John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Year End 2014: Looking Back Looking Ahead

December 15, 2014huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

My last professional trip of the calendar year, one in which Delta Airlines just notified me I had exceeded the four million miler mark (most all of it not on vacation, that’s for sure, and instead in pursuit of justice for undergraduate students) was to New York City. My primary purpose was to visit a foundation to seek assistance for my non-profit organization’s most challenging crusade: improving gateway course student performance (our work is known as Gateways to Completion, ™ G2C ™ Another purpose was to visit for the first time the most unique community college in the country, a harbinger, I hope, of things to come in future community colleges: the City University of New York’s Charles and Stella Guttman Community College, where the Founding President is my friend Scott Evenbeck.

While in New York, the world famed citadel of capitalism, my wife and I spent a day with an old college friend of mine and his wife. He told me that he, like me, had seen a long line of people stretching around several blocks surrounding SAKS Fifth Avenue flagship store and immediately contiguous St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He further reported that he wanted to briefly visit the Cathedral and asked a NY police officer standing in front of the Cathedral “Is this the line for the Cathedral?” to which the policeman wryly replied “No buddy, this is the line to get into SAKS. You can walk right in St. Patrick’s and get a blessing.” This struck me as a metaphor for the much greater interest of my fellow Americans in capitalist conspicuous consumption than in the state of their souls.

I look at this year past first as a citizen vis-à-vis the overall state of our country.

But my view is also as this pertains to the status of my work to improve the attainment and graduation rates of undergraduate college students.

So at the end of this year, I find…

That the elite institutions are booming.

The community colleges are facing severe budget reductions due to declines in enrollment due in turn to the recovering economy and resulting declines in enrollment. When the job market improves the very people most in need of college are less likely to attend college.

In the states whose legislatures are controlled by the GOP, the higher education economy of public institutions has not recovered and in many cases continues to deteriorate.

All the indicators of economic inequality continue to move in favor of the One Percent.

Total assets of American households as recently reported by The Pew Charitable Trusts realized huge differences in assets as a function of race and ethnicity

And yet the economy is moving gradually closer to full recovery—except for all those who have stopped looking for work and have dropped out of the labor market, especially, older white males.

The country is more polarized than ever in terms of how whites and blacks see their prospects for advancement and especially the fairness of the criminal justice system. And on how they view our current President. One political party has gradually—and intentionally—become the party for white people.

There are signs that the campuses are beginning to stir again in terms of protest actions for greater social justice. And there are stirrings in the larger citizen body that we cannot preserve our democracy without altering the huge imbalance in the system stacked against the poor, the black, and the Hispanic. And hence some of us must return to the barricades.

The prospects for political gridlock appear even worse for the year ahead.

This all has a great impact on the work of my non-profit organization.

We are disproportionately serving, not by intent but as it has developed, public institutions.

We are also primarily serving the less selective institutions who enroll the majority of the country’s poor students, the very population the country cares less and less about. And many of us in the academy believe a fix is just to recruit better students. Problem: we aren’t making as many of them in the US any more.

In the so-called “Student Success” space that I work, each year, especially this one, brings more and more FOR profit business persons into the higher education arena marketing a plethora of elixirs and cures for the underperformance of college students. Now it is the non-higher educators who know best what we need as they have seen correctly what we have not been able to address on our own. The need is there. This is an economic vacuum. And these business interests are rushing in to fill it. How quintessentially American! And they have the cures. The fixes are largely technology driven with special attention for what administrators and staff do, especially academic advisors, and not on what faculty do.

If I were my friend, Dr. Charlie Nutt, leading NACADA, the National Association for Academic Advising, I would see this as my opening for more attention to be paid to academic advising, finally. This could be a renaissance for that struggling profession.

I actually encountered less interest this year than last year on the part of institutions in tackling the touch point in the academy where we lose the most students: gateway courses.

And I encountered more faculty bashing. If only we could just get the students to “complete” without having to encounter faculty and courses at all.

And this was a year in which colleges and universities hired more professional staff than they did faculty. We are actually working hard to reduce the number of faculty, especially the pesky full-time tenure track and tenured faculty, who can vote no confidence.

And this has been a year in which I sensed even more the growth of a new sub profession related to the obsessive focus on retention: administrators of student success—Directors, Deans, Vice Presidents of Student Success

As I have asked in my blog before: is this truly a new profession? What are the implications of its rise for what we have traditionally come to call “Student Affairs”? I find, interestingly, the focus of this new class of professionals, more on the academic components of the student experience, which is not an unhealthy development at all.

But the real showstopper this year in terms of a point of emphasis in student success work has been the new found panacea: analytics—predictive analytics, being marketed now by scores of for-profit companies and even a non-profit like mine. This is going to be a true example of better living and progress for the academy in terms of greater investment in technology. We are collecting and analyzing vast reams of data on the behaviors of our students. We are awash in data. But will we really use it to make decisions for educational improvement? Are the people who really need to act on this data (especially faculty) even getting the data? And does this possession of the most data, the best data, ever, serve to increase how much we care about our students? Will all this data increase our political will to use the data to intervene in new ways with students to increase their success? Will we reallocate the resources necessary to address the needs of students whose real experiences in college we now understand through analytics better than ever? I wish I saw an increase in that will that was commensurate with the willingness of institutions to purchase the electronic potions and salves from the purveyors of analytics. I do not. I conclude, we have just concluded, 2014, The Year of Analytics.”

This posting has to sound very pessimistic by now. Let me try to restore some sense of balance.

Looking ahead, I believe the American public will eventually tire of the costs of higher education increasingly being passed along to them, rather than being assumed by government, the creator of equal opportunity.

I believe we will see this coming year, post Ferguson, a year of greater activism on our campuses.

I believe that in all but the elite sector of higher education, the status quo is truly threatened by our insufficient attention to student success.

I believe that the pressure for increased retention and graduation rates will only increase.

I believe that campuses will discover that analytics are only the latest panacea and that ultimately there is no substitute for a focus on what goes on in the classroom, between faculty and students, initially in developmental education, and beyond that in gateway courses.

So I am going to push on this coming year in my quest for calling more attention to the need for the academy to invest more attention and energy in improving student performance in gateway courses. That can only happen if institutions pay more attention to the need to study the current functioning of those courses, redesign those courses, and better support the faculty who teach those courses. It will also be more likely to happen if major foundations pay more attention to this focus on gateway courses. We will see. I have been prophetic before, as when I called for the country to focus on what I coined in 1982 as “the freshman year experience.” And US higher education did just that. We now pay far more attention to first-year students. And the sophomore slump. And to the transfer student experience. And to “students in transition.” And to “the senior year experience.”  And to “student success.” Now it’s time to pay more attention to the REAL first-year experience, the gateway course experience.  That’s what I am going to do in 2015.

What are you going to do?

What are your resolutions?

How can you make a difference?

If you don’t, who will?

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