news and events

From Accounting to Design Thinking: A Conversation with ASU’s Phil Regier

Our partners keep asking for examples of design thinking in the reimagining of higher education. We teach design thinking at The Academy for Innovation in Higher Education Leadership. This winter a cohort met at Arizona State University (ASU), and Phil Regier, the architect of ASU’s successful and fast-growing online programs, took us through the latest projects at ASU’s EdPlus, where he serves as University Dean for Educational Initiatives and CEO. EdPlus is the new amalgamation of “out of the box” pathway projects, using research, design and partnerships to scale learning and degree completion. You may have heard about two of the projects that were announced last year, but it occurred to us that these are excellent examples of human-centered design. While Phil, a former accounting professor, doesn’t toss around design terms like “student journey mapping,” “user needs,” or “rapid prototyping,” (each parts of our own process), he and his team are living it. And he cheerfully agreed to sit down for a discussion.

I. Our Interview with Phil: What we learned

Global Freshman Academy (GFA)

“What ASU has done is create a model where students can first find out whether they’re successful, and then pay.”

With the Global Freshman Academy, ASU set out to address two big problems. Problem one: Most online degrees are career-specific. Problem two: Spending money on college if you don’t have a plan is like playing roulette, as 50% of students don’t make it. From these problems, ASU identified a couple of user needs: That an online program should be affordable as an alternative to traditional college and aspirational in helping students to learn what it is they want to do when they grow up. Given these needs, the team generated three key design criteria: The courses should be (1) explorable, (2) transferrable, and (3) accessible.

How might GFA credits be explorable, transferrable, and accessible?From this design challenge, the Global Freshman Academy was born, an open-scaled, technology-enhanced (edX platform), visually-immersive program, offering freshman-level college courses. Students can enroll at no cost and have the option of paying $49 at the start of the course if they wish to verify their identity and be eligible to receive credit at the end. If they pass the course with a C or better, they then have the option to pay $600 to receive credit. This unique financial structure flips the risk-equation for students. As Regier describes, “What ASU has done is create a model where students can first find out whether they’re successful, and then pay.”

With this pathway, a student can complete the general studies requirements and be set up for a professional pathway (like pre-business or pre-law) for $6500, about 75% less than the sticker price of ASU’s freshman year for out-of-state and international students. It’s also, by the way, a very smart marketing strategy for early digital education mover ASU, a global “introductory offer” funnel into their existing online degree programs. (As the first year ends, it will be interesting to see where the freshman go, and how well the credits transfer to other universities who deeply protect their general education “cash cow” credits.)

ASU-Starbucks Partnership

“College in America is not designed to be completed.”

If the Global Freshman Academy is ASU’s focus on redesigning the entry-level student experience, the College Achievement Plan with Starbucks redesigns the latter-half of a student’s college career. Says Regier, “College in America is not designed to be completed.” That’s a depressing statement, but the outcome stats back him up. What to do about it? The partnership allows Starbucks employees to enroll at ASU Online and to be reimbursed 100%. By investing in their workers, Starbucks hopes to have a more mature, better prepared, and well-rounded workforce, with a goal of 25,000 graduates by 2025. And because Starbucks expects no commitment from enrollees to continue working for Starbucks after graduation, Starbucks has created a social value proposition consistent with company values. As Regier describes it, “With Starbucks, the alignment of their values with the value of education was complete.”

Likely, part of Starbucks’s calculation is that if the company serves its employees better, those scholar employees will, in turn, better serve the customer. It’s too early to judge the impact on attrition, as this double shot journey will likely take 4-5 years. Of course, that’s 4-5 years that students will stay at Starbucks.

The cost is broken down 3 ways: by an ASU scholarship (which pays 42% of costs), financial aid (all participants are asked to fill-out a FAFSA, though no education loans are expected), and an upfront cost that is reimbursed by Starbucks at the end of the semester (you can watch a 2-minute video on how this works here). At steady state, an impressive 10% of the baristas you meet are expected to be brewing college on the side. Signing folks up hasn’t been as easy as expected; interestingly, the sweet spot is 25-26 year olds who have seen how far the retail service sector can take them without a degree. The 18-20 year olds are less likely to have the discipline to juggle 6 AM espresso shifts and online classes.

