The race to get old started yesterday. Hurry up!

A little over a week ago the Wall Street Journal published a short piece entitled, “Today’s Anxious Freshmen Declare Majors Far Faster Than Their Elders:Weak job market and high debt loads prompt broad shift away from intellectual exploration.” They cited data from their own small but random survey of colleges and universities suggesting that more and more freshmen declare their majors earlier. While the article and those interviewed for it speculated about a variety of factors that might be driving this phenomenon, the conclusion seemed pretty clear: college is now much less about discovering yourself first and finding a career later and much more about locking into a track for a career.

I thought it would be interesting to see if our own data reflected a similar trend. We were able to examine data over a similar time period, exploring the differences between students who entered Augustana as freshmen in the fall of 2007 and students who entered Augustana as freshmen in the fall of 2013. In addition, I thought it would be interesting to expand on the Wall Street Journal analysis since they aren’t clear about when the institutional data they presented was collected (in the fall of the first year? in the spring of the first year? at the beginning of the second year?). So we compared the two freshmen cohorts noted above in three ways. First, what proportion of the class indicated that they were undecided on their major when they applied to Augustana? Second, what proportion of those undecided students had declared a major by the beginning of their second year? And third, what proportion of the entire freshman class had declared a major by the beginning of the second year?

Our Augustana results seem to parallel the findings reported by the Wall Street Journal. During the application process, 16% (111 of 713) of the 2007 first-year cohort indicated that they were undecided about their major. During the 2013 cohort’s application process, only 11% (70 of 627) selected “undecided” when asked about their intended major. Interestingly, the proportion of these initially undecided students who had chosen a major by the beginning of their second year did not change appreciably between the fall of 2008 and the fall of 2014. Of the undecided majors from the 2007 cohort, 68% (63 of 92 – the remaining 19 did not persist to the second year) had still not selected a major one year later.  From the 2013 cohort, 69% (40 of 58 – the remaining 12 did not return to Augustana) of the initially undecided remained undeclared.

The biggest difference between the two cohorts can be found in the proportion of students who had declared a major by the beginning of the second year. Remember, the position taken by the Wall Street Journal article was that students take less time for intellectual pursuits and narrow their focus on a major earlier than in previous years. At Augustana, It appears that we are seeing a similar phenomenon.  While 54% of the 2007 first-year cohort had not yet declared their major by the beginning of the second year, only 36% of the 2013 cohort were still undeclared majors by the beginning of the second year.

So . . . is this a bad thing?

Honestly, I’m not sure.  In the end, I don’t know that we will have much success telling students that they are wrong to respond to external pressures of a tight job market and high student debt by choosing their major earlier. That kind of approach is likely to come across as tone-deaf to some very real concerns. It seems to me that this data re-emphasizes the importance of timely and substantive conversations between students and all of us who impact their education (faculty, administrators, work supervisors, residence life staff, student life staff, and fellow students) that push students to develop themselves even as they are preparing for life after college. Personal and intellectual development and career preparation ought to be a “both/and” enterprise.

If we can do that, our students are likely to grow and change in just the ways that we hoped they would.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Participation: A Prerequisite for Improvement

Usually I post to my blog on Monday mornings, but I hope you’ll indulge this early post and keep it in mind as you begin your week.

Sexual assault is a problem on virtually every college campus. Yet it is only very recently that colleges and universities, no doubt pushed by public outcry and increasing stern federal action, have begun to face the need to more fully understand and address this issue.

Within the last year, Augustana substantially revised a host of policies regarding sexual assault. But other than those cases that are reported, we don’t know nearly enough about our students’ perception of, and experiences with, sexual assault on campus.

For the last two weeks we’ve been participating in a survey of campus climate and sexual assault conducted by the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium. This upcoming Friday, March 27th, the data collection phase of our participation in this survey will end. Although we repeatedly invited responses from all students, as of last Thursday we had only received responses from 570 individuals. While that means we’ve heard from almost 25% of our study body (good enough in statistical terms to make some inferences based on the results), we need to hear from as many students as possible. This is in large part because the most useful information is likely to come from those who are most reticent to share their experiences, making the number of total responses all that much more important.

So I am asking – no matter if you interact with students as their instructor, their mentor, their work supervisor, or even their friend – that you encourage your students to complete this survey. Please remind them that participation in this survey is a prerequisite for improvement. In other words, we can’t improve what we do as a college if we don’t know what our students experience.

