Friday, October 23, 2009

What questions would you ask?

After launching an international movement to improve the beginning college experience from my former position at the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, I was challenged in 1999 by my mentor, Russ Edgerton of The Pew Trusts, to think afresh about what I/we could do if we had the time and money to do new work never before undertaken.

So much work had already been done to improve the beginning college experience. Admittedly, the driver for this was a pecuniary more than an educational vision: to generate more money through enhanced retention. Increasingly I experienced “retention fatigue” and longed for a more aspirational approach.

We seized upon the idea of asking another question instead: what would an EXCELLENT beginning experience look like—as opposed to one that would retain students?

To answer that question, we decided to develop a set of standards of excellence for the first of college, which institutions could use both to measure their performance and for aspirational strategic planning to achieve beginning excellence (standards found at  Now, what matters more than the questions I have asked, are the ones you are pushing to achieve educational improvement and excellence.

So, what are the big questions you are raising? And with what results? I learned in my own small college liberal arts education that the questions are often more important than the answers. My big aha moment as a first-year student, was the question in Plato’s Republic: what is justice?

Same question today: what is justice for new students?

John N. Gardner

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