Fit, Yield, Match

For those of you not engaged in admissions work at all or only tangentially, it is what we in higher education call “yield time.”  Admissions decisions made, letters and acceptance packets out, and follow-ups initiated from both sides.  In this post’s title, I have three of the words that matter most at this time of year and will address them below.

“Fit,” of course, is also infamous in faculty and senior leader ob searches, not just prospective student school choice.  Parents and students are looking for the “best fit” schools and hoping for a “reach” school or large scholarship along the way.  Admissions officers are also concerned with “fit” at many colleges and universities, asking how this applicants will fit in on campus, what will they add to the community, etc.  Fit is not infrequently part of the calculus of the admissions decision from admit/waitlist/deny to scholarship.

Yield is the name of the season in recruitment for a reason.  Of the admitted students, what percentage will a particular school yield?  At a school like my current one, where we admit into major programs, we are all asking “did we admit too few in history education this year to make the cohort?” or “did we admit too many in nursing for the number of seats?”  These concerns impact not just those engaged in admissions work but deans, faculty, and leadership (who then must respond to the concerns and problems).  We all know the tension of this season before the traditional deposit deadline of May 1.

But what do I mean by “match”?  Well, as student demographics change, as traditional admission markers like SATs change, how do we know how well we have matched new students to what we, as an institution, can offer?  How can we best meet those new students?  And what happens when we don’t?  Who could have done what differently?

This post is inspired by a conversation I had earlier this week about retention.  It was particularly of our international students but also recent immigrant students and those who may not “match” the idea some folks have in their minds of who a student is on our campus.  I said, “meet them where they are but first we have to find out where they are and plan for the need to meet them.”  The colleague with whom I spoke thought better course matching and assessment would help, but for me, teaching–like recruitment and like international education–is a people business, and no data analytics can match the value of meeting, knowing, and talking to students.  I am just a firm believer that their stories matter more than their numbers in a spreadsheet.

 

What We Mean when We Talk about Students

I’ve spent the last four days at the AIEA conference, attending workshops, panels, and roundtables on international higher education leadership.  I’ve had many lightbulb moments, but one of them was most important: students have identities or, rather, a student has identities.

You might be saying, as I did at first, that this fact is obvious.  However, the plurality of identities in a single student is key to the work that I do–and that many of us–do to help diverse students settle into and be successful in university study.  Let me explain why.

Our students do not necessarily build their identities from the same categories that we do, as stakeholders inside the institution.  For example, admissions operations may group students as in-state or out-of-state, international, green card holder, transfer, Honors Program student, and a whole host of other possible dividers.  And then other offices use those designations to further divide–into housing cohorts, groups receiving or not receiving certain information, slotted to attend certain events or paying certain fees.  After that, we all treat them according to whatever divides we have imposed upon them that matter to our work–class year, major or program of study, etc.  And we end up with a campus rhetoric that frames these students as “ours” or “yours.”

But how do students see themselves?  Initially, many of our institutional divides are false to them.  Why shouldn’t why shouldn’t “international students” and “global citizens” have access to the same advice, events, services, etc.?  Why shouldn’t first generation students and international students be supported by the same or analogous student success programming when they have the same questions most of the time?

These are questions students ask, when we take the time to let them, that should inform what we do on our campuses to recognize the false divides and dichotomies WE create among our students.  When we work harder to see them as students, work from their similarities and not their differences, we are more likely to foster student success for everyone–because they begin to form a cohesive identity as belonging to our institution.  And isn’t that how we help them find home away from home, achieve their goals, and become alumni we are proud of?  So, when we talk about students, we need to see them as they see themselves and build campus constructs that both support their identities as they exist and strengthen them with the support of our community.

College & The Dream

Some years ago, in a city I never thought I would be in–Ashgabat, Turkmenistan–I gave away one of my small number of college pennants, literally from the wall of my school booth, to a young woman who burst into tears and hugged the stiff piece of felt as tight as one would a most precious possession.  That is a country where most students, especially women, will not likely have the opportunity to study in the U.S. A living wage in Turkmenistan cannot begin to support the full cost of a year of undergraduate study here.

But this same issue is what we talk about when we talk about domestic students affording college.  How much loan debt is acceptable?  For what major and eventual planned career?  What is driving the high cost?  Those questions are parent and student questions, but those of us who work in higher education have our own versions: What are we spending all of this money on?  Which students are we “pricing out” of study at our school?  Why are we always doing more with less?

