John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

How Would You Handle This Student Success Challenge?

John N. Gardner

Most of my colleagues who work in what is now called the “student success” field are well familiar with the challenges of trying to improve college student performance for recent high school graduates who are: 1) under prepared for college; 2) unmotivated (or so we think—at least towards academic work); 3) lacking in vocational purpose and direction; 4) immature; 5) economically disadvantaged; and 6) disproportionately male.

But what if you worked in a country where all of those factors were identical except the students’ socioeconomic status. Let’s say instead of being low or lower SES, they were of high SES, highly advantaged financially. They have no worries about financing college. It is free to all citizens of this country, totally free and depending where you are enrolled may also provide a stipend. And because you are high SES you already have a post college job promised that will assure you financial security for a lifetime.

In this country there are highly motivated and successful students, especially in disciplines like engineering, business, law (where law is an undergraduate major), and pharmacy. And they exist side by side with students who are identical in all respects except they are unmotivated towards their presence in university and its requirements. These students, most notably men, are described as having an overriding interest in very fast and expensive cars, which they already own. And the cost of fueling these machines is negligible.

This country is small. It has several highly valuable natural resources, which much of the rest of the world wants, needs, and purchases. There are only approximately 300,000 citizens in this country who have all the privileges, advantages and powers that a nation state can convey on its citizens. In this case those advantages include free education anywhere in the world, housing, utilities and other subsidies.

Approximately 1,700,000 people from all over the world come to this country for employment to perform the needed skills and labor that either the citizens are not professionally able to provide or do not wish to provide.

There is only one public university in this country. There is also a military institution funded by the government to prepare only men for service in the army. And this country is opening next year a college for those men who wish to become police officers. And a Texas community college (Houston Community College) operates the one community college in this country.

This fascinating, extremely important geopolitically, wealthy country is Qatar. It has the highest per capita wealth in the world. It has a construction boom unequaled in the developed world.

I have just visited there, with my wife, Dr. Betsy Barefoot, as part of my role as what my non-profit organization calls an “Institute Advisor” for Qatar University, which is a participant in our Foundations of Excellence process (FoE). FoE is a voluntary, comprehensive, institution-wide, self study of everything the institution does for its students in their first year. The goals of the FoE process are to: 1) produce an action plan to improve first-year student learning and retention; 2) execute that plan. Qatar University has done an outstanding job on developing such a plan and is now moving into the phases of executing that plan.

While I was on the campus I was asked repeatedly what I would do if I were there full time and charged with trying to address this problem of lack of motivation of Qatari male citizens. When I was asked this I first turned the question around on my questioner to find out what they were attempting to do; and then I would offer suggestions.

So there you are. This is a university that has an extraordinarily multi-national faculty and staff. About 20% are from the US and Canada; the remainder are from the Middle East, the UK, Europe and the Far East. As a US citizen you will be able to work abroad US tax free and QU will provide you with a generous salary.

Again, there you are. What would you do to motivate students with these characteristics? How would you do it?

I grappled with this intellectual challenge and still am in that process. But here are some of the options I considered:

  1. Make extensive use of outstanding undergraduate students as role models in every area of university life. We call such students “peer leaders”; and we know from 50 years of research in the US that the greatest influence on students is the influence of other students—and hence the argument to have our most outstanding students influencing the most impressionable students: entering students.
  2. Teach leadership and practice leadership. Embed the study of leadership in the curriculum in a new field known as leadership studies and simultaneously provide students co-curricular opportunities to practice leadership.
  3. Communicate with families: all traditional aged students live with their parents. The family influence in this society is huge (much greater than ours). Use a variety of mechanisms to reach out to families: orientation, parents day’s/weekends; family focused webpages; family newsletter, etc.
  4. Integrate military service into higher education. If the government could be persuaded, develop an a counterpart to the US concept of ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps, so students can simultaneously be given a experience that provides discipline and direction while simultaneously making normal progress towards a bachelors degree.
  5. Offer opening rituals and ceremonies in which it is stressed that it is in the nation’s interest for more of its citizens to become higher educated so not all the key jobs (other than governing itself) have to be outsourced.
  6. Offer a comprehensive student success course in which students are introduced to the purposes of a university (for motivation purposes) and the notion that pursuing university education status is a patriotic duty.
  7. Expose new and continuing students to outstanding younger alumni who can model the attitudes and self directed purpose we are trying to achieve in these new students.

Back to my original question: what would you do? How would that compare to what you are currently doing to increase motivation in students who are US citizens?

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