John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Checking In With Students

John N. Gardner

It’s important to check in with students on a regular basis. Given the pace of their change, we can get out of touch very fast. I have reflected on the fact that some of the higher education leaders that have the greatest impact on students through their policy making authority and other forms of influence may rarely actually talk to students.

Decades ago, I taught Sociology 101. And one of the core introductory topics was that of social stratification. I remember having my students read a case study on “student nurses.” One of the points of this reading was that many college students chose a major because of preconceptions about a professional occupation, in this case, nursing, thinking that it was going to be all about “helping people.” But they quickly have to learn that in college it’s all about the sciences. If you can’t hack it in the sciences, you aren’t going to get your degree. And then if they do earn a degree they have to learn that the paths to professional advancement take them further and further away from the people they initially wanted to help in the practice of nursing. That is to say they end up supervising others who are less well educated and may actually have little or no direct patient contact. The same parallels can be drawn with many other professions, including my own: higher education administration, change, and continuous improvement.

So, in my current role in higher education where I do strategic planning with colleges and universities to help them improve their performance with new and transfer students, I am no longer part of a single institution and thus do not have access to my own students. For me, that has been a very difficult adjustment, a form of withdrawal. Being the student-focused junkie that I am then, I have had to develop some counterbalancing strategies. One of them is asking my hosts for any campus I visit, often one a week, to arrange for me at least one session with students. This isn’t ideal but it is much better than no student contact at all.

A few weeks ago I was on the campus of York College of City University of New York. York is a four-year, regional university, non-residential and very diverse. Very inspiring.  I met with four students who were all members of a co-curricular student organization, the National Society of Leadership and Success, about which I had known nothing before this visit.

But in talking to these students, it quickly became apparent to me that it was the most meaningful thing they had done in college. These students were at different levels, first-year, sophomore, junior, and senior.  One had transferred in from a SUNY community college. They were pursuing different majors. Two were male, two female. None of them were WASP’s like me. But it struck me that all of them were having experiences in this group that were common, including:

  • Very positive interaction with the faculty advisor, whom they mentioned frequently by name and with respect and affection. This professor has responsibility for the campus radio station.
  • The aspiration, no matter what their ultimate occupation, to “give back” to their communities.
  • A keener understanding of what exactly their “community” is, its needs and importance.
  • A strong inclination to perform some form(s) of public service.
  • The importance of developing “character”, and staying true to that character.
  • A variety of success oriented activities that led them to practice reflection about the course of their lives.
  • A set of experiences that had led them to take greater control of their lives.
  • A commitment to sustain the group and provide support for their fellow students to persist in college.
  • An achieved comfort level in interacting with higher education faculty and staff.
  • The development of interpersonal communication and assertiveness skills that further facilitated the self esteem and comfort level necessary to interact with University officials; things like a good handshake and eye contact.
  •  The realization that becoming successful as a college student means striving for more than being “popular”.

As I interacted with these students I remembered that during the quarter century that I directed the University 101 first-year seminar at the University of South Carolina, many of the instructors, including me, would have as a course requirement, that the students were to join something—any group as long as it was sanctioned by the University and was engaging in legal behavior. We were aware of the research correlating group affiliation and college persistence and we wanted to intentionally bring about these outcomes. My visit to York was a much more recent example of the power of group affiliation and the importance of encouraging/facilitating students joining such groups. Several of the students made reference to a Student Affairs officer who had told them about or literally had led them to join the group. What a hugely influential role that is.  Most of us could be doing exactly this for our students.

And this reminded me once again: during the college years, the greatest influence on students is the influence of other students. That is far too important for us to leave that to chance.

Thank you, York College, for the reminder and illustration.

Everybody Gets It: The Completion Agenda

John N. Gardner

This posting is inspired by something I have started doing in the autumn of my career—going to an annual meeting for Presidents. After all, I am a president of a non-profit organization that serves American higher education and this means that many of the people my Institute staff colleagues and I are serving are presidents and chancellors.

The meeting in particular is higher education’s oldest gathering for its senior leaders, the annual meeting of The American Council on Education. This is the academy’s most senior policy advocacy stakeholder group.

And this year’s annual meeting was all about The Completion Agenda: the intense focus on increasing graduation and completion rates. Everybody seemed to get the importance of this, all except I suppose the elites for whom this has never been a problem. The idea of this being  the preoccupying focus of any meeting when I started my work on “the freshman year experience” back in the 1970’s would have been unthinkable. So I tell myself that even though my country is retreating from most components of the social justice agenda, that it least it is focused on the completion agenda. And I am thankful for that.

