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Dr. Stephen C. Ehrmann

Former Grant-Maker, Consultant, and Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, George Washington University
Steve Ehrmann

The opposite of liberal education is not conservative education. The opposite of liberal education is the authoritarian model.

Dr. Stephen C. Ehrmann

Key Interview Takeaways

Dr. Ehrmann has studied six colleges and universities, all of which have been improving quality, access, and affordability on an institutional scale. Quality improvement has meant, for example, increasing graduation rates by improving academic programs, large-scale support for faculty using evidence-based practices, and/or systemic efforts to make visible, valuable improvements in the capabilities of graduates (e.g., writing, ability to work with people from other cultures). Access improvement meant giving some category of previously underserved students a real opportunity for excellence. Affordability improvements include making better use of both time and money. ​

These six institutions pursuit of 3fold gains is powered by similar educational strategies, e.g., engaging more students in project-based learning, undergraduate research, assignments requiring active and collaborative learning, electronic portfolios. Research shows that these kinds of teaching and learning activities deepen learning for all students, especially students from underserved groups. These activities can also improve affordability through higher graduation rates and faster speed to graduation; those gains can save time and money for the student and also the institution. In short: these educational strategies can help an institution achieve simultaneous gains in quality, access, and affordability.​

For institutions to want to make significant gains, such teaching and learning activities are important but they’re not enough. Many institutions don’t provide enough support (e.g., organizational infrastructure, culture) for implementing and sustaining these educational strategies on a large scale. For example, there’s a need for learning designers whose focus is on improving quality, access, and affordability by whatever means necessary. These six institutions made a variety of other changes in their organization of academic work, such as close collaboration among vice presidents to support continual improvement, focused changes in financial aid, the faculty reward system, learning spaces, and how new students and faculty are recruited. ​

Summing up, making continual, cumulative gains in quality, access, and affordability requires two things: a constellation of mutually supportive initiatives that include educational strategies and organizational initiatives needed to support those strategies and also enough of a sense of need, opportunity, and institutional mission to engage a lasting coalition to implement. Good news: those kinds of coalitions can probably emerge more readily when the constellation can produce simultaneous improvements in quality, access, and affordability.


Stephen C. Ehrmann is a former grant-maker, consultant, and vice provost for teaching and learning at George Washington University. He has a forthcoming book, Pursuing Quality, Access and Affordability: A Field Guide to Improving Higher Education, which will be published in early 2021. In his book, Ehrmann uses a study completed on the recent histories of six colleges and universities simultaneous improvements in quality of learning, equitable access, and affordability. He draws on salient findings on how institutions are more likely to attain such 3fold gains if, over the years, they assemble a constellation of mutually reinforcing institutional strengths and initiatives. Ehrmann also notes that crucial to such constellations are appropriate educational strategies for inclusive excellence such as first-year learning communities, undergraduate research, and service learning. He emphasizes that, to sustain such teaching and learning activities on an institutional scale, its constellation must also include enough re-aligned institutional practices and features (e.g., learning spaces, reward systems, transcripts) that sustain a new normal.

His various roles and positions have centered around educational uses of technology, including online learning; the ways in which institutions and programs can change themselves; and strategies and tools for evaluation and assessment. Previously, he was founding Vice President of the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group (TLT Group) and Director of the Flashlight Program for the Evaluation of Educational Uses of Technology. He also served as Senior Program Officer with the Annenberg/CPB Projects; Program Officer with the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), and Director of Educational Research and Assistance at The Evergreen State College. He has a Ph.D. in Management and Higher Education from MIT.

Upcoming Book: Pursuing Quality, Access and Affordability: A Field Guide to Improving Higher Education