Affordability, Higher Education, Thinking

Time for a Timeline Change?

Like everyone in higher education, I am continuously trying to puzzle through the economics of access and equity. As a nation, we have invested deeply in the notion of education as a path to opportunity. Public education, from Kindergarten through some post-secondary education, is nearly (though not quite) considered a right for all Americans. The prevalence of public education is the result of the difficult, but ultimately productive arguments that have taken place since the start of this nation. While we do not always agree about what education should look like, it seems we do agree that it should be widely available.

Our pattern has been one of expansion. Education was first for small groups, sometimes segregated by sex, often by race. Through arguments, local and national, we have broken down many (though not all) of the barriers to at least a high school education. (For an enjoyable history of K-12 in the US, I recommend Johann N. Neem’s, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America). We shouldn’t forget that high school was an expansion, not an assumption from the start. It serves as a reminder that we have continuously added to the scope of what we think the public should fund. As we dive into the national conversation about funding post-secondary education, this is an important lesson. What sounds like an insane economic expansion to some, is really part of the trajectory of expanding access to education from our earliest days.

Nevertheless, the expansion of higher education needs some careful thought. Two data points caught my attention as I read the higher education news over the last few weeks. The first was in Brian Rosenberg’s recent story in the Chronicle, “The Problem with Biden’s Higher-Education Plan” in which he points out that access is only part of the story: completion rates must be addressed. The second is in Jacquelin Elias’s report, “Who Holds America’s $1.5-Trillion Student Loan Debt?” Guess what? There is a connection between the debt and the completion question. To sum up, those who did not complete their degrees are most likely to a) not yield the financial benefits of a college education, and b) carry student loan debt that they cannot re-pay. And, while the group of students who borrowed money that they cannot repay do not carry the super high student loan balances (our grant systems do help), they are likely to be haunted by the bad credit implications for a lifetime.

Now, Biden (and Obama before him) has a strong focus on community colleges. This is where the free college conversation is strongest, and many states have taken steps to make that promise somewhat real. It is last dollar free (students must use their grants first), and it is tuition, not cost of living free, but it is something. For those of us in the public four-year world, the current free discussion is mapped to family income. This seems fair, but it does mean that schools like mine are likely to be missing many of these students in the first two years, while they leverage the free community college for their foundations. I think everyone should make sane economic decisions around their education, so I am not whining, just noting the budget problem this leaves me with.

But that is not what I really want to think about here. What I am most interested in is the fact that, even with the free college, completion rates are a problem. Financial concerns certainly drive that so this funding structure will help, but it is a lot more than that. A short list of things that might get in the way of degree completion includes college preparation, cultural/family support for education, commitment to education/knowing the purpose, and the million ways that life gets in the way. So, I agree with Rosenberg’s observation that completion needs our attention. But the question I have is, do we have the education timeline right?

We speak in two-year and four-year completion rates as if they are part of nature. From an economic planning point of view, that structure certainly helps us organize resources and curriculum. But it doesn’t serve the majority of students very well. This is why community colleges are always struggling with a measure that doesn’t fit their students’ realities, with three year graduation rates below 30%. That is also why access oriented four-year colleges struggle around the 50-60% six year graduation rates. None of us likes these outcomes, and we spend a lot of time and money trying to address them, but I think we might just have the model wrong.

Since so many students do not complete degrees in two-year or four-year timelines, perhaps it is our organization of time that is the problem. Maybe there is room for a different approach. For example:

