By Doug Ward
The overarching message from a meeting of the University Innovation Alliance was as disturbing as it was clear: Research universities were built around faculty and administrators, not students, and they must tear down systemic barriers quickly and completely if they hope to help students succeed in the future.
About 75 representatives from the alliance’s member institutions gathered at Michigan State University last week to share ideas and to talk about successes, challenges and impediments to student success. The alliance comprises 11 U.S. research universities working to improve graduation rates among a wider range of students. Since its start five years ago, it has led efforts in predictive analytics, proactive advising, completion grants, and college-to-career activities. It has also created a fellows program that allows for concentrated attention on barriers to student success.
Speakers at the meeting certainly celebrated those efforts,but over and over they referred to systemic problems that can no longer be ignored.Those problems underlie less-than-stellar retention and graduation rates,especially among first-generation and underrepresented students, and amongthose who come from less-than-wealthy families. They loom large when youconsider that the future of universities depends on their ability to serve thevery students they once pushed away.
“There’s this belief system that low-income, first-generation, students of color, when they drop out, that there’s something about them. It’s not an indictment of the entire system,” said Bridget Burns, executive director of the UIA. That is, there’s an “unintended value system” that tells students that when they fail, it’s individual weakness, not a problem with the university.
Research universities were created to serve the elite, not the masses, and were meant to foster a “reproduction of privilege,” Burns said. Degrees were meant to be rare and difficult to earn. As a result, universities are filled with booby traps that stop students from moving toward a degree.
Burns didn’t elaborate on that, but it’s easy to see the ways that universities were designed around the needs of faculty members and administrators, not students. Students must jump through hoop after bureaucratic hoop to register for classes, arrange for financial aid, pay their bills, meet requirements, and even meet with an advisor. They attend classes at times most convenient for instructors and gather in classrooms that focus on the instructor. Universities also do a poor job of helping students learn how to learn in a college environment.
Two roads, two perceptions
Frank Dooley, senior vice provost for teaching and learning at Purdue, used two disparate images to illustrate the murky path that students must traverse. One image was of a wide open highway with smooth pavement disappearing into the horizon. The other was of a spaghetti bowl of urban interchanges, twisting and turning into a seemingly impenetrable combination of highways. Those of us involved in higher education generally see the path through universities as the open road, he said. Students see the impenetrable tangle.
That’s just the administrative side. Another barrier is the disconnect between faculty members and student success. Most faculty members do indeed care about the undergraduates in their classes, and many have transformed their courses in ways that improve class climate, retention, student interaction, critical thinking, and learning. Those efforts count for little in a university rewards system that makes research productivity the primary means of evaluation, though. As several people at the UIA meeting noted, that rewards system encourages faculty to distance themselves from students, who essentially become an impediment to tenure and promotion. It also provides no incentive to become involved in broader university efforts to help students succeed.
Grit and the myth of individualism
Claire Creighton, director of the Academic Success Center at Oregon State, provided another example of universities’ many systemic barriers as she talked of how the idea of “grit” had spread into conversations across institutions. On its own, it’s a fine concept, she said: Students need to work through adversity. Persistence pays off.
In many ways, though, grit is an extension of the American myth of the self-made man – yes, the myth is generally male-centric – the idea that a person can achieve anything through hard work and persistence, that those of no means have the same opportunity to rise to the top as those with abundant wealth. It’s a myth embedded in popular culture through stories of individual success and rugged individualism. Legislators, policy makers and universities themselves have perpetuated that myth by turning a degree into an individual commodity and an individual financial burden rather than a shared accomplishment of a democratic society.
As Creighton said, grit has become equated with student success. Those who succeed have grit and those who fail don’t. By looking at it in those terms, we create a sense of deficiency among students by blaming them for their failure rather than looking into systemic problems.
“What is it about institutions that requires students to be gritty and resilient, to overcome adversity, in order to achieve?” she asked.
I agree, but students will face repeated adversity once they leave a university. We need to help them develop the grit they will need for long-term success by helping them work through failures – and by making failure a learning experience rather than a dead end – while supporting them as they build confidence and develop skills.
Genyne Royal, assistant dean for student success initiatives at Michigan State, explained one way of doing that by paying more attention to what she called the “murky middle,” students with GPAs of 2.0 to 2.6. We generally focus most on students on academic probation, she said, and we miss those borderline students who could easily slip toward failure.
The ‘murky middle’ and the ‘secret sauce’
She equated student success to a mysterious “secret sauce” that all universities hope to find. Some years we add brown sugar, she said. Other years we add hot sauce. That is, the process must change constantly as students and their unique needs change.
That process must also help us see our campuses through the eyes of students, as Jennifer Brown, vice provost and dean for undergraduate education at the University of California, Riverside, reminded those at the UIA meeting. We too often forget what students see when they look at our programs and visit our campuses. Most certainly they consider what they will learn and where a degree will lead them. Two of the most important factors have little to do with academics, though, Brown said, and everything to do with a sense of belonging:
Are there others here like me?
Is there a place here for me?
Preparing for ‘seismic shifts’
An article this week from EAB, the educational data and consulting organization, echoed the concerns I heard at the meeting of the University Innovation Alliance. It conveyed a sense of urgency for colleges and universities to prepare for “seismic shifts” in the coming decade as demographics change and the number of high school graduates declines. Melanie Ho, executive director of EAB, recently completed a series of one-on-one discussions with university presidents. She said that administrators spoke of the urgent need for “systemic, holistic change across campus.” Institutions must focus on what makes them unique, she said, while breaking down silos and quickly pushing through changes that might usually take years to accomplish.
That need for holistic change came up in many discussions and presentations at the University Innovation Alliance gathering, as did the importance of cooperation across institutions. John Engler, interim president of Michigan State and a former Michigan governor, said global competition for talent, weak graduation rates, and growing cynicism about higher education all pointed to the need for change.
“Universities think we can’t go away,” Engler said. “Well, the world is changing. Maybe that will change.”
Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.