equity, Regional Comprehensive

Supporting the Mission

On August 12, Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, announced a series of funding opportunities for minority-serving institutions. In launching this new grant program he noted: “It’s a cruel irony that institutions that serve the most students with the most to gain from a college degree have the fewest resources to invest in student success.”  Amen!

He goes on to say, “Too often our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean very little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps to opportunity for all Americans,” said Cardona. “Stop conflating selectivity with excellence. We must stop correlating prestige with privilege. We must embrace a new vision of college excellence.” (Inside Higher Ed, August 12, 2022). Amen, again!

So, what is this new vision? For the Secretary of Education, it appears to be about investing in the public colleges and universities that serve the majority of college-going students (73% according to educationdata.org) such that those colleges and universities have the funds necessary to adequately support their students. While he is focused on minority-serving institutions right now (and given their chronic underfunding, this is appropriate), the trajectory of this initiative should reach all campuses charged with teaching the students for whom education will be the most transformative: you know, public higher education. This is anti-racist policy-making at its best. It focuses on a structural problem that disproportionately impacts students of color, first-generation college students, and low income students from all backgrounds.

Having insufficient funds to support students impacts everything: retention, pace to graduation, and graduation. Insufficient funding undermines the transformative power of education, because that lack of investment generally translates into lack of completion. We know this at WCSU, and we work hard to invest what we can in supporting all of our students. But, despite the level of state support we receive (not an insignificant investment), sometimes the timing of funding and student needs are not aligned and we miss the opportunity to adapt quickly.

For example, there is ample evidence that wrap-around advising structures (a social work approach to advising) is very effective in getting students the support they need when they need it. Investing in wrap-around advising is expensive, and investing in it all at once is too big a financial challenge for most public universities. We can’t afford to make the big leap, so we tend to focus on smaller, more incremental approaches, which take longer to yield results.

Research suggests that emergency funds can make the difference between a student stopping out or completing a degree. These are generally small grants that make a big difference in students lives. At WCSU, we have done a good job of prioritizing these funds in recent years, but to really make this strategy work requires more funds for emergencies, and an advising program that helps us know when to step in.

We work with the tools that we have to solve our problems, tools that don’t require too much investment. We have the capacity to look at our own data to determine scheduling problems, pass rates in gateway courses, and the variables that predict student success, or lack thereof. Examining the data is helpful and points to next steps, but those next steps often require investment. Making those investments in a timely way is often impossible.

The need for robust student support services at a regional public is much more pronounced than it is at an elite university. We welcome students who have varied needs and we want to meet each one with the appropriate strategies for success. Yet the resources to respond to these needs are much higher at the elite university. This is an imbalance that must be addressed. I think this is part of Cardona’s point.

Cardona’s words made me feel optimistic. After years of thinking that universities like WCSU were all but invisible, someone has finally acknowledged the importance of what we do. I anticipate that we will see more such announcements as Cardona continues to look at the structural issues that are clear in the data. Things need to change and his early steps acknowledge that need.

Reflecting on the Cardona’s words have made me think about our mission.

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.

That single sentence represents such powerful goals. We strive to change lives and we see evidence of our impact every day. We are the best path to social mobility because we are inclusive by design. We are the best path to self-advocacy because we recognize the role we play in helping our students learn to ask for the opportunities they deserve. We are the heart of a society that strives for equality because we are committed to creating opportunities for all students, not just the lucky few. We want to be that part of the higher education landscape that makes the most difference in the majority of students’ lives.

It is exhilarating to recognize the scope of our ambition. I am inspired to live up to those lofty goals because they are goals that matter. We are essential.

I’m looking forward to next steps from Secretary Cardona, but for today, I feel seen.

