On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined Andrew Hsu to discuss Andrew’s past experiences that brought him to the US education system and how student centricity can help higher ed catch up to meet societal needs.
Voiceover: Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Andrew Hsu, who is President of the College of Charleston. Andrew and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss Andrew’s past experiences that brought him to the US education system and how student centricity can help higher ed catch up to meet societal needs.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:03): Andrew Hsu, welcome to the Illumination podcast. It's so great to be chatting with you.
Andrew Hsu (00:06): Oh, thank you for having me.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:08): Absolutely. Well, I mean, let's start off just by level setting ourselves a little bit, because we're talking a little bit today about student centricity the future of, of the post-secondary institution as a starting point. Why is student centricity so important for modern higher ed leaders?
Andrew Hsu (00:25): Well, I, I, I think that's a natural result of how higher education had invol evolved in the last you know, 70 years. I, I think you know, many years ago higher education really is for the elite, right? Only 10 to 15% of high school graduates would go to college. But now you have as many as over 60% of high school graduates who would go to college. And naturally when you have such a wide variety of preparedness of students coming to college it becomes a challenge to our education. I'll give you an example. The graduation rate, the six year graduation rate in South Carolina is only 40%, and yet 60% of the students will have student loan debts, right? So, I, I think that's certainly not an ideal situation. In, in order to improve the student outcome, which is to us the graduation rate and, and the lower cost we have to improve student success. And in order to stu to improve student success, we naturally have to focus on the student. And, and therefore, student centeredness or student centricity has become such a important priority for almost all HigherEd leaders.
Amrit Ahluwalia (02:04): You know, it's, it's interesting you point that out. The, the sort of shift that higher eds undergone where, you know, it's gone from being something that only elites can access to something that's democratized. And one of the things that always strikes me so curious about this transformation is that we've still, in many circles, clung to this idea of what higher education looks like based on what those institutions designed for the elites would do. So, you know, when we still think about higher education generally speaking, we're thinking about, you know, a a, an experienced design for 18 to 22 year olds. We're thinking about a traditional degree pathway. We're thinking about, you know, the enlightenment process and not so much about, you know, more, more maybe foundational needs that learners are bringing with them, like a labor market outcome. How, how do we get to the point where we start thinking about higher education through these more diversified lenses when the students were serving or bringing those expectations to the door with them?
Andrew Hsu (03:04): So, so you're exactly right. You know, the expectations, a, as we democratize the access for higher education expectations from students app also changed tremendously, right? So you know, for example 20, 30 years ago, if you were to ask a student or their parents, why does one go to college? They would tell you to get a good education. And today, if you ask the same question many of the students would say, you know, I, I need to launch a career, right? So the students coming to college these days are asking if I get a certain degree, what career path would that afford me? So, so certainly this has changed. And, and, and unfortunately, I, I think our our education system is, is by design a very slow moving system. It's, it's designed to not change rapidly, however our society is changing very rapidly. And, and I do think that there is a need for innovation in higher education in order to catch up with societal needs.
Amrit Ahluwalia (04:31): Absolutely. Now, I, I wanna talk a little bit about, about you. Cause you, your background is, is fascinating. You know, you're the first president of the College of Charleston from an A A P I background, your career journey's taken you from NASA to Royals, Roy Rolls, Royce Aviation and finally now into higher education. How has this personal journey influenced the way that you think about and tackle your role as president and, you know, added to this perspective on student centricity that you bring with you?
Andrew Hsu (04:58): Sure. So you, you know, I, I think my experience affected my sort of view on higher education in, in two ways, right? Growing up in China, during a a period of time known as the cultural revolution, my K-12 education were repeatedly interrupted. So when I went to college, I was very poorly prepared for that. So my per, as my personal understanding of what it's like to be struggling academically or emotionally really made me very passionate about helping today's student succeed. So the other direction is that because I spent about 10 years working in industry before I joined academia, I see the gap between what higher education produces and what our industry and business needs are. So this is why I feel innovation in higher education is very much needed, and student centricity is very much needed for student success.
Amrit Ahluwalia (06:21): Absolutely. Andrew, before we go on, would you mind if we talked a little bit more about your experience in the culture revolution and sort of how it, how it's kind of shaped that perspective on, on the role of education? Or would you rather we just kind of keep going with the Well,
Andrew Hsu (06:35): Certainly I'd be happy to, to talk a little bit about that. So you know, called for evolution basically happened when I was or started when I was 10 years old and, and ended when I was 20 mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And, and so really on my formative years my family was sent to the countryside to be reeducated. And, and for three years, my elementary school education was interrupted. And then after that, after my own high school education which really only lasted about a year I was sent to the countryside to be reeducated for two more years. So I really because of the fact that I wanted to have an education and I couldn't get an education that has I guess in instilled such a passion in me about education and, and I'm just so passionate about the fact that everybody should be allowed to have a good education. And, and so when I hear about students who grew up in inner city school systems who couldn't get a, a good education, I just want to work with them and help them overcome that.
