equity, Free Speech, Return on Investment

Surveys, Social Class, and Policy

In both Inside Higher EducationThe Public Support for (and Doubts About) Higher Education” and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s trend report “It’s a New Assault on the University” the results of large scale survey research tell a story of what are best described as mixed reviews of higher education.  In the Chronicle story, the emphasis is on how politicized the narratives about higher education have become, particularly around free speech.  In Inside Higher Education, the emphasis seems to be more on costs and return on investment. (I’ve simplified, so read them yourself for the full details).  Together, they reveal the problem of describing higher education as one thing, when it has become (and, perhaps has long been) many things.

This is what I mean. Much of the reporting on higher education focuses on a narrow, elite tier of schools.  In those environments, costs are very high, acceptance rates are low (read exclusive), and fights around free speech and safe spaces appear to be common.  These institutions are where we see “culture wars” dramatized (whether they are real or not is another thing).  If the people being polled about higher education are concerned that our campuses have a political bias, it is unsurprising, because that is what is being covered in the press.

Very little reporting focuses on regional public universities.  If attention is paid to us (and it rarely is), the focus is either on a Title IX scandal or, in some rare cases, on our outcomes.  Cost comes up, to be sure, and it should because state funding levels are shrinking, thus driving our tuition prices up. This does make families who choose us wonder about whether or not we are worth it.  But what we do and how we fit into higher education as a whole is rarely discussed in the media coverage of education.

For two year colleges, the focus is on jobs.  There are stories about re-tooling the labor force, focusing on high demand fields, like advanced manufacturing, and keeping tuition down for access. The free college movement, is largely focused on this part of the higher education matrix.  This part of the ecology of higher education is easily identified with social mobility and economic advantages, because there are direct job prospects for much of what is offered.  Any negative press would be around false promises for certificates, but this rarely happens at the public two year colleges.

There are more gradations, more distinctions between types of higher education, but you get the idea. Surveys that ask about higher education in general, that do not differentiate these layers of educational institutions yield complex and sometimes confusing results, that really don’t apply to all types. There is so much to unpack here, but I’d like to offer a perspective on all of this that rarely get’s discussed: What we have here is a social class problem.

We want to talk about higher education as one thing, because we don’t want to acknowledge the ways in which it replicates our social class structures. This is America, we don’t believe in social class. We believe in opportunity, and yes, education is the foundation of much of that opportunity. Higher education can be access to a better life (and the surveys do reveal that people still believe that, with caveats), but it also reinforces our social stratification.

So, let’s talk about jobs.  There are no students going to college who are not hoping to connect their educations to future careers.  At elite schools, the path to those careers are not necessarily linked to a particular major (although in many cases it is – pre-med, education, accounting, engineering, etc.), but more in the many experiences that students will have prior to and during their education.  They will have time for internships, they will be mentored by alumni, they will build interesting resumes by studying abroad or volunteering, and most of all, they will hang around with people who know the diversity of experiences that might be available after graduation, helping to shed light on those mysterious questions like “What does a project manager do?”

At community colleges, while some programs are designed for transfer to four year schools (reducing the cost of education for those students), many of the degrees are very direct job training.  Radiology technicians, network or help desk support, veterinary technicians, advanced manufacturing all come to mind.  In these schools, we are providing a great opportunity to improve economic security for students, and, when they are funded appropriately (read low or no cost to students) they embody the social mobility we have built our economic and cultural mythologies around.

At regional public universities like mine, our students also want to see the connections between their education and careers, but we offer the same blend of educational opportunities that the elite schools offer, but with fewer naturally occurring opportunities to network. So, we build career centers to try to bridge the gap between one-to-one degree to career connections, and the broader liberal arts experiences that we and the elite schools so value.

So when I ask a question about whether or not higher education is doing enough to prepare students for jobs, I’ve asked a really big and complicated question.  If we don’t tease out the difference between our missions and the ways in which we understand the very notion of job/career preparation, the answers will just be simplistic responses that play well in the press, but don’t help us figure out how to understand this issue in our colleges and universities. We then end up with simplistic measurements of our ability to provide a good “return on investment” in things like college score cards and policy proposals that are irrelevant to most higher education institutions.

But we do need good policies.  We do need to stop predatory practices that promise great outcomes while encouraging ridiculous amounts of debt.  We do need to attend how we fund higher education so that it can provide opportunities to achieve greater economic stability.  We do need to articulate how investing in higher education benefits our graduates in more concrete ways than we used to do, not just because of cost, but because our students want to know.  We do need to protect all campuses from undue political influence, but we also need to be honest about how pervasive those issues really are (or rather how limited those issues really are).

