Affordability, Higher Education

America’s Strategic Plan

When I started writing this blog a couple of years ago, I decided on the following tag line: Public Higher Education: America’s Strategic Plan. Honestly, I was chaffing at the notion that public education institutions were being charged with developing strategic plans that were focused on defining our place in a market of educational institutions. Public higher education is not meant to make a profit. In most cases, we were set up to serve a particular region’s educational needs and we were not designed to compete across regions (although, of course, we do). As I see it, we exist to support two fundamental goals of the nation – cultivate an informed citizenry and support the potential for social mobility. If we are to strategize, we should be focused on better ways to meet those goals rather than identifying market share and seeking improved rankings.

I am less snarky about institutional planning today but I still balk at the market focus. The funding models for higher education have changed significantly and public institutions are now tuition dependent with no choice but to find ways to compete with each other to survive. In New England, where the opportunities for education are vast and the student population dwindling, this need is particularly acute. Public universities that can focus on prestige (higher admission standards and big ticket research opportunities) are working their way up the ranking lists. Some schools have niche programs, carving out a focused identity and usually staying small. Regional comprehensives that focus on access are doing their best to focus on the transformative power of education, largely in terms of socio-economic gains. None of these strategies are negative, but they are trapping us in a competitive cycle that loses track of our essential value.

The good news is that infrastructure is the hot new buzz word, and a big re-think is going on. President Biden is proposing all kinds of investments in higher education, from increasing the Pell Grants and NSF funding, to funds specifically focused on equity. At the state level there is a strong focus on community colleges as an important part of lifting people out of poverty through specific career training. Somewhat more broadly, all of higher education is being incentivized to support particular career trajectories in STEM and Healthcare. This is a good first step, but at this important, once in a century moment, when infrastructure is the word of the day, we need to think bigger.

Let me put it plainly, without a fundamental shift in how public higher education is imagined in relation to the core goals and values of the United States, we will continue to find ourselves chasing rankings and students instead of focusing on learning. While I know it strikes some as a nice-to-have, higher education is essential to the economy we have built so far and the one to emerge. Just as the nation progressed from providing a 6th grade education to a comprehensive K-12 education, and increasingly a pre-K education, it is time to think of public higher education as something that must be universally available (yes, free). It is the essential component of our national infrastructure.

I am not saying we are more important than healthcare. I am saying developing a good healthcare system relies on educating scientists, doctors, nurses, engineers, actuaries, community liaisons, bilingual front line support for treatment and benefits administration, culturally aware people to navigate community norms that might keep them from following healthcare instruction, and so on. From two-year entry level degrees to doctoral degrees, the whole system relies on education.

Transportation infrastructure is the same story. We need engineers and urban planners, supervisors and pavers, economic development professionals and safety specialists, environmental and computer scientists, people with an understanding of the barriers to usage of public transportation and those who understand how to optimize work schedules to stagger demand. From two-year entry level degrees to doctoral degrees, the whole system relies on education.

Economic development is 100% connected to the educational opportunities available in a community. But it isn’t just the narrow focus of trained financial managers or skills in advanced manufacturing. It is the fullness of ongoing access to education over the life of a career so that people can retrain or refocus their knowledge as the world and/or their interests change. Supporting ongoing access means reframing our thinking about education as a one-time investment (2 or 4 years) to something that people keep returning to throughout their lives.

And, of course, all of these professionally focused arguments for education totally neglect the rest of our value – fostering the insights into human culture, behavior, histories, and discoveries that help us put our world in context. An educated society does not stop at understanding how elections work and how to get a job. It must continue to the why of it all. Obviously, the question of why and the meanings we ascribe to our existence grow with us. The value of the more broadly focused liberal arts thinking often comes into focus long after we encounter them. Each phase of our lives might compel us to think further, ask new questions, and pursue ideas ancient and new. This broad and inquisitive thinking is also infrastructure, with foundations laid in our early education so that there are opportunities to follow up later. It provides room for the growth that we say we value and the emergence of new perspectives that can literally change the world.

So, I’m glad that infrastructure is in fashion and I hope that we can use this momentary embrace of long-term thinking to truly plan for the long-term of public higher education. Let’s commit to our true value as an essential component of a just and thriving society. Let’s fund education in a way that allows us to focus our strategic plans on learning instead of market share. Let’s recognize that public education is America’s strategic plan for a great society.

