Crucial Conversations Around Higher Education

I’m currently at RTM’s CIO Congress in Washington DC.  It’s an unusual gathering of CIOs actually congregating with Academic / Student Services VPs, and a handful of Presidents from colleges and universities around the country.  I say unusual because these roles typically conference separately, which has been called out again and again during the presentations.  Not only is there an underlying disdain for the ways silos are constantly bolstered between higher ed executives, but the ramifications are on display in almost every presentation. A few of my favorite presentation titles so far:

  • Don’t Let The Laggards Lead

  • Disrupting Organizational Silos in an Increasingly Converged World: Can Higher Education Meet the Challenge?

  • Leadership in Higher Education: A Tangled and Thorny Path for Department Chairs, Deans, and Provosts

By ramifications, I mean this audience, perhaps more than any other higher ed conference audience I have seen, are quick to point out the issues facing the entire sector.  From the embarrassing dropout rate to the lack of teachers with any training around teaching to the silos at every institution that create heaps of dysfunction, presenters and audience members alike are quick to point out the problems which higher education has ignored for decades. 

To begin, I want to apologize if this feels like a “we’re losing the war” kind of post.  One of the lessons I tried to learn long ago from my father was not to take the negative position.  Once you stop believing that change can occur, you likely aren’t the person who can bring about that change. 

But that must juxtapose with the importance of knowing the hard facts.  And there are a lot of hard facts to go around.  So rather than just stating the facts through my lens and with my own biases, let me point you in the right direction so you can see them yourselves.  Then, in subsequent blogs, I’ll follow up on all of them:

The first set of facts comes from a powerful article which appeared in the Chronicle last week (July, 2019).  Kirp points out many, many issues with higher education:

1.       Over four out of ten college freshmen do not graduate within six years.

2.       For just a single year and a single class of students, that's estimated to be $3.8 billion in lost earnings.

3.       Many [students] are actually worse off economically than if they hadn’t started college.

4.       Education has become a dividing line that affects how Americans vote, the likelihood that they will own a home and their geographic mobility.

5.       As The Chronicle has shown, educational disparities even affect public health.

The article goes on to explore some solutions, which do exist (at scale) and are replicable.  Kirp sums up a few important strategies:

  • Information that identifies top-flight colleges that talented students from poor families didn’t realize were within reach helps them make better choices.

  • Text-message nudges prod students into starting, and staying in, college.

  • Data analytics can be used to anticipate which freshmen are likely to need help, enabling advisers to corral them before their problems ripen into crises.

  • Brief experiences, rooted in psychological insight, which promote a sense of belonging and a growth mind-set, make students more resilient when confronted with the predictable setbacks of undergraduate life.

  • Revamping make-or-break classes: Remedial courses in math, reading, and writing — the downfall for millions of students — substantially lower the number of failing grades.

  • Building connections across the community: Designated pathways from community colleges to four-year institutions give students in two-year colleges a direct route to a bachelor’s degree — a clear incentive to pursue their education — as well as providing universities with well-prepared upperclassmen.

Yes, I realize that last one may feel self-serving when reported on a blog for an institute specifically helping institutions tackle “Inter-Connectedness,” but it does not change the importance of the issue.  Yet the article goes on to suggest that most institutions are not capable of instituting these (or any) significant changes that will impact the problems we face.  Summed up in a poignant quote from one of the unicorns of change (Timothy Renick from Georgia St), the author makes it clear that change in higher education is almost impossible:

“It is more than inertia — it is structural. I visit lots of campuses. They invite me because they see the changes made at Georgia State and want similar successes. But when I get to campus and explain how we centralized advising, to make it better, I hear they could never do that because the Dean of X wouldn’t support it, and the Dean of X is supported by the trustees. When I talk about junking lectures in math, and making the courses more interactive, I hear that the faculty senate would never go against the chair of math to enact such changes.”

Yes, I have posted blogs with quotes exactly like this, but again, this observation is happening all around higher ed.  Which brings me to my second reference.

Shared by the CIO from American University (here in DC) is a survey I had not seen previously.  The National College Health Assessment is an annual survey of students regarding everything from health to drug usage to sexual behaviors to mental health issues.  Take a look at a few of the mental health responses from 2018:

Again, these findings align tremendously with other research from other streams, only strengthening the overall findings.  Our students feel lonelier, less supported, and less connected than ever before.  Those feelings which impact mindset and connectedness to academics, institutions, and programs are likely a greater issue regarding persistence than almost any other factor, yet they go largely unchanged as institutions continue to focus myopically on academic-only treatments. 

Over the upcoming weeks and months, I will try to unpack some of the things in these two references, discussing what can be done and how we can indeed solve some of the issues if we choose to.  Until then, I encourage you to go back and read through past blogsMost of these problems are not new.  And many solutions have already been discovered. 

Good luck and good learning.

Jeff Borden