Evaluation, Higher Education

Root Causes

Since many institutions of higher education set preparation for and engagement with life-long learning as a goal, it is fitting that I should take my own continued education to heart. Recently, I enrolled in a course called Policy Design and Delivery: A Systematic Approach to strengthen my skills at both developing and analyzing policy proposals.  Motivated by a sense that the many “solutions” to higher education’s problems do not represent a clear and thoughtful analysis of the contexts in which those problems arise, I am searching for a better understanding of how to craft a good policy.  It has been illuminating so far.

Without even using the tools in my policy design course, though, I can see that many of our education policies mistake correlations for causes. For example:

  • Students who participate in co-curricular activities have higher retention rates than those who do not, so we push to require co-curricular activities.  Sounds good, but maybe the students who are committed to staying at a university are the ones who decide to get involved.
  • Students who attend classes regularly are more likely to be successful than those who do not, so let’s adopt attendance tracking technologies and pair them with nudge technology and get students into class.  Attendance matters of course, but not attending is often a decision that no amount of nudging will change. Perhaps attendance is the mark of a student who wants to succeed.
  • And for today’s discussion: Students who commit to a true full-time schedule are most likely to complete their studies…otherwise known as 15 to finish.

Complete College America has invested a lot in the 15 to finish initiative, and for good reason. First of all, we have been confusing our students about the meaning of full-time.  Federal financial aid rules set full-time status at 12 credit hours per semester. This status opens up access to housing and many grants.  A student might logically conclude that 12 credits per semester is sufficient for timely completion of a four-year degree.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up. State, national, and accreditation standards define an undergraduate degree as a having a minimum of 120 credit hours (there are some regional differences, but this is the generally accepted standard). The true number is 15 credits per semester.  This is important for us to communicate, so the slogan is a good start.

Second, there is a growing body of research surrounding the notion of “momentum.” Simply put, students who are engaged in their majors early and earn those 15 credits per semester tend to remain motivated to get to the finish line. This is usually linked to guided pathways, which help to limit the chances that students enroll in courses that do not support progress in their degree plan. Success and engagement propel students forward.  Those on a slower path have a greater tendency to stop out, or grow discouraged and lose sight of the finish line.  So, in an ideal world, a truly full-time schedule with a mix of general education and major coursework from the first semester of enrollment is the best approach to degree completion.

Great, but here is where it starts to get problematic. Once we clear up the mystery of degree requirements so that all students understand the 15 to finish concept, there are still myriad reasons why 15 credits per semester is not possible for a significant number of students.

  1. A student may need to work on some foundational skills in their first year of college and the better path to success is 12 or 13 credits, rather than 15.  For example, if a student is behind in their math skills, they might enroll in a 4-credit course in math (rather than the more typical 3-credit general education math course).  To get their schedule just right, with adequate time to pay attention to those math skills, it might be best to stop at somewhere between 13 credits.  If all goes well, the end of the first year might leave that student with 27-29 credits. This is technically behind (below 30 credits) and penalties follow. In this case, the most obvious penalty is their continued status as a first year student. Registration priorities are tied to the number of credits earned.  Higher numbers go first.  A student who took this slightly slower path is at a higher risk of not getting into the next class in a set of requirements because they are still registering with first year students.
  2. A student may be enrolled in a highly competitive program that requires very challenging foundation courses, and opts for a slightly lower number of credits to help manage their time and attention.  For example, science, nursing and pre-med students are likely to take this option.  They might be enrolled in two lab sciences (8 credits), math (3 credits or 4), and humanities (3 credits). If the math class is 4 credits, they will be on track for the 15.  If not, they will be behind and suffer the same penalty as the student with some foundational needs.
  3. A student may have to work while in college (or raise children or report for military service).  The rational decision is to take a lighter load, but the penalties abound.  A part-time student will not be eligible for many grants, will not receive the benefits of the bundling discount (charging the same price for 12-18 credits) and will suffer the registration penalty because they have not yet made it to the status of sophomore or junior or senior.  This means that a hard working part-time student could be in school for eight years, steadily working toward a degree, and never be recognized as deserving of the benefits of higher class standing and never receive any financial support. Now that is a real disincentive to completion.

So, what’s the point. Well, if 15-to-finish were just a catchy slogan it would be of no real concern.  Indeed, some of the things I have described are things that we can fix locally by reimagining our registration priorities and focusing on part-time tuition support. But there are now trends toward additional financial aid strategies being tied to the 15 credits per semester (See New York’s Excelsior Program as a start).  As the nation discusses free tuition, the nuances I have described are frequently missed. Many of these proposals are built around that ideal full-time student.  Yet many of the students who would benefit from this tuition break will not qualify because they will not be able to complete 15 credits per semester.  Again, the penalties can be tremendous.