  • Break up the undergraduate experience into two-year increments. I would add that we should really consider three segments, expanding access to advanced education (whether degrees or certificates), because so many opportunities for growth require more learning, after careers are underway. Whether a two-year of four-year institution, that first two years are focused on essential learning foundations with introductory major preparation. For some, this will include job specific education, and a clear exit from education for now. That’s fine. Graduates get the credential win and are prepared for more if they change their mind. For others, there is a career trajectory that is more broadly defined, and their next step should be a year or two in the workplace, exploring options. Then return, for the major work and some more advanced practice in liberal arts thinking. This approach might foster greater commitment to completion (through direct understanding of value) and give students time to grow into what they want to learn.
  • Add a service year infrastructure to our educational planning. If all high school graduates are required to do one year of national service prior to entering college, they will contribute greatly to supporting areas of need and have time to think more about what they want to learn. We already know the kind emotional growth that can take place in a service year, which may help students do better when they are in college. It is also a potential engine for cultural engagement, helping students understand the needs of many different communities. This requirement could also help all of us see the value of our investment in education, because in addition to supporting the next generation in their professional and intellectual growth, we will see real labor in our communities.
  • Support part-time learning, for real. You see, some students just really need to take the path more slowly. Our current infrastructure makes this challenging and, frankly, makes the student feel like there is something wrong in needing more time. If we schedule learning opportunities year round, in shorter increments, the part-time track could still yield degree completion in a timely manner (two-three years; four-six years, etc.). It will facilitate the management of those other things in life that get in the way and support the momentum that many have identified as crucial for degree completion.

This is just a sketch, and there is so much more to say. The work on supporting the varied learning needs and reducing cultural barriers to success is still urgent. The need for reasonable and helpful accountability measures for free education requires attention. But if we change our assumptions about the timelines for education, perhaps the expansion of access will have the desired effect, instead of a lot of students with some college and no degree. And, of course, I think that all of it should be free.

Thinking

Imagining the Opportunities

Over the last two years, I’ve written about small teaching and small innovations in various forms (most recently James Lang’s work), pruning syllabi, and decluttering our service obligations. I have observed that sometimes we have committee structures that have overlapping purposes, and perhaps the elimination of one might be warranted. I have suggested that one less reading or writing assignment might make room for better feedback and revision processes that are so beneficial to the learning. I am a declutterer by nature and often pursue the notion of doing less. As I settle into inhabiting the dimensions of this COVID-19 world, I am noticing the power of less, once again.

In the beginning of this pandemic, all of the less in my life was felt as a loss. I lost my face-to-face interactions with colleagues. I lost my ability to go out and interact with friends. I lost the opportunity to perform. From that sense of loss, I started to fill in the gaps with Zoom gatherings, WebEx meetings, take out dinners, and lists of planned projects. I was trying to simulate my old life. But with a summer of socially distant gatherings ending and the specter of reduced social interaction upon me again, I am thinking a little differently. Instead of loss, I am feeling the excitement of a less frantic world.

Here is what I mean. This morning, I went to my eye doctor for a routine exam. This involves wearing masks, being let in at my appointed time, temperature taking, and so on. She is being very safe, and I felt totally comfortable. But then she dilated my eyes, and I was not sent to another room to wait. Because of all the safety precautions, my doctor no longer runs from patient to patient between treatments. So, we did something interesting – we talked and waited together. Wow. That never happens in healthcare. Except, I also talked to my dermatologist, my internist and so on, in my normal round of check-ups this fall. I also never waited for an appointment (you know sitting in a gown for 20 minutes while the doctor sees someone else). In the COVID-19 world, I actually get the healthcare I have always dreamed of. It probably isn’t efficient, and maybe – to cover the costs of their degrees, malpractice insurance, and buildings – the price might need to rise just a little for me (or we could make it so doctors don’t have to carry so much debt!), but boy was that slower environment a better health care experience.

Here’s another shift. Because I cannot go to my usual restaurants and performance spaces, I am hiking and biking more often. I am not alone. The parks and trails are full of families and friends outdoors together. We all practice trail courtesies, pulling up masks as people approach and lowering them when we’ve passed. We tend to nod or say hi, maybe just a little more than in the past, because we crave that little social interaction. These spaces are getting more diverse, too, which is awesome. So, we may have lost Disney World and other amusement parks, but you know what, I’m seeing a lot of joy. It is a slower kind of fun, without a lot of frills. There is plenty of room for conversation or just silent reflection. Hooray that our communities have invested in parks and open spaces. We all need them, now more than ever. I wonder if there will be a reversal of those diminishing attention spans we have long observed in education. I am pretty sure it will be a good year for LL Bean.

