growth. I think that it is really important, because everyone is talking about decline and yet there are so many adults that are undereducated and the job market keeps talking about insisting on degreed employees. We have to think about that.

PR: Should we be thinking about continuing education for the adult population as an area of growth in the SUNY schools?

NZ: I am a bigger fan of certificates and degrees. I think continuing education will always be with us, but the job market is going to demand a piece of paper that credentials you. It could be a competency-based program, but I think the credential is going to be increasingly important. I think we will get a lot of help from our continuing-ed colleagues. I am not against that in any way, but what we are going to market to this new population is degree completion.

PR: So, if somebody takes one course with the Khan Academy or even takes five courses and then shows up at the door of SUNY Buffalo and says “but look I have competency,” does he get a certificate?

NZ: I do not know, but I could tell you that we are our own engine of prior learning assessments. The Empire State College, which you would know here in New York has perfected being able to assess prior learning experiences, prior work experiences. So, we would send that Khan experience, call it a credential or a certificate, to this assessment process and out the other end comes what credit it warrants.

PR: Okay, so it is a possibility to get the credit. Now, who gets the money? How do you do that?

NZ: We spent hours on that question just yesterday. This is fundamentally around cross-listing. That’s what we would call it in higher education. Here are our courses that SUNY Binghampton is offering and here are our courses that SUNY Cortlandt is offering. So, if a Cortlandt student takes that course from Binghampton, how do you follow the money? Because the real cost of instruction is something that Cortlandt has to worry about. It is something Binghampton also has to worry about. So, we are going to have to sort of split the apple so to speak. We are going to have to give partial financial credit to the home institution of the student and partial financial credit to Binghampton if they are offering the course that the Cortlandt student wants to take. Or imagine the complication if the Cortlandt student wants to take a course from Amherst. How in the world will we ever figure that one out? This is actually why we are working with McKinsey. We are trying to get a business plan that doesn’t cannibalize what we are already doing for 465,000 students while we think about how to educate 100,000 more.

We are going to have to figure out what we think is an equitable distribution of the expense that the student is paying in the form of tuition. By the way there is another complication; in the past, if you got financial aid from Cortlandt and you wanted to take a course at Binghampton, you could not use your financial aid to do it, because the majority of your courses had to be taken at your resident campus. So we are going to have to crack that nut too. This is all going to get figured out and it has to get figured out, because there is an economy in higher ed. You do have to count.

PR: So if somebody gets a certificate, there is no cost in that?

NZ: Well here is the cost. Does it count as credit accruing experience from Cortlandt and does it mean that there are five courses right now that Cortlandt won’t offer that it used to offer, which would be a reduction in their tuition? So we have got to figure out that the market demand for what Cortlandt is offering replaces that vacuum found by the student who is going off to Khan instead of taking it at Cortlandt. There is a whole economy around this that we have asked somebody with a good reputation at McKinsey to help us figure out. We are not used to these kinds of calculations, but they do have to be figured out.

PR: Now a question about the value of the degree, because if you go to Khan academy or EdX you do not get a degree.

NZ: I think that everybody is saying that 50 to 60 percent of the jobs in the next ten years, in other words, right now, are going to be captured because you have an advanced degree: an advanced degree from high school, a bachelor’s degree, an associate degree, or a graduate degree. I think it is interesting that we are going to be working with Khan at SUNY, because so much of our remediation is in fields where they can offer support. So even Khan, that doesn’t offer a degree, because they are not an accredited college are really helping students move to the brass ring, the degree, which we do agree is critically important.

PR: Will you pay Khan for those services?

NZ: We might.

PR:  Does EdX offer anything?

NZ: EdX is one of several vendors like Coursera that we plan to partner with to make courses available that our students would pay a fee for. We don’t know yet whether they pay the fee to SUNY or whether they pay the fee to Coursera, or we split the fee. Again, that is why we need this business plan.

PR: You are such a successful figure in education and you really are a role model for many young people. What advice would you give to young women today? How do they become successful like you?

NZ: Whether or not I am successful, I can say that it was totally random. Nevertheless, I usually say to young women that I speak with “get a plan”. That plan may not materialize, but having no plan is not going to work for you. For our generation, if I might, we stumbled along and we weren’t really expected to have much of a career. You have to have a goal.  You have to have a vision. The same applies for my work at SUNY where we have a vision of what the power of SUNY means for us. You cannot execute if you are not looking for something. It is that old adage, how do you know you have arrived at your destination if you do not know where you were going? #  



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