Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Orientation

(Re) Orientation

It’s orientation season again.  As soon as we finish calculating final grades and  shaking hands with our graduates, we turn around to greet our entering class. It is a happy task, full of optimism and good intentions.  Families are eager, students are nervous, everyone is hoping that they have found the right fit for their education. We do our best to calm the nerves and make folks feel welcome and at home.

Much of orientation is filled with logistical information.  How do I get my ID?  When will I meet/pick my roommate?  Can I qualify for more financial aid?  Will my AP or community college classes count? How do I pick or change my major?  And always of greatest interest… when will I get my fall schedule?

Then there is the social information.  What is it like to live in a dorm? How will I make friends?  What are the activities/clubs available?  What do students do on the weekends? And generally, will I fit in here.

Like every other university, WCSU will do our very best to answer these questions. We have an overnight orientation to give our entering class a taste of the campus experience, advisors to talk about schedules, and lots of opportunities for students to interact with each other in the hopes that they make an initial connection to ease the first month on campus.  All of this is to the good, and there’s lots of good evidence that it is a helpful exercise, but I’m wondering about when we can get to the real conversation.  You know, the one about how college is not the same as high school?

Our students have heard it a million times.  Their high school teachers have been telling them that things will be harder in college, as encouragement and sometimes as a stick.  It’s the background noise to the entire high school experience… it’ll will be harder, you won’t get away with this level of effort, you won’t get into a good college if you don’t study… an on and on it goes. But what does that really mean?

Well, one thing that it means is that decisions truly have consequences. At my school, students will be given a schedule to start with.  It should have the right courses for the intended program of study.  We’ve built in some nice things, like pre-major pathways (meta-majors) for students who haven’t selected a major, and we’ve worked with all departments to craft an ideal first year.  Unfortunately, though, things can go wrong pretty quickly.

Perhaps a student took an AP class in statistics, but it wasn’t sent to us before we enrolled her, so we put statistics on the schedule.  We can’t give credit for the same course twice.  Sorry.  Or, perhaps a student changed his mind about an intended major, but didn’t realize the new major had an important pre-requisite in the first year. Now he either needs a summer course and to stay in college an extra year.  Or, perhaps a student simply dropped a class (because now they can do that sort of thing unsupervised) but they didn’t realize the loss of credits would mean registering last (later than the second year students) for another year, thus reducing the likelihood that they’ll get an appropriate schedule.  Consequences are real.

Another big difference between high school and college is the structured schedule. Students come to us having participated in school, extra-curricular activities, jobs, and community service. Their schedules were full and planned and, though they might have been overwhelmed, they rarely had to think about how to fill their time.  In college, time management is all up to the students. Courses meet two or three days a week, and then the time required to stay on top of one’s studies is up to the student to figure out.  They may be in some co-curricular programs, or not.  They are likely to have some part-time work to juggle, but the time in their control will greatly increase as compared to high school.  This can come as a real shock to students. As faculty and advisors, we often marvel at how students fail to prioritize study time, but really it is a new experience for many of them.  The increased time available is actually a huge shift in responsibility for our incoming students and for some of them it becomes their downfall.

Then there is the thing that should be really different, but frequently is not.  College courses should not feel like high school courses. They are different in the frequency of meetings, and they are definitely different in pacing, but I worry that we are not really changing the learning experience.  In our first year courses, are we moving from learning as knowledge that is delivered to learning as knowledge discovered and created together? Are we inviting our students to take hold of what they want to know, in real and empowering ways, so that they successfully transition to the kinds of learners we say we want?  I fear the answer is, not often enough.

When we fail to address our transitional pedagogies in systematic and thoughtful ways, we contradict all of the other messages that encourage our students to move from adolescence to adulthood.  If we stick with content delivery, the “college is harder” is only about pacing, and not about self-direction and interest. We remove highly structured environments,  add consequences for poor or uniformed decisions, but we neglect the payoff, which is a sense of control over the pursuit of interesting questions and ideas.  No fair.

So, as I reflect on our inviting experiences at orientation, which are appropriately matched to the students’ immediate needs, I am reminded about all of the follow up we need to truly support our beginner adults in their first year of college. We have to re-orient them to learning in ways that are truly different from high school.  I suspect we need to do that for ourselves, too.

