John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

These are The Times That Try Men’s (and Women’s) Souls

October 25, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

That was my conclusion after departing from the “Students in Transition” conference hosted and organized by the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

This meeting had approximately 350 attendees from 160 institutions, 3 countries and 34 US states. The participants were a mix of faculty, academic administrators, student affairs officers, and a handful of students. While there was a range of ranks and roles represented, I would characterize this group as being predominantly either relatively new to higher education as a profession, or having a relatively lower level administrative/staff position. The practical implication of this generalization is that the overwhelming majority of attendees had direct contact with undergraduate students, and get to know them very well. The attendees also have direct contact with their supervisors who are more likely to interact with more senior leaders on the campus and feel various pressures and forms of accountability being passed down the chain.

I have attended these conferences for 20 years since I started the first one in 1995. And I have attended all the companion “First-Year Experience” conferences since the first one of that series in 1982. Over 70,000 educators have attended these meetings. And I have been in a position at all of these meetings to have professionally intimate conversations to give me a clear sense of the pulse of the times.

I found the pulse of the times this year putting these front line student support educators under more pressure than ever to “retain” students; in turn this is leading many to have serious reservations, morally, educationally, philosophically, educationally, and spiritually, about what they are being expected to do to retain students. They describe institutional leaders and senior supervisors as being “obsessed by retention.” These educators are also questioning more than ever what is the purpose of college and what are the most important purposes of their own institution.

I can rarely ever say anything in a word. But this year at record levels, it all came down to one word: money. These educators are being asked to do more and more to simply generate revenue for the institution. And this is causing much dissonance, angst, and incongruence.

Policies are being reexamined to enable students to stay in college longer before being suspended. The longer they stay, the more they pay, even if they have to repay the loans they will be no better equipped to repay.

One participant announced “Developmental Education is dead!” This was a reference to the mounting political pressure in many states to curtail or eliminate developmental education. This action, particularly in the state of Florida where students can no longer be mandatorily placed in developmental education is deeply troubling to many of these front line colleagues. They fear that without some form of developmental/compensatory education that more entering students will be doomed to failure.

Frequently cited are the incidences of students who really are not motivated to do what students need to do to be successful. They are in college because it is socially expected or is preferable to low wage jobs for high school graduates, if they can be found. And there are the widespread experiences with students described as truly “immature,” particularly males. I encountered many who really wanted to level with such students and recommend they stop/drop out. But they do not dare due this because of the pressure to retain students.

And there are the students who are interested in transferring to some other institution for some major not found at their current institution. Instead of supporting that, the pressure is to urge the student to defer, earn more hours and then transfer, and to obtain career counseling to validate the wisdom of pursuing the major not found at the current school.

And there are the students who just feel overwhelmed by the pressures of family responsibilities, their jobs, their academic responsibilities, and their interest in having a life outside college and work. What is a front line educator to do when such a student comes in for advice about switching from full-time study, financed by student loan debt obligations, to part-time, pay as you go higher education. Yes, we know the research findings: students who go full-time and borrow money to do so are more likely to complete. But what are we to say to such troubled students for whom the fear of this mounting debt is coupled with anxiety about being able to find a decent job after completing a degree. Many report they feel compelled to advise what is in the institution’s best interests financially, regardless of whether that is in the students’ best interests.

Underlying all of these dilemmas for these educators was the growing concern that we have debased the higher order purposes of higher  education. They report that all that seems to matter now is the “completion agenda.” The impact of Complete College America is being felt rippling down the ranks. The most important question then becomes “completion for what”? What are the purposes of higher education? What are the life purposes that our students are trying to develop? Now that is what these educators really want to be working on with students.

As these colleagues stepped back and reflected, they lamented that the differences they thought they would find in the academy as compared to for-profit enterprises are rapidly diminishing, if not having vanished altogether. They came in search of an occupation focused on more idealistic principles and find they are laboring in the business of higher education which is all about retaining and graduating students and enhancing institutional revenue and prestige. They are experiencing the corporatizing of the academy.

I left thinking that a number of these younger educators were rethinking the wisdom of their occupational choices. I also heard a number use the word “subversive” to describe how they intended to function to find ways to still do what is best for students even though it means subverting the monetary priorities of their employers.

I have never attended this conference where I encountered more of my fellow higher educators who were struggling with the fact that their values were no longer consistent with the values driving institutional decision making and policy formulation.

So I left thinking that, yes, these are the times that try men’s and women’s souls. These issues are truly striking at our most inner core of who we are as educators and human beings as we grapple with our students most fundamental problems, hopes, dreams, fears, and questions.

These good educators will find ways to persevere, I am hopeful of that. But it will involve some “subversion” to avoid the full support of the completion/retention agenda pressures. Of that I am sure. These folks will do what they have to do to be able to sleep at night.

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