Accountability, Quality, Return on Investment

Outcomes Based Funding Metrics

This morning I read with interest a report from The Education Trust, entitled Re-Imagining Outcomes Based Funding. I was following up on Emma Whitford’s piece in Inside Higher Ed that focused on outcomes based funding (OBF) as a tool for supporting equity. I must admit, I shuddered as I considered the hundred ways outcomes funding goes wrong, but Whitford and the report helped me to think about things in new ways. Chief among those ways was that this approach actually supports a focus on who campuses admit, not just retention and graduation rates, and suggests that funding should take that into account. It seems we are getting somewhere on raising awareness about the bluntness of those measures. Hooray.

As I read through the metrics suggested, I saw some thoughtful connections between the students enrolled and the ways that our legislators might think about funding. Instead of just looking at retention and graduation rates, this approach prioritizes investing in campuses that serve more diverse student bodies. It also brings in an important new variable for OBF–campus climate.

Campus climate is often an invisible component in the retention and graduation rates of a university. We spend a lot of time looking at ways to support under-prepared students and we seek out opportunities for scholarships for our under-funded students and these are really important things to do. But, for first generation students and students of color these efforts are not sufficient. They must feel welcome.

So how do we do that? Well, campus climate surveys are one way. Interestingly enough, they are not inexpensive to administer, and they are even more expensive to use. It isn’t enough to gather the data; we need qualified personnel to analyze that same data and help the campus community find opportunities to improve. The funding for this work has to be new dollars. If it isn’t, it will get cut from the budget as soon as we have to prioritize our efforts. We will always focus on direct student support over the broader climate every time. So, I’m glad this idea was raised in the report, but there are important financial implications to consider.

Then there was another piece in the report that gave me pause. In the section called “Ten Steps for Design” (of outcomes based funding models), the following was step five:

“Discourage institutions from reducing access to high-quality degrees or credentials for students from low income backgrounds and students of color.”

This statement is a response to the negative consequences OBF as it has been implemented in the past. In short, the easiest way to improve retention and graduation rates is to change your admissions standards. Better prepared students do better than those on the margins. Better funded students do better than those who struggle to pay for their education. First-generation college students manage more uncertainty than their second or third generation peers and may be retained at somewhat lower levels. All of these students are likely to take longer than four years to graduate. Yes, the older model incentivized a less-inclusive campus. The new suggested strategies are a marked improvement.

At WCSU about 35% of our student body are the first in their families to go to college. We are a relatively affordable school and find that this is attractive to lots of Pell-Eligible students. We are also an increasingly diverse community, something we view as entirely positive, but our history is less so and we are still learning about our invisible barriers and biases, as we seek to be an inclusive campus. Most of what we do fits well into this Re-imagined OBE Funding Framework with its focus on equity. In theory, we should benefit from greater support for our campus based on this model.

But I must admit I do worry about additional unintended consequences if timelines for effectiveness are not robust enough and if there is not continuous dialog with our state representatives about how they read our metrics. For example:

  1. Even when recruiting and admission standards are comparable, a majority residential campus will do better on retention and graduation measures than a majority commuter campus. It is simply easier to help a student who is struggling when they have a regular presence in the campus community.
  2. Sufficient funding to create comparable experiences for our needier students is also an important consideration. Opportunities for internships, research experiences, or study abroad may require a cash infusion or higher need students will skip them for more work hours. They simply need the funds. Unfortunately, these are the same high impact educational experiences that inspire degree completion, applications to graduate schools, and broaden career opportunities. Without that funding stream, schools who serve the less wealthy are likely to have outcomes measures that look weaker than their better funded peers.
  3. Finally, timelines for evaluation are critical. Improvement of anything cannot really be seen in under six years in higher education. While degrees are imagined in four year increments, the students who need more support tend to take five to six years. The effectiveness of an intervention on retention could show up quickly, but its sustained impact will take time. All other interventions will be better seen over the course of a degree. But six years is also a minimum, because you will only be measuring a first cohort at that mark. Sustained improvement is better captured in 8-10 year cycles.

These nuances are hard to convey when elections are in 2- and 4-year cycles. No matter how invested elected officials are in education, there is opportunity for too narrow a view. So, I remain skeptical about the ability to create an outcomes based funding model that can truly support great education that is equitable. But I am very excited to see equity put at the center of the question. That is a great leap forward.

Evaluation, Higher Education, Hope

Continuous Improvement

With the Passover and Easter upon us and the daffodils beginning to push through the soil, it is that time of year when I feel the joyous rebirth and renewal that comes with spring. It is always a welcome sensation that helps lift me up from the endless to-do lists as I take the opportunity to reflect on all we have accomplished this year. As is natural to our structure, we are heading towards an intense period of productivity – exams, papers, grading, annual reports, assessments, and even a few accreditation visits. It could be too much, except we all know there is a break at the end, so we push ahead in this fury of activity, breathless, exhausted, and I hope, proud.