 

equity, Free Speech, Return on Investment

Surveys, Social Class, and Policy

In both Inside Higher EducationThe Public Support for (and Doubts About) Higher Education” and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s trend report “It’s a New Assault on the University” the results of large scale survey research tell a story of what are best described as mixed reviews of higher education.  In the Chronicle story, the emphasis is on how politicized the narratives about higher education have become, particularly around free speech.  In Inside Higher Education, the emphasis seems to be more on costs and return on investment. (I’ve simplified, so read them yourself for the full details).  Together, they reveal the problem of describing higher education as one thing, when it has become (and, perhaps has long been) many things.

This is what I mean. Much of the reporting on higher education focuses on a narrow, elite tier of schools.  In those environments, costs are very high, acceptance rates are low (read exclusive), and fights around free speech and safe spaces appear to be common.  These institutions are where we see “culture wars” dramatized (whether they are real or not is another thing).  If the people being polled about higher education are concerned that our campuses have a political bias, it is unsurprising, because that is what is being covered in the press.

Very little reporting focuses on regional public universities.  If attention is paid to us (and it rarely is), the focus is either on a Title IX scandal or, in some rare cases, on our outcomes.  Cost comes up, to be sure, and it should because state funding levels are shrinking, thus driving our tuition prices up. This does make families who choose us wonder about whether or not we are worth it.  But what we do and how we fit into higher education as a whole is rarely discussed in the media coverage of education.

For two year colleges, the focus is on jobs.  There are stories about re-tooling the labor force, focusing on high demand fields, like advanced manufacturing, and keeping tuition down for access. The free college movement, is largely focused on this part of the higher education matrix.  This part of the ecology of higher education is easily identified with social mobility and economic advantages, because there are direct job prospects for much of what is offered.  Any negative press would be around false promises for certificates, but this rarely happens at the public two year colleges.

There are more gradations, more distinctions between types of higher education, but you get the idea. Surveys that ask about higher education in general, that do not differentiate these layers of educational institutions yield complex and sometimes confusing results, that really don’t apply to all types. There is so much to unpack here, but I’d like to offer a perspective on all of this that rarely get’s discussed: What we have here is a social class problem.

We want to talk about higher education as one thing, because we don’t want to acknowledge the ways in which it replicates our social class structures. This is America, we don’t believe in social class. We believe in opportunity, and yes, education is the foundation of much of that opportunity. Higher education can be access to a better life (and the surveys do reveal that people still believe that, with caveats), but it also reinforces our social stratification.

So, let’s talk about jobs.  There are no students going to college who are not hoping to connect their educations to future careers.  At elite schools, the path to those careers are not necessarily linked to a particular major (although in many cases it is – pre-med, education, accounting, engineering, etc.), but more in the many experiences that students will have prior to and during their education.  They will have time for internships, they will be mentored by alumni, they will build interesting resumes by studying abroad or volunteering, and most of all, they will hang around with people who know the diversity of experiences that might be available after graduation, helping to shed light on those mysterious questions like “What does a project manager do?”

At community colleges, while some programs are designed for transfer to four year schools (reducing the cost of education for those students), many of the degrees are very direct job training.  Radiology technicians, network or help desk support, veterinary technicians, advanced manufacturing all come to mind.  In these schools, we are providing a great opportunity to improve economic security for students, and, when they are funded appropriately (read low or no cost to students) they embody the social mobility we have built our economic and cultural mythologies around.

At regional public universities like mine, our students also want to see the connections between their education and careers, but we offer the same blend of educational opportunities that the elite schools offer, but with fewer naturally occurring opportunities to network. So, we build career centers to try to bridge the gap between one-to-one degree to career connections, and the broader liberal arts experiences that we and the elite schools so value.

So when I ask a question about whether or not higher education is doing enough to prepare students for jobs, I’ve asked a really big and complicated question.  If we don’t tease out the difference between our missions and the ways in which we understand the very notion of job/career preparation, the answers will just be simplistic responses that play well in the press, but don’t help us figure out how to understand this issue in our colleges and universities. We then end up with simplistic measurements of our ability to provide a good “return on investment” in things like college score cards and policy proposals that are irrelevant to most higher education institutions.

But we do need good policies.  We do need to stop predatory practices that promise great outcomes while encouraging ridiculous amounts of debt.  We do need to attend how we fund higher education so that it can provide opportunities to achieve greater economic stability.  We do need to articulate how investing in higher education benefits our graduates in more concrete ways than we used to do, not just because of cost, but because our students want to know.  We do need to protect all campuses from undue political influence, but we also need to be honest about how pervasive those issues really are (or rather how limited those issues really are).