I know you have plenty of things on your mind as you prepare for this week. But your comments, even if they are brief, will demonstrate the degree to which Augustana is serious about facing this issue and eradicating sexual assault from our campus. I know that eliminating sexual assault might seem like a rather high bar; I just don’t know how we could aim for anything less.

So please mention this survey to your students. They all received an email on Sunday evening inviting those students who had not participated one last time to respond. Their unique link to the survey was in that email. They can complete it any time this week, but after Friday the survey will no longer be accepting new data.

Thank you for your help.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

The Problem with Aiming for a Culture of Assessment

In recent years I’ve heard a lot of higher ed talking heads imploring colleges and university to adopt a “culture of assessment.” As far as I can tell (at least from a couple of quick Google searches), the phrase has been around for almost two decades and varies considerably in what it actually means. Some folks seem to think it describes a place where everyone uses evidence (some folks use the more slippery term “facts”) to make decisions, while others seem to think that a culture of assessment describes a place where everyone measures everything all the time.

There is a pretty entertaining children’s book called Magnus Maximus, A Marvelous Measurer that tells the story of guy who gets so caught up measuring everything that he ultimately misses the most important stuff in life. In the end he learns “that the best things in life are not meant to be measured, but treasured.” While there are some pretty compelling reasons to think twice about the book’s supposed life lesson (although I dare anyone to float even the most concise post-modern pushback to a five year old at bedtime and see how that goes), the book delightfully illustrates the absurdity of spending one’s whole life focused on measuring if the sole purpose of that endeavor is merely measuring.

In the world of assessment in higher education, I fear that we have made the very mistake that we often tell others they shouldn’t make by confusing the ultimate goal of improvement with the act of measuring. The goal – or “intended outcome” if you want to use the eternally awkward assessment parlance – is that we actually get better at educating every one of our students so that they are more likely to thrive in whatever they choose to do after college. Even in the language of those who argue that assessment is primarily needed to validate that higher education institutions are worth the money (be it public or private money), there is always a final suggestion that institutions will use whatever data they gather to get better somehow. Of course, the “getting better” part seems to always be mysteriously left to someone else. Measuring, in any of its forms is almost useless if that is where most or all of the time and money is invested. If you don’t believe me, just head on down to your local Institutional Research Office and ask to see all of the dusty three-ring binders of survey reports and data books from the last two decades. If they aren’t stacked on a high shelf, they’re probably in a remote storage room somewhere.

Measuring is only one ingredient of the recipe that gets us to improvement. In fact, given the myriad of moving parts that educators routinely deal with (only some of which educators and institutions can actually control), I’m not sure that robust measuring is even the most important ingredient. An institution has no more achieved improvement just because they measure things than a chef bakes a cake by throwing a bag of flour in an oven (yes I know there are such things as flourless tortes … that is kind of my point). Without cultivating and sustaining an organizational culture that genuinely values and prioritizes improvement, measurement is just another thing that we do.

Genuinely valuing improvement means explicitly dedicating the time and space to think through any evidence of mission fulfillment (be it gains on learning outcomes, participation in experiences that should lead to learning outcomes, or the degree to which students’ experiences are thoughtfully integrated toward a realistic whole), rewarding the effort to improve regardless of success or failure, and perpetuating an environment in which everyone cares enough to continually seek out things that might be done just a little bit better.

Peter Drucker is purported to have said that “culture eats strategy for lunch.” Other strategic planning gurus talk about the differences between strategy and tactics. If we want our institutions to actually improve and continually demonstrate that, no matter how much the world changes, we can prepare our students to take adult life by the horns and thrive no matter what they choose to do, then we can’t let ourselves mistakenly think that maniacal measurement magically perpetuates a culture of anything. If anything, we are likely to just make a lot more work for quantitative geeks (like me) while excluding those who aren’t convinced that statistical analysis is the best way to get at “truth.” And we definitely will continue to tie ourselves into all sorts of knots if we pursue a culture of assessment instead of a culture of improvement.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

What if our students could point to their most important learning moments?

If we could make a college education work perfectly, our students would do more than learn. In addition, they would be able to point to those actual moments during their college career when an interaction, an experience, or a discovery altered their trajectory regarding their plans for life after college. Although this might sound a little dreamy aspirational, it turns out that students who can talk about their learning experiences in this way tend to have a sort of educational momentum that seems to set them apart from their peers. These are the students who do the little things to put themselves in the early running for advantageous opportunities that ultimately lead to a deeper sense of purpose and direction as well as stronger job applications and stronger graduate school applications. These students make folks like me wish I had had some of what those students have when I was their age.

