John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Fall Ahead 2014

September 2, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

No matter how long we academics have been at it, even for the most jaded of us (I do not include myself in that category), there is just nothing like the fall. We get “up” again. We are ready to go again. Our enthusiasm, openness, readiness to try new things peaks again.

We look forward to seeing colleagues who even three to four months ago we were sick of and couldn’t wait to get away from.  Some of us have returned from the summer hiatus. Some of us never left. We look forward to the exchange of “intelligence”, which some would call gossip.

We have come back curious to see what surprises “the Administration” has in store for us. We know that the administration always makes its big moves when the faculty and students are away! Each year the students look a little bit younger to us even though some of us lie and tell them they got older and we didn’t.

The first-year students have returned and are delighted they are no longer first-year students anymore (for those that aren’t). The reality is that many of them are not over the hump yet. They don’t know why the Greeks meant “wise fools” by the term “sophomores.” “Experts” like me who have written about sophomores say that if only we can help them develop a sense of purpose during their second year we can significantly increase their probability of finishing their degrees.

And the first-year students arrive and there is just nothing like them. We eagerly await the official fall “count” day to see how our numbers came out. And we get another chance to do the things that will make more students successful, if only we have the will and the intentionality.

And for those of us who care to look and are able to notice, we will also be joined by transfer students whose route to a bachelors degree is now the normative one, being pursued by more than 60% of BA degree seeking students. Too bad they are so invisible, so neglected. One of these days they will achieved the status and the attention they deserve, like first-year students of 30 years go. I’m working on that.

We are so fortunate to be members of such an optimistic community that renews itself annually with a new burst of hope, optimism, and reaffirmation of our core purposes. Each fall we can again benchmark the progress of our lives and careers.  Each fall we get to once again start anew. We can almost become a tabula rasa. What other professions grant such a privilege for regular renewal and even redemption?

Some of us return to join the excitement of the ritualized violence, sexism, commercialism, and exploitation (of the male football players and the female cheerleaders) we know as football. Not me. I don’t worry at all about America converting its higher education system to on-line for profit providers. If we did that how could we produce the gladiators our civilization thrives upon? There are few things I am sure of but I am sure we are never going to give up our love affair with them. They are a metaphor for who we are, how we work, how we live.

And this fall in particular in the “student success” field, I predict community college enrollments again will be down, as the economy continues to generate more jobs, which many of our less well off students seek in lieu of going to college. The private college enrollment picture is probably going to be mixed. And in the public regional university sector, no matter what the enrollments, the academic economy will not have recovered, in contrast to the rest of the economy, due to the punishment public higher education is taking in the approximately 30 red states where the party in power is punishing higher education with draconian cuts. Bottom line overall: the economy is recovering; we are not.

This fall ahead, and the year ahead, we await the release of the Obama administration’s release of its anticipated report card, which will include new metrics for judging college quality. Actually, these metrics are not really expected to be “new”; rather they will make even more important the importance of retention and graduation rates, employment rates, starting salaries, etc. All this will further burnish the reputation of the most elite tiers of our system, which educate the smallest proportion of our neediest students. In turn this will further ratchet up the pressure in my field on retention. This looks like job security to me.

And who knows what surprises we may have in store?  What difference to us will it make if the Senate changes hands? If an African student is diagnosed with Ebola on a US campus? Will ROTC enrollments spike due to student anger at the beheading of a former Wall Street Journal reporter by the new terrorist group ISIS? One thing I am sure of: there will be surprises, but ones that were predictable.

One other thing I am sure of is that more student success educators than ever will be looking for technological solutions to the challenges I have been facing for the past forty years. To the extent these new solutions will help, it will be due to its combination with good counsel and intentionality in doing what we have long known what needs to be done.

None of my own concerns for any of our challenges diminishes my enthusiasm for the return of a new academic year. I wish you well in yours.

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