John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Looking Ahead to 2014

John N. Gardner

It seems to make sense to be thinking about and looking ahead to 2014 seeing as it has already arrived!

Naturally, I want to be positive about what lies ahead this year, professionally and personally. And I want to be mindful about some of the things that I know or think are going to happen or may happen so that I can plan in advance how to respond to them.

Not that I intend to be simply reacting to these coming events, needs, issues, but also how might I influence or even shape some of them.

First of all, the big picture: what’s going to be going on at the national level and how might that affect the aspects of higher education in which I and my non-profit organization are engaged.

Here at the opening of the new year, most of the economic indicators look positive. This suggests that some of our states will have the resources to increase public expenditures for higher education, if they have the political values and will to do so. Some of our states will have the resources but not the will. I live in one of those states.

This is a mid-term Congressional election year. So nothing big in terms of public policy may get done, except perhaps some action on immigration policy. That could be very significant for the slow but steady march to bring in more undocumented immigrants into the higher education opportunity stream.

The Obama Administration will release some form of new metrics for communicating to the public indicators of value added by colleges and universities. Surely, retention and graduation rates are going to become even more prominent in this paradigm. This will further up the ante in the arms race to increase student retention. That certainly has implications for my work as more and more college administrators will be feeling greater heat to get their numbers up.

Some of these colleagues of mine are already near desperation on this issue. And this will be only be exacerbated. This will lead to even more attention to the search for the holy grail of retention.

Even though there is no magic bullet, corporate partners will be offering us more of them; and surely the use of analytics to measure, predict, and intervene with students will increase.

The last year’s end saw increasing skepticism about the role and value of MOOCS, but surely they aren’t going to go away. They will be reconsidered and retooled and more high touch, real-time human interaction components will be added.

Late in the year more attention was also being shown towards private colleges taking the plunge, the gamble, that lowering their sticker prices and therefore tuition discounts, would bring in more students. Yes, the pressure on us to limit or reduce costs will not abate. Personally, I am skeptical that the price cutting is going to go very far. It’s very hard to get your prices back up again once you lower them and that thought is sufficiently sobering to limit this movement.

Will the increasing political focus on the left about income inequality be able to gain enough traction to lead to any state or Congressional action to lessen the cost burden for higher education on the poor and even the middle class? In the current national politicized environment, where one party is waging a war against the poor, I do not forsee any major advances in policies in making college more affordable. Any exceptions to this will be in solidly blue states.

I can hope though that the increasing attention towards inequality may drive some individual campus based discussions and policy changes that might result in increased attention and resources for initiatives for the educationally and financially disadvantaged. If that hope is borne out, that would certainly be good for the kind of work I have devoted my life to in improving the beginning college experience.

Until or unless the Tea Party is thoroughly rejected in the next upcoming two elections, Congressional in 2014 and Presidential in 2016, I think “collaboration” and “deal making” will remain dirty words and will scare off those needed to try to collaborate on the restoration of higher ed as a public good.

In my own work, I will be placing even greater emphasis on reorienting the thinking of the academy to what is the ‘real’ “first-year experience.” As the originator of that concept, I have seen multiple meanings develop in its name but usually to central thrust of the work to improve success of first-year students has not been in the domain of the college experience where they have the highest failure rates: gateway courses. So I and my colleagues in our Institute will be trying to further ratchet up a clarion call that the academy needs to be paying much more attention to gateway courses.

Towards that end, we will:

  1. Continue our work with the 13 pilot institutions in Gateways to Completion ® (G2C ®) now in their first of three years participation in this initiative to improve student performance in high failure rate gateway courses.
  2. Recruit a new, our second, cohort of colleges and universities to participate in the ongoing development and refinement of G2C
  3. Host our second annual Conference on the Gateway Course Experience, in Indianapolis, March 23-25:

In addition, in this new year we will:

  1. Continue our work in convening institutional teams of senior academic and students affairs leaders to design action plans to implement a collaborative project to improve student success. Personally, I hope some of these teams will have a focus in some way that included gateway courses. Our next convening of such teams will be at a conference in Orlando very, very shortly, January 16-17:
  2. Continue to offer and refine our non-profit organization’s long term, signature first-year retention improvement initiative: Foundations of Excellence ®. We gather educators who are participating in, have participated in, and/or who are considering participation in Foundations of Excellence at our FoE Annual Winter Meeting in San Diego, February 14:

The organization I work in is now in its 15th year. For the first 8 years of our existence we were fully and then partially funded by foundation grants. Since 2008 we have operated entirely on revenues derived by providing services to our higher education community, as members and products of that community—in distinction to the many for-profit corporations selling services to address many of the same challenges we provide assistance on. As many have discovered before me, I have found it a challenging proposition to operate a small, non-profit organization, particularly in the most significant downturn of the US economy since the Great Depression. Nevertheless, as I start the new year with my colleagues in our Institute, I find we are in the strongest position ever, even without foundation funding. But this is no signal that we are about to sit back on our laurels and for the first time in my career to become complacent!

In that spirit then very specifically, one of the things we are resolved to develop and provide this year for our fellow academics, who strive to improve student success, is a new process that will enable us finally to provide our services to the smaller, and/or less well off colleges and universities that may have wanted to work with us before but not been able to find the resources to do so. We have now in development a new campus based intervention process that will come in at a cost and price point significantly less than anything we have offered in the previous 14 years, with the exception of the period when we could offer all our services gratis because we were fortunate to have foundation funding. I keep reminding myself that the purpose of that funding was to move this unique organization to the point of long term self-sustainability, which we have certainly achieved. We will have a public announcement and roll out of our new service in February.

Taking a more personal but still professional look at the year ahead, it will be one of major transition for me because my closest colleague and professional partner, and spouse, Dr. Betsy Barefoot, will be retiring from our organization half way through this new year. Betsy and I met “at work” and we have worked together since 1988. This will be a big adjustment for me,  as dependent as I am on my extraordinarily capable wife—but a much easier adjustment for Betsy. While she will be relinquishing most of her duties in our Institute, she will remain our Senior Scholar, and will continue her scholarly work that continues to strike her fancy.

On a totally personal note, Betsy and I have some good vacations planned to: New Zealand; the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina; New England; and the Outer Banks. We will have a special celebration for Betsy’s retirement (really a grand party on our mountain top in western North Carolina), this summer. And we look forward to our traditional summer visits from grandchildren who come to savor the wonderful experience of “camp”—both the official/traditional camp experience in Brevard, and also Camp Barefoot/Gardner in our home.

I lucked into higher education by being ordered by my squadron commander in the US Air Force to perform “public service” by doing adjunct college teaching for the University of South Carolina, some 47 years ago this coming week. I will never forget that life-changing day, and am thankful to be able to look forward to another year of this incredibly gratifying work and friendships with the kind of outstanding people who are readers, occasionally or regularly, of this blog.

I wish you a Happy New Year.

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