So, what about higher education? We have done a lot of work to try to make our hybrid and online environments simulate the traditional on-campus experience. What if that is the wrong move? Is it time to ask ourselves what the experiences we are trying to re-create are really doing for (in) higher education?

For example:

  1. Not every online class needs to imitate the on-ground experience. What if some classes really are simply guided reading and reflection experiences, with regular faculty feedback, but no group work, etc.? As much as I love class discussion, collaborative projects, and lots of engagement with students, maybe we could reimagine types of courses and balance them between highly interactive and mostly reflective. We would need clear guidelines, because each approach to learning is valuable, but with some clever design we might find a nice balance for everyone.
  2. When we say that taking five online classes is a lot (and it is), we should acknowledge that five on-ground classes is also a lot. Can we move to a unit/four-credit model and make four the norm? I know it is hard for some majors, but maybe it is worth the effort to simplify these variations on credit hours and make room for actual reflection, revision, and thinking.
  3. As we adjust to online office hours, might we not consider that this has been a good idea for a long time? Allowing people to schedule meetings around some principle other than, – this is my on-campus day – might really benefit our students in general. People might even have more room for conversations because they do not have to sacrifice time to drive in to campus and meet.
  4. Instead of trying to build lots of events on our campuses (often poorly attended), perhaps we should ask ourselves why are in the event-planning business in the first place. Speakers booked for academic or socio-cultural events are an important extension of academic programs and these appear to be successful via our web conferencing platforms. Indeed, we may want to move these to the web permanently. But what about everything else? Well, if they aren’t part of the curriculum, perhaps we should simply curate a list of activities in the area and let our students make their choices.

I guess what I am really thinking is that it is time to stop viewing the changes spurred on by COVID-19 as losses. This moment is an opportunity to re-think what we do. We might be able to shift to new ways of interacting with people and ideas. We might also just make room for things to emerge. So, I won’t try to simulate my old life anymore. I am ready for reimagining instead.

Higher Education, Thinking, Uncertainty

Deep Breaths

Like everyone in higher education, I have spent every day since mid-March sorting through information and trying to make sound and thoughtful decisions about what to do. From our abrupt exit in the middle of the spring semester to our plans for the fall, nothing has been simple. There are complex interconnections between areas of the university that need to be sorted through and there are multiple constituencies to consider. This takes time, reflection, dialogue, and then logistical planning. It does not benefit from yelling. As I read the coverage of these issues in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, New York Times and the Washington Post, I find myself wanting to ask everyone to take a deep breath.

For the record, I am not more concerned with budgets than safety. This characterization of administration is a convenient trope that bears no relationship to reality. Budgets matter, of course, but that has not been the primary motivator of a single decision. It is the background noise that we worry about as we try to figure out what will best serve our universities.

At WCSU, we are striving to return to campus, but in a limited form. We are setting up classrooms with six feet between seats. We are requiring masks for everyone. We are deploying hand sanitizer everywhere. We are reviewing our ventilation systems to be sure we have the best possible air flow. We are ordering microphones for faculty who have masks on, because we are worried that their voices will be muffled, and students will not hear them. We have added all sorts of training in online teaching, so everyone is prepared to flip to online if that is warranted. We have had numerous meetings with union leadership, department chairs, faculty in disciplines particularly impacted by this change, and so on. All of this will have an impact on our budgets that we have no idea if we can recoup, but we are making the plans anyway.

Given all of this work, perhaps it would be easier to just be online. Sure, but then there are these other complications.

