If I told you to care about something, would you?
In college I worked at a Psychiatric facility. I have many stories, like the ex-Army Ranger who crawled up into the ceiling of the locked unit to escape, crashing through the tiled roof into the nurse's station and holding several people at bay for hours. But at the end of the day, almost every patient we saw complained of an over-riding issue: they felt disconnected. They were disconnected from society, they lost connection to their family, they went in and out of connectedness to reality, etc. Friends, careers, spouses, children...they were disconnected from something they deemed important. And as I worked in a college town, we saw our fair share of college students, who struggled to connect as many were told to connect to things for which they had no affinity...
I speak, blog, and consult around “connectedness” a lot these days, although in a far more academic and organizational sense than psychological. I realize that term can be “loaded” at the same time as being “ambiguous.” But I really believe that intentional focus on connection (meaning taking the time to define it properly, spreading that defined concept culturally, implementing practices around it, and of course measuring success) will change the game for any organization, but particularly for institutions of higher education.
Practically stated, connected students persist. Connected staff support students. Connected faculty are satisfied. Connected recruits enroll. Connected alumni donate.
Likewise, connecting curriculum to outcomes drives both quality and career success. Connecting learning science to instruction drives meaningful understanding as well as retention of materials. Connecting frames and mechanics drives problem solving and critical thinking. Connection changes everything.
One of my current roles affords me the opportunity to hear about problems at a large number of schools. In all honesty, most of the problems facing higher ed fall into 4-5 categories. Just about everyone is dealing with the same problems, often with the exact same catalysts for those problems. (Despite almost every institution expressing that their problems are unique…) But when you start asking about details or specific examples, that is when you start to see variety! Yes, these specifics are also fairly universal in nature, but the people factor brings variables that make the stories interesting. (Even though most stories orbit around the same planets of dysfunction.) That said, I heard something during an interaction at a conference that was profound, especially within the context of connectedness. See what you think.
The information came from a Student Success representative. She had been a faculty member (still teaches part time), but was considered very good with students. So, two years ago when the school created an initiative for a Student Success organization – a cross-functional, inter-departmental group dedicated to upping retention numbers – her name was immediately called. Yet, in two years, despite a dedicated team of 5 people making efforts to help students persist, the school has seen only a 1% increase. She was quick to point out that if the 1% increase goes beyond term to term and works into numbers of students who graduate instead of dropping out, the team pays for itself three times over. But still, even she had been hopeful that the numbers would be larger. Then she told the following account:
This school surveyed every student on campus via their classes last Spring (May). Professors ensured the survey was administered as it was a mandatory survey taken by face-to-face and online students alike. Their data set included 95% of thousands of students. What they found was unsettling to this student success advocate.
Amid some expected findings were some unsettling discoveries. For example, almost 100% of students had questions go completely unanswered every term. Over 70% of face-to-face students said they had left a long line or long wait, seeking answers elsewhere or choosing to let the question go unanswered. This was true of faculty offices, student affairs offices, financial aid offices, adviser sessions, phone support calls, and on and on. Online students similarly stated they had questions go unanswered for weeks and that technology was of little help. Students had quick and easy access to phones, text, and chat, yet almost no student support options existed using those channels. Student portals were unfriendly, support desks often had no idea how to help, and there was no easy way to find FAQ’s. While half noted the questions were eventually answered, the anecdotes surrounding the multiple choice questions suggested that most times those answers were not helpful due to their untimely nature. Students needed answers quickly so that they could do something now.
When I probed about how students might help one another as there seemed to be a shortage of staff, she said there was absolutely no formal way for that to happen. Her small group had found a few student clusters trying to communicate via social tools, but it was sporadic. They had spun up an LMS course as a “commons” area, but it was eventually turned off as the only people going in there were faculty who also felt their support needs were not being met. (Having students see faculty gripes was not deemed appropriate by administrators.)
She added that what shocked them the most was reading student comments suggesting this had been an issue for years. The students had been complaining to instructors, to advisers, and especially to one another in the hallways or cafeteria or even via online chats and forums, but the school essentially had no idea. The assumption was that a few students always grumble and complain loudly, but the assumption was also that most students were “happy” with their education experience. Not so. Students were frustrated, complained of feeling alone, and wanted to feel included. In fact, she pointed to one extremely telling statement by a student who explained that they had counseled their sibling not to attend the university because of the unsupportive nature of staff.
She finished by saying that the survey had almost no impact with her administration, nor with the faculty senate. She had incorrectly assumed these findings would result in money for her team (other than salaries, they had a $0 budget), alarm bells that would see committees and working groups formed, etc. She wrongly assumed people would be far more concerned than they indeed were. She said the President’s response was to ask the administrators to “ratchet up” their people’s efforts, with no clear processes identified that would result in any added support. It was a 5 minute conversation at a single meeting, with no follow up identified other than, "...hope to see these results improve next year!"
I admire this woman. Heck, I admire hundreds of people working across higher ed who are in just as precarious a position as she is. People who are slogging through political, dysfunctional bureaucracy in an attempt to help students succeed, in every sense of that word. But from my lens, what they are trying to do, without the resources or support to do so, is to help people connect. And this is not the only group in higher ed doing this. Faculty development workers, HR specialists, and more are in a constant quest to connect people to what they need, when they need it.
It’s interesting being on the cusp of a new wave. Schools are just starting to figure this out. As is often the case, they are woefully late to the party, as most businesses and other organizations started working on this stuff a decade (or more) ago. Books about student desires and behaviors, not to mention learning science have pointed this out for decades. But institutions are (slowly) coming around. With one of my hats squarely in the space that has a solution for this, it’s fascinating to see start-ups, internal builds, and other strategies coming onto the connectedness scene within higher education. Savvy administrators now realize that placing all of the responsibility and accountability around retention on the academic offices was unfair. For too long we told students what to connect to (academics, programs, instructors, etc), instead of allowing them choices by which to connect to things that mattered to them. But if we stitch together the work around mindset, grit, socialness…essentially every other aspect of a student’s life besides what happens in the classroom, we see connectedness in those who succeed. They are connected to something they care about which the university provides access to, helping motivate and encourage success across the student experience.
The tag line of this website is: “Connection Changes Everything.” I believe that more today than I did when I wrote it.
Good luck and good learning.