That’s why it makes a lot of sense to find out what proportion of our freshmen have this kind of perspective after their first year at Augustana. Ideally, we’d like to be able to cultivate that deeper level of awareness in more of our students by figuring out if there are ways that we could make this happen in more of them. So at the end of the year we ask our freshmen to agree or disagree with the following statement: “Reflecting on the past year, I can think of specific experiences or conversations that helped me clarify my life/career goals (e.g. conversations with faculty/staff, organized activities with other students, community involvement, specific classes, etc.).”

Here’s how last years’ freshmen responded (remember that not all freshmen completed this survey):

  • Strongly disagree –  9 (4%)
  • Disagree          -     15 (6%)
  • Neutral           –       64 (28%)
  • Agree            -       100 (43%)
  • Strongly agree    -   44 (19%)

My reaction to this bit of data is a little mixed.  On the one hand, most of the students either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement.  On the other hand, 87 of our respondents can’t seem to put themselves in an affirmative category.

To be fair, it would be a little naive to think that we could hand out inspirational moments like some kind of kitschy swag. At the same time, it would be awfully useful to know whether there are things we could do to increase the likelihood that a given freshman would say that they could point to a specific experience in their first year that helped them clarify their life or career goals.

After testing a host of possibilities, we found five items that significantly increased the likelihood of this perspective among our freshmen. Interestingly, in addition to a set of experiences that come from all facets of a residential college life these items indicate a certain type of experience that provides some guidance for our work.  Here are those five items:

  • How frequently did your faculty ask you to try to understand someone else’s views by imagining how an issue looks from his or her perspective?
  • My instructors recommended specific out-of-class experiences that would enhance my learning and growth.
  • My adviser asked me about my career goals and post-graduate aspirations.
  • My out-of-class experiences helped involve me in community service off-campus.
  • About how often have you had serious conversations with students who are very different from you?

Again, as we’ve found in other analyses of our student data, the ideal college experience depends upon the work that each of us do, no matter if it is inside or outside of a classroom. But today I want to highlight the role of faculty reflected in these items. Instructors who often ask students to practice perspective-taking in order to better understand someone else’s views, instructors who take the time to recommend specific out-of-class learning experiences, and advisers (in other words, faculty who are first-year advisers) who ask students about their career goals and post-graduate aspirations all appear to significantly contribute to the quality of our students’ educational experience. Students who experience these kinds of faculty interactions seem to be more likely to be able to point to specific moments in their first year experience that helped them hone in on their post-graduate goals.

The other thing I like about this list of faculty interactions is that, no matter the course or the discipline, at least one of these items seems possible. If your course doesn’t lend itself to perspective-taking exercises, you could point students toward particularly valuable educational experiences on campus or in the community. If your class is composed of students who are already highly involved, you could engage them in perspective-taking skill development. And when students engage you outside of class, you could take a moment to ask them about their life goals beyond college.  I hope you will consider finding a way to plug one of these items into your regular interactions with students.  Good luck with your spring term!

Make it a good day,

Mark

Some Myths Just Won’t Die

I’ve recently heard more than a few folks suggest that the number of administrators at Augustana College is going up at the expense of faculty positions. This seems to be a particularly popular hypothesis, one that has been around at both the national level and on our campus for a long time. I’ve tested this assertion with our local data several years ago and, to be fair, it’s worth retesting hypotheses every once in a while to make sure that previous findings, and more importantly previous conclusions, still hold true.

Below I’ve laid out a table of our own Augustana data over the last ten years that includes instructional faculty numbers, non-instructional staff numbers, student enrollment, and ratios that give some sense of the relationships between a variety of combinations. Please note that the first column is the academic year 2014-15; data moves back in the time from left to right.

