When Naslund Endowed Dean of the School of Education Mario Martinez joined the University of Redlands community in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was in the middle of preparing the final draft of his book. After a busy year, The Science of Higher Education: State Higher Education Policy and the Laws of Scale (Stylus Publishing) was released, and Martinez is meeting many of his colleagues in person for the first time. Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog spoke with Martinez about the book, the potential of a data-driven approach to higher education policy, and the importance of challenging the status quo.
Bulldog Blog: Can you give a synopsis of your new book?
Mario Martinez: At some point, I discovered there's a precise formula that describes the relationship between city populations and road miles between any two cities—Chicago and Los Angeles, for example. That got me thinking: Do similar formulas—generally called power laws—apply to higher education policy? As I started digging into this, I found that power laws describe the relationship between how much states invest in higher education relative to their populations, and how many for-profit institutions are in a given state.
Interestingly, these power laws also explain many aspects of the world around us, like the spread of COVID-19 and the spread of gossip, or the metabolic relationship between a mouse and a man. The same general formulas that many of us learned in high school can be applied to biology, cities, and higher education. My book applies these formulas to how states fund institutions across the nation, and how that relates to enrollment and completion, which is critical to our national and individual well-being. This book emphasizes we need to look at different and creative ways to analyze higher education outcomes.
BB: What’s your thesis?
Martinez: We’ve been using the same methods and relying on the same arguments to increase higher education funding for over 40 years. But our world has changed dramatically. New ways of thinking can help us creatively improve student outcomes, such as enrollment and degree completion, for existing and potential student populations that are increasingly diverse. The application of power laws to higher education means we're able to ask new questions. One question we've been asking for decades reflects an institutional perspective: “How much money is the state providing per student?” We should ask other questions, such as “What benefits do students and parents get for the amount of public money they invest in higher education?” That's a fundamentally different question. It's healthy to look at an issue from different perspectives.
BB: Who is your audience?
Martinez: The book is not for policymakers, per se, but for those who inform policymakers—legislative staff, higher education administrators and researchers, those who work at think tanks, and, finally, more generally for anyone curious about a different approach to the exciting topics of higher education policy.
BB: What made you want to pursue this topic? Was there a need you saw?
Martinez: About five years ago, I started reading about power laws and complex systems and wanted to test this in the field I know. That was the seed. The need is rooted in the fact that systemic beliefs solidify over time. They have to be questioned, whether we're talking about politics, racism, or higher education funding. As a first-generation student myself, I know how fundamental higher education is. California especially elevates the visibility of our institutions and how we steward public funds in a diverse world.
BB: What are the benefits of approaching education funding, enrollment, and completion from a data-driven perspective?
Martinez: As we move along in our world, we're given new tools and new ways of doing things. The benefit of my book is it offers a new way to examine whether institutions of higher education are enrolling and graduating students to the extent we might expect given the resources the public provides. This is only a starting point. Who enrolls and who completes is automatically tied to justice and equity conversations in a diverse world. There's still a lot of work to do—such as applying these techniques to race and ethnicity. While new ideas will be imperfect, they can be a catalyst to open up new conversations and explorations.
BB: What were the researching, writing, and publishing processes like? What did you learn?
Martinez: I started putting these ideas together and thinking about this over four years ago. I think one of the most important parts of the process was critical input—throughout all stages of the book, I had different colleagues from across the country giving me feedback. By nature, I'm an optimist. When optimists think that something is done, it's not. In 2019, I thought I was done with the book, but my two reviewers came back and had some substantive things to say. When I started as dean [of the U of R School of Education], it was a very busy first year because I also had to complete the book.
To this day, there remain differences between me and one of the book reviewers, but his input was critical to push me to refine the book. The challenge was reconciling my timelines with realistic ones, which is probably a principle of life. But I also learned that a good project may have one name on it, but many people contribute to success. My spouse and current EdD student, Sara, has Excel skills that far exceed mine. I asked her for help in doing much of the nuts and bolts analysis in the book. It wouldn't have been possible to write it without her contribution and without the contribution of my reviewers. A project like this is the product of many people.
BB: What are the big takeaways or conclusions of the book?
Martinez: Ultimately, I hope the big contribution is giving readers a new way to look at higher education funding and the number and type of different institutions we have in this country. If the book prompts higher education decision-makers to question our assumptions about the way we're measuring and doing things now, then I will have been successful. But I'm hoping specific ideas—like the concepts and analysis of scale, although they’re sort of esoteric—can be refined to help us assess how we're doing with enrollment and graduates relative to diversity. It’s not an option to embrace diversity—it's a necessity. Higher education must find new ways to measure and talk about how we help diverse students enroll in, complete, and succeed through college.
BB: How does the book tie into your work as the dean of the School of Education?
Martinez: I want these ideas to open the minds of those of us who study and write about higher education. We need to ask, “Can these ideas provide any insight to help us improve in a diverse and valuable world?” That tie to diversity is who we are as a School of Education. At the School of Education, we believe deeply in our vision to inspire more justice-related dialogue and action. We might be able to better fulfill our vision with the help of scale laws, biology, or comparing higher education with mice and men. What a privilege to work in higher education.
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