John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education


April 12, 2017Julie HellerInsights0


Recently I was privileged to be part of a five-person author team to both have a book published and to do a presentation on the main ideas of this book as a “featured session” at the annual meeting of the Higher Learning Commission, our nation’s largest regional higher education accreditor, in Chicago, on April 1, 2017. No joke. Not about April Fool’s Day.

The book is The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most; Peter Felten, John Gardner, Leo Lambert, Charles Schroeder, and Betsy Barefoot; Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Our leaders for this project, Peter Felten and Leo Lambert, Professor of History and President, respectively, of Elon University, prepared questions for each of us authors to speak to in this session. I want to share below one of the questions that was directed to me and the answer that I prepared in advance to offer.

If the same question were put to you, I wonder what your response would be about “The Big Disconnects.”

John, our book is filled with example after example of uplifting good practices across a wide spectrum of institutions.  We know what constitutes good practice.  And yet we know hundreds of institutions are beset with shockingly low graduation rates, very poor retention rates, and are revolving doors of failure.  You have been in this business for more than forty years.  What are the big disconnects in American higher education?


  1. Colleges not designed for students we now have.
  2. Faculty rewards system not designed to reward/motivate what majority of students need most—more focus on teaching and availability to students.
  3. Students preferred learning styles not in sync with ways majority of faculty teach.
  4. Focus on retention has led to focus on the margins: not the heart of the academic experience, gateway courses, where we have the greatest number of student failures.
  5. Faculty are viewed as source/cause of many problems rather than the solution.
  6. Our values are the big disconnect: we have adopted larger societal corporate values and more of our thinking is about making money than making—-Students—learn, grow, change, aspire, and lead.
  7. Many of us are looking for the panacea, the silver bullet. There aren’t any.
  8. We are often looking outside the academy to companies to sell us what they call “solutions” usually involving expensive technology.
  9. We need to focus on what matters most—what you think on your campus, your unit—is most likely to achieve your institutional mission:







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