Affordability, equity, Inclusion, Quality, Regional Comprehensive, Return on Investment

COVID-19 & the Neighborhood University

Like all campuses grappling with re-opening in the fall, WCSU will triage the questions of lab sciences, clinical placements, online learning vs. hybrid learning, and the biggest question of all – do we reopen our dorms.  As usual, the press is obsessed with a model of higher education that looks like the movies – a beautiful location on a hillside, usually pictured in brightly colored autumnal hues, with all residential students.  In reality, that model serves a small percentage of undergraduates. Campuses like mine, with predominantly local student populations, are built to serve the majority, rather than the lucky few, and we have designed our curriculum and services accordingly.  In this crisis the strength of the accessible, affordable, local university comes into full view.

Let’s start with the obvious – for students and families stretching resources to attend college, not paying for living on campus is a substantial savings.  In the case of public universities, that decision will reduce the cost of education by about half. That means less debt and/or the ability to support more than one child in college.  For those with the greatest need, it means Pell might come close to covering expenses (not quite, but close).  For those who are more solidly middle class, it means the family can get a return on their tax investment in public higher education and allow their students to graduate with little to no debt. As we discover the true economic impact of this crisis, the affordable option is the best bet. We will be here for our traditional students. We will also be here for the folks who suddenly need to retool for a new career.

Then there is the value of the education itself.  Like most public comprehensive universities, WCSU offers a wide range of majors, enrichment opportunities, an honors program and educational access programs, and our resources have been invested in our educational facilities, not lazy rivers. Most of our graduates earn degrees and stay in Connecticut, working in various fields and frequently sending their children to us as well. Some of them come in with a need for academic support, so we provide it.  Others hit the ground running and go on for advanced degrees at prestigious universities (frequently with full-funding) and we have Fulbright Scholarship winners every few years. Sometimes the same ones who started out struggling end up in graduate programs. Our students have access to faculty producing research that is connected to our community and research that addresses large scale societal questions in all fields. Last year we had a Goldwater winner.  She’s heading off to John’s Hopkins next fall for a Ph.D., in no small part because of the research opportunities she had at WCSU.

These achievements occur because we are focused on supporting the needs of all of our students, not just the most talented. Whether an honors student or a student who needs academic support, education at WCSU is not organized to weed out the weaker students, but to support every student. We have to do this, not just because we think it is right, but because our neighbors are watching, and they talk.  To put it plainly, when a student flunks out of Yale, the public blames the student.  When a student flunks out of WCSU, the public blames us. We must always focus on the long-term relationship with our community and the success of the students they send to us.  If we do not, we will not survive.

All of this has always been true, of course, but what about the current moment makes it so important? Uncertainty about the fall and even spring next year makes it very likely that there will be some disruptions in the operations of traditional campuses.  As we track the spread of COVID-19, we are preparing to deliver our curriculum in online, hybrid, and on ground formats. We want to be sure that whatever happens, students will have a good educational experience.  This strategy will allow us to focus on the most important face-to-face experiences, and we will do our best to make those things happen in the fall.   But if the state and public health concerns determine that we cannot be here in person, education will continue online, and students will have faculty who will get to know them well.

At WCSU, we do not see online learning as a place to skimp on our student-centeredness or as something to contract out to other faculty.  We leveled up our online academic supports right away this spring and we will extend those throughout the next academic year.  That happened quickly because being student focused is the only way we can succeed as a university.  Most of our online classes are small, so faculty can give real feedback.  This is because we have always understood that our students have varied needs that require attention, so large classes are not a good strategy. We are now figuring out how to continue our research opportunities with limited face-to-face contact, and we are imagining ways to create enriched experiences for those most unlikely of online disciplines – performing arts. Why, because we have always experimented with new pedagogies as the expectations of students have changed over time. We are rising to the COVID-19 challenge with the most important thing in view–great educational experiences for all students.

