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

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Reunion of Sorts

This is my inaugural blog posting. We all remember our first time for many things in life. This weekend I am going to have a reunion of sorts with a mentor of mine.

My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I will be attending a special symposium this weekend to mark the tenth anniversary of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), one of the creators of which is Russell Edgerton, past President of the American Association for Higher Education and Director of the Pew Forum on Undergraduate Learning. When Russ was serving in the late 90’s as the senior program officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts he sat me down and asked me a question, a part of which I am still trying to answer: “John, if you and Betsy had one to five million dollars and one to five years to do anything you wanted to do to improve the beginning college experience, what would you do?”

The Trusts subsequently awarded us three grants to launch and build the Policy Center on the First Year of College. In 2007, Betsy and our Center colleagues persuaded me to morph the center into a new 501c3 non-profit, immodestly named for me ( We are still trying to answer Russ’s original question: what would/could we do to improve the beginning college experience?

I hope my readers will become a blog community of practice and share their answers to the same fundamental question, hopefully, more broadly applied to all of undergraduate education.

John N. Gardner