Lab sciences are not great online. Faculty in those disciplines have asked to preserve some of that hands-on experience. In some cases, certifying students for work in labs or applying to graduate school relies that hands-on experience. So, we worked together to develop protocols that we all feel are safe. The same is true for nursing, and that faculty has come together to propose what they feel are safe options.

Music ensembles are a disaster online. Don’t let the nicely edited zoom concerts you have seen fool you. Those are big (edited) productions. In reality, there is just too much lag to play together remotely, especially when on considers the variance of bandwidth in people’s homes. We cannot really support ensembles in full, but at least the ones without wind instruments and voices should have a chance to play together. For those others, we are trying to figure something else out, mostly outdoors subject to weather.

I am particularly worried about our incoming first-year students. While it is possible to build community online, it is not easy. Community building online works best with people who are either returning adults or graduate students. To build it with traditional students is a lot of time and effort. I know that some of my faculty will do a great job of facilitating group work that will help students meet each other, but students will miss the way physical co-presence tends to lead to post-class conversations. This is not trivial. We already know that our commuter population sometimes struggles to make these friend connections when they only come to campus for class. Not coming at all will magnify that problem. So, we are trying to preserve some of those first-year on campus experiences. Even if we find we have to return to online only, a few meetings are likely to be helpful in building those important connections between students.

We have a plan for our dorms. We are working through those safety protocols and, yes, we are wondering about our ability to build compliance. Enforcing the use of masks and social distancing protocols in classrooms and libraries, etc., is relatively easy. In dorms, not so much. We are reviewing the various publications on monitoring health in dorms and planning our testing and tracing protocols. We have also updated our fall schedule so families can make informed decisions about the value of dorms, given the proportion of class-time online (schedules vary). Still, some students and families want this option, so we are not just saying let’s skip it. This decision was made with the desire to preserve this option for families who want or need it. It was not made with an eye toward the bottom line. If anything, having the dorms open will cost more than closing them, given the protocols we will have to put in place and the scaled back occupancy numbers.

Nevertheless, the money piece does matter. As usual, the conversations about money in the press focus on the private schools with large endowments and very high price tags. Those of us in public higher education are grappling with small (no) endowments, diminishing state appropriations, and price tags that are lower than the cost of operations. We are being asked about reduced tuition and fees because of the predominance of online offerings, but there is no reduction in the cost of delivery. I am focused on cultivating good online instruction, but I know it is not the same as the expectations these students had for their education. We are being asked about pro-rated dorm costs in case we go home early, but the cost of the dorms will not diminish if we close early. The price is based on the semester, not a weekly rate. We do not know what to do about this. Our price tags are “affordable” but they are still a stretch for many of our families, so I understand their questions about reductions in this context. My tale of how low the tuition and fees are compared to the cost of delivering education is cold comfort to them. This puts us in quite a bind and there are no good answers.

It is July 13th and the decisions we have made so far reflect my (and the entire administrative team’s) best effort to navigate this difficult world. We are likely to change course on a few things as we monitor what is happening elsewhere. We are likely to grapple with decisions about costs and value as the proportions of online offerings shift with those insights. We will continue to address the interconnected decisions of operating a campus, in collaboration with our union leadership, as methodically as possible, even as we hear the demands for information on a daily basis. We will try to respond quickly, but some decisions take time.

This leads me back to the breathing part. Perhaps, for just a minute, we could all pause and think about these complexities. Perhaps we could stop accusing each other of bad priorities and look at all we have done to figure this mess out together. Perhaps we could cultivate a little more patience so that there is time to review the list of protocols we have developed, determine their feasibility, and then make adjustments. We can’t get this done if we are constantly responding to panic and misinformation. So deep breaths, please, so we can all figure out the fall. We will think about the money piece later.

Resilience, Thinking, Uncertainty

Uncertainty Reduction

As we close out this disrupted and odd spring semester, I am thinking about our normal practice of wrapping things up–turning in grades, congratulating our graduates, and going home for a little rest and relaxation.  My husband and I had, indeed, planned to be sitting on a beach in Miami right after we finished congratulating the last student to walk across the commencement stage. Obviously that isn’t happening, not just for safety reasons, but because there is too much to do. It is time to figure out what happens next at our university.