2014-15 2013-14 2012-13 2011-12 2010-11 2009-10 2008-09 2007-08 2006-07 2005-06
Tenured Professors 114 102 98 104 102 94 90 102 90 94
Tenure Track Professors 33 42 52 51 62 64 55 35 46 41
Total Tenure and Tenure-Track 147 144 150 155 164 158 145 137 136 135
Full-Time Instructors Off the Tenure Track 50 44 36 27 20 16 35 36 28 14
Proportion of Full-Time Instruction Workforce Off the Tenure Track 25.4 23.4 19.4 14.8 10.9 9.2 19.4 20.8 17.1 9.4
Academic Administration/Salaried Operations Administration * 153 135 171 158 172 183 172 167 159
Hourly Employees * 170 178 158 158 171 197 190 192 190
Total Full-Time Non-Instructional Employees * 323 313 329 316 343 380 362 359 349
Student Enrollment FTE 2483 2514 2538 2506 2529 2455 2531 2516 2450 2371
Ratio of Non-Instructional Employees to Full-Time Instructors * 1.7 1.7 1.8 1.7 2.0 2.1 2.1 2.2 2.3
Ratio of “Administrators” to Full-Time Instructors * 0.8 0.7 0.9 0.9 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.1
Ratio of “Administrators” to Total Tenure/Tenure Track Faculty * 1.1 0.9 1.1 1.0 1.1 1.3 1.3 1.2 1.2
Ratio of Students to Full-Time Instructors 12.6 13.4 13.6 13.8 13.7 14.1 14.1 14.5 14.9 15.9
Ratio of Students to Non-Instructional Employees * 7.8 8.1 7.6 8.0 7.2 6.7 7.0 6.8 6.8
Ratio of Students to “Administrators” * 16.4 18.8 14.7 16.0 14.3 13.8 14.6 14.7 14.9
*not reported to IPEDS until April, 2015

First, while the number of tenured professors has gone up and the number of tenure-track professors has gone down over the last ten years, the total number of traditional faculty (i.e., faculty within the tenure system) has gone up 9%. Moreover, the overall number of full-time instructional faculty has increased over the last ten years by 32%. (Although it’s a somewhat separate issue for a separate post, I couldn’t help but note the increase in the proportion of our full-time instructional workforce that is not a part of the tenure system.)

Second, the number of administrators and the number of hourly employees has dropped over the last ten years, from 159 to 153 and from 190 to 170, respectively. This change strikes me as particularly interesting given the increase in student enrollment over the same period, especially for the hourly employees who often are on the front lines of serving students’ non-academic needs.

Finally, I’ve included six lines of ratios that put these relationships between numbers of faculty, administrators, staff, and students into context over the past ten years. As you can see, there are now fewer non-instructional employees for every full-time instructor, fewer administrators for every full-time instructor, and fewer administrators for every tenured or tenure track faculty member. Moreover, even though the total number of students has increased, the number of students per instructor has dropped while the number of students per non-instructional employee and number of students per administrator has gone up.

So no matter how you slice it, asserting that the total number of administrators has gone up while the total number of faculty has gone down is, well, hogwash. Even in the context of the relationships between administrators and faculty, administrators and students, or faculty and students, this assertion is, well, hogwash. Nationally this assertion might hold some water, but at Augustana College . . . it just ain’t so.

Certainly, within those big-picture numbers there are lots of positions that have been moved from one office to another or faculty lines that have been moved from one department to another. You might not agree with one or more of those moves, but that sounds to me like a separate issue entirely – one worth a robust discussion no doubt, but a separate issue nonetheless.

Make it a good day,

Mark

We’ve Still Got a Long Way to Go

Most of the time, I try to write a post that includes both a deep dive into some morsel of data and a few implications that I think might be embedded in that data.  But this week, I think I’m going to try to dispense with a longer examination of implications and just lay out a set of responses to a single question from our recent survey of prospective students that we conducted in collaboration with the Hanover Research Group.

An early question in the survey asked the respondents to select the top five words that best described the college they would most like to attend.  You might recall that last week I pointed out that “affordable” was the most frequently selected word (not a big surprise, right?) and that “liberal arts” was pretty far down the list.

Although it’s certainly interesting to see the ordering of selected words from highest to lowest, it’s also potentially enlightening to look at how different subgroups of respondents respond to similar words. Parsing the responses of white and non-white respondents exposes a stark difference worth noting.

In digging deeper in the responses to this same question, the disparity between white and non-white respondents in selecting the word “diverse” really jumped out at me. White respondents selected this word 15% of the time. Non-white respondents selected this word 46% of the time. Given the substantial demographic shifts that are already underway across our primary recruiting region, this difference seems particularly important.  In addition to the moral imperative for us to continue to diversify our student body, it appears that ignoring such an imperative could increase our future economic risk as well.

While this finding is interesting, asking respondents to choose their top five words from a long list of possible options can complicate the interpretation of the results. So I want to show you another set of responses, parsed by white and non-white respondents, to a very specific question that asks respondents to indicate how important a diverse student body is to them when selecting a college.

Response Option                                                                        White              Non-White

Not at all important 11% 2%
Slightly important 19% 3%
Moderately important 40% 27%
Very important 25% 38%
Essential 5% 31%
Very important + Essential 30% 69%

As you can probably tell, non-white respondents trend toward thinking that a diverse student body matters a lot.  By contrast, it appears that white respondents trend toward thinking that a diverse student body matters some, but not nearly as much.

