John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Kind of Help Do You Need?

September 9, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

This is an attempt at a reflective piece on just exactly what is it that educators in the “student success” field want from largely for-profit vendors to help them, the educators, to help the students to be more successful. I offer this, in part, because even though I have played a significant role in this development of the academy’s growing dependence on the private enterprise sector in our field, I am still amazed by this dependence, and ambivalent too.

First, a return to the way it used to be. When I hosted the first conference on “the freshman year experience” in 1982 it never occurred to me to invite companies to come exhibit at this meeting.  But not too long into the decade I witnessed the discovery by the textbook publishing industry of the first-year seminar, and that sector of the free enterprise system quickly became focused on student success work. During the same time my friends Lee Noel and Randy Levitz, formerly of American College Testing, launched their consulting firm to assist campuses wishing to enhance student retention. This coincided with the decline of traditional aged students in the birth rate pipeline and the increasing institutional competition for students that resulted. But to fast forward to what is now the annual conference on the First-Year Experience; there are enough commercial exhibitors to fill a hotel ballroom. And the word most frequently displayed on the back panels of their booths is “retention.”

What are student success educators turning to corporate vendors for—the holy grail of “retention.”

Why do we need help from external parties? What is it that we need to improve student retention that we can’t do or provide ourselves?

Although the non-profit organization I lead is a key player in the industry of providing help to institutions struggling with the retention challenge there is a part of me that is still incredulous that we higher educators can’t figure this out and do it on our own. I suppose this perspective is influenced by my own formative years as a young professor working with at-risk, first generation, South Carolina, college students. There were no vendors for me to turn to. What I thought and found those students needed the most, I personally, individually and directly, could and did provide:

  • attention, encouragement, and praise
  • prompt feedback on tests and papers
  • an early warning system…me! I observed and intervened immediately
  • out of class assistance
  • optional study groups (my own version of SI, Supplemental Instruction!)
  • alternative modalities of delivering instruction (I put two of my history courses on self-paced videotapes and made two courses available by “correspondence”, a precursor to on-line learning)
  • experiential learning—especially in field trips
  • out-of-class interaction between faculty and staff (including optional class dinners in my home)
  • developmental academic advising  (the only kind of academic advising I knew how to provide)
  • rewarding students for participating in co-curricular activities
  • emphasizing relevance (my former students still remember me for making them read The New York Times)
  • an educationally and retention generating first-year seminar (I directed and taught in University 101 for 25 years)

I did find though that there was one thing my students needed that I couldn’t provide, and for which I turned to the for-profit sector: a first-year seminar textbook. When we developed University 101 in 1972 there was no textbook published by a textbook company for this course genre. So in 1981 a colleague of mine, Professor Jerry Jewler and I decided to write one. We did and that book was published, and in short order became widely emulated by other publishers. This introduced shameless commerce to the first-year experience movement. I still maintain that students in this particular course need a “text” and I am glad the publishing industry responded to provide such.

As I look back on the period of my life when I was in the trenches doing student success work directly with first-year students, what strikes me as very different from the work as I see it now was the fact that I was a faculty member.  In the present time we faculty are underrepresented in this so-called student success work. The reasons for this are complex: many of us are in this work but don’t think of ourselves in that manner; many of us have not been invited (by institutional leaders) to participate in this work; many of us have not been properly “developed” through faculty development to use our talents for this purpose; and because many administrators have deliberately turned to fellow academic and student affairs administrators to engage in this work instead. And they are very different than I was, and unlike me, they do need outside support. The majority of them are not teachers, do not reach students in and through the classroom, and thus don’t have the opportunity to engage in all the practices that I could use naturally as a classroom faculty member.

So what are these student success educators looking for from outside vendors?

  • providing remedial/developmental instruction/courses—this is a form of outsourcing
  • direct tutoring of students—done both on-line and by phone (Why can’t we do this ourselves? Is this just a matter of cost?)
  • mentoring and coaching of students—provided on line and by phone
  • consulting/advisory services to produce recommendations which if acted on may improve retention
  • developing comprehensive institution-wide plans to improve new student performance and hence retention (this is the work I am in)
  • tracking students via software, in terms of academic performance to permit various forms of institutional intervention
  • predicting student behaviors—by means of what has become known as “predictive analytics”
  • early warning/alert systems
  • project  management software to guide institutions in the execution of improvement plans (I am also in this business!)
  • textbooks (e.g. for first-year seminars)
  • course management systems
  • “training” for faculty/staff, advisors in instructional pedagogies, advising, career planning, first-year seminar instruction, customer service
  • surveys to provide us information on what students actually do before college or did or didn’t do before college
  • information and inspiration

And this is only a very partial and incomplete list.

No doubt the academy now has a much greater knowledge of what to do to improve student retention than when I started teaching University 101. And we have far more tools and resources at our command. And we have a formidable array of corporate partners who will be happy to sell us “solutions” to the problem of retention. Yes, much has changed. We now should be much better able to retain students.

But retention is basically flat. I would argue that if we hadn’t been undertaking these many interventions the picture would be far worse.

The conditions though that are most needed to improve student retention are basically those I needed when I started my work without all these student success tools, and these conditions cannot be purchased from external corporate vendors:

  • an institutional value system that values first-year students, their success and retention
  • the institutional will to engage in retention related practices
  • the allocation of sufficient resources: personnel, physical, time, rewards systems, and fiscal
  • a faculty rewards system that incentivizes the kinds of practices I engaged in with my students
  • the offering of established best practices in student success work
  • sufficient engagement of the faculty in student success work
  • taking institutional and individual responsibility for student learning
  • an optimistic and liberal view that it is the proper role of government funded entities to provide these opportunities for those less fortunate

I understand why the for-profit sector has become our partner: they have seen a vacuum and they have rushed in and filled it. They have seen a need that we haven’t been successfully addressing on our own. They have seen that we are struggling and that many of our institutions aren’t doing very well on the retention front. Vendors understand we are under pressure from policy makers and funders. Vendors understand demographics: our country has a shrinking middle class and is producing more and more poor people who will need more and more help. So if I were a corporate vendor, I would be bullish on this market. It is a growth industry 

Are we at the point of overreliance on non educators for their tools and services? Time will tell. What would it take to make more of us higher educators more capable on our own to foster increased student retention. The mantra on my staff is “if John can do it, anyone can do it!” I did it. More of my readers can. I hope they will.

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