I wrote about the business of higher education in my last post, so I will not extend that conversation in the same way here.  Instead, what I do want to explore is the spirit of that young woman crying in Ashgabat, holding the pennant of a school she had never heard of or thought of before that moment.  Instead, what she had dreamed of was a life different from the one set before her as the path marked ahead, and that is just what our most vulnerable students in the U.S. are experiencing as they dream big, take advantage of the many ways they have to find the funds to pay for college, stretch themselves in every way to make that dream come true.  Unlike that student overseas, domestic students have access to federal aid of various kinds, private loans, grants, and scholarships.  So, first generation students, young people from immigrant communities, and those with less wealth or knowledge of the system may accrue huge debt without really understanding the possible financial consequences.

But what happens when the dream won’t come true?  Those same groups of students are our most vulnerable in the classroom as well, often lacking the same context and background knowledge about the academic enterprise of college as they do in respect to the financial realities.  I think about that between semesters, as lists of students on probation or being dismissed arrive in my email and as bills go unpaid or students inquire about extra work because of unexpected costs.  I wonder if we, as educators, could have done something differently to help those students understand what could happen, what was happening.  I know that we, regardless of whether we are faculty or administrators or staff, cannot solve all the problems, even for the students we would want to.  How prepared are we and were we for the ways that these students were unprepared?

As we look ahead to the next administration and the tough times it portends for those of us in academe, we need to keep our sights on the reason we do this every day: students.  That means we need to make ourselves more prepared to catch them as they stumble or fall in new or known ways.  And as systems and rules change, they will stumble and fall more.  How do we do that, exactly?  I’ll share my answer to that question here next time.

Faculty Work & The Education Business

Today, colleagues in the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties (APSCUF) went to the picket lines and began a strike.  They have been working without a contract for 477 days.  Here in New Jersey, where I work, my faculty and professional staff colleagues in our AFT-affiliated union have also been working without a contract for 477 days–since June 30, 2015.  This news is notable, as many of us began our academic years reading about the faculty lockout–in advance of any strike action by faculty–at Long Island University.  Why do I call this notable?  Because of the pattern of faculty (and staff, in some cases) seeking fairness of different kinds: higher wages, lower costs passed on for benefits, access to collective bargaining for full- or part-time contingent faculty, etc.

What is perhaps most notable and most important about this APSCUF strike is how perfectly it illuminates the centrality of faculty to the educational project. Here at midterm in the fall semester, faculty may or may not have completed midterm assessments of student progress, they will begin advising for spring enrollments any day now, and students who are not sure about their current school can still apply to transfer for spring at most schools. But these striking faculty won’t be doing that work, and all the institutional operations that would follow in Registrar’s Offices, Student Accounts, Financial Aid, and even Admissions won’t be happening.  This is the power of colective action, and here it demonstrates the power of faculty labor necessary to truly fuel the business of higher education.

Over a decade ago, I was working with the national office of the AAUP, delighted to get paid, in part for keeping up with higher ed news, and we were seeing the very same loggerheads and having the very same conversations around the country that APSCUF and LIU and other faculties are having now.  We may think nothing has changed in that decade because we are retreading some of the same issues, but we all must understand that things have changed.  Scott Walker’s fundamental union busting and de facto elimination of tenure in the Wisconsin state system had a ripple effect, as have the NLRB’s recent moves to consider private college athletes as employees, expanded support for part-time and contingent faculty unions at private universities and colleges, and increasing recognition of the problem of graduate “apprenticeships” that are anything but for many graduate students who teach their own courses, run research laboratories, and fulfill a host of other duties considered “training.”

So, in this changed landscape of labor unions and the work of higher education, why are we seeing such challenges to faculty voice and such difficulty–in long-unionized state systems, in some cases–with contract negotiations?  The optimist in me would like to say that this represents increased solidarity among union employees in higher ed, with faculty standing together across the deeply drawn boundary lines of position type as class system.  But I am no true optimist.  Honestly, I believe we have reached a point where the business of education (and its often harsh funding realities) can no longer be even a secondary concern for university leaders, who then end up sacrificing other things.  We are forgetting something John W. Curtis and I wrote fully 10 years ago–Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.  When faculty have larger classes for the same or less money, when they have less job security or none, when the question is not “what can you give up?” but “how much more can you take and keep taking?”–learning suffers.  Education suffers.