I have been thinking about our reflective practices a lot lately. In higher education, we have a way of broadening our students’ perspectives while unintentionally narrowing our own. We introduce ideas and worldviews with the passion we feel for our disciplines. We strive to develop the habits of inquiry that have served us so well as scholars, and perhaps even as citizens. But we are also specialists, focused on one field and even one aspect of our field. We train ourselves to attend to the details of that specialty and sometimes we miss the connections to other things that are so important.

If I am totally honest, we also get a little insular, not just in our field, but also within our universities and our departments. This insularity can lead us to think we are better than elsewhere or, much more commonly, thinking that we do not measure up. Neither of these are productive positions for educators. So, as the rituals and rush of spring are upon me, I am thinking about the value of external perspectives on our work.

When I began teaching in an undergraduate program in communication, our department had a habit of cultivating student research so that they might attend the professional conferences in our field. Several of my colleagues routinely took students to the regional and national communication conferences. There was an expectation that I would do so, too. I succeeded in doing so, starting at the regional level, but I must say that I was terrified. I was worried that the work was not good enough and that I had inadvertently set my students up for embarrassment. This did not happen. Participation in this experience showed me that my students were within the normal range of work, some exceeding expectations, and others solidly in the normal range. This boosted my confidence as a professor and did wonders for my students. It was an amazing peer review experience.

Soon I was involved in program review. I contributed to the department report and listened carefully to the feedback from colleagues from two external programs that our department admired. At that university, the norm was to select visitors from programs that we aspired to be. This, too, can make inspire insecurity. Our admiration for the visitor’s programs made us think we were somehow second rate. Yet, the experience was incredibly helpful. There was lots of positive feedback, and some good suggestions for how to improve. We took those suggestions to heart and the impact was clearly visible in our evaluation of our learning outcomes the next year. It was another eye-opening experience.

These days, I spend a lot of time reading reports written for accreditors. While I am fully onboard with regional accreditation, I confess that I have some misgivings about the many discipline specific accreditations that we ascribe to in higher education. Defining the norms and expectations of a field at a national level is incredibly helpful and I have zero doubt that this is productive and supports continuous improvement. What gives me pause is that some of these require overly complex evaluations and, well, the costs are not insignificant. I am not all that convinced that the results are more powerful than the simple peer review provided by colleagues from programs we admire. Nevertheless, there is value in the reflective process and the external perspective that these accreditation processes require.

Really, there is value in all of our self-assessments, external reviews, and even our annual reports. These tasks and processes force us to look up from our to-do lists and think about all we have accomplished. They force us to look around and ask ourselves how we fit into the higher education landscape. They ask us to consider whether we measure up to the expectations of our fields. Best of all, they provide an opportunity to think about what we might do better. For me, that last bit is where the fun begins.

Yes, I said fun. Amid the drudgery of doing assessments, writing annual reports, and preparing for site visits, the excitement is in the possibility for growth. We might revise a course or a program. We might find an opportunity to expand or re-focus our offerings. We might see room for building interdisciplinary partnerships within the university or with external programs and organizations. We might get a new idea. Nothing is more exciting than a new idea.

So, as we welcome spring and face the big race to the finish line, I am inviting everyone to see their to-do lists through this lens. We are not just finishing things; we are looking for opportunities to grow and improve. This is the why of it all and the true opportunity for rebirth.

Dialogue, Engagement, equity

An Invitation to Consider Difficult Things

About 15 years ago, I was teaching an undergraduate course focused on the ethics of communication. This was one of the core courses in a sprawling discipline that addresses all sorts of human interactions from our internal monologues to mass persuasion. In an effort to help our students understand the power and responsibilities of our communication practices, both personal and professional, our curriculum included this course to provide a framework for thinking through the ethical issues that are part of all communication. It was a challenging but rewarding course.

This morning, as I read that Boise State has suspended its mandatory course on diversity amid concerns the potential discomfort some students may feel, I remembered my experiences in Communication Ethics. The narrative about the course at Boise State is one we’ve heard countless times over the last several years, with assumptions about discomfort, blame, and even accusations of disloyalty. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not really buying the stories of classrooms that call out certain groups, asking particular students to absorb that blame. Reports of that kind of behavior usually end up being a misquote, or a selective piece of conversation that doesn’t fully represent the full discussion. These stories generally reflect a politicization of higher education that distorts the real work going on in classrooms all over the country. Nevertheless, there are moments when our conversations about diversity and equity do lead to tough realizations about our own biases, no matter what culture or group we feel we represent. At some point someone will feel uncomfortable.