Amrit Ahluwalia (08:05): Absolutely. I mean, the culture revolution, it's such a fascinating piece of, I mean, it's a, as a historical artifact, it's, it's, it's an incredibly interesting period of time, obviously an incredibly difficult period of time. For those anyone who, who is interested in learning more about the cultural revolution, I at minimum Google it. You can also read do Not Say We Have nothing, is a, is a Gill prize award-winning book that does, that does some really interesting work in, in breaking down the, the realities of that experience as, as you went through those multiple periods through that, the reeducation process through being, you know, bounced between the cities and the countryside. How challenging was it for you to maintain that, that spirit or that fire to continue learning and to, and to maintain that focus on education when the whole purpose of, of that movement was basically a, a national rejection, right. Of advanced learning and, and of sort of the culture and, and the, the, the, the orientation around that sort of personal betterment, which is central to so much of what the, the modern post-secondary institution is designed to do?
Andrew Hsu (09:11): Right. So, so you know, I, I guess you know, I, I don't know if you're a parent or not, but I, I've raised four girls and, and whatever my girls can't get, they that are, those are the things that they wanted the most. And, and growing up I was no different, right? Education is something that I couldn't get, and, and education was something that I really, really wanted. So when, when I was working in the countryside, I actually <laugh> was able to get some books some calculus books, some physics books, and, and taught myself English through those math and physics books. So I, I guess if, if you have the fire to in your, in your belly to learn, then nobody can distinguish that.
Amrit Ahluwalia (10:10): I mean, this might be a very specific question. How did you get the books and how did you make sure no one found that you had the books?
Andrew Hsu (10:20): So interestingly enough my parents were educated in old China. And, and in fact, when they were going to college, their textbooks were in English without translation. It was just pure Oh, wow. English textbooks. So one of the calculus books I found was, was actually one without a cover. It's torn up and very old one, but nonetheless, it's still legible from my parents. And, and then I also happened to have relatives in the US who then later found out that I was struggling to get books. And, and by that time, they were allowed to send technical books. So someone sent me a, a physics book from, from Berkeley. So,
Amrit Ahluwalia (11:16): Oh my goodness. What was that experience like in, in you coming to the US and, and starting to embed yourself in the, the American education ecosystem, which especially at that period of time was, was the, the education was such a priority in the United States, and we'll talk a little bit about maybe that the shifting priorities around public support for education, but at the time that you came to the US it was such a priority. How did you find that transformation process from, you know, again, coming, coming out of the cultural revolution and into an environment that was really oriented towards getting into higher education and really getting people educated and ready for a, a, a transforming society?
Andrew Hsu (11:59): Yeah. So quite, quite frankly, it was a cultural shock, right? Right. My came was 1980 when you know, people in, most people in China were still wearing mouth suits and, and you know, you see very few foreigners and, and to then be thrown into a a, a, you know, American campus and compete is is was quite a cultural shock, especially you know, I taught myself English, but I was really ill prepared in terms of language. And, and I remember I was at Georgia Tech for the first quarter. I, I could hardly understand any of the lectures, so I, I had to really read and read you know spend probably three times the effort in, in learning the material. And also at the time, quite frankly, I, I wasn't sure with that kind of poor pre preparation, I was gonna be able to handle the academics right. Until I, I guess toward the end of the first quarter my grades or accumulative grades were the highest in all of the classes i, I was taking. And, and that I sort of relaxed a little in knowing that I could compete. But really it was quite an, a cultural shock.
Amrit Ahluwalia (13:30): That's incredible. And then, you know, looking at it, today, you're the president of the, the oldest university in South Carolina, one of the oldest universities in the United States. Obviously over the past sort of 20 or 25 years, we've seen such a shift in the way that post-secondary education especially, but education in general is supported by, you know, state and, and, and federal government bodies. And what's fascinating about it, you mentioned folks from underserved communities and, and recognizing kind of a kinship with those individuals who feel they don't have access to the quality of education that they, that they need. How can a university like yours start to create those pathways for individuals who may have been underserved through throughout their lifetimes to find a, a learning opportunity that that's really suited for them and, and sort of overcome some of those obstacles that, that have really been, would been positioned in front of them?
