Friday, December 11, 2009

My Philosophy of Student Success

When I was on the graduate faculty of the University of South Carolina I taught (often with Betsy Barefoot) a seminar once a year for students in the masters and doctoral program in higher education administration. And we would ask them to write as part of their final examination, a philosophy statement for their philosophy of higher education. For most all of them, they had never been asked to think or write anything explicitly of this nature. But, of course, they did have philosophies, just as you do. And these are the basis of our daily actions on behalf of student success.
Anyway, compare yours with mine:

I want to both affirm and be transparent about some of my beliefs and what I hope are common beliefs:

I believe in the dignity and worth of all students, each student

I believe that what matters most is what we do for ALL students, not just some students

I believe that I can teach students to be successful

I believe that there is a demonstrable body of knowledge about teaching student success

I believe that what a student is today, in terms of prior achievement, predicted collegiate ability and high school rank in class, is not necessarily a valid predictor of what the student can become

I believe that these indicators do not measure students’ basic intelligence or motivation, nor our ability to successfully intervene

I believe that all students are “developmental"

I believe that all students are potentially at risk

I believe that we have to focus on the big picture, what is best for our institutions and all students, not necessarily our own students or programs

I believe that the greatest influence on students during their time in college is the influence of other students, and hence the need to intentionally put our very best students in positions of influence on their peers

I believe that it is the obligation and opportunity for government (and our public institutions) to intervene and to engineer opportunities for students – this is, I admit, a brand of old fashioned liberalism.

I believe in the value of holistic education that addresses the intellectual, personal, social, physical, spiritual, and safety needs of all students

I believe that educationally purposeful and meaningful learning experiences can and should take place anywhere that students, faculty and staff come together.

I believe that we must be and are advocates for what I coined in 1995 as “students in transition”: first-time college students; new students to your campus be the first time in college or transfer; sophomores who are not over the first-year hump and instead are in “slump,” and senior students preparing to leave higher education, at least for the time being.

I believe in the value of faculty, academic administrator, and student affairs partnerships, which is certainly illustrated by the demographic composition of this conference.

In conclusion, I am not suggesting that my philosophy should be yours, just that you should have one, and share it with your students especially. Just imagine what impact this might have if you published it in all your syllabi?!

John N. Gardner

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I feel this coming: the four-year degree must go!

Back in what Maureen Dowd of The New York Times called “Bushworld,” I just knew this couldn’t last: lowering taxes; increasing government spending and debt; spreading democracy by invasion of two sovereign nations; accelerating deregulation; encouraging consumer debt and home ownership for those who couldn’t afford it; ignoring New Orleans. I knew things couldn’t last. What were we thinking when we allowed all this to happen? And then the house of cards came tumbling down. This is truly The Great Recession. And things aren’t going to go back to the way they were: the new normal. And one of the casualties is going to be the four-year degree. It’s just too expensive.

Let’s face it: we just can’t afford it any longer. Consumers can’t. Institutions can’t. Governments can’t. This unique American idea of a “four-year degree” with significant amounts of “general education,” which prolong time to degree completion rates and which many students (and faculty) don’t want, is going to become a vestigial organ.

We simply have to accelerate the process for degree attainment. Four to six years is simply too long to sustain the race. Perhaps one of the very best means we have to increase degree attainment is to decrease the required credit hours and hence decrease costs, and time to degree completion rates. Oh this makes me so sad. Our students will be less “well rounded.” There will be far fewer opportunities to introduce students to potential majors they never considered before (e.g. anthropology). Students will not have the grounding in writing, speaking, numeracy skills, knowledge of our own history, political systems, literature, world cultures, you name it. The professional majors will be the ones in the life boat.

This will accelerate the conversion of two-year colleges to what I am calling “comprehensive colleges,” offering two-year degrees through open admissions and allowing students to AVOID transfer by remaining at the same institution.

The times they are a-changing. Instead of putting a gun to my head over this, I think we have to get out front on this, manage it, use it as a catalyst to rethink everything we are doing, perhaps including the basic paradigm of looking at degree attainment is simply a matter of accumulating credits through seat time. What an exciting opportunity this may present. As Rahm Emmanuel has so famously said: “a crisis is a terrible opportunity to waste.”

-John Gardner

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Times They Are A’Changing: our Friendly Regional Accreditors

I have just spent the weekend with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and about 3000 higher educators in Atlanta for the annual meeting of our regional accreditor, “SACS”, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Who says we can’t change in higher ed? This meeting certainly ain’t like it used to be.

As a career higher educator and public employee in South Carolina, I had been through three of the SACS self studies in 1969-70, 79-80 and 89-90, and I resolved I wasn’t going to stick around for a fourth. They were deadly dull, ponderous, enormous exercises in bean counting; huge institutional exercises that comprised a shell game to create a magnum opus sufficient to get us off the hook for another decade. The report would sit on the shelf and in many or even most cases have no impact at all, particularly in terms of driving educational change.

So I took early retirement and founded with my wife a non-profit higher education organization. And now I am thinking about regional accreditation self studies almost every day. And I am participating in not only my own geographic region’s annual accreditor meeting but later this week Betsy and I are headed for the annual Middle States Meeting in Philadelphia; and I April we will participate in both the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) meeting in Chicago and the Western Association of Colleges and Schools (WASC) meeting in Long Beach. What’s happened?

What’s happened is that in the last decade the accreditors have reinvented themselves. They have become, in my judgment the biggest forces driving change on college campuses. For those of us whose primary focus is to help facilitate change in higher education to improve student learning, success, and retention, the accreditors are now the best partners we have. They are where the action is.

For an educator like me, who was used to conducting a relatively meaningless “self study,” the two most dreaded words in the higher ed lexicon, there has been a sea change. Now, most of the accreditors have a mechanism for campuses to develop an improvement project of some kind which becomes a central focus of the reaffirmation process. What an incredibly simple but powerful idea: let campuses voluntarily choose something they want to get better at and reward them with reaffirmation of accreditation.

I would certainly rather have our own peers in regional accrediting non profit, non governmental organizations doing the accrediting and quality control, than say: the federal government or a state agency.

So let’s hear it for the accreditors. And if those of you working to improve the experience of new and transfer students, haven’t yet linked your institutional improvement efforts to the larger campus processes of reaffirmation of accreditation, well, you have been missing out on a huge lever for change. Connecting say first-year work to accreditation has the potential to move your narrowly focused, and perhaps relatively low status, work to the top of the institution’s priority list. Please consider this. Accreditation really has changed, in both process and importance.

-John N. Gardner