II. From the Lab: Using our Design Lens

How did ASU capture UX and UI needs in their design?

UX/UI & Design Thinking
Designing around the user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) is key to good design, and in this realm ASU gets high marks. The university gathered data on its audience to better understand what users need. ASU’s typical online student is 33 (similar to most of the large online programs) and transfers in with 55-60 credits. So degree focus and completion were the user needs and design criteria for most online program plans.

The average Starbucks student, as mentioned above, is 26 and transfers in with 30 credits. For the Global Freshman Academy, students are self-identifying as freshman no matter what age. As such, ASU designed both programs to fill this gap, but with different channel or marketing strategies.

These composite students (we call them “personas” in design thinking) are crafted through quantitative and qualitative data and research. Regier has spent time in Starbucks stores, talking with baristas and watching them in action to get a better understanding of their lives as Starbucks employees. Likewise, the head of Starbucks’s North America division is taking the online introductory course to become more familiar with what the program’s experience is for a student. These are typical research methods in a design thinking process. And both groups have used continued research and data analysis to iterate from prototype to pilots.

Obstacles v. Catalysts
ASU has approached its redesign of the higher ed experience with a critical proposition: That there is a difference between reducing obstacles and motivating students to succeed, and that reducing an obstacle does not necessarily motivate a student to succeed. Take, for example, costs, an infamous culprit in impeding students’ success. Although both programs dramatically reduce costs to students, Regier acknowledges that “even if tuition is 100% reimbursed, it’s still difficult to engage and motivate students.” Put more frankly, Regier observed, “It’s easier to buy a house than to go to college.”

Compounding this problem is the relationship between how students finance their education and the pathway they take. For example, many students want to experience both the broad exposure of a university while also developing depth to a specific skillset (an innovative approach known as the T-shaped student). But while ASU might want to work with a provider like General Assembly, by the time a graduate becomes a ripe candidate for such a provider, they’ve exhausted their savings and are no longer eligible for financial aid (like Pell). GFA presents an opportunity to restructure some of these pathways. The Starbucks partnership, likewise, leverages its position towards the latter-half of a student’s college career to present itself as an opportunity for students to recalibrate and improve their GPA.

III. What’s Next?

The Scaling Context
By employing design thinking to produce new, affordable pathways to attainment, ASU has strategically located itself on the horizon of the global unbundled learner revolution. Regier is in discussions with at least three other corporations for what we might call “sponsored pathways” like the Starbucks deal. As the “coming of age” population continues to trend toward putting off traditional degrees, you could imagine within ten years a significant population of workers thinking about how to most efficiently gain a degree parallel to a working life. And employers will compete around this as a benefit. (It’s cheaper than providing health care and possibly “stickier.”) Regier adds that some employers are asking to design master’s degree partnerships because of worrying trends such as 50% of all engineers nearing retirement age. These programs are not just for the US: India and China produce most of the world’s college-age population (356 million and 269 million, respectively), and every year for the next 10 years, about 30 million Indian and 25 million Chinese learners will become college-age. Many of these populations want higher ed access but, with such staggering numbers, they just do not have the capacity to accommodate their incredible growth. These fruits of design thinking, like the learner-centric online models coming out of ASU, could be America’s next great export.

Let us know in the comments…

Could any of Phil Regier and ASU’s ideas be adapted to your work?

What else about higher ed pathways, design thinking, and/or UX/UI would you like to hear more about next time?

What methods for achieving academic transformation have worked at your institution?

Haven’t subscribed to the Innovator Network yet? Click here.


(Disclaimer: One of Education Design Lab’s board members works for EdPlus at ASU. He was not involved in pitching or writing this piece.)