In other words, it’s complicated. We are not all one thing.  We serve different audiences and together we are complex higher education ecosystem. Let’s get honest about our differences and more specific in our surveys, so that our policies can be more effective and discussions of higher education can be more representative of the diversity of who we really are.

 

 

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.

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.

Dialogue, equity, Inclusion

Graven Images

SUNY New Paltz recently announced that they will be changing the names of the buildings in the Hasbrouck Complex.  While the buildings were once named for celebrated founders of the region, their status as slave owners has come to the university’s attention.  After a lot of community conversation and input, the College Council voted to rename these buildings.  The history is no longer something the community can ignore.

I grew up in that neighborhood and went to school with descendants of the families associated with the Hasbrouck Complex. I’m sure that they never thought about, or perhaps even knew about, this part of their family history.  They were like me, just kids going to school comfortable in the knowledge that slave ownership was something that happened elsewhere in the country.  Those days are gone.  While the scale of slavery was different in the north, and many of our ancestors fought on the winning side of the Civil War, our history is in no way pure.  I applaud the bravery of SUNY New Paltz in their tackling of this issue.

This has me thinking about all of the name changes and statue removals that have been occurring as the details of our histories become visible to us. Our understanding of discrimination, in all of its forms, has expanded every decade of my life.  While it is true that there have been enlightened people throughout history who have pointed out our hypocrisies and hideous behavior as they emerged, for the many, identifying the beliefs that have supported our bigotries has taken time. We discover our blind spots, we battle over their meaning, and slowly we change.

In my children’s school district, there is a tradition of studying the monuments in Washington, D.C. and then traveling there to see them in person.  I was a chaperone  on this trip (twice). As I hopped on and off of our tour bus, watching excited children see their monument (each had reconstructed and reported on one of them), it never occurred to me to see those monuments as vulnerable to new understandings of history.  They represented the celebrated leaders and conflicts that underpin our sense of America.  I should have thought about it as we traveled to Mt. Vernon to observe the home of one of our early slave-owning presidents, but I didn’t.  We weren’t in this moment yet.

What I did observe was the small museum tucked away under the Lincoln Memorial.  I wouldn’t have found it, we were focused on the steps and statue above, but two of my charges needed a rest-room.  As we poked around downstairs, I discovered a room full of protest memorabilia.  There it was, the waves of our awakenings to patterns of discrimination.  Marches for African-Americans, Women, LGBTQ, and more are remembered in this small room.  These histories are the moments that mark our readiness for change.  Much more has needed to follow those marches, but they are a record of our move from the enlightened few to movements for change.

As we go through the conversations that precede or accompany the re-naming of buildings or the taking down of statues, there is a sense of loss and conflict.  Some argue that these changes erase history.  I don’t agree.  These changes make the history more visible.  They require us to look more closely at the stories we are telling, and those we are not. Questioning our decisions about who we honor makes us more open to fullness of our histories.

Then there is the other protest… when will it end?  Are we just going to keep taking down names as we discover the faults in our heroes?  Probably.  It is unlikely that anyone we celebrate will be thought heroic forever.  Perhaps we should try to get  our minds around that.  Embracing our fallibility could make us more open to making the changes we need to make.

So, I’m thinking  about the Second Commandment.  The prohibition against graven images is frequently interpreted as a ban on idolatry.  It seems a good caution in today’s context.  We select our heroes at our peril, knowing that they will be fallible and may not bear close scrutiny over time.  Maybe we should avoid these homages to perceived importance and greatness completely.

I don’t think so.  We like heroes and it is important to celebrate greatness, even if our definitions of greatness change over time.  Indeed, we have to make room for the  heroes that emerge as we change, making room for the new values and achievements they represent. But we are going to have to let go of the sense of permanence that accompanies our monuments.  They reflect a moment in time: they are not forever, no matter how massive our tribute.

As for the names of our buildings, I think we should consider the meaning of the word “graven” in the 2nd Commandment. It is frequently translated as etching, and that something that is difficult to erase.  Perhaps, in the spirit of our openness to change, we should stop the etching and move to plaques. They’re much more easily moved.

 

 

 

Innovative Pedagogies

Differentiated Instruction

In the K-12 world, there is a great deal of focus on differentiation of instruction.  Teacher education programs are grappling with ways to support the diverse needs of their students, understanding that what makes perfect sense to one, may be baffling to another.  This expectation is the essence of moving from teacher/content centered to student/learning centered education.