As for cause and correlation, well it is obviously true that completing 15 credits per semester is correlated with higher graduation rates. But the root causes of student success, which lead to the ability to actually complete those 15 credits, are far more complex than the credit story.  We need to step back and look at the conditions that are driving those behaviors so that the policies we design do not continue to disadvantage those who need our help the most.

 

 

 

 

equity, Higher Education

Credentials

Last week, the Lumina Foundation released, Unlocking the Nation’s Potential: A Model to Advance Quality and Equity in Education Beyond High School. This report details some of the ways in which the structure of post-secondary education has not fully adapted to the needs and expectations of our students and their potential employers.  In reminding everyone that students attending college have different preparation and numerous demands on their time (jobs, families, etc.), one of the most important messages of this report is simply that education designed for traditional four-year experiences does not meet the needs of the students we are serving today.

Got it.  We have been working on the differential needs and preparations of our students at WCSU for a very long time.  We know that some of our students are working multiple jobs, some have children, some are hungry, and some are able to focus on college completely, without all of the distractions just listed.  Clearly, those who have the benefit of not supporting themselves while in college are having a different college experience than those who do not.  Equity issues immediately follow.

Consider the criteria for awards or induction into honor societies. Awards usually come from efforts like working with a faculty member on a research project or doing exemplary volunteer work.  These will not be accessible to the student who is paying the rent and their tuition.  That student may thrive in the coursework, but simply does not have the extra time in the week to do these above and beyond things.  Some manage to accomplish this anyway, but that bar is far too high for the working student. This small observation is indicative of the long list of advantages and disadvantages we should be cognizant of as we consider the bestowing of honors or scholarships or other opportunities to excel.

Like many universities, WCSU has focused on strategies for supporting differential preparation for college. Some of that preparation is about being the first in the family to attend college. Higher education can have a lot of confusing vocabulary and hidden expectations that those of us immersed in education just know.  Adding a First Year program is our way of trying to level the playing field and demystify our processes. Similarly, we focus on getting students the tutoring or academic coaching support they need to succeed.  We invest in these resources because we know they can help us support the differential needs of our students as we strive to achieve some level of equity.

But the big can of worms opened by the Lumina report is about the quality of credentials.  The report offers a framework for developing credentials of all kinds (certificates, two-year, four-year, and graduate degrees), so that the goals and outcomes of those degrees can be easily labeled and measured. Although this is motivated by the most important of observations – the advantaged students have access to credentials that have value, the less advantaged are often duped by low-quality certificates and degrees that may not – the solutions proposed are problematic.  While trying to create a system that allows for differing missions and degree types, the outcomes measures proposed very clearly favor education that has direct career connections.  Oh boy, I can hear my humanities faculty shudder as I write.

Here are my three problems with this approach:

  1. The report itself notes ,”65% of Gen-Z jobs don’t exist yet.”  Then how can we look for direct career connections when we do not know what the jobs are?  To be fair, Lumina does note clusters of skills rather than specific training, but even those clusters are suspect if the success of the credentials are going to be measured largely on employment outcomes.
  2. Input from business and industry about the gaps in preparation for work, always ends up being descriptions of the traditional outcomes of a liberal arts degree (communication skills, critical thinking, and more recently, teamwork and cultural awareness). Yet the measures of the quality of credentials do not seem to embrace the ambiguity that a liberal arts educational experience implies.
  3. In trying to solve the problem of regulating organizations that charge a lot of money for credentials that do not connect to jobs (and are not recognized as valuable), Lumina has proposed a solution that does not recognize all of the quality education that is taking place.  It feels like No Child Left Behind all over again.

The problem, as I see it, is that we are trying to fit too many different kinds of post-secondary education into one set of outcomes.  Certificates in technology support or carpentry skills or introductory graphic design are all great educational opportunities that can link directly to careers.  A four-year degree in English, Communication, Chemistry or Psychology can also link to careers, but the focus of this educational experience is different.  This approach adds breadth to the experience, emphasizing critical thinking and life-long learning, and helping students carve paths to careers that have yet to be defined. Each of these types of credentials is valuable, but they are different.  Measuring them by the same outcomes measures is silly.

What is not silly is the reality of the equity issues that the Lumina report identifies. They are real, persistent, and troubling. Attending to these issues by focusing on designing supports for all students, better supporting K-12 education, and devoting adequate funding to public post-secondary education is very important. The work on credential design is also helpful.  They offer some excellent frameworks for reviewing what we offer, and perhaps strengthening some of what we do. I imagine I will be working through those ideas for the next few months. Most of all, the report’s overview of how inequities are being created and replicated is very valuable.  It definitely keeps my focus on the different kinds of things I should be looking at to support my wonderfully diverse student body.

