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.

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.

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?

The Struggle

For the last several weeks, I have been struggling with the death of a good friend who helped me survive and even thrive in college.  When I learned late on a Friday night that she was too ill for home hospice but was going into residential hospice, my life became a 12-hour blaze of social media messages and constant communication.  It lasted only 12 hours because that is when she died.  But then it kept going.  The flood of people who knew what she had given them, who knew where they would not be if not for a piece of candy, a bummed cigarette, the thing that opened the door to personhood and possibility for so many.  Myself included.

You see, when I met this wonderful woman who became my boss and friend and mentor and role model, I was a first generation college student who knew so little about academia that I didn’t even know it had rules of its own, a language and a pecking order I could not see, and a hidden system navigable only with a password and secret map in a foreign language.  Claudia taught me how to detect the code of that language and how to live in it with grace and spunk, even when you wish it did not exist at all.  Basically, she is the first mentor-teacher-friend of my academic life.  And in case you are wondering, she was the assistant to the Dean of Students.

Why am I giving you this very personal start to a post on a very impersonal and issue-oriented blog?  Because I was then what so many of our students are today: first generation, unsure, afraid of the code we do not know.   Claudia was someone who helped me decode in the midst of this struggle, and when I heard about her much quicker than expected death, I was planning to write here about the responsibilities inherent in a first-generation Ph.D., but then I realized that the issue is not the Ph.D. and who does what.  The issue is the struggle our students face when they cannot decode the system, just like me.  Who helps them?  It can and should be every person in a classroom who was a first generation college student, but it must also be the folks who are “front line” for students in other ways–as professional academic advisors, advising student organizations, working in residential life, working in Student Affairs wherever student interaction happens.  And, yes, in as many classrooms as possible, giving personal contact and interaction.

Basically, Claudia was someone who understood the struggle and helped so many students through it.  I needed it; many others needed it.  Many more will need it.  The trith is that we must be the Claudias of the world offering a safe space, a friendly ear, and a roadmap of the way forward.

My own way forward finds me in China for the fourth time in 15 months working on educational development for my college, now successfully holding a 2+3 agreement in my hand.  Writing this, I think of how Claudia would have viewed my worldliness and my years today.  Lordy, she would have been proud–and had cause to–as without her, there would not be this version of me.  And now that she is gone, who will the Claudias be?

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.”

Diversity & Employability

The AAC&U recently released a report called “Falling Short?: College Learning and Career Success.” Here is the press release.

Much of the news coverage—and that press release—focus on the differences between what students thought about their career preparedness and what employers thought about the same. However, the very questions raise a different issue: the presence and integration of diversity on campuses across the country.

Diversity can mean so many things, and on my own campus, we have been reexamining what “diversity” means to our community. Given my position, I am often the person in the room raising the question of cultural diversity.  The questions in this survey and responses seem to make clear that the ability to communicate, build teams, and produce products across cultures is important, but how can higher education institutions do a better job of that?

First, we have to value cultural diversity across campus by recognizing it and greeting it with respect and a desire to learn. By this I mean that we need to acknowledge that a student who has just arrived in the US from, say, Kazakhstan, has a set of cultural (and not just language) challenges that will be different from those of a student from the same country or region who has been in the US for two years.  But they will both have challenges.  We have to see how an African American student, a Latino student, and a white student from the same city will all bring different cultural understandings of education to campus.

Then, we need to serve those differences in our classrooms, offices, and residence halls. Yes, students who come from places where education was segregated by gender will have some difficulty integrating into a co-ed campus or co-ed classrooms.  Yes, students who were raised to listen to teachers and take in knowledge will struggle to participate in some classes, depending on the student dynamic.  And our responses need to come with the recognition that these are often cultural barriers and not a language deficit or lack of ability.

To achieve this second step, higher education leaders need to equip their campuses—across units—with the tools to do this well. This can take a host of forms, depending on one ‘s campus context, but it requires identifying areas where development is needed and dedicating resources to faculty development, staff with particular expertise in student affairs, a reconfigured Writing Center—just to name a very few.  This kind of planning is necessary not just for the future but for the present.  This diversity is already here and everywhere, but if we don’t know how to support it and work within it, we cannot serve as the role models students need when encountering difference and help them better adapt to what America’s international workplaces demand.