Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Where do students turn?

A recent Student Voice (conducted by Inside Higher Education) survey of 2,000 students asked where they seek help and on what issues. The impact of the pandemic has obviously changed much about how communication occurs and what kinds of problems are paramount to students. The survey results provide a map of areas for higher education leaders to consider.

The biggest problems for students are related to financial pressures of enrollment, followed by mental health and courseload pressures. Unfortunately, the survey found that only 21% of students had raised concerns and 50% believed that there would be no point - meaning that they believed their concerns were either only slightly or not at all likely to be addressed. Peers were most often noted as a source of help (73%), professors were second (32%), and student affairs staff and other officials falling significantly lower. There are a number of things that can be done formally to encourage students to seek assistance when needed but at the core of most of those is one thing - listening regularly and learning directly from students.

Counseling centers, provided specifically to address student mental health concerns, are under-utilized as a place for students to turn. Taking actions to raise awareness, engage with broader numbers of students beyond just the help seekers, and cultivating peer networks are among the twelve ideas recommended by research and surveying best practices on campus.

A study of faculty views revealed growing awareness of student mental health needs. In addition, some faculty expressed willingness to be more involved and welcomed training to help them be effective. However, some faculty voiced concern about taking on any kind of role, even as gatekeepers, in the face of what they view as always being required to do more.

For campus leaders who want to encourage more open expression, two easy steps are 1) publicly let students know you hear their concerns, and 2) walk around campus more, show up where students are so casual interaction can lead to understanding students' views. It's important to recognize that "walking around" in virtual and social media spaces will have to suffice or be a complement to actual walking around until COVID-19 is more under control. A Vice Provost for Student Success recommended encouraging faculty and avoiding titles would improve student communication.

A student at High Point in North Carolina urged campuses to reach out to students more actively, concluding that one of the most important things is to "remind your students that is is OK and that mental health is not an illness." The challenge is that students are, and have been, ambivalent about their experience both during campus lock-down and upon returning to in-person instruction. Concerns are evident in everything from campus mitigation efforts to the role of online learning as a substitute or enhancement. One of the greatest areas of dissatisfaction for students is not being able to interact with peers.

Other research conducted by the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University confirmed the overall decline in trust for their institutions among all students. Alarmingly, the analyses documented that Black students trusted their universities even less. Shannon Calderone, professor of educational leadership at Washington State, indicated that the lack of confidence among Black students "speaks to the alienation and lack of sense of belonging" that they encounter. Campus leaders, informed by their communications team, can and should strive to overcome the distrust that may be present among marginalized students. Doing so requires acknowledging the privilege and power that leaders have (especially if they are white and male), remaining humble in their rhetoric, and including diverse voices.

Research conducted by Heterodox Academy identified considerable reluctance among students to discuss controversial topics such as race. Students' reticence is most pronounced among students who identify as more politically conservative, with the greatest contributor being how other students will judge them. The campus environment teaches students how to function in a democratic and open society. Therefore, campus leaders should do all they can to foster a sense that students can, and should, voice their opinions. Recommendations emerging from the Student Voice research include: modeling respectful conversations, integrating real-world issues into coursework, promoting inclusion through student organizations, fostering intentional student engagement, aligning titles with what staff actually do, providing a central place for assisting students, and providing policies and places to support free speech. The Key podcast summarizes the purpose of Student Voice, its findings, and addresses how institutions can respond.

Creating an open environment then becomes a shared concern across all campus stakeholders - peers, professors, counselors/advisors, and student affairs educators. It doesn't matter who students go to first, and faculty are the most readily available, but the concerns that students have must go somewhere and should be considered carefully during and after the pandemic.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Reinvention time for higher education?

As educational leaders ponder how to respond to so many issues hitting them at once (i.e. enrollment decline, shifting job markets, revolutionary new technologies), it's time to consider all the options. Adam Grant's new book Think Again proposes the long-term success in navigating the way forward will require putting values first in relation to perspectives educators hold and whatever actions they take. He says, "The reason for this approach is that our ideas about how the world works should remain fluid as new information is acquired and as the context changes." Regularly examining assumptions and embracing constant adaptability may be the new normal following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Time for Reinvention by Ray Schroeder recounts some of the disorganizing dynamics and proposes that one of the models that should be considered is a "subscription model for students, and perhaps employers on their behalf, to pay a small continuing fee for forward-thinking, cutting-edge, career-accelerating learning opportunities?" This, delivered "just in time, online, accessible anywhere and at any hour" could be the impetus for students' endorsing some online learning to remain after the pandemic. A review of Grawe's The Agile College includes recommendations that institutions do four things: focus on retention through innovation, grow enrollment by appealing to new populations and offering different learning models, right-size class enrollment, and share services across institutions or merge. Improving course schedules and availability for students and more flexibility are approaches that could save institutions from a downward spiral of budget and program cuts. Southern New Hampshire University's acquisition of a coding boot camp provider Kenzie Academy, is one example of institutions incorporating alternative credentialing options. Offering modular degrees in partnership with community colleges and 4-year institutions could provide even greater flexibility in where and when students can take the courses they want to take.

