Supporting the Students of Today and Tomorrow

Last week, I promised to follow up on exactly how we can go forward in higher education to better serve tomorrow’s students and work to close the achievement gap that promises to do nothing but widen.  To do that, I will take you back to something I said about the future of higher education for a piece in University Business called “Higher ed thought leaders forecast 2015 trends” : that many of our students would look and seem like the students we have always known, but their needs will be very different.

As we have all spent the week talking and reading about Sweet Briar College and the decision of its Board to close, this point becomes even more important. For schools like Sweet Briar—and by way of disclaimer, I am a native Virginian—the future was already here, and the type of student they had been serving and were founded to serve was disappearing. Why else such a steep discount rate (high scholarship rate)? Combine that with a nearly 100 percent acceptance rate, from which less that 25 percent enrolled (or yielded), and the answer is clear: students were no longer choosing Sweet Briar and what they believed it had to offer. It wasn’t a question of quality—and likely not even of service—but of a reality of changing demographics.

How then do we respond in higher education? Certainly I started this conversation last week in response to Kevin Kruger’s comments.  However, what I didn’t say clearly is that we make assumptions about who our students are and what they need that need to change immediately.  Instead, we must accept that history is not our best teacher here and discover what students really need to be successful by paying attention to who they really are.  There are two specific support service areas our students today and tomorrow need for success:

1) Streamlined and Partnered Writing and ESL Support

As an increasing number of recent immigrants and international students seek to study in the US, the connections among writing centers, writing programs, and English language programs become essential.  Students who struggle in a composition class but don’t really belong in an ESL classroom are the most at risk.  How colleges and universities choose to bridge these students, support the development of vocabulary, and teach strategies for successful writing across the curriculum needs to become a focus for many schools, and the truth is that, currently, it is not. Data gathering on student demographics can help managers convince their leaders of the need for this work and the necessary financial support of it. Coordination among offices, as these tasks are usually spread across many units and even divisions will be key. It will also take time away from the hands-on work with students. That will mean staffing increases or increases in faculty for areas that too many schools consider adjunct to their core educational experience. Maintaining that view will be costly.

2) Mentoring and Advising for Academic Success

It has been many years now since colleges and universities started developing student success centers with various names in response to retention concerns. Okay, great, but depending on how those centers are framed and staffed, they may not be ready for the real challenge ahead. Specifically, they need to be available to and active with all students, not just those in specific classes, class years, or scholarship programs. They also need to be staffed by people who give them no only tools for “student success” like note-taking and time management but also a roadmap to the campus system. First-generation students need help understanding how to get things done, who to go to, what the basic expectations are for using office hours, attending class, reaching out—even what services are available for free. They won’t ask because they won’t want anyone to know that they don’t know. It will reveal who they are—and (they often think) decide they don’t belong.

 

Without these two important supports, students won’t persist, they won’t be retained. They won’t be enrolled. And that’s not what higher education is supposed to be about.

 

The Achievement Gap: Widening Our Lens

Last week, Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, the professional organization for student affairs professionals, spoke on my home campus at The College of New Jersey, and made a claim about the future of higher education that struck me: The achievement gap is our next great civil rights challenge. He’s right, but I think responding effectively to this call to re-envision education and higher education will require that we change the cultural connotation of “civil rights.”

Here just after Black History Month, shortly after celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and remembrances of his death and that of Malcolm X, and after media coverage of the anniversary of the Selma march and the movie, Selma, we would be tempted to continue to think of civil rights as a black/white binary. However, the skills gap is wider and more complex than America’s longest standing racial binary.

Kruger presented as part of his talk data that we should all be familiar with: tomorrow’s students are increasingly first-generation, increasingly Hispanic/Latino, and increasingly from lower income families. He also talked about how few African American students, particularly young men, are earning bachelor’s degrees. So, it is all of these categories of student who experience the achievement gap in differing degrees and are, therefore, part of this next civil rights challenge Kruger was heralding.

In urban centers, we know why this is happening: the long, slow suburbanization of middle class families, leaving poorer communities in America’s cities. Demographically, we know that this also means urban populations that are primarily ethnic minorities and new immigrants. But what about rural areas? What about first generation students in the American South and Midwest? Many of them are not ethnic minorities but do come from lower income families and face the same challenges as other first generation, low income students: a primary and secondary education that did not prepare them for the challenges of higher education, difficulty funding higher education, and—perhaps most importantly—no way to easily understand and navigate the complex system of a college or university in order to be successful.

It is all of these students who are the future (and even the present) of higher education. They are not the students that many schools are used to supporting and educating, but they must become so. If we widen our sense of the civil rights issue of the achievement gap, we see all of our students and their collective challenges. This will allow us to put into place the things they need on our campuses to succeed. Success is both retention and persistence, and we need to talk about them, about why they aren’t happening, and how they could.

Come back next week for a follow-up to this piece where I talk about that “how.”