Friday, October 22, 2010

15 Triggers for Discussion

Recently a special colleague of mine who was organizing the First Annual Conference on Student Success held at the University of Massachusetts, about which I wrote recently, asked me to provide a talk but in a new and very challenging context for me: with a very strict time limit. The idea was I was to have only fifteen minutes. And further, I was to present catalysts, “triggers” for interaction, conversation to follow.

So I had to ask myself what I could say very concisely that reflected ideas/topics I was thinking about, working on in my professional life. This turned out to be an interesting exercise for me to construct such a list. And I recommend that you consider doing the same. You could even shorten the list. What are the ten (or five or fifteen) big ideas that you are focusing on in your work; or that you think your institution should be focusing on. As an illustration, here is my list that I recently offered. I am sure that this would change on any given occasion that I might be given this opportunity. Your list also should always be dynamic. I invite you to compare yours with mine. Here goes:

Fifteen Minutes: Fifteen Triggers for a Dialogue on Improving Student Success
1. It all comes down to your values: The first-year matters!
2. And, yes, there is a sophomore slump!
3. The transfer student experience has become normative; transfer students are a cohort about which little is understood and towards which much prejudice is directed.
4. The Senior Year Experience is needed too! Some students are never over the hump.
5. Where does your campus stand with respect to offering the three most validated retention generating interventions: first-year seminars, learning communities, and Supplemental Instruction?
6. What is needed is “challenge and support,” and more of each! Engagement is all about raising expectations and achieving greater time on task.
7. All students are “developmental.” All are at risk. We must improve the status of “developmental education.”
8. What’s wrong with this picture? We search for the holy grail of retention, even though it is merely a minimum standard.
9. In contrast: pursuit of educational excellence and the need for aspirational standards.
10. Want to improve retention? The latest powerfully documented intervention – the latest big idea: you need a plan. And then you need to implement the plan to a high degree (yielding 8.2% increase in retention). “Programs” are necessary but not sufficient. We have to transcend mere “programs” and make these plans part of the overall vision, part of the institutional strategic plan.
11. Re-examine policies that at one time made eminent good sense but now may have outlived their usefulness: “Waiting for Napoleon” as an illustration of the need to do a “policy audit” and for focusing on what you can control
12. You have to have a manageable focus for improvement efforts. Try the five highest enrollment courses with parallel redesign for high DWFI rate courses
13. Show me your list of institutional standing committees and I will know what you value. Each campus needs a standing group to advocate for first-year students.
14. Go after the “low hanging fruit.”
15. One person can make a huge difference

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What Would it Take?

I am writing this post on an airplane flying back across the Atlantic from a wonderful 10 day vacation with my wife, Betsy Barefoot. We have been in France precisely because it is the “Old Europe” at its best, just what Donald Rumsfeld so despised. But it is also a country well known for its propensity for wild cat strikes, protests and civil disobedience. And we certainly picked a good week to be reminded of this long tradition. And this was the first October vacation I have ever taken since becoming an academic 44 years ago.

Ah, the spirit of the French Revolution lives on, especially in the young people, university students, who despair of losing the French way of life: the 35 hour work week, an enormous number of paid holidays, and full retirement benefits at age 60. France’s Prime Minister has caused a firestorm by requesting the National Assembly to approve legislation raising that retirement age to 62 and this has unleashed a tumult of strikes and protests. While we were there last week, a serious fuel shortage developed disrupting air service, road travel, and other unions launched a devastating series of rolling strikes of the railroads. To put it mildly, daily life became totally unpredictable. But this set me wondering.

First of all, there’s a warning here for any American politician who would drastically meddle with the people’s entitlements!

But what about American university students? What would send them into the streets opposing something? It has long appeared to me that they will put up with just about anything. At least they Tea Partyers are out protesting. Sure, we do have student activists in our country, but they strike me as a passive lot compared to what I just observed during my visit in France. What could possibly get them stirred up?

Not the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Not the President’s proposed plan to eliminate the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthiest of taxpayers. Not the Obama administration’s clamp down on proprietary schools which educate about 10% of our students but absorb about 25% of our federal financial aid budget. Not the Republicans’ blockage of any more stimulus money which might jolt the economy back to life and provide some jobs for recent college graduates. Not any of the many state and local actions being taken to restrict illegal immigrants, all in the absence of federal policy. Not the Administration’s new health care legislation which will ultimately mandate current students after college and age 26 to purchase health insurance. Just what will it take?

I remember what it took: the draft. How I long for the return of the draft. I would love to see the students out in the streets again. I would love to see the children of our Congressional leaders subject to the draft. But that’s a pipe dream, John. Our students have been co-opted. They’ve bought in.

I am definitely concerned about the level of anger I see in my fellow citizens; and it dismays me. Some of it I feel is entirely justified. But I don’t see much of it in our students. What would so anger them that they would be moved to action?

So I return to the question. What will it take? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

-John Gardner

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Movement is Spreading and Deepening

A sign of the institutionalizing of any educational reform movement, of course, is the spreading and deepening of the activity in terms of adoption and success. The “movement” I am most interested in is the so-called “first-year experience” or “college success” or “student success” movements, which I am sometimes credited with launching. I did play a role in that, for sure, but I certainly had a great deal of help, especially from my colleagues at the University of South Carolina, and later from the Institute which I founded.

One manifestation of this “spreading and deepening” is the slow but gradual proliferation of state and regional convenings of higher educators that I and my two non-profit organizations focused on student success have NOT organized and hosted.

There are such initiatives flourishing now in the states of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and Ohio; and now a newcomer, but a real “comer”—in Massachusetts which is a gathering for the entire New England region.

I participated in the First Annual New England Student Success Conference, organized by my friends Robert Feldman and Mark Lange and their outstanding team at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. There first gathering was held on October 8 and had as an original planning goal 250 attendees. It was “sold out” and “closed” at 300. Talk about demand. When I left the meeting, the organizers were already planning next year’s gathering. If you are interested you should contact either of those gentlemen. I recommend you request from them a link to the session materials. I attended two sessions which were both outstanding: one by a splendid team from Framingham State University who illustrated how to translate a complex action improvement plan into sustained implementation to reap increased student success and retention (about10%); and the second by Jane Wellman, the provocative and profound scholar of higher education cost assessment. We all need to take her advice and start assessing the cost benefits of our first-year initiatives and we will be inspired by the results of her model for doing so.

I think it is most fitting that the region where “the first year” in American higher education began in 1636 has its own “network” for which the foundational steps were laid at this first meeting. There is nothing like local grass roots action to institutionalize any movement.

Congratulations from a recovering former Yankee to my New England colleagues who are moving to the next level in promoting student success.

-John N. Gardner