Uncertainty is all around us.  We do not know how long we will be compelled to stay home.  We do not know when there will be a true treatment for this virus. We do not know when there will be a vaccine.  We do not know if there will be a second wave (although evidence suggests there will be). And so on.  How does one plan for the future of a university with so many unknowns?  One decision at a time.

This week we made our first real decision about what is next.  Having cancelled our usual commencement ceremony, we were left with very big sense of loss.  At all universities, commencement is an important ritual, sealing that feeling of pride and accomplishment that should accompany completing one’s degree. At a university like WCSU, with a large proportion of students who are the first in their families to go to college, it is all the more profound and meaningful.  Something had to be done.  After consulting with our students, we have settled on a fall celebration on our campus. That announcement was met with cyber-cheers from everywhere.

I am thrilled, assuming it can actually happen.  If we are allowed to gather in a pretty large crowd in September, this will be a wonderful, soothing, experience for all of us.  If. There are real threats to the feasibility of this event, but we have a plan and we all feel better. It is action. It is decisive and it gives us a sense of hope and progress.

So on to the next.  How shall we plan for the fall semester? We are diving into that conversation right now.  Like our students, who loudly rejected the idea of a virtual commencement ceremony, none of us wants to be a fully online university in the fall. It just is not who we are at WCSU. We are more high touch than that. It comes from our commitment to meeting students where they are, with the goal of helping all of them succeed. We have a student body with incredibly varied educational experiences prior to college. Those varied experiences require nuanced responses that are just harder (though not impossible) in a fully online environment.

This observation tells me that I have already made a first decision about the fall.  We will not operate solely online. That doesn’t reduce uncertainty much, especially since I don’t have the power to make that decision alone.  Nevertheless, it does remove one option from the logistical map we will try to create at WCSU in the next two weeks.

Next question…what does a campus look like when it must consider social distancing as a key variable?  Do we reduce the number of students on campus at any one time?  What will be the maximum occupancy of each room, and how will that impact class size? How will that impact the budget? What will we do about gathering spaces? Will we ban them? How will we make sure people wear their masks, if required? How will we protect the most vulnerable members of our community? That is not a next question, is it?  It is a barrage of variables that must be considered.

The question right after those addressing a theoretical return to campus is, what if we have to go back home? Now the ruling out of an online only environment requires a little more thought. It seems we will have to be prepared to go back online at any moment during the fall (the next year?).  Oh boy.  Now I have a new list.  How do we make sure that our online offerings are of the highest quality? How do we support our faculty as they fully develop their courses online? How do we adequately support students in this environment in a developmentally appropriate way? What about the quality of our technological infrastructure – can it really support this? And so on.

Beyond the academics, what on earth do we do about student life in either scenario? It is a lot to think about folks, a lot.

Nevertheless, the act of thinking about it is a relief. This long list of questions can have answers. We can make a complex logistical map that helps us develop strategies for addressing each scenario. It will be very hard, but the answers can be developed, evaluated, and decided upon.

I have listed a lot of questions here because listing the questions is that very first step toward uncertainty reduction. Despite the missing pause for recuperation at the end of the semester, I am thrilled to get started on this, because the uncertainty is really the worst part of this whole situation. Making plans, however complex or vulnerable they may be, is a kind of serenity-prayer for our campus, as we endeavor to control what we can, and accept the fact that we truly cannot know what comes next with this virus.

 

Thinking

And breathe

Well, last week was the whirl of decision-making.  First it was the cancellation of the spring break trips.  Our disappointed athletes saw their spring seasons quickly disappear.  Then campus events were cancelled and our performing arts students saw their seasons and trips disappear.  Then there was a cascade of schools sending students home for a few weeks (returns TBD), and our lab sciences shuddered, students in internships scrambled, and the stress of faculty figuring out how to move classes to an online format was palpable. It was a tough week for everyone.

