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,


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,


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,


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),


Work hard, party hard!

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a series of articles and commentaries on the discomforting relationship between colleges and alcohol. Not surprisingly, they began the first article (“A River of Booze“) with the stereotypical “beer and circus” images of a large flagship university. Although much of what I read reminded me of the struggles I observed during my time at the University of Iowa, our residence life staff reminded me that many of the student justifications for drinking noted in these articles sound just like comments made by our own Augustana students.

So instead of writing something myself, this week I’m just going to refer you to this series of articles in the Chronicle. I’ve inserted the link to the opening piece above, and I’ve added another that digs into the challenges that colleges and universities have faced in trying to address dangerous drinking behaviors here.

Although we might be a small college, we struggle with many of the same issues noted by the Chronicle reporters. I hope you’ll find some time to read some of these articles and find out more about our own students’ alcohol-related behaviors. Like a lot of things, we will only succeed in addressing these issues to the degree that we tackle them together.

Make it a good day,


What is your definition of a “Plan B?”

I often get pegged as “the numbers guy.” Even though the words themselves seem pretty simple, I’m never really sure how to interpret that phrase. Sometimes people seem to use it to defer to my area of expertise (and that feels nice). But sometimes it seems vaguely dismissive, as if they’re a little surprised to find that I’ve escaped from my underground statistical production bunker (that doesn’t feel so nice).

With data points, it’s not the numbers by themselves that make the difference; it’s the meaning that gets assigned to them. The same is true with phrases that we all too often toss around without a second thought. I stumbled into a prime example of this issue recently while talking to several folks about the way that they think about helping students prepare for life after college. It turns out that we can run ourselves into a real buzzsaw of a problem if we don’t mean the same thing when we talk to students about developing a “Plan B.”

Essentially, a Plan B is simple – it’s a second plan if the first plan doesn’t work out. But underneath that sort of obvious definition lies the rub. For what purpose does the Plan B exist? Is it to get to a new and different goal, or is it to take an alternative path to get to the original goal?

For some, helping a student construct a Plan B means identifying a second career possibility in case the student’s first choice post-graduation plan doesn’t work out. For example, a student who intends to be a doctor may not have the grades or references to guarantee acceptance into med school. At this point, a faculty adviser might suggest that the student investigate other careers that might match some of the student’s other interests (maybe in another health field, maybe not). This definition of a Plan B assumes a career change and then begins to formulate a plan to move toward that new goal.

But for others, helping a student construct a Plan B doesn’t mean changing career goals at all. Instead, this definition of a Plan B recognizes that there are often multiple pathways to get into a particular career. For the aspiring med school student who may not have slam-dunk grades in biology or chemistry but still wants to be a doctor, one could envision a Plan B that includes taking a job at a hospital in some sort of support role, retaking specific science courses at a local university or college, then applying to medical school with stronger credentials, potentially better references, and more experience. In this case the end goal didn’t change at all. The thing that changed was the path to get there.

In no way am I suggesting that one definition of a Plan B is better than another. On the contrary, both are entirely appropriate. In fact, the student would probably be best served by laying out both possibilities and walking through the relevant implications. But the potential for a real disaster comes when two people (maybe a faculty member and a career adviser) are separately talking to the same student about the need to devise a Plan B, yet the faculty member and the adviser mean very different things when they use the same phrase.

As you can imagine, the student would probably feel as though he or she is getting conflicting advice. In addition, she might well think that the person encouraging a different career choice just doesn’t believe in her (and that the person suggesting an alternate path to her original career goal is the one who really cares about her). Moreover, the person encouraging the student to explore another career choice might feel seriously undermined by the person who has suggested to the student an alternative way to continue toward the original career goal. In the end, a student’s trust in our ability to guide them accurately and effectively is seriously eroded and a rift has likely developed between the two individuals who both genuinely care about the student in question.

Absolutely, there are times when we have to tell students that they need to explore alternative career plans. We do them no favors by placating them. At the same time, we all know students who, although they seemed to lack motivation and direction when they were at Augustana, kicked it in after graduation and eventually found a way into the career they had always wanted to pursue.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we should adopt one official definition of the phrase “Plan B.” Rather, my suspicion is that this is one of those phrases that we use often without realizing that we might not all mean the same thing. If our goal is to collectively give students the kind of guidance that they need to succeed after graduation, we probably ought to make sure that in each case we all mean the same thing when we talk to a student about a Plan B.