In other words, it’s complicated. We are not all one thing.  We serve different audiences and together we are complex higher education ecosystem. Let’s get honest about our differences and more specific in our surveys, so that our policies can be more effective and discussions of higher education can be more representative of the diversity of who we really are.

 

 

Uncategorized

The K-12 Connection

For the past three years, in addition to my role as Provost at WCSU, I have served on the Board of Education for my town.  This experience has been enlightening.  The district is small (under 300), with students entering in either pre-school or Kindergarten and attending through 8th grade. After 8th grade students choose to attend one of several local high schools because we are just too small to sustain one of our own.  Like many parts of Connecticut and the Northeastern US, we have seen a drop in students (enrollments 10 years ago were around 520), and we’ve had to make adjustments in staffing and planning in the face of that new reality.  These adjustments are informative for my work in higher education.

First, let’s state the obvious, staffing in my district is smaller than it used to be.  We simply don’t have enough students for multiple sections of classes. But drops in staffing are not a simple thing. We can’t simply eliminate a teacher every time we have a drop in enrollment, because we would lose variation in approaches, expertise, and ideas. This would not serve our students well.  So, some clever re-groupings and innovative practices are taking place. One such change is that we now have a faculty member in the lower grades focused on STEM.  This was not something we did before we had to re-imagine education with a smaller population.  We did used to just think about classes and numbers of students, not content. As the curriculum for the STEM position grows and changes, it has the potential to bring unique and exciting  experiences to our students.

So, what is the connection to higher education?  Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about the  decline in students enrolled in humanities majors.  While it might be ok for some reduction in staffing, we don’t want to lose the expertise and diversity of perspectives brought by a robust humanities faculty. I wonder of the elementary school STEM innovation can serve as inspiration, asking us to think beyond course offerings and recombine expertise? The important piece about that STEM idea was that the teacher in the role started in a humanities discipline, but at the elementary school level this means a lot of generalist skills too, so he was able to bring in his math and science training and grow his expertise.  The STEM experience is being enhanced by experiential approaches (labs) and real world questions, with ideas of discovery that are as humanities based as they are scientific.  Can we do something that re-connects students to humanities disciplines by connecting disciplines?

For example, literature has always been an important mirror for our culture.  In some cases, literature is arranged around topics like immigration or gender or cultural groups, rather the eras or genres.  Can we take it one step further and connect immigrant focused literature to immigration policy?  If we could connect a topics course to a series of policies that directly effect people’s lives, might we end up with a few more students in the literature major?  Unlike K-12, the expertise is deeper and we would need to develop a linked course structure (literature and sociology in this case), with faculty co-planning and occasionally bringing the two classes together, but think of how exciting that could be.  Instead of shrinking indiscriminately, we reimagine what we are teaching, particularly in the foundational courses, and potentially grow after all.

Another lesson I’ve learned from K-12 is that math is just always a problem. No matter what school district you’re in, math education is under constant review and scrutiny because we never seem to meet our targets. This is as true in my district as it is in large urban districts and as it is in higher education, where too much of my budget is spent on  getting students to college level math.  I  recently had an “aha” moment around math as we discussed the curriculum at the Board of Ed.  The problem, as I see it, is that math is a course, not a habitual practice.  Math is quite legitimately compared to a second language.  We know that to truly master that second language, you need to practice all the time.  We’re going to need to put math in all sorts of  places, not just math class, to improve our outcomes.

In higher ed we like to blame K-12 for not sending the students to us prepared for college math, but it isn’t that they aren’t working hard on this, it is the structure that has to change.  And so does ours.  We, too, communicate the message that math is an isolated thing that you have to get through, rather than use.  Only STEM, and to a degree business majors, get any real message about the importance of achieving a level of  mathematical fluency.

In K-12, I suggest weaving in math problems in all sorts of classes, so they are encountered nearly every class period, just like reading.  This is a little scary for those teachers who opted for non-math disciplines, but it doesn’t have to be high level math, just a little arithmetic in the early years, and more applied math around social issues in the middle years. It will take some curriculum design, but I suspect it would be worth  the effort.

And what about higher ed?  We need to do the same thing.  There needs to be a lot more engagement with all kinds of numerical data in non-STEM classes.  Instead of just  algebra or statistics classes, we need to routinely weave in the kind of analytic thinking  that these courses support, so that students don’t forget this critical language.  Sometimes, this could occur through partnerships like the one proposed between sociology and literature, or perhaps in wonderful collaborations between art and science (3-D printing comes to mind). Other times faculty can develop some evidence requirements in their assignments that include some quantitative reasoning to reinforce the usefulness of the language of math. These would be at a basic and integrated level, leaving the advanced work for those who’ve specialized in quantitative reasoning more  in-depth.  I know many of my colleagues won’t believe this, but our students actually want  this. They don’t like they way they feel about numerical information.

