Current Issues

Beating The Odds

Posted on September 18, 2010

One of the main reasons I’ve been in Washington this past week was an invitation by the Gates Foundation to be part of a discussion around how we can improve access and graduation rates nationally, especially as the US slips further behind other nations in the percentage of adults holding post-secondary degrees.  SNHU was identified as a BTO school (no, not a Bachman Turner Overdrive school) — a Beating the Odds school is one that finds ways to improve success and narrow the achievement gap that plague like institutions. 

Thirty institutions were identified and their presidents attended —  funny how an invitation gets a 100% response rate when it comes from the Gates Foundation — and we were one of only two New England institutions (Pine Manor was the other) and one of the very few privates.  Most of the attendees were massive community colleges such as Northern Virginia CC with its 73,000 students or Rio Salado College, the huge online provider within the Maricopa Community College system.  The discussion was animated, provocative, and I came away with a long list of topics for us to consider as we think about our ongoing need to improve retention and completion rates (the BTO honors notwithstanding).

It’s impossible in a blog post to capture the depth and nuance of the discussions, but here is at least a smattering of highlights:

  • Many of the BTO schools reach back into high schools and as far as sixth grade with programs that seek to build aspiration (there was a lot of discussion around the “poverty of vision” that often attends poverty of a financial kind) and skills.  The problem of remediation received a lot of attention — everyone is struggling with high school graduates who are simply unprepared for college work, an issue for us as well.
  • Some schools track the success of students by high school and report back to those schools data on retention, attrition, and even success in disciplines.
  • There was discussion about the ways developmental courses demoralize first year students and often send mixed signals about what college work is and should be.  Some are experimenting with alternatives such as a “math emporium” where gaps in knowledge are more quickly redressed instead of making students sit through a full semester course.
  • There was discussion of the shifting role of faculty who were traditionally the experts on curriculum, content, learning styles, assessment, and pedagogy.  However, parts of that traditional role are being “commoditized” and farmed out to new entities with greater expertise than the generalist faculty member.  We now have instructional designers, assessment experts (and a distrust of the assigned grade, which has always been the end point for student assessment along with the GPA, a rolling up of all the assigned grades into a single average), new forms of content, and more. 
  • There was a related debate about mission drift, with worry that when schools try to be all things or overreach they become less effective at all things.  Some of the community college presidents, now arguing that they can offer four-year degrees at lower costs than their peers in the state systems, disagreed. 
  • There was a call for measurable, meaningful assessments built around competencies.  The notion is that when we can reassure anyone that learning has actually happened, then we make possible any form of educational delivery.  It won’t matter how learning occurred — traditional classroom, online, self-paced, in the workplace, through simulations, whatever — if at the end of the process we can measure learning in some rock-solid fashion.  Even things like transfer credits become easier because if we have agreed upon competencies or learning outcomes and great assessment, then elite university X can’t argue that its Macroeconomics course is superior to the one at Community College Y.  The test will be in a student’s ability to demonstrate mastery.
  • Rio Salado has a weekly Monday term start.  Students can begin their education every week.  What would it take for us to do the same with Online?

Woven through the discussion were stories of students and they reminded us of why this effort is so important.  One president from El Paso described a start of the year ceremony they do where students on a panel are asked why they decided to enroll.  One young woman, who he described as looking like the adolescent she is, replied “Because I want my two-year-old daughter to see me as a college graduate and not a teenage mom. I want her to have a better life.”

It reminded me of a conversation I had with one of our first year students, a kid from the poorest part of Boston whose mom, a single parent, is unemployed.  He wrote me this summer because his aid package wasn’t enough to get him here.  Louisa Martin and the Admissions Office staff raved about him and we provided the extra grant money that allowed him to enroll this fall.  I met his family on move-in day and later asked him if his mom was pleased with everything.  He said to me: “My mom?  My whole neighborhood is going crazy.  You gotta understand.  In my neighborhood all my friends become drug dealers, get put in jail, or get shot.”   The hopes of a neighborhood — that one of their own might finally break out and make something good and decent of himself — rides on our ability to help this young man beat the odds.

The phrase that resonated with me after the day’s discussions was “poverty of vision.”  It takes two forms and I see both of them on display at SNHU.  There are the students like the one I just described who has to overcome a world that tells him he can’t be better than those around him.  Or as one southern president put it, that he “can’t rise above his raisin’.”   That cultural erosion of self-confidence and squashing of dreams, often amplified by all that comes with poverty (bad schools, crime, hunger, lack of necessary funds to attend college), is insidious and becomes deeply imbedded. 

More common to us are those students who come for the college “experience” and a diploma (a pathway to a job) but with little excitement about learning and the actual process of engaging their intellects.  They are the ones who who do just enough to get a grade, want to know “if it will be on the test,” and celebrate if class is cancelled.  It’s a kind of “poverty of intellectual vision,” if you will, and it’s been fed by mediocre high schools and years of having too little expected of them.   A variation on that theme are the students who work so many hours and have so many other responsibilities that they have to worry about getting just enough done in order to survive and their learning experience thus becomes less than it should be. 

The major theme I took away from the day’s meeting was the importance of institutional culture.  The BTO schools embrace the challenges and have a passion for seeing students succeed.  They believe in the transformative power of education.  They see their graduation rates, to use our Board Chair’s phrase, as their “moral scorecard.”  SNHU was one of the very few private universities chosen as a BTO school and more than anything else, I believe it is our culture that landed us on the list.  We are doing all sorts of things around systems, better service, use of data, proactive advising outreach, and more — but the animating spirit that drives those improvements is a dedication to students that I have seen amply on display with the start of this new academic year. 

We plan to become a much bigger institution, but we also plan to become much better.  For some, the answer to the latter challenge is to recruit better students.  A better answer, or at least a better measure of our progress, would be to drive up the graduation rates of those we currently serve while making them more engaged learners.  Indeed, maybe making them more engaged learners is what will drive up the graduation rate.  Either way, being a leader in the area of student success is something of which we should all be proud.

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