One thing that will require rethinking for many campuses is space, evidenced by campuses selling or repurposing buildings left empty in the aftermath of the pandemic. As distance or blended learning remains a part of the mix for many campuses, space underutilization may provide the opportunity for campuses to be a resource for the broader community; examples include corporate partnerships, day care, recreation, and hosting events. The reverse may occur for campuses that have struggled with limitations on space as shifts to remote work leave offices and retail spaces vacant.

Another critical issue is the composition of the faculty. The number of tenured faculty has declined across a variety of institutions with 30% of those teaching now being tenured. There are multiple causes of this decline but fundamental questions need to be raised about why and also how the trend is impacting higher education. The faculty of most institutions has also been white and privileged far too long. With higher education contributing some of the strongest rhetoric about the necessity of facing equity and access issues, it's time that academics get serious about diversifying their own ranks.

At a broad and systemic level, university system leadership (through the National Associations of System Heads, NASH) has begun examination of their post-pandemic role throughout the 60 systems in 44 states within the U.S.A. This organization includes the administration of institutions that educate 75% of U.S.A. students. The "transformation agenda" that is being addressed includes; 1) responding to the health-care crisis, calls for racial justice, and economic recovery, and 2) enhancing success for students and the states these institutions serve. A recent survey found a high level of optimism among college and university presidents that their institutions will come out of the pandemic era in good shape, a finding that is somewhat surprising. The survey included items on financial stability, top concerns for students and the institution, and places to cut budgets or find sources of new revenue. Asked how their institutions will respond to the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, the presidents indicated; 44% through institutional transformation, 34% reset for growth, 20% return to normal, and 3% shrink the institution. Probing the conclusions of the survey revealed that the demoralization that teachers have experienced was overlooked and that technology implications were neglected.

Other groups are addressing barriers to recruitment, retention, and success of students, especially those that have previously been marginalized. With common application data showing students moving toward elite institutions, the National Association for College Admission Counseling launched a commission to examine multiple aspects of the admission process that may result in fundamental rethinking of practices in areas such as the college admission pipeline, financial aid, and equity in enrollment and success. One can only hope that the examination of admission practices will honestly face the fact that graduates of private high schools have a huge advantage in gaining admission to elite universities.

2021 spring enrollment declined for undergraduates, but projections for 2021 fall showed increases at elite institutions and the competition for graduate enrollment increased. International student enrollment is likely to remain lower for several years which results in adult learner numbers being the primary ray of hope. COVID-19 vaccination acceleration couldn't come soon enough as a reassurance to students that in-person study in the fall of 2021 is possible, although requiring vaccination of students comes with political resistance. Some leaders in higher education urged their colleagues to lean into their institutional transformation work. Building for the future will require engaging with faculty, governing boards, and donors to pursue other funding sources and by positioning institutions to serve critical public needs.

Reconsidering the role and approach of higher education institutions has provided much food for thought including the possibility of greater flexibility in instructional approach and rethinking diversity, equity, and  belonging. Inside Higher Education's "Driving Transformation in Higher Education" and "Back to the New Normal" are compilations about the changes that are emerging. One of the questions to be cxplored is how research universities can be reinvigorated to spawn the innovation that is so important to growing an economy. Another critical element of the analysis will be honestly examining the assumptions under which higher education has operated to this point.

A potentially transformative initiative motivated by the impact of the pandemic, income inequality, and changes in the world of work, the Taskforce on Higher Education Opportunity, will begin to dig into the challenges faced by unemployed recent college graduates. The Taskforce is a joint effort of McKinsey, Strada, and an open list of institutional partners representing 2.5 million students. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) documented the impact of the pandemic on all students and found considerable imbalance among students at a variety of institutions and from specific cultural backgrounds.

One way to reinvent higher education during the time when students are enrolled would be to utilize work study to fund their expenses, a strategy of "earn while you learn," which could make college attendance more affordable while also enhancing the relevance of both work and study. Other strategies involve setting up apprenticeship programs in community colleges and allow Pell Grants to be used for high-quality and short term work experience. Concerns have been expressed that the Pell Grant proposal lets employers off the hook, abdicating their responsibility to develop their workforce and undermining employees' ability to influence the workplace.

