Wednesday, June 15, 2011

This Summer: What Are We Orienting them For?

John Gardner

How I wish what passes for college and university orientation during the summer before the new fall term actually begins were really an introduction to the purposes of college. How I wish we seriously engaged our students immediately in dialogue and presentation on the purposes of college. But, usually we don’t. Instead,  we get them “oriented” which primarily means placement testing, academic advising, registration, socialization, familiarization, “processing”—admittedly all important. But very rarely do we get into the nitty gritty of what are the purposes of our enterprise? What differences do we or can we make for our students? Just what are we trying to do for them besides help them find a career, get a job.

I am not a fool. I fully understand the imperative for college to be a vocational preparation exercise. I understand the huge financial sacrifices our governments, our families, our students, and our institutions are making to make college possible for our students. So I am not proposing that we say to students, hey forget it, there are far more important outcomes of college than getting a job. But to be honest, I really do believe that—that there are far  more important outcomes.

I am resigning myself to the reality that the American economy is not going to fully recover for many years. This means I am resigned to the fact that many of our college graduates are going to be underemployed and dealing with very high levels of frustrated aspirations.  We of the intelligentsia know this. We know the American economy is not going to be able to absorb all these graduates at the employment levels they have dreamed of. We know that the Great Recession will have produced a whole next generation of students who will not be as well off as their parents.

So, I think it is time we started stressing at the very outset what college can do and must do to make the meaning of life more rewarding, even if our students are not employed at the level they aspire to. More than everI think it is morally incumbent upon us to demonstrate the values of  a college education for how we live outside the world of vocation.

So for those of you,  my readers, involved in any kind of orientation of new students this summer, what are you introducing students to in terms of the purposes of college? Are you offering them anything to think about in terms of how they may use college to plan a life of meaning and rewards outside their vocations? I hope so. It does matter how you start. This is the period when we shape expectations and show them how college may be different from high school, and, thank goodness, different in some important ways from the rest of the culture.

Monday, June 13, 2011

How About Something Positive?

John Gardner

One of my colleagues in our Institute, rolled his eyes at me the other day as he gave me some feedback (which I always welcome no matter what the feedback). His message to me was that my blogs had a tone of distress, negativism, pessimism, and he encouraged me to write about something positive. He added a reflection that his own aging process was leading him to see things in our society with much more concern now that he was fortyish than when he was in college. That was a nice way of saying he could understand then why I who am considerably older might see things with an eye of even greater concern. But, I took the message to heart and have been thinking about what is it these days that I feel positive about, particularly in my context of being a professional higher educator. OK, here goes:

1.   I am pleased to see that the regional accreditors have so much more influence than they used to. They are truly the big dogs driving much of the pressure on us for continuous improvement.
2.   I am pleased that the concept of “self study” as driven by the regional accreditors is now much more meaningful, taken far more seriously, and an impetus to innovation on many campuses.
3.   I am pleased to see how much positive attention the community colleges are getting from, seemingly, all sectors –the public, the lay press, state and federal governments, and our country’s president. I think this is long overdue.
4.   I am encouraged by how much more discussion there is by administrators and faculty alike about the necessity for us higher educators to take more responsibility for student learning. We really have become serious about insisting on measures for student learning and efforts to improve that.
5.   I am truly gratified that the concepts that I have worked so hard for related to the desirability of institutions paying more attention to new students, have truly been institutionalized.
6.   I am pleased to see the growth in interest in paying more attention to transfer students. I believe they are a population that encounters great discrimination and that we cannot possibly increase our nation’s degree attainment rates without more attention to this growing population (currently about 62% of students pursuing a baccalaureate degree).
7.   I am pleased to see how successful women students have become in our colleges and universities not designed for them.
8.   I admire greatly the courage and trust millions of our students display towards our higher education system that they continue to come to us in ever greater numbers, in spite of the challenges that many recent grads are having in securing optimal employment.

This is a hard exercise. I could go on. I will keep thinking along this vein.