John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Year End Reflections for 2012

December 19, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner
President

Many of my readers have to be doing the same thing I am doing here near the end of calendar year (as opposed to academic year) 2012-reflecting on that year and what it has meant for higher education in our country and ourselves.

These are some of the things I am thinking about:

On the national level…

The election is behind us, but only technically. It settled some things, like the fate of Obamacare, but not others.

An encouraging outcome for higher education was the approval of California voters to increase taxes in support of all levels of education. As California goes, so goes the nation. We will see. We can hope.

The unsettled fiscal cliff negotiations will make a huge difference for the fortunes of state budgets for higher education. If the country goes over the cliff and faces sequestration, reducing the federal transfer of payments to the states by about 8% will surely lead to huge cuts in public state appropriations for higher education. All we can do now is hope this does not happen.

This fall has seen declines in enrollments at community colleges as students have chosen to enter recovering labor markets. Somehow, we have to do a better job of persuading students to enter higher education no matter what the state of the immediate job market.

This year has seen unprecedented levels of public questioning about the value of higher education, especially vis-à-vis the costs students and families must assume to attain our services. While I think such questioning is healthy, I fear it discourages those students that need us the most and for whom there is no chance of upward social mobility without our credentialing.

This year saw unprecedented attacks on the merits of developmental education. This set of educational endeavors, as American as apple pie and offered in our country since the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, is now being rethought, albeit defensively. This was needed. But I fear the poor are going to end up being the losers as usual. The inflammatory rhetoric against developmental education is not likely to lead to rational changes.

We saw this year the advent of the MOOCS, the massive open on-line courses, a development having the potential to transform undergraduate education, especially in the high enrollment, first-year, cash cow courses. This is really going to shake us up and challenge our medieval guild approach to the teaching of introductory courses, where each faculty member is a cottage industry unto him or herself and where we realize now unacceptable levels of failure. I don’t know where this is going to go, but I know it is not going to go away.

One political party, as it reappraises its stance opposing immigration reform, may now be more open to granting permanent residency status, if not outright citizenship, to immigrants (who most likely wouldn’t vote for the party anyway), who either attain a college education or serve in the country’s military. This would further transform our campuses.

For the time being at least, we seem to have lost our willingness to engage in foreign military adventure. This means our military will be downsized and more of its former active duty service members will be coming to our campuses. This is a good thing. I hope we are going to be ready for them. I know one for-profit university that definitely is (the American Public University System).

Due to long overdue scrutiny from Congress and the federal Department of Education, for-profit higher education enrollments declined this year. But these organizations are resilient, have many friends in Congress, and are meeting the needs of many of our poorest citizens for access to higher education. I am confident the long-term future suggests they will compete with us very effectively. I welcome this.

Retention has become more important than ever as dramatized by the focus on the “completion agenda.” Less clear is the question of “completion” for what…? Much of the policy discussions and directions around the completion agenda make me think we are producing widgets and not more enlightened human beings.

Many of the educators with whom I interact are more obsessed than ever with achieving retention—but want to address it with easy, quick fix, magic bullets, of which there are none. And more for-profit providers of magic bullets are out there than ever.

Public policy changes in some states to reward colleges and universities for numbers of students retained and graduated is really getting attention and is a game changer. Way to go legislators.

Other policy developments clearly show increasing bias in favor of funding those academic disciplines which are most directly related to high demand areas for employment, and not for the traditional disciplines in the arts and social sciences. As a liberal arts graduate I am very disturbed by this trend.

The ever worsening gridlock in our nation’s government makes all of us hope for better ways of leading on our campuses.

This year we reached the milestone of present and former college student indebtedness for student loans surpassing the total US credit card debt (over one trillion dollars).  And as The New York Times reported in a stunning article on December 14, a significant portion of this indebtedness has been passed on to our students by our own institutional arms races to compete with our competitors for our places in the USNWR rankings, resulting in dramatic increases in institutional debt levels. It’s the American way: fly now and pay later. If I had any confidence that Congress could get together on any substantive, I would predict that it would intervene to curtail these cost increases by price regulation. But I am not going to worry about that.

The recent unspeakable tragedy at an elementary school in Connecticut turns all of our thoughts here at the end of the year to the idealized fantasy of our schools as sanctuaries—no more of course. So in our own spheres of influence, what can we higher educators do to promote the kind of safety (personal, professional, intellectual) on our campuses,that we all crave so much?

And on a personal level…

I managed to lead a small non-profit organization through another year post the Great Recession fallout, remaining viable, solvent, and contributory to improving the success of first-year and transfer students. Whew! But it’s one year at a time, and at the end of each fiscal year it is back to zero based budgeting without any recurring state appropriation, the kind that spoiled me for three plus decades at the University of South Carolina.

I participated in the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the University 101 course at the University of South Carolina, the educational innovation that led to the first-year experience movement, which has transformed the experiences for millions of our college students.

My university asked me “back” to award me my eleventh honorary degree, and to give a commencement address. This was a thrill, in part to be still living to receive such an honor. I am so thankful I spent one career at one institution. I think this corporate model of changing employers for upward social mobility is greatly overrated. As my father, who worked for one employer for 43 years told me repeatedly growing up: “Son, find a good company and stick with it.” Sadly, I cannot give that advice to college students any longer.

My non-profit organization took major steps this year (see www.jngi.org for Foundations of Excellence Implement) to assist institutions at something our data has been suggesting they are not very good at: executing aspirational plans. We academics are much better at the process of planning than we are at implementing those plans. We now know that those colleges and universities—of all types— that are high implementers of plans to improve retention realize exactly that—and that those that are low or no implementers actually realize declines in retention.

Another big step forward this year for my organization was our acting on a decision that we need to do more to help institutions develop effective partnerships between academic and student affairs officers to improve student success. We plan to do more with this in the coming year.

And after forty years of working to enhance “the first-year experience” I have concluded that the REAL first-year experience is whatever students encounter in their gateway courses, in which we have staggering rates of failure and underperformance. And that will be the focus of much of my new work for 2013. So stay tuned.

My professional and personal year has been better, to the extent this comparison is even valid, than that of higher education in general and the fortunes of my country. One of the reasons for this is that I am a member of the minority that has been so advantaged by the public policies since 2001, even though I did not ask for or deserve such advantages over my fellow citizens. Maybe 2013 will see this direction altered, if only slightly. I will cheer that.

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