In both of these examples, the critical shift was moving from single disciplinary perspectives to an integrated curriculum.  Weaving our planning together might help us see how to weather the storm of demographic shifts in ways that could make us more effective and more exciting.  That reinvention might also help us articulate our value, once again. But we’ll have to leave our departments to do so.  Imagine that.

 

 

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion, Uncategorized

Undermatching

Today’s Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Ed are reporting on a study that explored the impact of “nudges” to encourage low-income, high ability students to apply to competitive colleges.  This comes on the heels of last year’s report on chronic undermatching of these students with more prestigious opportunities. The results were, in my view, predictable.  The nudges did not help.

So, to the predictable part… nudges with little cultural or financial framework are simply ads that we need to delete.  While the College Board waived application fees so that low-income students didn’t have to bear the cost of applying to schools, this is just a small part of the ways that those more competitive (elite) schools might not seem inviting.  Let’s face it, we’re all talking about college costs and how to contain them.  Students looking at colleges, low-income or middle-class, are really worried about debt.  Tuition prices are more or less knowable, but the availability of financial aid awards is largely hidden and difficult to pin down.  So, why go through all of that work to understand the complex formulas under the costs of education, and potentially be disappointed, especially when an apparently reasonably priced alternative exists?

Culturally, there is more.  Students need to have a vision of themselves at a school to want to be there.  If everyone looks affluent, well, it just doesn’t look welcoming to a low-income student.  I’m not even getting into all of the issues of diversity that face these competitive/elite schools.  If we just focus on the dollars, there is plenty to scare a student away.  The solidly middle-class tend not to notice the extra-curriculars they can afford, the internships they can afford to not be paid for, the volunteer time they can afford to give, and the many little add-ons (trips to museums, spring break events, concerts) that keep the less affluent from full participation in this version of higher education.

Then, of course, there’s the rest of it.  Students may leverage local universities so they can avoid housing costs.  They may wish to not go too far from home so that they know they have a support system within driving distance.  Some may choose a school that seems to have students that have had experiences of the world like theirs so that the unfamiliar world of higher education is made more familiar by virtue of peer groups.

All of this is the “duh” component of these findings.  It was a well-intentioned effort, but really reduced the complexity of college choice and access in un-nuanced ways.  But I am much more troubled by they very notion of undermatching.  You see, I’m not sure what’s wrong with my less competitive school.  Our admissions standards are lower than the competitive schools in the College Board study, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that my school is not a great option for students from all backgrounds.

Here’s the thing: it is true that a public school like mine does not have as much money to invest in special programs for first-generation and low-income students as an elite school.  That means we have to be much more thoughtful about our investments.  Working with faculty and other support staff, I find that we talk through the needs of our students with a broader view than the special population.  We ask questions about how to improve tutoring overall, how to demystify college expectations for all students, how to best deploy peer mentors for all students.  We don’t focus on niche, because we can’t, but the result is a sustained effort to help all students succeed.

It is true that my retention and graduation rates are and will continue to be lower than a more competitive school, but the experience of education will not be lesser.  We have all the same accreditations for business, nursing, education, chemistry, social work, and all of our arts programs, as the elite schools have.  This means our curriculum meets a standard of excellence that one should expect from higher education. Our graduates win Fulbright scholarships (our 6th this year) and Goldwater scholarships (our first since I’ve been here) and our winners are frequently the first in their families to attend college.  They get jobs, start businesses, go to medical and veterinary schools, become teachers and nurses, and performing artists. In other words, their education positions them for success.

While they are enrolled at WCSU, our students encounter many people who look like them and many who do not (we are a wonderfully diverse campus).  They work on projects with students who are first in the family to go to college, or second or third generation WCSU.  They co-author research with faculty, volunteer when possible, and intern when available, usually while juggling at least one job.  The pervasiveness of that juggling allows them to feel it is normal to have to make decisions not to volunteer or take on an extra opportunity if their circumstances don’t allow. Lots of our students are trying hard to make ends meet without taking out a lot of student loans, and they know how to prioritize.

In other words, low income students are set up to thrive here.  We are a public university, with strong academic programs that meet the needs of our community.  Our outcomes are not as strong as we’d like, but in terms of economic equity we are awesome.  We know that not all of our students are ready to go through in four years in a row.  We help them exit and re-enter as they work through their own educational and life decisions. That is our commitment to them.

