Community, Resilience

The Bright Side

It is March 23, 2020 and Western Connecticut State University has officially launched as a virtual campus.  Spring “break” was filled with activity. Faculty were preparing materials for online course delivery with lots of help from our Instructional Design team.  Information Technology & Innovation (IT&I) has been deploying hardware and software at a dizzying pace, all the while working to ensure that there is enough support on the Help Desk, as our system strains under the weight of a sudden level-up in usage. Academic and Student Support Services have moved to virtual formats.  Student Affairs and the Residence Life team are finishing up the process of helping our residential students retrieve their belongings, and the facilities team has identified appropriate places on campus for emergency spaces for the City of Danbury, should that be necessary.  It has been all hands on deck, and people have been rising to the challenge with positive attitudes.  Whew.

It is sure to be a little bumpy for the next few weeks.  We’re all learning quickly but mistakes will happen.  Nevertheless, I see some potential positive outcomes from adapting to this new reality.

Online Teaching and Learning

WCSU does not want to become an online university.  I want to be clear on that. We are woven into our community and we serve students from many backgrounds with varied needs.  Not all of our students (or faculty) will thrive in an online environment.  But some students will.  At WCSU, we’ve been trying to determine the right audiences and approaches for our online offerings (graduate, returning adult, hybrid, low-residency, and so on).  This quick turn-around to an online environment creates an opportunity for us to gather some actual data on these questions.  I am hoping for some great conversations and analytics when this is over.

It is also important to note that this midcourse shift in medium places faculty in a good position to assess the impact of moving their instruction online. Working with students face-to-face for the first half of the semester has provided the opportunity to get to know how each student engages their education.  This will help them see where the change in medium is or is not impacting student success.  When there is a change in student performance it may be time to review the approach. If student performance stays roughly the same, things are probably on the right track.  There will be a lot to learn about instructional design from this simple metric.

Online Academic Supports

While many students, staff, and faculty prefer face-to-face experiences for academic support, this isn’t necessarily a great fit for a majority commuter campus.  As my colleagues have worked at breakneck speed to develop processes to support the virtual versions of our support services (tutoring, academic coaching, advising for students of all learning needs), we now have the opportunity to compare the volume of demand for services, and possibly the impact of interventions, with the face-to-face version.  We may learn that we should reconsider the proportion of online vs. face-to-face services when we return to normal operations.

Registration for fall is also underway.  WCSU has (wisely) committed to requiring students to meet with their academic advisors prior to being allowed to register.  This allows us to flag critical pre-requisites or course sequences, discuss challenges or the need for academic support, identify opportunities (minors, internships, study abroad), and most of all, build relationships with our students.  However, like the realities of academic supports, sometimes our students’ work schedules, etc., make traditional office hours problematic.  Testing out platforms for good virtual advising experiences could be good for us.  I’ll add that learning to keep our advising recommendations in Degree Works could be another good outcome.  Think of all the paper we could save!

Collaboration

I’m not in love with the collaboration tools yet, but I can definitely see their value. Between Teams for smaller group meetings and WebEx and Zoom for the larger ones, we are learning to stay in touch via technology.  I know lots of organizations have been doing this for years, but education tends to be a high touch environment.  We find the free flow of face-to-face conversation and debate to be vital for refining our ideas.  The awkwardness of taking turns in the online environment does kind of dampen discussion, but it will let us proceed with university business and we will get better at it.

There is the other kind of collaboration, too.  We are organized by schools, departments, and divisions in higher education.  We frequently spend our careers interacting within the narrowest of those clusters, without learning much about how our colleagues see things or how they do their work.  Ironically, this separation is making us reach out across divisions more than we usually do.  There’s an esprit de corps as we try to help each other think things through and solve problems.

The connection between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs and Enrollment Management has never been stronger as we identify the gaps in our areas that result from the lack of face-to-face engagement with students and faculty.  We might just discover some better processes that won’t lead to these gaps when life returns to normal. Likewise, the relationship between students, faculty, and the IT&I team has strengthened, as people become accustomed to the online support they used to resist.  As we moved to quickly vacate the campus, many of us came to understand the logistics routinely managed by our Residential Life staff, our Facilities Team, and our Campus Police.