Andrew Hsu (14:24): So, so certainly we're, we're doing several things. Y you know, one of the really successful pathways to a successful higher education is what we call a bridge program. So we typically have certain standards in admitting students, and, and we know that if your GPA is below a certain number you probably would not be able to handle most of the first year freshman classes. So our campus developed this bridge program that has been very successful, pretty much every South Carolinian who wants to come to the College of Charleston but ha do, do not have the, the necessary preparation to be successful. We we bring them through this bridge program where we give them the necessary preparation before we then bring them into the college. And, and we're also offering more student services in both inside and outside of the classroom.
(15:41): We're offering a lot of tutoring opportunities. We have a student success center where any subject a student need help, they could get help there, you know, for English or math, these very popular subjects. We have both staff as well as peer tutors there that they could immediately walk in and get help. But if, for example, they are studying economics and, and or biology, they needed help, then we would actually match them with peer peer mentors. So there, there's quite a bit of, so, so when you talk about student centricity really it's whatever students need we would try to provide. You know, lately during the last, especially since covid student mental health has become a major issue. So we have worked very hard and put resources in to increase our support for student mental health. All of those has to be considered holistically.
Amrit Ahluwalia (17:08): One thing I've, I've always been curious about comes back to, you know, you, you mentioned, I think, some of the, one of the key challenges with creating a truly student-centric environment the first is that it's a moving target. It's, you know, being responsive with processes, services, and support mechanisms to whatever learners need at points in time. And then the second is doing that at scale, which can, you know, ultimately become relatively unexpensive proposition. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> in an era where the expenditures, especially at public universities, are under so much critique mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, what's the business case for making these investments in creating an environment that's truly designed for students when almost every line item at a public institution comes under some form of scrutiny at some point,
Andrew Hsu (18:00): Well, actually, the business case is, is very easy to make, right? So if we graduate students at a higher rate then that's the benefit to the society. But even for an for an higher education institution there's actually financial benefit in helping student become successful. For example our first year retention is 20%, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, so sorry. Wrong the other way around.
(18:36): Our, our first year retention rate is 80%, which means that 20% of our student would leave after first year. But if we were to do a better job, we put resources in and, and we enhance our student advising and, and help student navigate the complex higher education system and invest in you know, mental health services to help them be successful here at the university. Let's say we can retain the student by a couple of percentage every year. Each percent is 20 students, right? So if we can increase the retention by 2.5%, that is a million dollars to our bottom line. And, and so there is an, actually a real r ROI to universities, to all universities if they invest in student success programs.
Amrit Ahluwalia (19:41): Absolutely. I mean, that's, at the end of the day, that's the product. It's not, you know, this is, it's, it's an interesting proposition. You start talking about the, the institution as a business, and then what's, what's the product? And it's the opportunity for learners to be successful. That's what it keeps coming back to. For me, when we think about the, the product that a post-secondary institution sells is that opportunity, right? And so from the institution's perspective as the service provider, creating as many frameworks as possible around that experience to ensure that the customer has the maximum chance for success mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, the more opportunity there is for the institution to be successful.
Andrew Hsu (20:17): Right. Funny, you, you mentioned the word customer, and, and I,
Amrit Ahluwalia (20:23): I had thought about it for a second and just decided to go for it.
Andrew Hsu (20:27): I can tell you it's not a popular word on the university campus, but that's something that we, we as higher education has to rethink and, and develop a culture to be more student-centric which is treating our students as customers.
Amrit Ahluwalia (20:48): Well, lemme ask you this, cuz I mean, you do have such a, a, a diverse background in the space in, in, throughout your, your careers and, and in terms of who you're serving and, and, and what you're building. How do you, you know, how do you envision that the customer experience that the post-secondary institution is delivering? And where do you think this perspective of student as customers, like, what's the limitation on that? Like, where, where do we need to, where is it useful to think about the student as a customer? And where is it useful to take a step back from, from that perspective?
Andrew Hsu (21:21): Sure. I, I, I think you know, from the angle of providing students the best education they can possibly get, provide the best mentorship, provide the best mental health services, provide the best you know tutoring and, and all of that, and provide them with the best you know, extracurricular experience provide them with opportunities for experiential learning and all of that. That's where this, this sort of treating students as customers would make sense. But in terms of you know, how you teach the students and you know, giving them an exam and make sure that they actually learned those, I think you still need to sort of keep your traditional mentality as a professor. Right? Absolutely.