Make it a good day,



“Lean” in and learn something new

I think it’s fair to say that most educators cringe at the idea of applying practices from the world of business to education. So many times we’ve read or heard someone talk about education as if it were a cursory transaction where students or parents simply purchase a product as an investment toward future earnings. Of course, one only needs to spend a few days trying to get students to learn something that contests their prior assumptions to know that viewing education through such a transactional lens leads to a gross misunderstanding of what we do and how education works. I’d love to see a list of all the times when a business framework was misapplied to an educational setting with disastrous results.

So, does this mean that everything developed in a business setting is guaranteed to fail in an educational setting? It’s okay if you’re inclined to say “yes” (especially if you’ve been down that road a few times). When President Bahls suggested that we could apply principles of lean management to improve a variety of processes at Augustana College, I’ll admit that I shuddered. Maybe like you, I imagined an internal apocalypse: budget cuts and position reductions with no changes in expectations. But after reading up on the concept of lean management and spending last week as a member of the first Rapid Improvement Team, I have to admit that my shudder was merely emblematic of my own ignorance. While lean management has its own set of terminology that might seem foreign to educators, the values embedded in a lean management philosophy embody the same values that we aspire to uphold in a collaborative and transparent organization dedicated to educating students. I found the framework and the process to be deeply gratifying and potentially applicable to the range of domains in which we operate.

First, “lean” doesn’t mean thinner.  It’s not about losing weight, downsizing, or cutting out the fat. It’s not an acronym. The term refers to the degree to which processes are conducted efficiently while best serving the needs of the beneficiary (i.e., anyone who benefits from that process).

Second, lean management philosophy asserts that the people best positioned to make improvement happen are those who are intimately involved in that particular job or process. Not only do those folks know the ins and outs of that work better than anyone else; they also need to believe in the efficacy of any identified changes in order to give those changes the best chance of turning into demonstrable and lasting improvements. For these reasons, any attempt to improve a process must genuinely involve the people who do that work.

Third, lean management philosophy argues that improvement of a process is exemplified in those who benefit from that process. Although the beneficiaries of our work are often students, we often conduct operations that benefit more than just students. The beneficiaries of payroll are anyone who gets paid. The beneficiaries of the salad bar are anyone who eats a salad. As a result, the way to determine if we have improved a process is to identify clear means of demonstrating an improved impact on the beneficiaries of that process.

Fourth, lean management starts with the belief that the collective ability of an organization’s people can find and put in place substantial improvements to a process.  Effective lean management begins by collaborating to develop a shared understanding of the current state of a process or problem.  Only after the problem is fully understood as something worthy of improvement would an improvement team begin to consider potential solutions.

Fifth, lean management philosophy focuses on continual improvement, not perfection. There are simply too many external and unpredictable influences to expect perfection.  Furthermore (especially in the work that we do), just when we find that a particularly education practices works well, the students change and we have to continue to adjust.

Everything the Rapid Improvement Team did last week reflected all of these values.  I was impressed with the way the process was designed to keep them at the forefront while moving us toward a set of suggestions that were extremely likely to improve the process.

If you would like to see a recording of the presentation from the Rapid Improvement Team from last Friday, you can see it here.

Ultimately, the lesson I learned from this process was that it is possible (shocking, I know) for something that has been developed in the business world over the last several decades to be applied successfully in an educational institution in a way that actually strengthens our ability to enact the values we espouse.  In addition, I (re)learned that we have some amazing people at Augustana who are willing to put their hearts into doing what we do better. I’m lucky to be a part of it.

Make it a good day,



A taste of my own medicine

One of the fundamental tenets of Delicious Ambiguity has been that all of us who contribute to the development of students are at our best when we approach our work through a lens of “positive restlessness.” That phrase was introduced into the lexicon of higher education writers by George Kuh and his colleagues in their book Student Success in College, describing a pervasive philosophy that his research team saw at colleges that always seemed to be seeking out ways to get better no matter how successful they already were. Anyone who knows me recognizes that I relish the chance to look for ways to improve. But I think it is an entirely fair criticism to suggest that I might have an overly rosy view of change and that I should be forced to get elbow-deep in the down-and-dirty work of actually fixing a complicated and convoluted process.

So this week, if you’ve ever thought that I needed a dose of your version of reality, you are in luck. My “comeuppance” has appeared in the form of participation in a weeklong, immersive Rapid Improvement Event (RIE). I’ll be joining a team of Augustana employees trying to wrangle a portion of the payroll process and hopefully improve it. I don’t know much about payroll – so they tell me I’m “perfect” for the job.

So here goes!

Make it a good day,



Hey; what’s this I hear about the Winding Path Study?