We are not often the first choice for families that aspire to more status-conscious schools, but we are often where they finish their journeys when they realize the quality of all that we do. The support of Connecticut citizens helps us to be relatively affordable, and we hope that the support continues so we can be a university that nurtures learning for all, not just the lucky few. That is the value of what we do, and we do so with pride and aspiration for all of our students.

So, really, I reject the very notion of undermatching.  It’s a classist argument and the study that ensued was based on all of those classist assumptions.  Instead, I’m going to keep supporting the students we have, working toward support for the many, and improving our success rates one student at a time.

Higher Education

Hope and Renewal

Education is organized around clear beginnings and endings.  We associate those beginnings with resolve and optimism.  Faculty have freshly written syllabi and lofty goals for their students.  Students dream of getting their habits right and succeeding in all of their courses.  Administrators like me, hope that a new year will prove the success  of our initiatives as we try to improve the quality of the educational experience and support those dreams of success.

But what about the endings? Though sometimes tinged with a sense of melancholy as we close our books and call it a semester, they are a welcome point of relief.  After all, it is  the endings that give us a moment to reflect on our successes and failures, rest, and re-group.  While I sometimes consider restructuring the use of time in higher education, and potentially the use of summers in more intentional ways,  I never consider losing the pauses that are our endings.  They are absolutely necessary.

Then there is the biggest ending of all, graduation. Last weekend, WCSU congratulated nearly a thousand students who had reached their goals and earned their degrees. I love the commencement ceremony.  Many of our students are the first in their families to  attend college.  Their successes are celebrated by many family members cheering them on in the arena.  Others were like me, coming from several generations of college graduates, and equally proud of getting to that finish line. It is all smiles and handshakes and joy.  And then, well, then what?

As an administrator, my friends often ask me what I do all summer.  They are confused by the fact that I don’t have that beloved summer break that is part of the faculty life.   (Don’t worry faculty colleagues, I know it isn’t all break for you.)  Well, here is what I  tend to get up to.  I move from that arena stage at commencement to annual reports, taking stock of how we did this  year.  Have we made improvements in our efforts to support students on their way to that commencement stage?  What can we do better  next year?  Where are we still falling short? The summer is my opportunity to regroup.

It is both an exhilarating and daunting task to examine and assess our efforts each year. There are many great stories in annual reports from departments and deans.  I will learn about new curricula, faculty scholarship, student success in research or graduate school and I will be impressed.  Then I will look to see if any of the interventions designed to improve our ability to retain and graduate students has improved our outcomes.  It’s a deep dive into both qualitative and quantitative measures, as I attempt to develop a comprehensive understanding of how we are doing as a university.

But I don’t start with the  reports. I usually start by reading some inspiring story of   possibilities.  This year that story was Saundra Yancy McGuire’s, Teach Students How to Learn.  Her career as a chemistry educator and student learning center director is inspiring.  The strategies she details on how to help students take control of  their  learning are simple and elegant.  They don’t require fancy technology, just clarity and a little persuasive data.  They are scalable, and if successfully leveraged, have the power to  dramatically improve those pesky retention and graduation numbers.  I am inspired.

And that’s how I like to read all of the reports, in a state of inspiration, optimism, and hope.  We won’t have met all my goals for this year, because those goals are challenging.  But we will have made some progress.  I will see the little impacts and find new opportunities for improvement.  I will be able to celebrate the innovations in classes and in student support services that are slowly moving us forward.  I will be proud of the  many small stories that add up to a great commencement ceremony.  And then I will make plans to do better next year, because I will feel inspired and hopeful.

And really, that is what I am struck by every year at our commencement ceremony, the truly awesome sense of  hope that is at the  heart of education.  From pre-school to doctorate, each time we  engage in learning, we are acting on the optimistic assumption that learning will help us do better and be better.  From pre-school to doctorate, each time we engage in teaching we are acting on the optimistic assumption that the understandings we discover with our students will help us support an educated person with the  power to create new knowledge and navigate a complex society.  From pre-school to doctorate, each time our society invests in the structures that support these educational experiences and contexts, we are acting on the optimistic assumption that access to education is the foundation of a fair and just society, where all citizens have the opportunity to thrive.

These are the expressions of  hope I see each year as I shake those many hands on the  arena stage.  These are the feelings of hope I have as I review the year just completed in preparation for plan for an even better next year. It is the rhythm of education and it is a very good idea.