Yes; there is probably more than one reason for this difference in responses. And it’s not as if the difference between the two sets of responses are in complete opposition to each other. But, I hope this data will further underscore the reasons why we need to be active champions for equality. We’ve still got a long way to go.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Who are we talking to when we use the term “liberal arts”?

If a complete stranger had stumbled onto campus the weekend before last they might have thought that Augustana was the busiest college on the planet. That Saturday (January 17th), the Admissions Office hosted one of our largest annual open-house events for prospective students and families. While this event always draws large numbers, this year the number of visitors to campus (prospective students and their parents combined) may well have exceeded the actual number of Augustana students living on campus.

With the college recruiting season hurtling into the most critical few months of the year, every little bit of information that we can learn about prospective students and their parents and their decision-making process matters. To that end, we’ve been gathering data on the things that are most important to our prospective students and their parents as they evaluate, and ultimately select, a college. One way that researchers try to get at this kind of information is to ask folks to pick five words or phrases from a longer list of words or phrases that they think best describe an idyllic college experience. As you might expect from this year’s prospective students, “affordable” topped the list with 57% of the respondents choosing it.  Other words near the top of the list included “friendly” (41%), “safe” (39%), “respected,” (38%), and “career-oriented” (33%).

Much further down the list, 15th to be exact, sits the phrase “liberal arts” (just 12% of respondents thought this was a top-five word for them). Since rank ordering the words selected ends up clustering “liberal arts” with a seemingly contradictory group of terms (e.g., “small,” “large,” “rigorous,” and “flexible,”), it’s clear that we probably  shouldn’t go all Chicken Little just yet. Look on the bright side: only 6% of the respondents selected “party school.”

The question this finding raises for me, however, isn’t really about the exact ranking of the term “liberal arts.” My concern is that there seems to be a substantive gap between the degree to which we (faculty, staff, administrators, board members) use the phrase “liberal arts” to describe who we are and the level of importance that prospective students responding to this survey gave it. To make matters worse, this data doesn’t come from some general survey of potential college-going students; these responses came from students in our own inquiry pool (i.e., students who have either contacted us directly or students who fit a profile of those who might be interested in us).

Now please don’t conclude that I’m suggesting the elimination of the term or the philosophy behind it. On the contrary, I happen to think that if we are going to remain a viable college then we will have to explicitly embody a liberal arts philosophy that focuses on integrating and synthesizing preexisting knowledge. Almost exactly a year ago, I went on a three-post rant about it here, here, and here.

Rather, I suspect that the term “liberal arts” means very little of substance to prospective students. Maybe it is, like many other words that get used over and over again in marketing materials, a case where the phrase means one thing to an internal audience and something else to an external audience. When we use the term, even though we might not all agree exactly, I think we could describe relatively precisely the dispositions of a liberally educated individual.  This finding increases my worry that when an external audience, most notably prospective students, sees this term, they have a much less precise sense of its meaning. In that context, “liberal arts” might mean little more than “small” or “rigorous.” It also could end up being interpreted to mean “lots of classes in fields I’m not interested in” or, even worse, “a club that maybe we’ll let you into.”

I certainly don’t have a brilliant answer to this challenge. But I think it is worth noting that just because we have a term that we believe describes us well doesn’t mean that this term will compel others who are new to the concept of college to buy what we are selling. There’s nothing wrong with believing in what we do; even drinking our own Kool-Aid. We just better be able to spell out what we do and why it works in a way that makes sense to regular folks who seem to care a lot more about affordability.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Setting a high bar for equality in graduation

US News rankings have never been my favorite part of higher education. For many years these rankings did little more than con colleges and universities into an illusory arms race under the guise of increasing educational quality. But recently US News has started to use their data, power, and influence to prod more useful conversations that might lead to improvements at higher education institutions. Last week, US News released their rankings for “Which top-ranked colleges operate most efficiently.” Like last year Augustana appeared near the top of the list among liberal arts colleges, suggesting that we apply our limited resources effectively to educate our students. Whether conversations about “efficiency” give you a warm fuzzy or a cold shudder, I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that such recognition is, at the very least, more good than bad.