Particularly because many students believe the value of their education has declined during the pandemic, spawning multiple law suits for tuition refunds, educators will be well-served to focus on what students report they need; Barnes & Noble's study indicates that "colleges will need to shift their traditional models to be more 'outcome based,' providing students with more career preparation for the post-pandemic job market."

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The issues higher education must face

Any number of people could propose a top concerns list for higher education today. Steve Mintz, who writes for Inside Higher Education, offers three that he asserts as essential to confront:
  1. Political polarization - and he says that expanding access and improving success is central because of the economic stratification which accompanies polarization and hostility about the growing diversity of the U.S.A.
  2. Career preparation is now more important than ever in the face of lost jobs and shifting employment markets after the pandemic.
  3. Confront and rectify the institutional racism that has been at the core of many colleges and universities.
There could be more but perhaps the key is identifying a focused smaller number so that progress can actually be achieved. These issues, as well as others, represent the opportunity of not returning to the old normal. Wil Del Pilar of Education Trust says higher education should open up better by serving student populations that are underserved, advancing equity, and designing for greater flexibility in all that higher education does. Opening up better would likely take a different approach from portraying diversification as an education resource but, instead, adopt an ethical view - it's the right thing to do.

Before institutions can even begin to be better, they must face how elite private education connects with higher education to perpetuate the privilege of those who attend these schools. A recent study of South Korean higher education mirrored the differential impact of elite education based on wealth inequality found in the U.S.A. The bottom line is that, as Flanagan wrote, the system of elite education "screws the poor, hollows out the middle class, and turns rich kids into exhausted, anxious and maximally stressed-out adolescents who believe their future depends on getting into one of a very small group of colleges."

One of the most difficult implications of facing these issues is the backlash that is primarily manifest among white men. One of the most concrete examples of the challenges educators and the broader society face is who participated in the January 6, 2021, insurrection that former President Trump invited. Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago determined that the majority were there out of a fear of being replaced through social changes that are occurring today. Most frightening of all, Professor Paper indicates that the current backlash has roots far back into American history and that those presently involved have already decided that they are ready to fight.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Renewing a commitment to international understanding

Fostering international understanding through higher education could have many facets. Two important dimensions of what should be a broader comprehensive effort to internationalize include; 1) hosting international students and 2) encouraging greater international experience among domestic students.

I have previously posted about the importance of deepening the commitment to serving international students in the U.S.A. Serving international students during the COVID-19 pandemic has been complicated, a sentiment echoed in the U.K. as well. This view contrasts with what has all too often been a financial gain model - attract international students who pay top price for their educations and then are expected to adjust to U.S.A. cultural and other expectations.

In order to renew the U.S. commitment to international students, the Biden administration is being urged to take policy actions that will send a renewed welcoming signal to international students. The proposal is justified on not only the economic impact of international students enrolling in U.S. institutions but based on what they add to the scientific, intellectual, and social environment of campuses. Some international students have appealed for assistance through COVID-19 relief funding, with a particular focus on the devastation to international students' home country economies and the fact that travel restrictions resulted in their being stranded in the U.S. without adequate support. More recent help from the Biden administration came in exempting international students from travel restrictions and by not changing guidance for international students for online learning. However, many international students still face logistical challenges in securing visa and travel assistance necessary for them to pursue their aspirations and panic has struck many international students who now face short timelines.

The American Council on Education's report, "Toward greater inclusion and success: a new compact for international students," proposes a commitment to more support for international students "with a focus on building lifelong relationships between students and institutions from the first point of contact to their postgraduate careers." This "lifecycle approach" is a game changer and could help U.S.A. higher education return to the place of being the world's most desirable destination for education.

In order to encourage U.S. domestic students to engage in some type of international experience, a Civic Engagement Corps within the Peace Corps could include a proposed 8-12 weeks in domestic and international communities focused on immersion with local projects or concerns. Such a Civic Engagement Corps would "allow students to build upon and put to practical use their academic learning in order to work with others on an important public issue, and to develop in them the intercultural and democratic skills necessary for long-term success."

Thursday, February 11, 2021

"New Deal" for "Resilients"

Speculation about the future of higher education and the prospects for the current generation of students who are attending, or could have attended, continue to roll out. Two possibilities with an optimistic tone include; the proposal for a federal "New Deal for Higher Education" and the current "Generation Resilient" response to the ordeal of changing college and life plans. Optimism is critical at this time and faculty are an important part of keeping hope alive, a commitment actualized by positively engaging the current generation of students.