As I think about the conversations that are really going on in many classes, not just a mandatory course on diversity, I am remembering the most profound experience I had when I was teaching that communication ethics course. We had lots of the usual debates around honesty, ends vs. means, situational ethics, and ideal vs. real world ethical challenges. They were fun, but they stayed a little abstract. There were no real risks in the classroom version of these decisions, so students participated but were not necessarily transformed. I hoped it was going ok, but I wasn’t thrilled. Then we came to the chapter about stereotypes, and the conversation shifted.

Stereotypes come up in communication classes all the time because they are ever-present and generally relevant to the topic at hand. You cannot consume media without noticing stereotypes. You cannot conduct research in communication without wrestling with decisions about categories of analysis, which leads to conversations about stereotypes. You cannot produce communication thoughtfully without considering stereotypical messages. All of this is true, but there was still a kind of detachment in our approach to this topic. You see, my students knew that “stereotyping is wrong” and so felt that they could just dismiss the conversation right there, with that morally absolute but practically impossible sentence. I needed to find a way to break through.

I had an idea, and I took the risk. Instead of starting the conversation about stereotypes with an introduction to the topic and the usual discussion of archetypes vs. stereotypes, I invited my students to participate in an exercise. I asked everyone in the room to write down five stereotypes that they felt had been applied to them. I suggested that no matter who we are, something applies, and it is likely that we had experienced a moment of discomfort because of this. Students began writing and so did I. Then, when everyone seemed done writing, I shifted the assignment. I asked everyone to look at the five they had listed and consider when they had used those stereotypes to categorize others. Eyes looked up, uncomfortable giggles ensued, and there was a hesitation to begin. I reassured everyone that I was not collecting those pieces of paper, nor would I ask them to report on what they wrote. I got busy addressing my own list.

This proved to be an incredibly powerful moment in this course. The simple “stereotyping is wrong” no longer worked as a dismissal. I did share some of mine to help mitigate the shame everyone was feeling. It became clear that stereotyping is what we are in the habit of doing and it needed to be examined. It also made everyone understand that we all have work to do. This was an invitation to engage, not an accusation and assignment of responsibility. What I hoped for was that the engagement would help us determine our responsibilities and, ideally, our next steps.

My little exercise is one of many that my colleagues have developed to help us have rich and informative conversations about power, oppression, and what a just society might look like. These conversations happen in biology and chemistry, history and art, or education and accounting (and everywhere else), because the truth is, we find assumptions that stem from stereotypes everywhere. In many ways, stereotypes are the easiest path to discovering structural problems around power and influence. These conversations frequently lead to moments when some of us realize we have held ideas (categories/stereotypes) that may be supporting a less than just society. These are hard moments, and they sometimes lead to discomfort. But these conversations aren’t about blame or about marginalizing anyone: They are about discovery and, in the best cases, finding a path forward.

It is easy to find a bad sentence in a textbook or a syllabus or a lecture. As far as I can tell, social media demands bad sentences on all topics, especially those that might divide us. Selective information dominates the headlines about equity on college campuses. This selectivity is easy fodder for outrage and a clear misrepresentation of what we actually do.

What is much harder to do (and absolutely rejected by news and social media), is to take the time to see words and ideas in context and navigate the challenges to our world views that they might represent. This is the challenge and the luxury we have in the classroom. We are not speaking in tweets or 10-, 15-, or even 60-minute increments; we are using a semester and even a full four years to think about these things.

I am sorry to hear that the course at Boise State was suspended because I cannot believe that stopping the conversation is an appropriate answer. We need to have lots of these conversations, not to oppress but to enlighten. These conversations take time and continued exploration. They are the very opposite of headlines, and must remain so. These conversations are education.

Community, Higher Education

Collaborative Cultures

This morning, as I sipped my coffee and scanned the headlines of Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle, I found myself reading a lot of non-news or news irrelevant to leaders of public, regional comprehensives. Another admissions scandal–not my problem. Those are always targeted at elite schools. More quarantine orders and teams excluded from basketball tournaments? I care, of course, but it isn’t news; it is our daily reality. Yes, there were important articles about equity, articles I continuously scour for new ideas, but, well I didn’t see any new ideas this morning. Then I came across a provocative essay by Janae Cohn, entitled, “Faculty and Staff Often Don’t Trust One Another. How Do We Fix That?” This one woke me up.