But in keeping with their deified status in higher education, the US News rankings giveth and the US News rankings taketh away. A few weeks ago, they released another set of rankings that I found particularly intriguing given our recent campus discussions about equality and social justice. This set of rankings focused on the graduation rates of low-income students, and contrasted the proportion of low income students who ultimately graduate from each institution with each institution’s overall graduation rate. Based on these two numbers, US News identified colleges and universities that they called “top performers,” “over performers,” and “under performers.” Sadly, Augustana appeared in the under performer group with a 13 percentage point deficit between our overall six-year graduation rate (78%) and our six-year graduation rate of low-income students (65%). Just in case  you’re wondering, these graduation rates come from students who entered college in the fall of 2007.

Because of the focused nature of this particular analysis, US News combined all institutions from their two national ranking categories (national universities and national liberal arts colleges) to create these three groups. The presence of several familiar institutions in each group suggests that there might be something to learn about graduating low-income students from other similar institutions that might in turn help us narrow our own disparity in graduation rates. 

The criteria for the “top performer” category required that the institution’s overall graduation rate was above 80% and that the graduation rate of low-income students was the same (or within a percentage point). While there were numerous national liberal arts colleges on the list, they were generally highly ranked institutions with well known pedigrees. However, two familiar institutions appeared in this category that seemed worth highlighting.

  • St. Olaf College – overall grad rate: 88%, low-income grad rate: 87%
  • Gustavus Adolphus College – overall and low-income grad rate: 82%

The criteria for the “over performer” category was simply that low-income students graduated at a higher rate than the overall student population. There were several institutions in this group that are not too different from us, particularly based on their US News overall ranking (remember, Augustana was ranked #105 this year).  These institutions include:

  • Drew University (#99) – overall grad rate: 69%, low-income grad rate: 76%
  • College of the Atlantic (#99) – overall grad rate: 69%, low-income grad rate: 75%
  • Knox College (#81) – overall grad rate: 79%, low-income grad rate: 83%
  • Lewis & Clark College (#77) – overall grad rate: 74%, low-income grad rate: 79%
  • Beloit College (#61) – overall grad rate: 78%, low-income grad rate: 83%

Interestingly, there were also some institutions in the over performer group that probably wouldn’t dare to dream of a ranking approaching the top 100. In other words, they would probably trade their place for ours in a heartbeat. A few to note include:

  • Oglethorpe University (#148) – overall grad rate: 62%, low-income grad rate: 67%
  • Illinois College (#155) – overall grad rate: 64%, low-income grad rate: 68%
  • Warren Wilson College (#165) – overall grad rate: 51%, low-income grad rate: 60%
  • Ouachita Baptist University (#176) – overall grad rate: 60%, low-income grad rate: 80%
  • Wisconsin Lutheran College (#178) – overall grad rate: 64%, low-income grad rate: 75%

Finally, the under performer group noted institutions where low-income students graduated at rates lower than the overall graduation rate. Some similar/familiar liberal arts colleges in this group included:

  • Augustana College (#105) – overall grad rate: 78%, low-income grad rate: 65%
  • Washington College (#105) – overall grad rate: 68%, low-income grad rate: 49%
  • Hampden-Sydney College (#105) – overall grad rate 62%, low-income grad rate: 43%
  • St. Mary’s College of Maryland (#89) – overall grad rate: 73%, low-income grad rate: 64%
  • Wittenberg University (#139) – overall grad rate: 63%, low-income grad rate: 49%
  • Alma College (#139) – overall grad rate: 61%, low-income grad rate: 44%

Although we ought to be careful not to jump to rash conclusions from this data alone, there are a couple of suppositions that this data seems to contradict. First, although the national graduation rates for low-income students consistently lag behind overall graduation rates, this is not necessarily so at every institution. Some institutions graduate low-income students at substantially higher rates than the the rest of their students. Second, it does not appear that institutional wealth, prestige, or academic profile guarantees graduation equity. There are institutions at both ends of the ranking spectrum that manage to graduate low-income students at a higher rate than the rest of their students. Third, geographical location doesn’t necessarily ensure success or failure. Successful institutions are located in both urban and rural locations.

I don’t know what makes each of these successful institutions achieve graduation equality. But in looking at our own disparity in graduation rates, it seems to me that we might learn something from these institutions that have found ways to graduate low-income students at rates similar to the rest of their students. We have set our own bar pretty high (our overall graduation rate of 78% is comparable or higher than all of the institutions I listed from the US News over performer category). Now it’s up to us to make sure that every student we enroll can clear that height. We shouldn’t be satisfied with anything less.

Make it a good day,

Mark

A little thing happened while you were away . . .

