Friday, May 21, 2010

The “Correction”: What Could That Mean In Our Higher Education Context?

This week is one where we have finally had the long awaited “correction” in the financial markets, as defined by at least a 10% drop in the value of the market say as measured by the Dow Jones average, since the high for 2010. So this week while I worked away diligently at my messianic ambition to improve the first year in American higher education, I lost a great deal of my savings, without doing anything specific to wreak this misfortune on myself. Now, since the low of the market post the collapse in fall 2008, that low being around March of 2009, admittedly, there are many weeks I did absolutely nothing specific to increase my net wealth, but it increased anyway. I am certainly an investor who had been waiting for, expecting, the “correction” to arrive.

Also, during this week, we have watched as an unprecedented number of lobbyists swarm on Washington like the horde of locusts they are, killing the crops that the rest of us hoped to raise. Here some members of Congress had been hoping for a “correction,” i.e. to reverse the trends of the past several decades and to impose on the financial markets and financial services industries some long overdue “corrections.” We are witnessing, no surprise, the spectacular clout of these lobbyists and the gradual evisceration of the bill designed to “protect” us by means of “correction.”

This has all got me thinking about what does the concept of “correction” mean in the higher ed context? We have certainly, most of us anyway, seen more than a 10% decline in our net fortunes. Has that triggered a “correction.” If we were to name a litany of abuses, profligate use of resources, priorities out of balance, can we say there has been a “correction” driven by the Great Recession. Just what would that mean?

I am not sure. But I know I have not seen it. Has publish or perish been modified? Have faculty workloads, a huge factor in the “cost” of higher education, been significantly increased? Has the faculty rewards system been significantly modified to reward faculty for greater measures of “productivity?” Have there been consolidations, shake outs? Have we decided to shift resources significantly to the most productive sectors of the academy (e.g. community colleges)? Recognizing that most of our students do not live on trust funds, have we become more “vocational” in our orientation as to the purposes of higher education? I could go on.

But no, I am not seeing a correction. I am seeing the status quo largely being maintained, but with severe cutbacks for the least powerful in the academy. I don’t think this qualifies as a correction. Outside of higher education so many societal elements mirror what has been going on in the business sector in terms of prioritizing, right sizing, down sizing, outsourcing, etc. But not higher education. What will it take? Truly the capacity of our culture to resist change in truly phenomenal.

And this has implications, profound implications, for the focus of my work in trying to get colleges and universities to make significant changes in the ways they organize and execute the beginning college experience. We just aren’t hurting enough yet for a correction. And I am not betting we are going to have one, on the macro level. So I am going to push on as I have been for the last 35 years pushing for “corrections” at the micro level, i.e. the institutional level, and especially in terms of what we do with, for and to our new and transfer students.

-John Gardner

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Learn More about Improving the Transfer Experience for STEM Students

Several weeks ago President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama came to Asheville, N.C. for a three day weekend “vacation.” This is of interest to me because my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I live about 35 miles outside of Asheville in a peaceful little mountain town, Brevard. By all the press accounts, the first couple really enjoyed Asheville. They visited a popular barbecue restaurant, “12 Bones,” and the world-famous Biltmore House, played golf, and, unlike the Governor of South Carolina, actually hiked the Appalachian Trail.

Most notably though, they stayed at a historic resort hotel, The Grove Park Inn, a century old world-class establishment. I tell you this because you too can come to Asheville in September and stay at the Grove Park Inn. But instead of being on vacation, you can spend two productive days learning and thinking about what you can do to improve the transfer student experience of a particular cohort of students this country needs more of: STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Transfers. Click here to learn more. The University of North Texas’s National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students (NISTS), led by two UNT education professors, Bonita Jacobs and Marc Cutright, will host this new conference scheduled for September 19-21, 2010.

Given the enormous need our country has for STEM graduates, and the fact that the transfer experience is now the normative one in US higher education, I wouldn’t miss this upcoming conference where the Obama’s like to go on vacation. I will hope to see you there and learn with you.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, May 17, 2010

Some Good News on the Retention Front

I didn’t set out to do this, but I accidentally became one of the apostles of the retention movement. The year was 1975 and a dear colleague at the University of South Carolina, Paul P. Fidler, had been tasked by an interim President of the University of South Carolina to see if a controversial new course, University 101, was meeting its objectives. And I had a personal stake in this as I was its brand new, and first, faculty director, untenured too. While the course was not started to have any intentional impact on retention, this was an unexpected discovered of this administratively directed assessment process. In the mid 70’s, we had far more students coming to us or wanting to come to us than we could accommodate. We had started the course for other purposes, especially to prevent student riots by teaching new students to love the place. But there it was, a significantly higher retention rate for students who took this elective, three credit course, even though as a cohort they had lower predicted grade point averages than the non-participants, and hence we would have expected a lower retention rate. Well, this extraordinary finding, repeated year after year until we no longer had a group of non-participants large enough to measure the effect, was the impetus for the retention interest in first-year seminars. Thus, the finding was transformative, and was the engine behind a vast race to replicate this course throughout American higher education. I have just had a déjà vu experience.Since, 2003, I have been leading a project called Foundations of Excellence (FoE), through the non-profit organization which is immodestly named for me. This is a voluntary, comprehensive, assessment and action planning process to improve student learning, success and retention. It purports to do this by producing a very simple, but very rare idea for institutions: an actual plan to move them to excellence in the first year.Since 2003 we have engaged 167 colleges and universities, two and four-year, in this voluntary process. We have known of many, many outcomes from the process, and they have been described on our website at But only last week did we receive a report from an independent researcher/evaluator, Dr. Brent Drake, of Purdue University, that reported to us on what was the correlation between campuses that had participated in Foundations of Excellence and their longitudinal retention rates. We had to wait this long for this data due to two factors: 1) the lag time in institutional reporting of IPEDS data; and 2) allowing for multiple years after completion of the FoE planning process for campuses to actually implement their action plans.So, what has been found? Well, even the perennial optimist that I am was amazed by the highly significant findings. Overall, institutions that have implemented their action plans to a self reported “very high degree” have increased their retention rates an average of 5.6 points which is an 8.2% increase in retention.If you would be interested in this report on what this evaluator found in more detail, feel free to write me for a copy ( rarely can say anything very succinctly but this study confirms the following for me:1. Most campuses do not have a comprehensive plan for the first year, let alone a vision to attain excellence in their beginnings2. If a campus actually creates a plan and then actually implements that plan, it is highly probable that it will significantly increase its retention rate.3. This is an example of intentionality!-John N. Gardner