I know I might sound a little too Kumbaya, this week, but it is honestly how I feel.  I am proud of my colleagues and excited to learn from all that has occurred.  And if that’s a little to mushy, consider this – with this dash to online will never worry about snow days again!

Stay healthy.

 

Higher Education

Do Less!

Help!  It is Monday and I am faced with a list of priorities that is impossible to complete.  There is the usual business of running academic affairs.  At this time of year that clusters around graduation planning, student problems surrounding graduation, attending to the usual curricular issues (new programs, revisions and external evaluations thereof), program review and associated actions, personnel decisions, participation in events, and meetings of all kinds. Added to the mix this year are university assessments of our enrollment patterns (demographic dips), and the allocation of resources related to those facts and, now COVID-19 preparations.  Whew!

I would like to complain, but I will not.  What I am thinking about is a question I have raised in this column in the past … can we do less?  I do not mean can we do more with less.  I mean simply, can we just do less than we are doing now and still create a great educational experience?

Let’s face it; everyone’s to-do list is too long.  I am not unique. The question is why are our to-do lists too long?  Why do we consistently add things, without taking things off the list?  Why do we think we can absorb new duties without dispensing with the existing ones?  Why do we have no clearly defined ends to our goals so we can take them off our lists? I don’t know, but it is definitely time to try to figure it out.

Here are my starting points:

  1. How many events should a university have? Until now, many of us have operated on the assumption that things should happen organically so that everyone has the opportunity to host interesting talks, events, etc.  The result is lots of good events with tiny audiences.  There is no coherence to the programming, so there is no way to think about appropriate representation of our community.  There are also budgets involved in all of them.  Perhaps, we could consider a new planning model that sets the number and the budget and makes a clear and coherent plan.  Maybe that plan could include a maximum number of events overall.
  2. How many clubs do we really need?  Like events, we have tried to facilitate an environment where all interests can be met.  This encourages action on the part of students in very productive ways.  However, like the events, the participation is varied, there is no sense of balance of interests, and there are overlapping themes.  Perhaps, we can set a few targets in this area, too.
  3. How many curricular options do we need?  Without considering majors (yet), I notice that we have many options within majors, often overlapping.  We also have lots of general education options for our students. This leads to a certain amount of sprawl with some courses oversubscribed and others with low enrollments.  Perhaps we could focus on the heart of a discipline with just a few options. This might help us plan more coherent schedules that yield fewer cancellations.
  4. How much can we really cover in a semester?  When we plan our syllabi, are we being overly optimistic? Are the goals set out achievable in a meaningful way?  By meaningful, I mean something more than simply “covering” material. Instead, I’m hoping for some level of understanding and, ideally, a few “ahas.”  When we consider that our students are taking four, five, and sometimes six courses in a semester,  there is some doubt as to the room for true engagement. We may be setting up a situation in which students are forced to divide their attention so dramatically that little depth of understanding can be achieved.
  5. How many meetings do we really need?  How long should those meetings be?  Are they leading to action?  I struggle with this one on a regular basis.  It is important for me to have direct conversations with many university constituencies, but I am not sure all of those meetings are productive.  I think, if I could reduce more of them to very clear and meaningful agendas, we could have fewer meetings and complete the work discussed in a timely manner. (NOTE: The next question must be how many committees do we really need.)

If we take seriously all of these questions, we might significantly reduce our to-do lists.  Then we might even have time for lunch with our colleagues.  Think of all the good work that gets done when there is actually time for lunch!

 

 

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.

 

Change, Higher Education

Starting Fresh

I admit it, this morning’s review of the higher education landscape has got me a little down.  In the Northeastern US, we are facing devastating demographic predictions–well over a 5% decline in high school graduates through 2025 (NCES).  The closure of the week was Concordia University in Portland, Oregon.  The announced merger of the week was the Minnesota Rural Community Colleges.  This comes on the heels of Maine’s plans to unify it’s four-year system. Pennsylvania seems to have sold out its public university system in favor of SNHU’s nimble degree completion programs.  Relaxed recruiting rules from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) mean last minute (and continuous) efforts to poach each other’s students is now standard operating procedure.  And, my personal favorite, we’ve become accreditation crazed, shelling out tens of thousands of dollars annually to say we are the best in business, education, nursing, art, social work or music… just like everyone else who can afford to do so. Our collective response to innovation, competition, reduced state support, and changing demographics has been to act like for-profit industries.  Oh dear.