Cohn is an instructional designer, and much of this essay reflects the difficult position of this role on most college and university campuses. Although highly trained in pedagogy in general and continuously engaged in learning new strategies for integrating great teaching practices into online environments, her role is one of support, not partner or leader. In the most recent crisis, we might have seen this shift, but we didn’t, at least not on my campus. Cohn goes on to suggest that there are many members of our campus community that have valuable insights and skills that are regularly kept from true engagement in the decisions about the future of the university. She is so right.

When I started at WCSU I was duly impressed with the governance structure. To start, we have University Senate, not a Faculty Senate. Membership includes faculty representatives from the academic departments and the library, student affairs, enrollment services, the student government association, and administration. Everyone has a vote and a voice in the issues under discussion. The standing committees also have a blend of these constituencies, at least to some extent. This governance structure is a powerful signal that our ideal version of ourselves is an un-siloed, collaborative campus. Unfortunately, the signal isn’t the reality.

The truth of the matter is that in nearly nine years on this campus, almost no initiatives that did not come from teaching faculty have come forward. The balance of representation on our committees makes it very clear that the faculty representatives hold the final authority. The message is clear enough that little has been offered for consideration by committee members who are not teaching faculty. While they offer feedback and commentary on proposals, they rarely offer proposals on their own. Since I converse with people from all parts of our campus community, I am quite certain that those who are not teaching faculty have ideas that we might want to consider. But they bring them to me, not to the elected committee structure. I think we might have a problem.

Now, I never raise these issues without considering my own part in creating them. So, let me start by noting that most of my attention does go to the concerns of the teaching faculty. After all, they are the experts on the academic programs we offer, with advanced degrees and research programs to support that ongoing expertise. They bring valuable insights into the teaching and learning environment because they are in the classrooms (virtual or otherwise) with our students. They know the realities of student engagement and attendance. They understand the core skills and habits of mind that any student should master, and ultimately, they define (and should define) what our graduates should know and be able to do. This is normal and indeed what we hire our teaching faculty to do. As the overseer of the quality of our academic programs, it is also normal that this is where most of my attention goes.

Nevertheless, I have learned to listen to other members of our community. For example, it was our coaching staff that really raised the alarms about how our first-year students were faring in our online asynchronous courses. As they worked hard to boost the morale of our athletes who were unable to compete this season, they had a first-hand look at who was thriving and who was not. Their input helped me support more remote instruction as opposed to the online-asynchronous courses appropriate for more mature learners. I should add that this group frequently tries to clue me in about some academic programs that we should consider adding. While they claim no expertise in the content of those programs, they are part of our recruiting team and they hear things from our future students. I’m listening.

It was both the IT help desk and the academic advising group that pointed out that the path to our online classes was unclear. Now, it was a pandemic and our transition to a mostly online campus was abrupt to say the least. We did not really have time for the thoughtful planning that an “online strategy” might entail. Faculty were doing their best, but our students were lost, and we were not fully considering their needs. Allowing for multiple content “classroom” locations (Blackboard, TEAMS, Zoom, WebEx) was a nightmare for our already traumatized students. In normal times, I might want to encourage a controlled testing of these many platforms, but when everything is online, well some uniformity would have been helpful. As IT and academic advising fielded the troubled calls for help, they encouraged me to nudge faculty toward a uniform location to log in, even if they wanted to move to other platforms from there. These groups have direct and frequent contact with our students with a perspective that transcends the department view. Their voices should be heard.

And what about those with expertise in academic support (tutoring, advising, orientation, etc.)? Well, they have lots to contribute as they routinely interact with students as they thrive and as they struggle. Perhaps their insights into how we have organized our services might be meaningful? Indeed, these folks have degrees and continued professional development in the areas of student support. We might want to listen to their ideas.

The same goes for our instructional designers. We have them on committees, but they continue to be relegated to the support rather than leadership roles. The Career Success Center is noticing gaps in our students’ abilities to articulate the value of their degrees. Perhaps we should listen and find a way to bolster the relationship between the academic and the career experience for our students. Our police department might have insights we should hear. Our facilities team might see bottlenecks in our planning. The registrar’s team has a critical point of view. And so on.

Cohn gave me a lot to think about this morning. It is clear that the authors of our governance structures understood that we should learn from all parts of the university. They must have recognized the value of shared ideas and diverse perspectives. It was an incredibly powerful and optimistic impulse. But we haven’t fully realized that vision. So, today, I am considering what I can do to help us fully engage our community to make that vision real. I am thinking about how to reorganize what I do to help us engage the full range of talents and views available to us as we define our path forward, both post-pandemic and thereafter. We need some fresh ideas and new strategies and I’m guessing they are all around us if we just learn to listen.