But here we are, at the start of spring break.  Students and faculty are off.  Most staff are working remotely.  Our facilities crew is cleaning the campus and we actually have a moment to regain our composure. Whew.

So, here’s some good news.  First, what a wonderfully resilient group we are at WCSU (and I suspect in most of higher education).  My instructional design team has upped its support for faculty who have never taught online.  For those who have never done so, teaching online is not an easy shift.  Most people spend at least a summer planning for such a thing, so doing it in a week is lightning speed.  Nevertheless, people are figuring it out. I have received lots of notes from faculty wanting to help each other.  We are putting those helpful hints in our course management system, so people can get ideas from each other.  It is the kind of camaraderie that comes in a crisis, that I hope will last beyond the panic.

Our Academic Support services (librarians, tutors, and academic coaches) are all moving online  These groups are in separate clusters at WCSU, with varied uses of log in tools, training, and tracking of demand.  This week, they are all learning to pool resources and share techniques so that the supports for student learning do not waiver while we are a virtual university.

We are just entering our fall registration period and there have been questions about how advising will work.  As a blended system of faculty and professional advisors, we wanted to be sure students knew how to get help while off campus.  As it turns out, this part is pretty simple.  Advising is easy to accomplish via email, phone, or conferencing tools.  Faculty can review student transcripts from home, put advising notes and registration pins right in Degree Works (our transcript system), and the students will be all set to go. The bright side might be, however, that students happen to be reading their email right now because of their attention to the closure.  I’m hoping we end up with higher percentage of students registered for the fall than is usual at this time.

What about the rest of us, the ones who aren’t teaching, advising, or maintaining facilities? Well, admissions is still busy admitting students.  Financial aid is still busy helping address awards and manage accounts.  Registrars are still busy helping students register.  Our Student Affairs team suddenly has a few free minutes to plan for the fall, while simultaneously planning for an adjusted schedule this spring.  In Academic Affairs (including the Deans and all of the people who support us), we’re busy reviewing schedules, curriculum, and opportunities for growth, as we were prior to COVID-19.  The only difference is that we might have a few more hours of uninterrupted writing and thinking time.

This is that moment when we might wonder why we’ve built in so many interruptions in the first place.  Are all of those meetings a good use of time?  Is our committee structure so complex that it wears us out more that it offers insight?  Do we build agendas for meetings that are useful and achievable? Having this opportunity to think for just a few extra minutes a day, I can already see that there is room to streamline our efforts.

Then there are the electronic interruptions.  The good news is it is easy for me to shift my job to online, because much of it is about responding to email and writing documents.  The bad news is that much of the email is silly.  It is easy for me to delete all the sales pitches, but the never-ending stream of clarifications about our governance processes, suggests that a) our processes are too cumbersome, b) our instructions are too vague, and c) we must have hidden the instructions from view, because no one seems to have read them.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind answering.  People are doing their best and they don’t want to get things wrong. But I’m pretty sure my colleagues are smart, so I suspect there is something wrong with how we’ve organized things.  This shift away from meetings might give me a minute to figure out how to make some adjustments.

For those who are scrambling to figure out online instruction, you can pause for a minute, too.  Look at your courses and ask yourself what you must accomplish in the remaining weeks of the semester.  In complete honesty, is it everything you included at the start?  Could you get to a good set of learning experiences and outcomes by doing a little less?  Probably.  Take this opportunity to make those cuts, with essential concepts at the heart of the decisions.  It will keep you from trying to do more than is actually possible in this quick transition.  It might also teach you a few lessons for next year.

In other words, after the panic, there really is time to breathe and think. While I remain concerned about the potential spread of this virus, I will simply be grateful for the time it has added to my day. It is almost as if mother nature scheduled time for spring cleaning.  I’ll take it.