Now this is no small task.  Already charged with knowing something about everything (just look at an elementary education program and you’ll see what I mean), the teacher must also be comfortable enough with the material to present it in many different ways.  Take, for example, my own children. One  of them seemed to have been born with an intuitive knowledge of phonetics.  One small explanation of how they work and it was clear Alex would master reading  quickly.  Michael, not so much.  Phonetics made no sense until many years after he had begun to read.  Reading came to Michael at a  different pace and different strategies were needed. It was also important to ignore arbitrary deadlines about what Michael should do when. That’s just two folks.  Think of figuring that out for 15-30 students.

But this differentiation isn’t just needed in K-12.  We need to grapple with what it means in higher ed.

We’ve made some adjustments in terms of students who may have some gaps  in their reading  and math skills.  At WCSU we  have what we call P courses. These are courses are assigned an extra credit hour and in-class tutoring to help students meet the learning outcomes.  The structure acknowledges that students who do not place into Writing 101 or Math 110 can reach a the outcomes expected in those courses if we adjust our  teaching strategies.

Now, the extra credit buys the time, but it also directs our attention to the way we organize curriculum.  The co-requisite or embedded remediation approach encourages us to think about filling in particular gaps in knowledge instead of requiring a one-size fits all preparatory course.  In the case of writing, that might mean the student just needs some help with a particular grammatical construct (often true for the many students at WCSU for whom English is not a first language). In the case of math, it may be that a few foundational pieces of algebra need to be reviewed, instead of an entire course.  This is helping our students not get stuck in the remediation loop, never progressing to their college curriculum.  It also honors what they do know, instead of designing entire courses as if they know nothing at all.

This targeted (perhaps adaptive) learning offers a good start to a conversation about differentiated instruction.  But it is important not to think that computer generated adaptations are all that is needed. I recall my own experience of taking statistics.  I enrolled in an online course to add the skills that statistical research can give to my qualitative inquiry repertoire.  I was an adult with a PhD.  I knew how to take courses and how to study.  I passed college math a long time before that so I was probably rusty on some fundamentals, but I thought I could learn as I went along.

Unfortunately, this online course had no interaction in it.  There was a book, a set of exercises, several exams and that was all.  Well, there was a concept that eluded me.  I needed a different approach, an alternate explanation, a new way of looking at the concept.  I got none of this, just instruction to re-read the passage in the text and try the exercises again. This is the pedagogical equivalent of speaking louder and more slowly to a person who doesn’t speak your language.  Some instructional differentiation was in order and it needed to be from someone who could hear what was troubling me so that the adaptation was more targeted to me. I passed the class, but I never understood the concept.

Math may be the most advanced discipline in terms of developing adaptive tools to support differentiated paths through a curriculum.  Unfortunately, the tools are frequently seen as a substitute for the human interaction that the professor brings.  Leaving students alone with the tools is likely to leave them passing a course but not necessarily understanding the material. We need to be looking at these tools together with the instruction.  Yes, modify the questions for the level of the student, but also modify the interactions between student and teacher.

What I’m trying to say is that it is time to be truly learner-centered, modifying and adjusting our explanations and exercises until we meet the needs of everyone in the room.  Instead of arguing about the importance of the credit hour, we should be arguing about how to best achieve relative mastery of a concept and then think about the time necessary to do it.  Instead of arguing about competencies, we should be looking more closely at what we need to do to move students from foundational skills to higher order  thinking and what practice they need to get to that point.  Instead of trying to determine what “regular and substantive interaction between students and faculty” should be, we should by trying to imagine how to create enough freedom in our scheduling and curricular constructs for students and faculty to rely on each other as needed. And yes, we need to discuss outcomes, but those outcome should not be kept at the foundational skill level.  They must contain a true understanding that comes from the holistic experience of education.

In other words, as we engage with the higher education landscape and the perceived threats to academic integrity, we should not get distracted with what was, but instead plan for what should be.  It is clear to me that the faculty-student relationship is still at the heart of this enterprise.  But it is also clear that the way in which learning unfolds has to shift. This is hard work, and it will require us to re-imagine all that we do at the university.  Like our K-12 counterparts, we’re going to have to think about systematic differentiation of instruction. But just think how satisfying it will be to know that we’ve done that hard thinking and we’re finding new ways to teach the students we have, not the ones we imagine.