But does everybody get it? Well, of course not. The senior leaders get it. But there are many in the academy that are not invested in this issue. And who might they be?

Well, they are the faculty and staff in institutions that are experiencing very rapid growth rates seemingly no matter what the state of student success practices. When the students keep coming no matter what we do, it is understandable that some of us educators don’t really have to buy into the completion agenda.

And then there is the professoriate. Many of us still think in these ways, understandably I could argue:

  1. What is all this fuss about? Many of today’s students do not belong in college. They lack the requisite levels of maturity and academic preparation, and focus, too.
  2. I don’t really understand why retention/completion is any of my responsibility. Instead, it’s the responsibility of parents, families, and the admissions officers who should be recruiting me better students. And it definitely is the responsibility of the students themselves.
  3.  All this talk about retention is really the substitution of a business model for an educational paradigm for what we should be doing in higher education. This counting of students for revenue purposes is just one more insidious example of the corporatization of the academy and I am not having any of it.
  4. This talk about retention and completion: completion for what? The discussion totally misses the purposes of higher education to which I have dedicated my whole professional life.
  5. This focus on retention/completion is just one further example of the dumbing down of the academy. And I am not having any part of it.
  6. Retention is an absolute minimum standard for students. It says nothing about what they are learning; what they can do; what value we have added. Surely we can have a more substantive conversation and resulting set of goals for higher education than this minimalist approach.
  7. The question shouldn’t be “what can/should we do to retain more students?” It should be: “What can we do to increase student learning?” Or “What would we have to do to create an excellent first year of college? If we did that, we could greatly increase our retention!”

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not blaming my faculty colleagues for not getting on the completion agenda bandwagon. They have thoughtful objections concerns about this focus and must be heard. If we don’t address these ways of looking at our completion agenda challenges we can never be more successful. I understand why many of my colleagues view this student success work in these lights. This is a challenge I embrace. Long live academic freedom so that all of us are more explicit, honest and purposeful about the purposes of higher education. We must constructively address these skeptics about the merits of the completion agenda.

Never Enough Opportunities to Teach Leadership

Very early in my career, thanks to a visionary president at the University of South Carolina, I had the opportunity to help design a course, University 101, for which one of the goals was to teach students how to “survive” the University. And I realized in this design process that I had learned a tremendous amount from my US Air Force experience about how to teach someone to “survive” a stressful, important, new, challenging experience. Beyond that, I came to realize you could teach human beings how to do just about anything if you were intentional about it. But you had to believe that it could be taught, and that people would want to learn it and be able to do so. And so we found that we could teach students to not only “survive” but to flourish in this new, to them, university environment and that students truly wanted to learn this.

It was some years later that I realized that the most important purpose of America’s colleges and universities was to produce our country’s and communities’ leaders. And I discovered a field called “Leadership Studies” which is now a widely recognized academic discipline offering undergraduate cognates, minors, majors towards bachelors degrees and graduate degrees too. In fact, this is one discipline that my alma mater, Marietta College, in Marietta, Ohio truly excels in offering as one of its niche elements. And, just as I did early in my career, I have learned both that leadership can be taught, and that students want to learn to understand and to practice it. I was reminded of that this week.

Specifically, I was invited to provide two sessions for a local Rotary Club Leadership Camp held in Brevard, North Carolina this week. I had the privilege and fun of talking with about 60 campers who were rising eleventh and twelfth grade high school students drawn from the western North Carolina mountains region where I have the good fortune to live.

In these two sessions I was reminded that:
1. Female students will disproportionately volunteer for such educational experiences as opposed to male students.
2. Female students congregated near the “front” of the class, males disproportionately to the “rear”.
3. Female students engaged in a higher level of voluntary verbal participation.
4. The adult Rotarians present as “counselors”, local Rotary leaders, were disproportionately male. But that’s because they were all of an age and generation when men overpopulated US colleges and universities.
5. Today’s students really are interested in learning about leadership.
6. They want to become leaders and they “get it” that college is a major proving ground for leaders.
7. And at this point in their secondary school education they really don’t know much about what leadership is or how to intentionally learn how to practice it.

I was reminded that it would be a good thing if all of us higher educators spoke and directed ourselves more often to this overarching societal objective. This really is “relevant” and “relevance” enhances student engagement which leads to so many other positive student outcomes. Really our work does or should all come down to producing more leaders for our society. We all have a stake in this. We all have a contribution to make. I am really glad I spent about 2.5 hours with these campers. There has to be a Rotary Club near you doing something like this. Do check it out. We shouldn’t leave this entirely to the Rotarians, although I greatly admire their initiative.

-John N. Gardner