But instead of looking at measurements of quality that are one-size-fits all, maybe, just maybe, we can start attending to the strengths and potentials of our differences and see where that takes us in addressing equity.

 

 

Engagement, Higher Education, Inclusion

Student Engagement? No Problem.

It is the start of a new academic year.  Students are scrambling to find books or finish registering for classes, while faculty put finishing touches on syllabi.  Opening meetings have commenced, a new cohort of first year students has been welcomed, and WCSU is abuzz with activity and optimism. Even the weather is supporting new beginnings with a hint of fall in that late summer air.  It is impossible not to love this part of the year.

I have a long list of things I hope to accomplish this year, from the trivial to the impossible, but I don’t want to get overwhelmed by all of that yet.  What I hope for at the start of this new year is to take the opportunity to see our campus with fresh eyes. This is the beauty of the summer break–when we pause, we have the opportunity to change our perspectives and start fresh. Sometimes, what we thought were problems aren’t really problems after all.

As we start this new year, I want to acknowledge that student engagement was something that I used to see as a problem to solve.  Now I see it differently.

WCSU is a majority commuter campus. This has been true for the entire 116-year history of the institution, but for some reason we talk about it as if it is something that should be fixed.  It isn’t!  While it is true that the kinds of experiences we construct must be different from a majority residential campus, the ability for so many students in the region to attend college at an affordable rate, without racking up additional (any) debt for housing, is a true benefit to our community and our future alumni.

Instead of thinking about the loss of the experience that comes with life in the dorms, what we need to do is reimagine the ways we engage students. Instead of constructing entertainment activities to entice students back to campus (largely a silly endeavor in a Netflix world), we should connect commuter and residential students around community, career opportunities, and professional development in the major.

Volunteer efforts, like WCSU’s Annual Day of Service on September 20th, is one great example of productive student engagement.  This year, our faculty have supported cancelling morning classes that day, so that everyone has the chance to participate.  Students, faculty, and staff come together to tidy up neighborhoods, work in shelters, paint fences, and connect with the Danbury community. This very popular event has often led to internship opportunities or other service learning opportunities, and commuters and residential students alike are willing to participate. It is a bonding event that builds community and opportunity.

Our clubs linked to majors offer another successful model for student engagement.  Clubs in Biology, Chemistry, Communication and Media Arts, Marketing, Mathematics, Justice and Law Administration, Psychology, and Social Work, and more, regularly bring students and faculty together to hear guest speakers, meet professionals working in the field, travel to professional conferences (often, presenting research and winning awards), and sometimes taking a canoe trip or going apple picking.  As it turns out, our students and faculty mentors are highly engaged in these activities.  Instead of asking why students aren’t frolicking on the quad, let’s acknowledge where they are.  Let’s invest a little more in these clubs and celebrate the results.

Sometimes we feel a little bad about the fact that we must incentivize attendance at campus events–you know, extra credit or a trade for class time.  We have this idea that students should just want to attend the presentations we value.  Why?  Faculty and administration do not choose to attend all of the events on our campus.  We make decisions about value and relevance and how much energy we have left in any given week.  So do our students.

On the other hand, these events do offer wonderful enrichment opportunities for all of us.  So, let’s all take a moment to look at what we see as the best benefit for the students we are teaching and go ahead and offer that extra credit.  Don’t worry about going to everything; let’s just focus on getting everyone to one or two things a semester. That really is enough.

Another area for growing student engagement is in career exploration.  Our students (all students) want a great education, but they also want help figuring out where they will go after college.  At WCSU, the Career Success Center has career fairs, alumni networking events, support for resume and cover letter writing, and guidance on getting an internship.  They even have peer mentors so those who feel a little intimidated by the environment might find a supportive face to greet them. Just like our guest speakers, though, students need a nudge to get to the Career Success Center. Let’s give them that nudge.  As students get started in the major, perhaps a small assignment on career exploration could open their eyes to the support available.  This is engagement.

Campus activities, when tied to the student’s educational and professional goals, are productive and enriching engagement opportunities.  They are less about the extra-curricular activities developed to support a vibrant dormitory life (don’t worry, we do that, too), and more about the co-curricular opportunities that are meant to help students see the connections between their coursework and the rest of their lives.  Given the many claims on our students’ time, these professional opportunities are more likely to bring them back to campus than entertainment-focused events.  Not only that, these activities are as valuable to residential students as they are to commuters. So, let’s not mourn the uneven participation in the Quidditch Team (one of my favorites), and celebrate the things that are capturing our students’ attention.