Welcome back to campus! I hope you enjoyed a restful winter break. Although I was able to find a few days of legitimate relaxation (I actually read fiction for fun!), a little thing happened at the end of last week that yanked me back into focus and kept my mind spinning over the weekend.

Friday morning’s big reveal from the higher ed press was the announcement from President Obama that he is proposing a program to make community college free.  The details and the obligatory range of reactions was dutifully reported here and here, and by this morning it seems that almost every news outlet with an education beat has polled the usual suspects for comment, analysis, and knee-jerk reaction. The chatter about this policy proposal doesn’t need any more faux smart people to weigh in, so I’ll refrain from adding an unfocused “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” to the mix.  However, I think that the mere emergence of this policy proposal holds a couple of important implications that could matter a lot for those of us at Augustana College (as well as other small liberal arts colleges).

First, a big part of this proposal turns on the caveat that “Community colleges will be expected to offer … academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities.”  This sounds great, except for the fact that the destination institution is the one that determines whether academic programs or credits transfer fully, not the individual community college from whence the student originates.  Whether or not the President’s policy proposal comes to fruition, I think it reflects a increasingly common belief that students should be able to move seamlessly between higher education institutions, no matter if they are moving between two-year or four-year institutions (not to mention the individual online courses, degree programs, or prior learning credits).

If I’m right here, then we will continue to see more and more students transfer credits to and from Augustana as they become less associated with a particular institution and more connected to the degree they are intending to earn or career they intend to pursue.  Again, if I’m right, that will make it even more difficult for us to know, a) if our graduates have learned everything that we believe an Augustana degree represents, and b) if the students sitting in front of us on the first day of the term already possess the prerequisite knowledge and skills to succeed in each class. However we respond to this issue (for example, offering remediation services for students who struggle, signing articulation agreements with individual community colleges to assure some degree of vetting prior coursework for transfer students, or designing competency-based assessments for students to demonstrate their readiness for advanced academic work and graduation), the challenges that emerge when students increasingly enter and depart colleges and universities at times other than the beginning and the end of that institution’s designed educational experience are, as a 2012 study suggests, likely to become more prevalent.

Second, if this proposal does in fact signal that earning credits from multiple institutions to complete a degree is gaining in both numbers and legitimacy, then we would be smart to take a hard look at all of the ways in which our institutional practices might subtly dissuade transfer students from considering Augustana.  Since our study of transfer students’ experience a couple of years ago, we’ve already made some changes to make Augustana a better destination for transfer students. But we still have some work to do – not because we have dropped the ball in responding to our findings, but because this kind of work is just plain hard.

Third, it seems to me that this trend further emphasizes the degree to which we need to be able to show that the totality of the Augustana experience – not just the academic coursework – produces the critical learning that we intend for our students.  Otherwise, we are likely to fall victim to the external framing of what constitutes a college education (aka an accumulation of academic credits that are equally valuable as a whole or a sum of their parts), making it even more difficult to differentiate ourselves in product or perception.

I’m sure that you can think of specific issues that we ought to examine if transfer students are going to become an increasingly large segment of the college-going public.  As the number of high school graduates in the Midwest continues to decrease over the next decade or so, it seems that this question becomes that much more important.  If you have some thoughts, please feel free to post them in the comment section below.  Maybe we can have a conversation without having to brave the frigid temperatures outside?

Make it a good day,

Mark

Some Key Findings from our Recent Alumni Survey

Every once in a while you get lucky enough to have multiple studies that all point pretty clearly to the same conclusions.  So in the spirit of Christmas, I give you a gift of confirmatory evidence that all of what we do at Augustana – in the classroom and outside of it – matters for student learning.  Special thanks should go to my student assistant, Melanie, who did all of the data analysis and even wrote the first draft of this post.  Thanks, Melanie!

The Recent Alumni Survey asks a cohort of graduates about their experiences in the nine months since they walked across the stage to receive their diploma. Three items in this survey are designed to get at some of the intended outcomes of an Augustana education.  Those items ask:

  • To what extent do you feel your Augustana experience prepared you to succeed in your current program?
  • To what extent do you feel your Augustana experience prepared you to succeed in your current position/job?
  • To what degree does your current professional/educational status align with your long term career goals?

The first two questions address our graduates’ perception of the quality of their preparation for their next step in adult life, be it graduate school or their first foray into the world of work. Because we care about the full arc of our graduates’ adult lives, the third question addresses the degree to which that “next step” – the one for which our mission demands that we play an important role in preparation and selection, aligns with their long term goals.