But administrators see a different playing field with more pieces.  They see the increased pressure to recruit successful students, to match ever-growing discount rates (and, therefore, take in less money), to handle decreasing state support–both financially and sometimes legislatively.  They see buildings in need of repair, vendor costs going up beyond their control.  They have to answer the question “what can you give up?”  For everyone in their units.  And they do.

And it is exactly that leadership duty that makes shared governance and union representation essential components of the business of higher education today and in the future.  To lead, we have to listen, and to listen with respect and concern requires acknowledging the value of all stakeholders and the shared project of educating students.  And who knows better what students need in their classrooms and their curriculum than faculty?  And how can we call anything responsible decision-making in respect to student learning and the conditions of learning when faculty answer with a strong no?  The answer seems obvious to me.

On Beginnings & Endings

For many of us in U.S. higher ed, this week brings the start of a new semester and academic year.  For me, this year is striking–in ways both sad and wonderful.  This January, I will have been at my current home institution for five years–almost a record for me–but this milestone also finds me reflecting on change, particularly institutional change.

When I arrived for my first day of work, I met a host of colleagues–none of whom work here anymore.  In fact, many of the colleagues I worked most closely with in my first year of work have moved on to different positions and institutions.  So, now I go to meetings where I have been around the longest and have the most institutional memory, which is a very odd thing at not quite five years in.  This does not happen, however, when faculty are in those meetings, too.  Faculty are the institutional memory of a place–when they are tenured or tenure-line (and ultimately successful).  This dynamic–with changing staff and administrators and a consistent faculty–can be both wonderful and challenging, but as students cycle through classes and graduate, the institution changes with them.  For me, in this time of reflecting, that fact comes most clear.

My first students here at TCNJ have all graduated now and are off to bigger and better things.  That also means that our first international degree-seekers have graduated.  When I look back across these five (nearly) years, I note that most: the long, slow, climb with many hands that have moved us from no international alumni to some and to a fresh, bright cohort of international students joining the Class of 2020.  Sometimes, I look around and see all the faces that are no longer here–owning the hands that helped us up or didn’t and the younger faces of those alums who are making the futures they dreamt of before they arrived.  But most of the time, I look around and note the many ways our campus and its life have changed in these few years: new buildings, new technologies, new ways of doing things, and, of course, new world views and experiences coming with students, faculty, and staff colleagues.

I don’t know what the year ahead will bring for my home campus, myself, students I work with, or my colleagues and our students I don’t work with, but I look forward to this next level of work and feel like the fruits of my years here are finally ripening for the benefit of this place I dedicate my time and energy to.  May you all find some of the same in your own new academic years.

 

A Good Girl

In the last many weeks, I have spoken to several women working in higher ed about career development, advancement, and professional development. And over this weekend, I watched a Law & Order episode that, surprisingly, brought some things together. I won’t add more specifics here because of the confidential nature of those conversations. This post is a meditation on a swirling synthesis of things related to what might be called “good girl syndrome.”

The women I spoke with are all at professional crossroads or considering a next professional step ahead.  They are all afraid that asking for more in their careers will make them seem greedy, selfish, self-important, aggrandizing. I have long held the philosophy that we work in a business that won’t ever tell us we are good enough, so we had better start telling ourselves and others that we are, but that is not the way of many or most women in higher education or any work environment.  We are often told, as are many women, that if we wait long enough, if we wait our turns or allow others to take what should be our first turn, we will eventually be recognized, be acknowledged, be chosen.  These are dangerous things to accept.

This is not to say that I have not accepted them.  Most often, for me, such things have come in the guise of being a good deputy, which I have been for many, many years. But those discussions have not been gendered.  When I am asked to present a certain position publicly, I am being a good deputy.  When I am told to present it a certain way that seems more feminine or soft than a male colleague or superior, that is wrong–and it is asking me to be a good girl.  When I am asked to let a male colleague take public credit for my work because it will be easier (because he wants to or already has), that is wrong and is asking me to be a good girl.  When I am told to wait because I am not senior enough even though a younger, male colleague with less experience is green-lighted, that is wrong and is asking me to be a good girl.