Here’s why.  First, these kinds of engagement matter.  They help us explain the value of the undergraduate experience by connecting opportunities to apply and extend learning to the curriculum.  Second, and perhaps even better, these professional development opportunities build community.  Students meet to work together on projects, talk with faculty about conferences or speakers, and get to know alumni in networking sessions. These experiences are just as likely to support friendships as attending a football game or the fall musical or a touring comedian.  Interestingly enough, the co-curricular experiences might even encourage more students to head out to this week’s art show or a soccer game, because, well they were on campus with their friends for a workshop anyway so they might all go together.

So this is how I’m starting this semester.  I’ve taken a breath and reimagined the situation. Student engagement.  No problem at all.

Dialogue, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Orientation

Small Measures: Using the Data

This morning I returned from my annual week in the woods to discover our institution’s National Survey of Student Engagement Report (NSSE) on my desk.  For the uninitiated, the NSSE compares student reported experiences of academic and other campus interactions both within group (comparing first-year to senior year-responses) and between colleges of similar types. Like all surveys, the NSSE is an imperfect measure, but it does reveal some potential points of pride and some areas we might improve on.  Since we invest in this survey as part of our institutional assessments, I am thinking that we ought to make some specific plans to use the information gathered.

First, the good news.  Our first-year and senior-year students are reporting spending more hours on reading and writing than the students from several of our peer institutions are, and many of our students report feeling challenged to do their best work.  Our seniors are completing culminating academic projects (a widely recognized high-impact practice) at a very high rate, and they value that experience.  Taking a long(ish) view of our NSSE data, there has been improvement in student reports on academic challenge for both first and senior year students and, although still not where we hope it would be, more of our students are reporting more quantitative reasoning opportunities in the curriculum.

By the time our students are seniors, they are reporting experiences with academics, peers, faculty, and the campus in terms that are roughly comparable to our peers.  There are a few plusses here, too.  Our seniors report that they are using good learning strategies, their faculty are using effective teaching practices, they have engaged in discussions “with diverse others,” and completed culminating and integrative educational experiences.

Unsurprisingly, there are real differences between our first-year and senior-year student responses.  Our first-year students are not convinced that we are using effective teaching practices, which may be a function of the transition from high school to college expectations.  In addition, our first-year students do not feel they are experiencing integrative learning opportunities, and they do not feel they are engaging in discussions with diverse others.

This interesting information.  We want our students to engage with difficult concepts, examine their worldviews, and be confident in their ability to learn both broadly and within their major.  Based on our NESSE data, this appears to be happening by senior year, but our first year students are not reporting this at all.

Over the past five years, WCSU has done a lot to make our goals transparent to our students. We have revised our general education curriculum to reflect common learning outcomes that we believe are essential to a liberal arts degree, published four-year plans, and added a first year navigation course.  Great.  Perhaps these steps account for some of the improvements in our NSSE scores overall.  However, we should not be satisfied yet, because our students are still not fully engaged with or aware of our great plans for their education.

Here’s a radical idea–let’s clarify things for our first-year students. Can we make those big ideas about their whole education visible to our students right from the start? Here are three suggestions to that might help us communicate our intentions more clearly.

  1. The First Year Course. Let’s build a couple of conversations about the holistic of a liberal arts degree into every FY course.  Part one of that conversation can focus on just describing the rationale behind the components of a degree (general education, major, minor/certifications) and the related experiences that might be considered enhancements (study-abroad, internships, etc.).  This conversation should take place prior to advising for the spring semester.  Part two could happen at the end of the semester. Take a moment to ask the students what they have learned.  Give them a writing prompt that encourages them to draw connections between their courses.  Then ask them to consider what they think they need to learn to make those connections more clear and encourage them to get those experiences in the next year.
  2. Introductory Courses. In all 100 level courses, let’s describe and discuss our pedagogical approach with our students.  We should not be repeating high school: college is different. We put more control into our students’ hands and we are more focused on questions than clear, short answers.  Let’s clue our students in to these new expectations with direct conversations about how the higher education environment should differ from their experiences with education.  Give them some direct examples of how this might work.  For example, show them the difference between a quiz for memorization and a quiz for integrative thinking.  Then they will know we have a plan and it is not to trick them. This might help students see our teaching strategies as effective at an earlier stage in their education. It might also help them build effective learning strategies.
  3. Everything Else. So, who about those conversations with diverse others?  This is both the easiest and hardest change to make.  It is easy because there is no subject that is not informed by experiences of different groups of people.  From the histories we tell, to access to the arts, to land use, or genetically modified foods, we have unique perspectives that deserve consideration.  As an institution, higher education is uniquely responsible for fostering conversations that examine these issues from many perspectives. It is our job to help our students develop skill in sorting through fact, opinion, and probabilities in thoughtful and civil ways.  It is hard to achieve this because sometimes our differences are complicated and intimidating and we are unsure of how to navigate the conflicts.  Still, we should be working to gain full participation in these conversations in every single course we teach. This means we must be intentional about fostering inclusive conversations and brave about addressing conflict.  It is a challenge, but I am certain we are up to this task.

