Affordability, equity, Inclusion

Admissions, Equity, and Outcomes

The Supreme Court will be taking up two cases related to higher education and admissions practices this week and everyone is poised for, well something. (See the Chronicle’s summary here). I know the arguments are important in as much as they set precedents for how we talk about structural inequities in the United States. The schools in question were doing their best to try to counteract the hundreds of years of biases that shape who gets the opportunity to attend college. In taking race into account, they are accused of creating new discriminatory practices, and there is a piece of that accusation that rings true to some. It is complicated unraveling generations of discrimination based on race, sex, and economic status. It is hard to get it right.

While the impact of the Supreme Court decisions in these cases may have important consequences for less elite schools than those under review, if we want higher education to serve the diversity of students seeking a college education, well, look no further than regional public colleges and universities. For example, if I look at the student body that my university serves, I see that we are rapidly approaching enrollment distributions that reflect our community.

WCSU enrollments compared with the city of Danbury and the state of Connecticut.

You can see from this chart, that the city of Danbury is more diverse than the state, so our percentage of Latin-American students is lower than that of the city of Danbury, but higher than the state. The percent of African-Americans enrolled at WCSU reflects the city population but is slightly lower than the state. We are above the state percentages with Asian-American Students, but slightly lower than Danbury. We have a lower number of Caucasian students than the state percentages, but higher than the City of Danbury. These numbers suggest that we are recruiting classes that are representative of the students in the region.

As a relatively affordable public institution, with admissions standards focused on access rather than exclusion, this achievement makes sense. We do important things like committing to non-discrimination policies, developing pathways through college that are transparent and navigable, and working to differentiate the supports for our students, so we meet their needs. But above all, the diversity of our student body is related to our desire to admit students from our region who want access to the opportunities that higher education can bring. In other words, who to leave out is not a big priority for us.

Nevertheless, we also regularly examine our practices, because legacies of access (or the lack thereof) are woven into neighborhoods, K-12 education, and our assumptions about what a “quality” program looks like. Just last week, we were examining our admissions standards for our education degrees. It is really important that we contribute to the development of new teachers. Public higher education is the best place to pursue such a degree, given the cost of education to earnings potential that all teacher candidates must evaluate. We want our graduates to be highly prepared and capable of serving their students well. Right now, we have excellent outcomes in these programs.

The question of where to set the minimum high school GPA for admission to the teacher education degrees was the focus of our conversation. We discussed the ways in which the current minimum might be excluding talented candidates with promise. We also discussed how lowering it might reduce the very positive outcomes that already exist. It was a spirited debate, but we landed on that slightly lower GPA to broaden the opportunities for more of Connecticut’s high school graduates (and align us with our peer institutions). Central to this decision was a deep understanding of the contexts of the K-12 districts from which we recruit and a deep understanding of the kinds of supports that can help our students succeed. We opted to continue to invest in appropriate levels of support as we work to overcome those long evident biases.

We also voted on adding a new degree, the BA in Popular Music. WCSU has long been known for high-quality music programs, all of which rely in students having an interest in and access to music education starting in middle school. I say middle school because that is typically how long a student needs to have been reading music and playing an instrument to get through our audition process. The new degree acknowledges both that lack of access in some school districts, or in some families, and the reality that sometimes students learn to make music in different ways. It isn’t just about what genre of music students want to create; it is about when they will learn to read music (in college or before), and how we make room for the new ways music is made (on computers, for example). We hope we are opening doors.

There is so much more to say about the equity work that goes on at a public, access-oriented, university. We develop strategies to support students who are first in their families to attend college, knowing that our policies are a mystery and resources are not always easy to uncover. We spend time examining the data of who is succeeding and who is not, and then invest in things like structured tutoring, peer mentoring, cohort models, and so on. We are trying to share information across divisions of the university so that we can continuously uncover practices that might be inadvertently impacting particular clusters of students. We are obsessed with helping all students earn a degree.

So, as the Supreme Court argues about race-conscious admissions policies, I hope the arguments are thoughtful and enlightening. We’ll see. But I must remind everyone that these cases are about schools who trade in exclusivity by design. Ok, I guess those are necessary (maybe). But, if we actually care about equity, then the focus should be on adequately supporting (funding) the universities that are already diverse (and have the capacity to be more so) so that students are not just admitted, but also supported to the finish line.


False Dichotomies

Over the last few weeks, I have been in several conversations about the impact of career focused education on the liberal arts. Some conversations focus on tradition (we’ve always taught this), which neglects the ways in which disciplines and departments have evolved over the last two centuries (we haven’t always taught this). Others suggest that professionally oriented majors lack flexibility in a changeable world of work, ignoring that fact that, with the exception of students who enroll in certificate programs only, our career focused degrees are part of a liberal arts program. Finally, there is an argument that prioritizing career focused educational pathways creates a kind of caste system in higher education, with access to the benefits of a liberal arts education being preserved for the lucky few at more elite universities. This framing reveals deeply held biases about what qualifies as liberal arts (and therefore a quality degree) which are pervasive in higher education.

