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.

Moving from “Access” to “Success”: Just What Exactly Does That Mean?

John N. Gardner

Fairly recently there has been an important shift in the language of open access institutions, which have long lived by the mantra that “access” was their ultimate goal. As a reaction in part to the criticisms on developmental education, and moreover, on high failure rates, low degree completion and transfer rates in the community college, a new mantra has emerged: open access institutions are now focusing on “success.” Does this mean that they are giving up their emphasis on “access”? No, not at all. So what does this mean? Can we have our cake and eat it too?

I think the focus on success means this:

That we don’t give up access

That access remains a core societal mission connected to social justice and upward social mobility

That we switch from equating our success as a measure of gross enrollments to the outcomes we achieve for our students

This means that the number one status metric must no longer be growth (how un-American)

That we become willing to pay an initial short-term institutional revenue price for a transition to success

That the ultimate criteria for decision making becomes not what drives enrollment but what are effective educational practices

That we stop viewing requirements as “barriers” to access

That we make mandatory as many high impact practices” as possible

That we develop new mantras. This means ending once and for all “look to your left and look to your right”

It means ending academic social Darwinism

It means taking more institutional responsibility for student learning instead of blaming the students for their failures. This is not the same as absolving them from responsibility

It means a focus on student success after matriculation as opposed to the various “success” measures of students in high school. In other words, the focus will be more on what we do for students after they enter college than simply recruiting students who are already advantaged to succeed

It means, as my friend Kay McClenney says so correctly: “students don’t do optional”—we must move from offering a smorgasboard of elective experiences to offering a menu of required experiences that increase the probability of academic success

It means not practicing negative self-fulfilling prophecies like: “Oh, our students would never do that because they are….”

Our language really does make a difference. People are led by the language of their leaders. This talk about a focus on “success” is encouraging. But now I am waiting to see if the leaders who are talking this talk will change the educational practices of their institutions to be consistent with this new mantra. Institutions focused on success really do behave differently than those focused only or primarily on access. We’ll see….

Digging a little deeper: Campus initiatives beyond the first year

Betsy O. Barefoot
Vice President & Senior Scholar

This past fall the Gardner Institute conducted a new national survey to attempt to gather information about seven student success initiatives (summer bridge programs, early warning/early alert systems, pre-term orientation, special seminars, learning communities, service learning, and undergraduate research) that span the four years of undergraduate education. Yes, students do have issues even after the first year! What we learned was in some ways surprising, in some ways not surprising, and, as is the case for most surveys, left us with more questions than answers.

So what did we learn? First, we were reminded that the first year continues to be the primary focus for programs that support student learning and progression. While the sophomore and even the junior year are time periods for some forms of structured support (e.g., special seminars and learning communities), the first year continues to trump in all those categories. The “other” first-year students—transfers—receive uneven support from both public and private sectors in spite of the fact that about 62% percent of today’s students have transferred at some point in their collegiate career. We also learned that institutions—both public and private—really like their honors students! More special initiatives, especially first-year seminars and learning communities, for honors populations are now being designed than in previous years.

We also learned that there is significant disparity between student support provided by public versus private colleges or universities. Often, it’s the private sector that is doing more—more structured programs, more “required” participation, more follow up in the form of early alert initiatives, more attention to pre-term orientation. And orientation at a private college or university is more likely to be free – more public institutions report charging extra fees for orientation than do the privates.

Not surprising was the continued focus on retention. Institutions hope that every dollar they spend on student support will yield retention improvements. And while some initiatives should yield a retention payoff (e.g., summer bridge, early warning, first-year seminars), others (e.g., undergraduate research, service learning) are far more effective at changing the way students learn than they are at guaranteeing improved retention.

We were surprised that institutions often continue to do what they do in the absence of research that demonstrates effectiveness. For the seven initiatives under investigation, anywhere from 30 to 40 percentage of respondents indicated they “didn’t know” whether the initiative in question was achieving its stated objectives, often because of an absence of research.

But even though participants weren’t sure about outcomes, more of them were sure that programs were “cost-effective” – that is, that the money expended was being put to good use. Whether these opinions are based on “running the numbers” is an open question. Some educators are frightened to ask the question that legislators and trustees are asking: “Is (fill in the blank) worth the money that we’re spending on it?” Of course, we recognize that all benefits can’t be measured in dollars, but these tough times and public scrutiny will demand that we not only believe what we’re doing is cost effective, but that we also have the data to prove it.

To see an initial data summary for this survey go to

15 Triggers for Discussion

Recently a special colleague of mine who was organizing the First Annual Conference on Student Success held at the University of Massachusetts, about which I wrote recently, asked me to provide a talk but in a new and very challenging context for me: with a very strict time limit. The idea was I was to have only fifteen minutes. And further, I was to present catalysts, “triggers” for interaction, conversation to follow.

So I had to ask myself what I could say very concisely that reflected ideas/topics I was thinking about, working on in my professional life. This turned out to be an interesting exercise for me to construct such a list. And I recommend that you consider doing the same. You could even shorten the list. What are the ten (or five or fifteen) big ideas that you are focusing on in your work; or that you think your institution should be focusing on. As an illustration, here is my list that I recently offered. I am sure that this would change on any given occasion that I might be given this opportunity. Your list also should always be dynamic. I invite you to compare yours with mine. Here goes:

Fifteen Minutes: Fifteen Triggers for a Dialogue on Improving Student Success
1. It all comes down to your values: The first-year matters!
2. And, yes, there is a sophomore slump!
3. The transfer student experience has become normative; transfer students are a cohort about which little is understood and towards which much prejudice is directed.
4. The Senior Year Experience is needed too! Some students are never over the hump.
5. Where does your campus stand with respect to offering the three most validated retention generating interventions: first-year seminars, learning communities, and Supplemental Instruction?
6. What is needed is “challenge and support,” and more of each! Engagement is all about raising expectations and achieving greater time on task.
7. All students are “developmental.” All are at risk. We must improve the status of “developmental education.”
8. What’s wrong with this picture? We search for the holy grail of retention, even though it is merely a minimum standard.
9. In contrast: pursuit of educational excellence and the need for aspirational standards.
10. Want to improve retention? The latest powerfully documented intervention – the latest big idea: you need a plan. And then you need to implement the plan to a high degree (yielding 8.2% increase in retention). “Programs” are necessary but not sufficient. We have to transcend mere “programs” and make these plans part of the overall vision, part of the institutional strategic plan.
11. Re-examine policies that at one time made eminent good sense but now may have outlived their usefulness: “Waiting for Napoleon” as an illustration of the need to do a “policy audit” and for focusing on what you can control
12. You have to have a manageable focus for improvement efforts. Try the five highest enrollment courses with parallel redesign for high DWFI rate courses
13. Show me your list of institutional standing committees and I will know what you value. Each campus needs a standing group to advocate for first-year students.
14. Go after the “low hanging fruit.”
15. One person can make a huge difference

-John N. Gardner