To help us improve the quality of an Augustana education, we want to determine the nature of the relationship between college experiences that we already believe to be important (gleaned from our last senior survey) and our graduates’ lives nine months after they graduated. To this end, we linked responses from our 2013 senior survey and same individuals who responded to our recent graduate survey in the winter and early spring of 2014. After identifying which senior survey items significantly predicted (in a statistical sense) these recent alumni outcomes, we expanded our analysis to account for several factors that might confound our findings: race, socio-economic status, gender and cumulative GPA. The table below shows the experiences that emerged as statistically significant positive predictors for each outcome organized by the nature of the environment in which those experiences exist.

  To what degree does your current professional/ educational status align with your long term career goals? To what extent do you feel your Augustana experience prepared you to succeed in your current program? (asked of alums in grad school) To what extent do you feel your Augustana experience prepared you to succeed in your current position/job? (asked of alums in the workforce)
Co-curricular Experiences -My out-of-class experiences have helped me develop a deeper understanding of myself -My out of class experiences helped me develop a deeper understanding of myself*-My out of class experiences helped me develop a deeper understanding of how I relate to others
Advising - How often did your major adviser ask you about your career goals and aspirations? - How often did your major adviser ask you about your career goals and aspirations? - How often did your major adviser ask you about your career goals and aspirations?-My major adviser connected me with other campus resources
Experiences           in the Major -Faculty in this major cared about my development as a whole person-In this major, how frequently did your faculty emphasize making judgments about the value of information, arguments, or methods, such as examining how others gathered and interpreted data and assessing the soundness of their conclusions?
Overall Curricular Experience -My one-on-one interactions with faculty have had a positive influence on my intellectual growth and interests in ideas -My one-on-one interactions with faculty have had a positive influence on my intellectual growth and interests in ideas

Clearly there are multiple experiences across a range of settings that influence these three outcomes. Moreover, these findings are similar to the results of prior alumni data analyses and replicate findings from analyses of senior survey data.  In short, we can be confident that the experiences noted in the table above play a critical role in shaping the success of Augustana graduates.

These findings strongly emphasize the importance of quality and purposeful faculty interactions with students. The item, “my one-on-one interactions with faculty have had a positive influence on my intellectual growth and interests in ideas,” significantly predicted students’ sense of preparedness for both those entering graduate programs and those who went into the workforce. This item focuses on more than the frequency of students’ interactions with faculty or friendliness of those interactions. Instead, this item emphasizes the nature of faculty influence; encouraging, inspiring, cajoling, pushing, prodding, and even challenging students to engage tough questions and complicated ideas while at the same time supporting students as they struggle with the implications and ramifications of their own evolving values, beliefs, and worldview.

Faculty influence was again evident in the advising relationship. The question, “How often did your major adviser ask you about your career goals and aspirations?” significantly predicted all three outcomes. In addition, for graduates in the workforce faculty attention to connecting students with other campus resources also influenced the graduates’ sense of preparedness. Furthermore, faculty impact on our graduates’ success is apparent in the major experiences that predicted students’ sense of preparation for their career. Two items were significantly predictive: “Faculty in this major cared about my development as a whole person,” and “In this major, how frequently did your faculty emphasize making judgments about the value of information, arguments, or methods, such as examining how others gathered and interpreted data and assessing the soundness of their conclusions?” In addition to confirming the caring aspect of quality and purposeful faculty interactions with students, this finding also highlights the value of classroom experiences that cultivate higher order thinking skills.

It is also worth noting the importance of out-of-class experiences in predicting our graduates’ success. Again, the importance of the developmental quality of these experiences is paramount. Instead of items that denote participation in particular types of organizations or activities, the items that proved predictive emphasize that the experiences that matter are ones that help students develop in two ways. First, they help students develop a deeper understanding of themselves.  Second, they help students develop a deeper understanding of how they relate to others. Obviously, these skills are critical for success in every manner of adult life.  The key for Augustana is to ensure that every out-of-class experience contributes – directly or indirectly – to this kind of growth.

The goal of this analysis was not to determine which experiences (faculty interactions or co-curricular experiences) play a larger role in shaping Augustana graduates’ outcomes. Instead, it is clear that all facets of the Augustana education contribute to our students’ success.  It is also clear that not all graduates experience Augustana in a way that maximizes the potential impact of quality and purposeful faculty interaction or developmental out-of-class activities.  Throughout the institution, we can use these findings as principled guidelines to improving the work that we do with our students.

Make it a good day (and a great holiday break),

Mark