So, now what?  It isn’t like we can afford to do nothing.  In the simplest of terms, there aren’t enough students to support all of the colleges and universities out there (particularly here in New England, but we aren’t alone).  At the same time, we cost too much for many of the families that need us most.  For the public systems, the taxpayers are no longer willing to bear anywhere near the full cost of our operations. For all of us the student loan system is broken. We have to do something, but is taking a corporate approach the right answer?  I don’t think so.

What if we were forced to start all over again? If we had the opportunity to design an education system from scratch, would it look like what we have today? With a blank slate, what might we come up with? Here are some considerations.

Question 1: Does the traditional four-year degree model still make sense?

We did not always think everyone should go to college. Even a high school education for all is relatively recent.  The increasing demand for advanced credentials has come from a variety of stimuli, including social justice, GI bills, and the world of work and invention.  The expansion of access to higher education was and is crucial for a society built on advanced technologies and socio-economic mobility.

Nevertheless, it is not necessarily true that the traditional path to and through post-secondary education meets that need.  That is why things like technology boot camps, and mega online universities are gaining traction in the education landscape.  So is the investment in high school programs that grant college credentials, and community college technology programs. This isn’t all bad, but for many of us, it is a limited approach to education.  But, it might be a good clue to what we should be thinking about.

Question 2: Does the going away to college model, with all of its attendant co-curricular supports, still make sense? 

When we first imagined higher education in the United States, it was a place to which students had to travel. Universities were a destination, and as such required an infrastructure to house, feed, and (eventually) amuse students. These services, and the attendant healthcare, mental healthcare, and co-curricular programming are a significant part of the cost of higher education.

Yet, the majority of students do not live on college campuses. In the US, about 73% of students attend public colleges and universities (Statista). Only 40% of those students live in dorms (The College Board). In addition, about 56% of students choose to attend colleges and universities within 50 miles from home, another 12% within 100. The tendency to attend a relatively local institution has risen consistently since 1990 when it was about only about 37% (Econofact Network) .  Much of this change is probably driven by economics.  Some of it is social, as we see trends of students living with their families longer both during and after college. Maybe we should take a hint from these patterns.

Question 3: Is it possible to structure education in away that truly meets the need for life-long learning?

Colleges and universities (and accrediting bodies) all assert that life-long learning is an essential outcome of an undergraduate education. Yet, we very much suggest that learning is complete upon graduation.  We hand out a diploma and call it a day.  We may be laying the foundation for learning, but we are also shutting off access to the things that support learning in very real ways.

Meanwhile, the need to keep pace with changing cultural and technological demands is persistent.  Whether we are discussing re-tooling for world of work because new technologies have emerged or jobs have disappeared, or we have to adjust to an increasingly diverse community and need to know a little bit more about how cultures interact, it is clear that life-long learning has never been more important. But this need for knowledge often emerges in contexts that one did not anticipate in school and then we are ready to learn.  Should we be considering structures that truly support life-long learning, by being available long after the first part is done?

As usual, there is so much more to think about.  What should the role of online education be? Why do we still entwine athletics with education? Should everyone have a gap year or two?  How should we re-structure the funding of higher education so that there is actual equity? Why are we spending so much on accreditation? And the list goes on.

It is a big project, when you think about starting from scratch.  It might be uncomfortable, because we may have to let go of some of our favorite things.  We may have to face the fact the tiers of access that we have built are unfair or insurmountable. We may have to acknowledge that our priorities need to be realigned. Nevertheless, it might be a better place to start than the for-profit priorities we’ve drifted toward in the recent decades. At least I hope so.

 

 

Evaluation, Higher Education

Outstanding Education?

Nearly twenty years ago, when my children were just getting started in elementary school, I attended a community meeting about the proposed school budget.  I live in a very small town (smaller now, with the regional demographic shifts), so such meetings were an important part of the democratic process. We came together to discuss the details of the budgets before heading to any votes.  At that time, I recall two dominant themes – what do we need to invest in to create a great educational experience and how do we keep the costs down so we do not price people out of our community.  These themes, of course, turned into questions about must haves vs. nice to haves.  Like any town, we had differing opinions about what that meant, but we generally came to some consensus, or at least voted to approve a budget.

