equity, Higher Education, Inclusion, Uncategorized

Undermatching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher Education

Hope and Renewal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Change, Evaluation, Higher Education

The Pace of Change

It is the end of another academic year, and as we move through award ceremonies, research presentations, and finally commencement, I take the time to look at my to-do list from last fall.  It is a bit deflating to see all of the things I didn’t complete.  I expect some of this to happen, after all, not all of my plans were good ones. A few things actually got done, some were re-imagined, a few were abandoned, and some just didn’t get the attention they needed to come to fruition.  It isn’t all bad, but I confess to being a bit disappointed in myself.

Then I remember, higher education is designed to slow the pace of change.  While we are great places for advancing knowledge (yes, new discoveries and inventions do come from higher education), we are best at slow deliberation.  We analyze cultural patterns large and small and try to see them in context, rather than jumping to conclusions.  We look at small changes in forecasting models for weather or economics, tweaking them slightly each year to get closer to a better predictor, and then analyze the results of those changes.  We reflect upon the past to try to divine how we got to this moment.  Change is not something we’re avoiding, it is something we’re vetting.

So here I am, an academic with an administrative role. I understand the care with which my colleagues approach change and I share their suspicions about the innovation of the week.  The brakes they are putting on in the form of more questions, more input, more research are justified.  However, I also spend my time looking at the whole organization and the whole student experience, and I see patterns of successes and failures that are calling for us to move a little faster. I feel the push/pull of the deliberative mindset and the urgency of responding to areas for improvement.

Take, for example, the way this generation of learners is coming to us.  It is well-documented that their experience of reading is very different from that of the generations before them.  (See “The Fall and Rise of Reading” by Steven Johnson in the Chronicle of Higher Education). It isn’t that students can’t read, it’s just that they really haven’t had to grapple with critical reading. The books read and tests taken prior to coming to college are all about short forms, summaries, and highlights.  And of course, there’s the endless interaction on the Internet to reduce the time spent with texts. Reflective reading of long form texts is just not what they are used to doing.  We know this to be true, yet we haven’t reviewed the literature on how to teach critical reading, and then incorporate into our classes.

Maybe we think this isn’t our job. High school was supposed to do it, so just pile on the readings and the students will get it eventually.  But they don’t.  We have to adjust our teaching strategies, and quickly, because we’re losing too many to this gap in skills. Even worse, we are diminishing the conversations we’re having in our classes because we’re not really expecting students to do the reading anymore.  This is a terrible spiral, but the good news is we can stop it from happening. But we have to act, and sooner rather than later.

And then there is the issue that really made me sigh this morning.  After repeated reports on who struggles to succeed at my university, I concluded that the at-risk group is any student who had less than an 85 average in high school.  I learned this two years ago and started a conversation about advising strategies to address the at-risk group. At that time, I used the words “intrusive advising” which is a term found in much of the advising literature. Several of my colleagues objected to the term, so we moved to the idea of enhanced advising.  I brought together a group to develop a protocol and nothing happened.

Then I appointed some faculty members to investigate ways that we might develop an advising protocol for those students.  Like all good faculty members, they went out and talked to their peers. While they found out a few good things about how to support faculty as advisors (and I will work to support those findings), in reality, enhanced advising was set aside in favor of better advising for all.  This is a good idea, but it will take too long to identify and scale those improvements.  Meanwhile, those at-risk students are left with no direct support.

I just got an updated report on at-risk students and it is still students who earned less than an 85 average in high school.  The difference in retention rates for this group is at least 10% lower than those at 85 or above, and the differences in graduation rates are even more stark.  And there’s plenty of literature about how to support these students, so, I’m feeling an urgency.

So, I’m left pondering ways to balance the deliberation with the urgency.  I do respect the reflective and thoughtful nature of my colleagues, but when I keep the larger patterns of student success (or lack thereof) in view, the pace of change is just too slow.  I’m going to have to find a better balance, a better way to move the deliberation along just a little faster.  Because, what I don’t want to do is have this on the unfinished list again next year.