Some of you have heard me mention a study that we (AKA our massive juggernaut of an IR office better known to most of you as Kimberly and Mark) started last spring called the Winding Path Study. In short, this study was designed to gather information from all living Augustana alumni (at least those for whom we had working email addresses) about the nature of their adult lives from the time they entered Augustana up until last spring.

During the twelve months of strategic planning discussions, one of the things that stood out to me was how much we really don’t know about the long-term impact of an Augustana education. Don’t get me wrong; we have lots of wonderful stories about Augustana graduates excelling in all sorts of professional and personal pursuits. But we don’t know nearly as much as we would like about the nature of our alum’s lives after college: the ways that they have handled success and failure, the adjustments they have had to make when life throws them a curveball, or the ways that their Augustana experiences might have influenced twists and turns in their life’s path right after graduation or much later in life. This information matters because, if we are preparing students to succeed throughout their adult lives, we need to know how those lives play out across personal and professional domains and as our alums grow and change over time.

After looking through all of the different ways that colleges have tried to survey their alumni, we couldn’t find any approach that matched our conceptual frame or addressed the questions we had constructed. So we rolled up our metaphorical sleeves and built a study from scratch based on the sociological theory of Life Course Perspective, a construct that describes the life course as a series of trajectories, transitions, and turning points.

In this post I’d like to share a few summary findings just to give you a flavor for what we’ve seen from the almost 2,800 responses we received last spring in the first stage of this project.

The first two questions explored the nature of our alum’s path when entering Augustana and moving through their undergraduate years.

  • Did you have a specific career goal or major in mind when you came to Augustana?
    • 53% – Yes; I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted to do
    • 33% – Somewhat; I had some ideas but wasn’t set on anything in particular
    • 12% – No; I didn’t know what I wanted to do at all
  • Did you change majors or career goals while you were an undergraduate?
    • 38% – Yes
    • 61% – No
  •  What path did you take right after graduation from Augustana?
    • 26% – Went to grad school in the same field that I studied
    • 8% –   Went to grad school in a different field than I studied
    • 42% – Took a job or volunteered in the same field that I studied
    • 15% – Took a job or volunteered in a different field than I studied
    • 2% –   Took time off to pursue other interests
    • 7% –   Other

The next set of questions explored the varied nature of our graduates’ adult lives. Although we couldn’t have possibly captured every facet of an adult life, our goal was to gather a first glimpse that could be explored in more detail later.

  • How many times have you changed jobs since you graduate from Augustana?
    • 16% – None
    • 27% – 1-2
    • 28% – 3-4
    • 16% – 5-6
    • 11% – 7 or more
  • How many of those job changes occurred because of a professional opportunity that you chose to pursue?
    • 22% – None
    • 36% – 1-2
    • 22% – 3-4
    • 11% – 5-6
    • 5% –   7 or more
  • How many of those job changes occurred because of a professional disruption (downsizing, bankruptcy, termination, etc.)?
    • 67% – None
    • 23% – 1-2
    • 3% –   3-4
    • 1% –   5-6
    • 0% –   7 or more
  • Were any of your job changes influenced by family considerations?
    • 39% – Yes
    • 56% – No
  • Were any of your job changes influenced by personal considerations?
    • 54% – Yes
    • 41% – No

(Please note that some folks didn’t respond to every question, resulting in some proportions equaling less than 100%).

These findings deepened our understanding of the variety of pathways that students pursue after college.  Almost one quarter of our graduates, immediately after college, entered graduate school or took a job in a different field than their major.  These findings also strengthened our belief that preparing students for successful lives after college goes far beyond one’s major or minor and extends long past the first job, first graduate school degree, or whatever the first thing a student chooses to do after college might be.

As you can also see, many if not most Augustana alumni have likely led adult lives that look more like winding paths than straight lines. These findings – even if they might seem fairly obvious to anyone who has lived through the reality of an unpredictable life – have shaped our thinking as we continue to design a college experience that prepares every student to carve through life after college – no matter what comes out of the woodwork.

The first stage of this study concluded with a question at the end of the survey asking if the respondent would be willing to participate in a half-hour interview.  Based on prior research experience, we expected 100-200 positive responses.  We received over 1,400 positive responses!  So the next step for us, after spending the last six months analyzing all of the open-ended responses, is to develop a framework for the interviews and how we will select potential interviewees.  We would like to interview as many as possible, but frankly, the specter of 1,400 interviews is a bit daunting! Moreover, because we also asked other categorizing information like the year the respondent graduated, their major, and their current profession, we have all kinds of ways that we can organize and analyze this data.

Over the rest of the academic year, I hope I’ll have another update on the results of the second phase of this study. In the mean time, enjoy the last week of the fall term!

Make it a good day,