Let’s start with the obvious: Liberal Arts education offers an important path to lifelong learning. Foundations in writing, speaking, and quantitative reasoning are necessary to navigate the worlds in which we live. Indeed, the digital realities we all navigate require clear and effective communication more than ever before. It is not enough for college graduates to know how to write clear sentences and to decode reports of trends that are presented in mathematical forms. They must now have a rich understanding of how rhetoric works, in writing, speaking, and in visual forms, so they can defend themselves from the faulty arguments that surround many important decisions.

Beyond these foundations, it is imperative that our students have at least a basic grasp of how different disciplines define truth. Students need to understand the tentative nature of truth – tied to the moment and destined to change. They need to understand that artists, historians, social scientists, and physicists all arrive at truth (or facts) in different ways. The understanding of these ways of knowing offers ways to resist misinformation and fanaticism. The need for this kind of learning is why our degrees (two- and four-year) have some number of courses devoted to general education. This is where we learn that different disciplines see the world differently. This is how all students are introduced to habits of mind that the liberal arts can bring.

After general education, we guide our students into majors, trying to match them with subjects that let them build greater insight into a specific perspective. We are agnostic about this, recognizing that most people change careers numerous times, by plan or by fate, and the ability to think clearly, do some research, and be flexible when approaching new problems or ideas are the most important outcomes of any major. We urge our students to find the right fit for them and enjoy it, because we know that deeper learning comes from a passion for a discipline. We know that whatever that fit is, it will help our students build their lives after they graduate.

All of this is to say that yes, degrees should be grounded in the liberal arts. Yes, we should be careful not to reduce our programs to just the professional pathways. However, the suggestion that universities and colleges engaging in promoting career pathways, certificates, short programs, etc., are undermining liberal arts education, reveals a very narrow vision of what a well-rounded liberal arts education includes.

Let me be clear. Elite schools are not ignoring these short-term credentials. Every day in my news feeds I see ads for digital media certificates and coding boot camps and executive format certificates in leadership, management, and so on. These ads are from elite universities, including UCONN (our flagship university in CT), Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, etc. These universities either see these as complementary to the degrees they are offering, or they may see them as alternate revenue streams. Either way, they do not seem to suggest that the offering of such opportunities is somehow oppositional to a quality, liberal arts education.

Such programs might also provide important opportunities to students at community colleges and regional, access-oriented, comprehensive universities. Offering short-term, stackable credentials can give students earning power while they are pursuing their undergraduate degrees. Since so many students need to work while they are studying, these opportunities might make that work more interesting or at least more lucrative. Short, focused credentials or certificates can also enhance those very liberal arts majors that we care so deeply about. Weaving these kinds of things into our offerings might help our students see the path from a literature or communication or biology degree to any number of careers. These are opportunities to connect the dots and explore the ways that any degree can lead to interesting career trajectories.

In addition to the concerns about certificates and such, there is a persistent framing of programs like business, health care, or technology focused degrees as somehow lesser than more traditional liberal arts disciplines (history, philosophy, or literature, for example). If you look at the curriculum in our professionally oriented programs you will see that they are all grounded in the liberal arts, rely on the thinking that our general education curriculum introduces, and apply those very skills and habits of mind to specific contexts. Not only do our Justice and Law Administration majors take introductory courses in Political Science and Psychology, but they also take those ideas to the many contexts of the criminal justice system. Students in Social Work are applying concepts introduced in Anthropology and Sociology to their work, bringing them to life in professional settings. And our health care students rely on foundations in Social Sciences, Biology, and Communication to build an understanding about the differences between health information and the social structures that shape how healthcare is perceived and received.

In other words, professional programs are the applications of the ideas introduced in our foundational liberal arts courses. Those foundations are not going away, even as the majors we offer change and evolve. Our professional programs are satisfying the interests and career aspirations of our students, while still helping them develop the habits of mind that support lifelong learning. Suggesting that these are lesser experiences devalues the work of these applied disciplines and the interests and ambitions of our students. It also fails to recognize that the degrees and certificates that are more clearly linked to a career are extensions of the ideas learned in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM disciplines. They aren’t separate; they are liberal arts in context.

So, I agree that liberal arts degrees matter. Certificates or narrowly focused career programs should be part of a building block to the broader liberal arts degree. If some people need to stop there at first, for whatever reason, it is up to us to make the path to the liberal arts degrees clear and easy to follow when the time is right. But framing career focused education as separate from or lesser than the liberal arts is not a productive position at all.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Reflection

What is College for?

When you transition from faculty to administration, you tend to go to conferences focused on institutional questions – assessment, retention, general education, equity, and so on. It is not often that a dean or provost has the opportunity to attend a conference in their discipline, so it is wonderful treat when we do. This past weekend, I spent some time with friends old and new at the annual conference of the Institute of General Semantics, and thoroughly enjoyed the thinking it provoked.