Today, I am a member of that school board, and we are still having the same conversations. Our shrinking enrollments and aging tax base have made the conversations a little more strident, but it is still mostly good conversation.  We are spending our time trying to define quality educational experiences that will help our students thrive, without creating an overwhelming cost burden for the town. As I listen to the concerns of my neighbors, and try to keep us from speaking in the hyperbole that so easily divides, I find my mind turning to my job as provost.  We, too, are facing shrinking enrollments (the drop in K-12 enrollments has a necessary consequence in higher education) and a tax base concerned with their ability to support everything the state needs.  As the challenges have descended upon us, we have done a lot of speaking in hyperbole.  Perhaps, it is time to have some honest, if difficult, conversations.

Let’s start those conversations by asking ourselves to identify the necessary components of an outstanding undergraduate education.  No one sets providing mediocre education as a goal, of course, so we want to set the bar high.  However, we do not usually think carefully about what we mean by “outstanding” or how we might achieve it.  Instead, we wait for it to emerge from our offerings.

Because higher education is built on the idea that faculty expertise is our greatest resource, we have a habit of deferring to that expertise at all times.  Much of this habit is a good one.  It would be foolish to hire people who have deep expertise in their disciplines and then tell them what to teach.  No innovation will happen under those circumstances. So we try to create an environment that encourages faculty innovation and hope that this will help us discover excellence.

However, the result of too much deference to this expertise is generally curricular sprawl.  New options or concentrations or majors and courses pop up on a regular basis.  They reflect emerging interests or fields, or sometimes a momentary trend.  These additions to the curriculum are rarely accompanied by a reduction in other offerings, because, well there is a good argument to be made for any course or any major.  Frankly, good arguments are a specialty of higher education. The sprawl is fine until we see sustained dips in enrollment. Then we are faced with low-enrolled courses, degrees, or majors, and the removal process awaits.  We are not good at this part, so we try to avoid the question, or speak in the language of outrage, and try not to eliminate anything.

But, eliminate we must.  Enrollments have made the decision for us.  So has the proportion of our costs that states are willing to fund. The time for avoidance is over. However, we still want to rely on the insights of our faculty.  So, as we take these necessary steps, instead of starting the conversation with dollar figures, we should start by coming together to define the components of an outstanding undergraduate education.

There is a lot to consider, and it isn’t just the number of courses or majors. For example, we might want to look at how we have defined our degrees (BA vs. BS vs. BFA) and the proportion of each in our catalog.  Doing so might uncover a tendency toward more professionally oriented degrees (or the opposite), and reveal that for the students we serve and the faculty expertise we have, we see this as a priority.  At the same time, we might want to take a close look at the differences between options within a major and answer the question of whether that level of specialization really benefits our graduates. Perhaps some things could be a little less career focused.

Then there is the general education curriculum or liberal arts core.  What role is it playing in the overall vision of an outstanding undergraduate education?  Are students encountering varied ideas or are they mastering key skills or some combination of the two?  Is it organized developmentally? Does it support the major? We know we must provide general education, but have we set it up in a way that promises to support critical habits of mind in our graduates?

What pedagogies should we feature? Are there approaches to teaching that every student should experience? If so, how do we organize schedules to support those, pedagogies while keeping the balance of offerings in view?  Is it possible to design schedules around encounters with critical pedagogies, without privileging one approach?

Then there is that very tricky question: How will our graduates be different from the graduates of any other college or university? This is a difficult to answer, of course, because much of what is promised in higher education really is the same everywhere. We are all trying to support graduates who have a reasonable grasp of the world around them and the potential to thrive in an environment where change is a constant. Nevertheless, we have different students, different faculty, and different expertise. Surely, we have a unique point of view that can help shape the decisions we must make about what we offer.

If you read any news about higher education, you will encounter a long list of mergers, financial challenges, closures, and other worrisome trends.  No one in the northeast is immune (well, no one but Harvard and Yale).  It is a scary time, but I think, if we try to come to a consensus about the qualities of an outstanding undergraduate education, we might just start to see what the path forward could be.