You might be asking why this matters to the future of higher education and what this blog is about. Well, ask yourself what a young woman who sits on a committee with me, studies in a department where someone like me is a senior faculty member, works for an office headed by someone like me, thinks when women like me are told to wait even when it is our turn. The colleagues I spoke to were all women who have spent many years in higher education, all under 45, all advanced in their tracks of work, all with superior credentials.  And they were all asked or told to consider “being a good girl” and waiting to be chosen or asked or moved ahead or allowed to take the next step. And they all felt like they should–given how many times they have  done this same thing before. But our daughters are watching, and as much as we tell them they can do anything, how often do we show them that?  Let’s remember that they are well over 60 percent of our students in higher education today in the U.S. Shouldn’t we be showing them that women get there–but also get there on their own merits, hard work, and personal strengths? That means ending “good girl syndrome” and no longer asking talented women to wait because some gender bias indicates that they aren’t ready, even though men with less have been.

Our Shared Mission

Quite some time ago, I wrote a blog post and later deleted it.  I deleted it after a professional grapevine indicated that the post—and perhaps this entire blog—was viewed by some as my self-aggrandizing and dismissing the knowledge and experience of senior colleagues.  Especially those with more time in the faculty chair than I had.  Basically, I deleted it because some folks didn’t like what I had to say.  Or so I heard.

But deleting something I had to say is not why I’m here.  Or it shouldn’t be.

I wrote in that post about the odd position I often find myself in as an academic, trained as a scholar and teacher, but so often required to operate in my work life in a whole host of ways and with a host of skills not really provided by my graduate study.  I wrote about “translating” between academics and non-academics in higher education.  And my words gathered the responses that they did—from others and, ultimately, from me.

I should have responded differently.  I should have responded by talking a bit about how I came to the skills I use every day in my work life.  In extreme brief, I was academic staff before I was faculty.  And I worked for years outside of higher education—to support my graduate studies, before ever beginning them, and between graduate degrees.  I took an unusual (to some) path that included newspaper work, extensive freelancing as a writer and graphic designer, desk-based work at non-profits and associations.  And that path helped prepare me—with my academic training—to manage an academic office.  I didn’t stay long in faculty-only employment by choice—because it wasn’t for me.  I’m one of those folks who turned down a tenure-stream job and has never held one.  I was lucky enough to move back into the work I really enjoy in higher education, which I love.  Faculty life isn’t for everyone who completes a doctorate, but higher education is not only for faculty.  Institutions run on the power of people with many kinds of educational backgrounds because they are necessary.  We all bring diverse perspectives that are needed, and I believe mine is one of them.  That is why I am here.  But my voice—and the voices of those in positions similar to mine—certainly should not be, cannot be, the only ones in the room, any room.

We have no universities without faculty, and my decade of work on higher education labor and contingency have taught me the unquestionable value of tenure.  We need faculty who are able to speak because they are not afraid for their jobs, and without that, we don’t have what a university should be, even if we have a university.  But we also have no universities without leadership and without operational staff of all kinds.  How could faculty fulfill their roles as faculty unless someone else was taking care of other business?

I guess what I am saying is that we are all in this together, and we need to do a better job of getting together because we can’t risk falling apart in our valuable enterprise—educating students for all of their tomorrows.

Selfhood and Study

Sometimes, you start writing for a space like this, and something else comes up in the world to make those concerns recede into the background. Sometimes, that happens repeatedly, for months on end. Then, something so critical happens that you know you must write about and to it.

For me, that is Orlando.

According to the most recent news reports, 12 of the 49 dead were college students. Seven from the same school. All young people seeking safe space, space of release, site or freedom. And what they found was not that.

As a young person in college, I had friends who drove nearly an hour to find a space like Pulse, and when I went with them, the feel was very different from the nightclubs down the road. The parking lots were quiet and no one wanted attention. Inside, everyone spoke or waved, and everyone danced. The lack of self-conscious inhibition surprised young me–but also delighted when my friends who always felt other and tucked themselves in at parties let loose.

In the years since, I have seen other friends come out who could not find a safe space at those night clubs or anywhere else when young, and I have sought to make myself a safe space. It’s brought me students who tell me I am the first “adult” they are coming out to, that I am the first person they could tell that they were trans, that they didn’t have a word but wanted one for what they were feeling.