General Semantics is one of the roots of the development of the field communication. It focuses on how language shapes our realities and how a more precise use of language might improve our understandings of all that we encounter. Inspired by Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, general semantics asks us to consider the frames our words are setting (and therefore what is outside of the frame), the level of detail we are choosing (and therefore what details we will ignore), and the impact of time on what we are defining (noting that people and things change from time 1 to time 2). There’s much more, of course, but at its core, this is an optimistic field; there is an assumption that we can improve our circumstances, relationships, and experiences through a more precise and thoughtful examination of the words we use.

IGS attracts an eclectic group of artists, philosophers, mathematicians, and communication scholars. Making sense of the myriad ideas and arguments presented is often a challenge because of that diversity. I enjoyed the presentations by people most closely aligned with my field, particularly Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker’s observations about the links between flashmobs and the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Drucker’s expertise in law and language was particularly compelling. I was also intrigued by the work of Eva Berger as she explored ideas about the ways in which ideas of the self are reshaped (erased?) by the focus on the performative self (selfies and TikTok). Her arguments evoke the work of Marshall McLuhan in the linking of our media not just to cultural practice but to the development of the biological self. But as I endeavored to understand the work presented by the scientists, mathematicians, and artists there, I found myself leaping to the institutional questions that are my focus as an administrator.

The ability to make sense of ideas and arguments developed in diverse contexts from varied perspectives seems to me to be the fundamental purposes of education. We start with our children, explaining that there are clusters of ideas called history, science, literature, religion, and so on, and those ideas explore different questions about the world. In teaching them that these are distinct categories, we put a frame around clusters of learning, helping to organize paths to understanding within those frames.

We also (inadvertently) erect the barriers to connecting ideas across fields. It is rare that we make the space for our K-12 educators to bridge the divides between fields, as we have organized them into class times devoted to each topic. On occasion, a school will coordinate learning in a connected way – by selecting literature, history, and religious texts of the same era across classes. A very creative school might also find a way to weave science into this strategy, but mostly, we separate science from this kind of thinking. We quickly discover that we have not just organized clusters of ideas, we’ve established things called disciplines.

In higher education, we follow the same pattern, dividing things by discipline and major. We are exceedingly proud of ourselves when we manage to link the topics in two courses together, but most of the time students experience their education in course-based structures, occasionally making connections to other courses. This habit of dividing up the learning territory is deemed a necessary element of education, in order to give adequate attention to detail in one’s area of expertise. Surely there is an element of truth to that need, but as I worked hard to draw connections between ideas at the IGS conference, I wondered if we were overdoing those divisions.

Higher education has been reflecting on those divisions of late, most often under two conditions: interdisciplinarity and austerity. These conditions are not mutually exclusive. Interdisciplinarity of subjects seems to be emerge fields evolve. At WCSU, we have a relatively new degree in Digital and Interactive Media Arts, which draws together expertise in film and video, graphic design, and computer science (three separate departments). Professions associated with digital media evolved in such a way that these disciplines had to collaborate to better serve our students. We also have a degree called Interdisciplinary Studies that allows students to make connections for themselves. A student in Justice and Law Administration, for example, may wish to reimagine their degree with connections to history or literature. These new combinations may help us see the emergence of new areas of expertise or just demonstrate the eclectic ways that ideas can come together.

Under conditions of austerity, we see waning interests in long established disciplines driving thinking about new combinations of ideas and disciplines. This change is more disconcerting than those that come when we see new patterns of interest. The apparent loss of interest in any discipline is disheartening at best. I won’t try to pretend that it is easy to move from that loss to invention; it is not. But in those losses there is the opportunity to remind ourselves that all disciplines have emerged from other disciplines, and all have changed over time. Perhaps, we are not so much at a moment of loss, but instead, we are undoing the borders (walls/silos) we have created.

What would be even more exciting, though, is not just to engage in the slow process of realignment of ideas and expertise into new combinations. That is exciting, to be sure, with lots of room for interesting collaborations. But perhaps this moment is an opportunity to be more bold and try to reorganize college around the connections between ideas, instead of separations.

I think that connecting ideas might be what we wanted to have happen in the first place, but we got distracted by the names of subjects and structures of departments. K-12 did the work of establishing the broad categories of learning, the map of knowledge if you will. College is the opportunity to help our students understand just how far those categories are from the lived experience of trying to understand anything at all. Experience always reveals that a single disciplinary perspective will help us solve nothing at all.

Those useful maps of disciplines that allow our partners in primary and secondary education lay a foundation for learning are not very useful after those foundations are in place. Just as the alphabet must disappear if we are to achieve fluency as readers, so should the disciplinary boundaries disappear if we are to become fluent thinkers. Maybe college is where we can learn that the map of knowledge we have encountered so far, is not the territory in which we live and learn at all.