 

Dialogue, Free Speech, Inclusion

What are schools for?

The two best classes in my Ph.D. program were taught by education historian, Henry Perkinson.  The first, What are Teacher’s For?, opened my eyes to the metaphors and practices that shape how we understand the relationships between teachers, students, and learning.  I’ve drawn on the work in that class nearly every day of my career in higher education.  The second, was What are Schools For?  This one explored the many ways that we construct the role of education in society.  As our expectations for a good society evolve, so do our expectations for education.  Though an Imperfect Panacea (Perkinson, 1977/1991),  thinking about education as the path to a good society guides my thinking as an administrator.

This morning I’m thinking about just one step on that path. It is not about technology or innovation or pedagogy.  I’m not wondering about the connection between career and philosophy (though I frequently do).  Today’s answer to the question of the purpose of schools is simply this: schools are for helping us understand that our certainties and assumptions may not be the same as those of our neighbors.

This is not a small thing.  Indeed this openness to differences in attitudes, beliefs and values is hard won, and never done. The conflicts are written in our histories — segregation, prayer in schools, gender specific curricula, evolution, and climate change — and will never be completed. As neighborhoods shift, new cultures emerge and we struggle.  As science advances, new facts emerge, and we struggle.  As technologies connect us to far flung places, we encounter new governments or foods or religions, and we struggle.

As a child, I was very aware of the differences in beliefs in my family as compared to my friends.  We were different in terms of religion (really, the lack of religion).  We were different in terms of gender roles (my mother re-married several times, she was the head of the household at all times).  We were different in our understanding of bias (participation in civil rights marches and anti-war marches was a regular feature of my upbringing). It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was different. It also didn’t take me long to try to find ways to bridge the gaps between my family’s values and those of my friends. It didn’t always go well, but my nature seems to be to try to find some common ground.

As a parent, I saw this again for my children. I found it a bit awkward that Halloween celebrations had to be hidden in a Harvest Fair (out of consideration for religious differences), but I could go with it.  Then there was the DARE program that I objected to (I just kept my kids home on those days). But there was one incident that shook me and it continues to shape my thoughts about education today.

Like me, my children were raised to make their own decisions about religion. We embraced some of the festivities of Christianity and Judaism, while also connecting them to the histories in which they arose.  Practically speaking, that meant latkes for Hanukkah, presents for Christmas, a bonfire for winter solstice, and an Easter egg hunt with our neighbors.  One year, as we prepared the latkes, a friend of one of my children came to visit.  She was discussing the birth of Jesus and pending family celebrations.  I don’t remember what she said, but I felt the need to add the qualifier, “for those who celebrate Christmas.”  The little girl was horrified.  She came straight out and said, “You mean, you hate Jesus?”  Oh boy. She didn’t come back to our house for about 8 years.

Of course, I had shaken her understanding of the world.  Not only did she not know that there were non-Christians, she didn’t know there were non-Catholics. Yet, she went to a school with children of other faiths.  Unfortunately, our schools have been avoiding these conversations. Religion, in particular, is not in the curriculum and might inspire controversy so it is avoided.

This may also be happening more than we realize in higher education.  If we’re doing education right, all of us should have those overwhelming moments when we realize that what we thought everyone believed just isn’t so. And then we should dig in. Because unlike that little girl, we are adults and walking away for 8 years just isn’t a reasonable response. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we should be embracing the rich conversations and the deep soul searching that can arise from those moments when our set of facts falls apart. I fear that opposite is true. I think we might be avoiding most of these conversations.

This feels urgent to me today. With Easter bombings in Sri Lanka and Passover shootings in California, it seems the need to give our students the tools for the rich conversations about our differences is the most important thing we can do. Our media environments have reduced all dialogue to shouting and our political system seems to have cut out all paths to solutions in favor of election strategies and litmus tests.  In the midst of all the shouting, we find tales of protests on campuses that shut down rather than foster dialogue. We can’t let this go on.