This accessible, affordable, public university has always been focused on student success, precisely because we are accessible and local. We live and die by what our community thinks of us and we want them to trust us with their students. When I finally get to go out and see my neighbors, I do not want to hear that students are at home teaching themselves.  I want to hear about the excellent support their student received in this brand new learning environment or the cool things their faculty tried out in their online course. That is how things work when you are the local option and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

 

 

Higher Education, Quality, Regional Comprehensive, Return on Investment

Being a Community Asset

In the past decade or so, many higher education institutions have worked hard to raise their profile. Savvy enrollment directors and presidents had their eyes on the coming demographic shifts, and they worked hard to establish reputations beyond their traditional recruiting area. They knew there were not going to be enough students in that region to sustain them. Some invested in new programs, others rushed to specialized accreditations, and still others celebrated winning athletic contests that brought them national recognition.  It was an exhilarating race.

All of these seemed like sane strategies, and there have been some big winners.  But the field is crowded, and not all of us have the resources to found a medical school or compete in division one sports. For those of us designed to serve a broad range of students while working with more limited funds, this quest for national brand identity was and is out of reach.  To put it simply, being recognized costs money. When choosing to invest our resources, schools like mine tend to focus on direct student services, rather than reputation.  It may seem shortsighted to some, but when faced with the day-to-day realities of our student’s needs, direct services win every time.

But, here we are.  The demographic shifts are upon us, the big winners in the branding arena have been determined, and we are not among them.  We don’t have national recognition, and as we work hard to maintain reasonable enrollments, we are facing difficult decisions about the allocation of our resources. As we make those decisions, it might be a good time to focus on the value we bring to our local community.

WCSU is a wonderful option for so many people. We have a diverse array of programs, highly qualified faculty, interesting research opportunities, and some very nice buildings.  Many of our students go on the impressive things, like law school, medical school, and other interesting graduate programs.  Others win prestigious scholarships like Fulbright’s and Goldwater’s, or full-funding for graduate degrees in math or economics.  However, the vast majority earn their degrees from us, secure employment in the region, and get on with living productive lives. I am very proud of every one of these accomplishments.

Having lived in this region for over twenty-five years, it is impossible for me not to see our impact. Everywhere I go, I run into our graduates.  They are running small businesses, inventing new things, and working for global firms.  They are in our healthcare agencies, our schools, our police forces, and running social programs. They are volunteers, elected officials, and proud parents. They are my friends and neighbors.

Just last week, I was out to dinner, listening to some friends play music, when I ended up in a conversation with another musician who earned his business degree from us and is now working for an international accounting firm.  His wife earned a degree in social work from WCSU as well. Both are having wonderful lives, working in their fields, and raising their children in CT. Their parents also attended WCSU and if they send their children to college with us, they will be third generation WCSU graduates. That is some kind of endorsement of our offerings, don’t you think?

These kinds of conversations are a common experience for me. I hear of great outcomes in grocery stores, at concerts, and local fairs.  I am occasionally called upon to give advice to families whose children may be struggling.  I have helped friends of friends guide their children back to college, after the study-away experience didn’t work out. Sometimes, I find myself explaining our policies on park benches or at the beach. It is actually an honor.  I am happy to be that resource for so many members of my community.

Reflecting on these experiences, I realize just what a privilege it is to be a good, regional comprehensive university.  Instead of focusing on being a national brand, we’re focused on doing quality education.  Our offerings are typical of our kind of school and they are, in fact, pathways to productive lives. From the generalist degrees that serve as great foundations for careers in many fields, to the more direct career focused programs that prepare students to be nurses or social workers, we provide opportunities for all students to thrive. When appropriate, we add new majors that meet emerging demands (cybersecurity and addiction studies come to mind), and that is important, but mostly, we offer quality education that sets our graduates up for success.

I guess what I am saying is this–as the number of students in our region drop, I still want to be that great option for my friends and neighbors.  I don’t want to chase a trend or invest resources in the ratings race or hire a consultant to tell us what we already know about who we are. Instead, I want to invest in the things that support this environment, so that we can continue to be the community asset that we have always been.

This makes us a little vulnerable. We have to figure out how to manage our resources while we wait for a new generation of learners to be ready for college. It is a real challenge to budget for status quo, rather than growth.  But, I think we are on the right track if we keep quality education as our focus, rather than shiny objects.   It may not be glamourous, but it is sure does change lives.