I can’t say what any of these now-former students feels in response to the tragedy in Orlando, but I can say that I am glad I could help give them the space I could when they seemed to need it. We try in higher education to provide space and support. We don’t always succeed but must continue to try. In making it easier for trans students to change their names on rosters, in creating welcoming and inclusive spaces on campus in every kind of building, and making space for communities to form before students head to a nightclub. That won’t save anyone from what happened in Orlando, but at very minimum, this tragedy is a reminder of how much our students–all of our students–need us in ways we can never fully know.

Student Success & the K-16 Problem

Tonight, I am teaching my first class of the semester, and most of my students are future teachers with majors or minors in English.  That is the nature of the course I am teaching this term and also part of my institution’s identity.  As I wonder about them, I am also wondering how our current difficulties effectively moving students from secondary to higher education will impact the young people these current college students will eventually teach.

I’ve spent nearly my entire career in higher education working with programs oriented toward first-year students and/or general education, and in well over a decade, I have only seen the disconnect get worse—more students shocked by grades that aren’t A’s, more students seeking the right answer instead of learning, and fewer students able to cope with those challenges.  And I’m not alone.  Check out this article and this article.  Is it because students are less intelligent or lazier?  No.  These articles both address student stress and concern about their ability to succeed.  Are students today just under more pressure?  No.  I see this phenomenon as directly connected to the increasing disconnect between what is rewarded as success in secondary classrooms and what is expected in college and university classrooms.

Did you know that this year’s first-year students are the first class to have had No Child Left Behind govern their entire education?  I certainly am as I prepare to walk into a classroom filled with first-year college students who want to be teachers.  They will enter their first classrooms as teachers in 2019 at the earliest, but from my perspective that is just around the corner.

Yes, NCLB is no longer governing our schools in the way it once was, but the transition problems we face between high school and college will not instantly disappear with a change in policy.  What we really need are stronger working relationships between leaders in secondary AND higher education to better prepare students for the challenges ahead.  Otherwise, colleges and universities across the country will increasingly be forced to provide support for smart, hard-working, capable students who were not set up for success and—therefore—struggle to succeed.

Some good work in this area is happening already.  Read about it here and here.  It is not enough.  It is not coordinated enough.  We can and should do better.

Culture & Learning Beyond the Classroom

Most of the work that I do in my current position is with international students coming to study in the US, and one of the big challenges we will be tackling in the next year is preparing colleagues across campus to support growing numbers of students from abroad studying and living on our campus.  That has made me reflect on my own travels and the cultural aspects of transition for international students.

On a recent recruitment trip to China, the hotel I stayed in while visiting Zhengzhou (pronounced “Jung-joe”) was right across the street from the school whose students we were presenting to and interviewing.  On the gray morning I woke before our full day visit, I heard music outside my window, which faced the school.  Outside on the large walk in front of the main school building, students in identical dress were stretching, bending, and reaching in unison.  Standard calisthenics required of all students each morning.  I only had a few minutes to watch before heading out myself, but this display made me think of the huge cultural shift students coming to study in the US must experience at colleges and universities.  To go from morning workout to weekend partying?

It’s not something we always account for or are even aware of in higher education.  We don’t think about the need to explain a system we inherently understand, but even if we academics do think about it, we focus on the classroom experience, perhaps the shift from face-to-face time toward homework done independently or the need to engage in class discussion rather than take notes and learn facts.  However, our students—international and not—see us in a panorama, across disciplines, across divisions.  To them, we are one silo and fundamentally un-siloed.  In the case of international students coming from many places around the world, schools have often been one cohesive, integrated experience for them, and they bring that idea with them even more fully than our domestic students coming out of US high schools.

So, what do we do with that as teachers, administrators, and people who care about the future of higher education?  First, we listen and we learn.  Our students know where they come from and how things were for them in past schools, and we enhance our ability to support them in and out of class when we learn about their expectations, assumptions, and needs.  Second, we explain.  When we pull the curtain back on the parts of the machine that they need to understand the workings of, when we give words to the motives for the things we do, we are helping students see how the rules have changed, how their expectations need to change, and why they need to respond to the reality of their current context and not what they thought it was.  The next time they need to decode part of US higher education, they will be better equipped.  And isn’t that our shared ultimate goal?