Amrit Ahluwalia (22:25): Absolutely. So, as you think about our, our industry over the next five years, what do you think are gonna be some of the, you know, the trends and the key characteristics that are really gonna define the higher ed space over the next half decade to decade?
Andrew Hsu (22:38): So, so I, I think you know, the, the challenges for higher education really is you know, stay relevant, right? So the world is changing so rapidly and, and higher education needs to change with it in order to stay relevant. And, and you have to be, we have to be thinking about not only how we teach our students, but also what to teach our students and, and how do we reformulate higher education to meet not only student needs, but employer needs and, and societal needs. So I, I think student higher education really needs to be more innovative in what we teach and how we teach it. We need to think more along the lines of preparing students ready for the workforce, right? That's what the students and, and what the parents want these days. Not just to get a good education, but g get a good education and be prepared for the workforce.
(23:49): I think, you know, we have several good examples at the College of Charleston, how to reformulate or rethink what we offer. For example, we have a computing in the arts program, you know, typically we, we have a very traditional arts school where you have performing arts, you have music, dance you know, studio arts and so forth. But the, the world, as I said, is changing. And, and so our faculty were innovative. They developed this computing in the arts that had become very popular, which is a, a, a partnership between the school of the Arts and our computer science department. Another example is arts management, right? So it's a partnership between our business school and our school of the arts. So you could be studying you know, fine arts, you could be studying performing, performing arts. You could be a musician, but you can also learn something about management and, and perhaps you would become a museum curator, or, or you could manage a performing art institution.
(25:08): So you know, an another example is our new software engineering program has actually a language minor requirement. So we want to ensure that all of our software engineers graduate with a second language minor so that they're globally fluent and they can work in multinational teams and, and have the, the cultural and, and global fluency. So I, I think we're gonna see more and more of what I call fusion programs such as the computing or the computing in the arts type of programs. And, and I think that has to be in the future of higher education.
Amrit Ahluwalia (25:59): You know, just desiloing the institution in general seems like it's such a critical element. And it's, it's funny, I was talking to someone the other day about they were talk, they the declining jobs in the tech sector mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and all I could ask was, what's the tech sector? What do you mean it's technology? I'm like, yeah, but technology's at the root of everything. Every industry has a technology component to it that's essential. Every tech company is selling into a given industry. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, so what's the tech sector? And it's, it's funny as you talk about sort of the blending technology into arts education and blending technology into sci because at the end of the day, it, it's not siloed. There's no siloed industries in that way. It's the new industries and emerging industries are, are fascinating interweavings of different spaces to create new, new spaces altogether. And programming really has to keep pace.
Andrew Hsu (26:52): Exactly. You know, for example when we talk to industry leaders, they always say, well, your engineers have great technical background, but they need to learn to be better writers, better you know, communication people, the better team or and, and all of that. So yeah, really you need to sort of blend humanities with engineering and you need
Amrit Ahluwalia (27:23): The steam movement. Yeah. Adding, adding arts into stem.
Andrew Hsu (27:27): Right? Right. Yeah.
Amrit Ahluwalia (27:29): I, this is Andrew, I gotta tell you, I, I've so enjoyed the time and I, I know we are running up against the end of our half hour here, so b before I let you go, and now I will say, when we use, we've always asked folks on this podcast at the end of the podcast, their favorite restaurant. And it used to be a surprise question, and I stopped doing that. Cause it started to get people very frustrated at the end of the episode when they had to come up with a restaurant immediately. And I used to say that it was so that if someone was traveling to your town, they should know where to go to dinner. And we recently had a listener reach out and say, that's a lie. You just want to know where to go for dinner yourself. And, and that's, that's the truth. It, I, I'm, I'm a food guy. I'm a restaurant guy. I do get to travel a lot. So if I'm going to dinner in Charleston, what's your favorite restaurant? Where would you recommend I go?
Andrew Hsu (28:13): Well, and one thing I I want to tell you first is that every single restaurant in downtown Charleston is a good restaurant.
(28:25): Im in random restaurants all the time, and never found a bad one yet. But, but I can also tell you that one of my favorite is called rujan, which is in our neighborhood and, and within walking distance. So if you ever comes to our college campus, you can ask where Rujan is. Most people would know where that is. It's a very good French restaurant.
Amrit Ahluwalia (28:52): Fantastic. Well, Andrew, hey, I really, I appreciate you sharing with us. I, I do appreciate you taking the time out. It's really been a fascinating conversation, and I appreciate it.
Andrew Hsu (29:02): Well, thanks again for having me, Amir. Good to see you online.
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