Schools are one of the only places where we have the opportunity to cut through the shouting and actually talk about our differences.  They offer us the opportunity to make sense of the fact that we are not all the same. Schools should be places where we are comfortable discussing what is making us uncomfortable, and not for entertainment value, but for understanding. Rather than avoiding tough conversations, we need to seek them out and take hard looks at the reasons they are tough. This is what schools are for.  This is our most important role in society right now and we need to take it on rigorously and enthusiastically.

 

 

 

 

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Supporting Diversity: We must do better.

Well, I just finished reading the Chronicle Review’sBeing a Black Academic in America.” Sadly, it was unsurprising.  The many stories told in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed and elsewhere, that focus on biases in the classroom, on campuses, in yearbooks, and invited speakers all tell us that we are nowhere near achieving equity in higher education.  The faculty members who tell their stories in this issue, report issues that have been reported so many times that I can feel nothing but shame that we haven’t figured it out yet.

Indeed, I’ve been in conversations about these issues with students for over 20 years.  The perception that affirmative action is an unfair or unearned advantage has been voiced by students (and some faculty) in subtle and unsubtle ways as long as I’ve been in higher education.  They confuse the terms equality and equity, and get lost in the false logic of merit.  To be clear, merit can only be considered in context.  Simple indicators of hard work and talent must be scaled to the starting blocks in that race to secure a seat at the table (or in the classroom).  So, if you start with no money, attend a poorly funded K-12 school, and have parents who did not attend college, and then you manage an average score on an SAT, well you deserve to have that score raised to meet the average scores of those who had SAT prep tests, pre-schools, and honors programs.  That might be the start of some kind of equity, and trust me, that student has demonstrated talent and a strong work ethic.

But of course that’s just economic equity. The fact that the advantages and disadvantages are distributed along racial lines is the deep and enduring shame of it all.  That’s where we seem to be getting really lost in our merit logic.  We don’t like the idea of a person getting a score adjustment along racial lines, even though the economic disadvantages are disproportionately distributed along those lines.  Our belief in a system that only rewards hard work is so strong that we just don’t can’t see the different placements of the starting blocks.  And then we fail to make progress.

The stories in The Chronicle detail the difficulty of being a faculty member under these conditions. Every person interviewed reported the ways in which they have received messages about their “unearned” place in the academy.  Whether as students or as faculty members in predominantly white colleges (which describes most colleges), the uniformity of the narratives was clear…biased behavior is alive and well.  We are not paying attention to the ways in which we are replicating the systemic racism in the culture of higher education. We are not mindful of the ways bias manifests itself in student evaluations.  We are not attentive to the (lack of) diversity in our curriculum.  We have not attended to our committee structures (elected and appointed) and how they may be excluding voices.  We have not examined our assumptions about how the unspoken expectations for success in higher education may be obscuring those pathways for those new to the world of higher education, simply by being unspoken.

What we really haven’t begun to address is the intertwining of class, power, and race in all that we do in higher education. We have a push and pull between our commitment to access and our notions of excellence. We want to be the pathway to an equitable society, but we fail to notice that we have defined excellence in terms that represent the views of those already in power. We are frequently getting stuck in our own faulty merit logic, assuming that since we are all products of Ph.D. programs, we all have access to the same knowledge. But it isn’t that simple.  We aren’t seeing the staggered placement of our starting blocks.

And even saying all of this causes me discomfort, because I don’t want to suggest that faculty of color need special accommodations to succeed. Like all faculty, they are smart and talented and have earned their place in higher education.  Like all faculty, opportunities to study a topic deeply and enlighten students are the tasks they have set for themselves. But something isn’t going right, so questions must be asked.

It made me sad to read the Chronicle Review this morning.  I can see just how difficult it is going to be to make real change and I am sorry to have been so ineffective so far.  But I am listening and trying to find a path forward.  I have been calling for curricular change, but it is time for me to think bigger and plan the overhaul in our practices that is really required.  I’m not sure what my next steps are, but I do know that there will be next steps in short order.