If we take these steps, we might be able to close the difference between the impressions our first-year and senior-year students are having of their education.  Maybe we can engage them sooner so they can enjoy this experience from the start.

 

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Thinking

Slow Education

Well, it isn’t at all newsworthy to observe that it was a very warm weekend. Here in the Northeastern United States we experienced temperatures hovering around the 100-degree mark, which is hot even for July. Fool that I am I do not have air conditioning in my home.  I really prefer unconditioned air whenever possible. Genius that I am I live in a home shaded by trees and next to a lake.  It was plenty hot at my house, but we sat in the shade, sipped our various iced beverages, and did what the weather required…we slowed down.

Like a school closing blizzard in February, I confess, I revel in the luxury of just giving in to nature’s forces and not doing whatever I had planned to do.  Ambitions fade away in the face of temperatures too high or too low to navigate.  Instead, I am forced to just be.  Every time this kind of day happens, I am reminded just how wonderful that just being can be. Indeed, for me this is the very condition necessary for new ideas grow.

This week’s slowdown has reminded me of Neil Postman’s, Teaching as a Conserving Activity. This publication from 1979 was Postman’s re-imagining of arguments made in his earlier work, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Though some saw this follow up as a reversal, it wasn’t really.  As Postman put it “Education is best conceived of as a thermostatic activity” (p. 25), offering a counter-argument to the direction of the culture in which it resides. He goes on to say,

 The thermostatic view of education is, then, not ideology-centered. It is balance-centered…Its aim at all times is to make visible the prevailing biases of a culture and then, by employing whatever philosophies of education, to oppose them.   In the thermostatic view of education, you do not “hold” philosophies. You deploy them

Now you may think this an interesting thought given all of the discussion of ideology on our campuses and the current state of political discourse, and it is. But I am thinking at a higher level of abstraction.  The strongest biases at work in our culture right now are fueled by our technological and media environments. These environments argue for speed and quantity.  We want more information, more entertainment, more action, and we want it fast.  We cannot have news feeds that have not changed in the last 10 minutes. It is exhausting.

We are not immune to this in higher education.  Our curriculum suffers from this impulse for more, more, more.  A typical liberal arts major once took up only a third of a student’s educational experience, leaving ample room for minors, semesters abroad, or even changing one’s mind about what to study.  Now liberal arts majors are approaching half of the credits in an undergraduate degree and changing majors is hazardous at best. 

We are also packing our degrees with other must haves–courses outside of the major that we require because we think students need them.  It is no longer enough to have general education requirements to serve as a foundation for college level learning and to insure students understand the ways questions are asked and answered in many disciplines. Now we want our students to take particular general education classes, further limiting their options to make decisions about their own learning.

Our classes are also in an interesting state.  Not all, of course, but many classes include an amount of reading and work that might be fine if it were a student’s only class, but in a typical full-time load it is impossible to finish. We are mirroring our hectic culture by saying read more, read faster, go, go, go.  Not enough time? Skim and get the highlights a la our news feeds. 

It is just too much.  Our fear of missing some important idea (FOMI?) is leading to an educational experience that fosters stress, shallowness, and a lack of reflection.  If we keep adding to the lists of things our students have to know, how will they ever master some of the fundamentals? When will they have time to learn from mistakes? Where is revision in their learning process? And how will they ever have a moment of insight?

Let’s slow down.  Let’s do a little less and see if we can all learn a little more.  Let’s remember that revision, reflection, and repeated engagement with a few ideas are the building blocks that will prepare our students to navigate the sea of ideas they will encounter after graduation.  Let’s remember that important dates and facts are readily available in digital resources everywhere, but the ability to engage and argue with them productively is in no way intuitive, so we should spend our time on that. Let’s be realistic about how much anyone can really do in a day, a week, or a semester and design for that.  

Let’s be that counter-balance to the larger cultural narrative that privileges quantity and speed.  Let’s focus on creating an environment that gives all of us time to think and remember how much we can learn from struggling with just one idea.  Let’s do slow education.