The "New Deal for Higher Education" is advocated by the union representing the American Association of University Professors. The devastation of the pandemic and the job losses it caused have caused many to advocate the breadth of FDR's "New Deal" that restored the U.S.A. economy after the great depression. The question is if there is the will and means for legislators to adopt a sweeping higher education strategy to "prioritize teaching, research, and supporting student success" that will address access regardless of financial means and result in "job security, equitable pay and sustainable careers for faculty and staff." The Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunity will provide a complementary focus on lagging employment figures for the current generation of students as well as income inequality and changes in the nature of work. The Education Trust has called for improved access for marginalized student populations saying that states must make, "metrics that involve enrollment and success of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds a mandatory and integral part of the outcomes-based funding system."

The point of a "New Deal for Higher Education" shouldn't just be to provide funding for institutions. The greatest beneficiaries will be the current generation of students, whose character may qualify them for a new descriptor - Generation Resilient. With the weight of financing college attendance, remote or blended learning, and job prospects dimmer than pre-pandemic, students are being pressed to make very difficult decisions. The evidence suggests that these students (or prospects) are "growing up faster, grappling with major life decisions that are already stressful, and now further complicated by the challenges of a pandemic-struck world."

As higher education leaders ponder how to adjust budgets and plans for the future, it will be essential that the public purpose of educators' work is renewed. Increased access and affordability to higher education for the "Baby Boomers" who went to college in the late 1960s and 1970s came about as a result of governmental commitment to talent development. It paid off and a renewed commitment today will be both politically expedient and is the right thing to do.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Australia struggles with international enrollment

Officials are beginning to assess the negative impact of the pandemic on Australian international student enrollment. Australia has become increasingly reliant on international students, especially coming from China, as a major revenue source for higher education. Closing borders to deter the spread of COVID-19 is having a direct impact now and the enrollment and budget woes are likely to last at least another five years.

Contrasting Australia to competing nations, William Locke, director of Melbourne's Center for the Study of Higher Education, said "it may help that the main competitors for Australian universities, the U.S. and the U.K., are in a much worse situation with the pandemic and the political turmoil of Trump's and Brexit." He went on to say that "Any announcements about loosening restrictions will need to be made sooner rather than later, giving time for students and universities to prepare and to give a positive message about Australia being fully open again in 2022."

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Seven deadly sins of higher education and what we can do now

The provocative title may sound trite but the substance of Steven Mintz' commentary "Higher Education's Seven Deadly Sins" is worth pondering. Fortunately, Mintz counters the sins with seven strategies that could help reverse the damage. The seven recommended directions are closely aligned with what student development educators value and strive to fulfill. Read the article for more detail but the seven corrections include: 1) broaden the professorial role, 2) educate the whole student, 3) address why students are in college, 4) ensure courses are learning/learner centered, 5) go beyond the subject matter, 6) stand for equity, and 7) be transparent about student outcomes.

A complementary essay by Jon Valiant of the Brookings Institute on how schools have built an economy but not a modern democracy offers a perspective that incorporates elements of the response to the seven deadline sins. Valiant recommends that educators need to focus on questions such as:

  • How do we act with civility in a digital environment?
  • How do we distinguish fact from fiction?
Only by doing so will our educational institutions, including higher education, contribute to cultivating a democracy stored through disciplines of media literacy, digital citizenship and empathy, and intellectual humility.

Optional Practical Training (OPT) preserved and new language testing options

In good news for higher education, a U.S. District Court judgment has denied challenges to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) that allows international students to work after completing their degrees at U.S. universities. Higher education is beginning to breath easier as the tables turn back toward the U.S. being a preferred destination for international students. OPT is an essential piece of making the U.S. attractive because of the value of completing university study and then immediately going into a U.S. work experience. As an example of how urgent OPT is, witness the lawsuit by a masters of law graduate at Berkeley whose visa was denied as a result of the university's international student office error.

Another of President Biden's executive orders directed a review of policies impeding legal immigration. The majority of international students do not come to the U.S. with the intent to immigrant after their studies. However, having policies that do not stand in the way of immigration is another positive reassurance that the U.S. is turning away from Trump's "America First" isolationism.

In a move to compete with other language tests that are moving into their market the Educational Testing Services has introduced a new and cheaper TOEFL. The new and original version will both be available. Positioning themselves as an industry disruptor, a Dueling spokesperson whose move into language testing increased by 2,000 percent last year commented, "we are very happy to see long-term test providers moving in the direction that's critical for student success."