Most of us have heard the old light bulb joke . . . .
Question: “How many faculty does it take to change a light bulb?”
Even if that quip sparks something between a snicker and a harrumph (depending on your point of view and sense of humor), the snark underlying it should really be applied to all of higher education. Most higher education institutions’ response to stagnant or slipping retention numbers makes for a telling example of this phenomenon. After decades of shifting student demographics, the dominant narrative about student persistence continues to emphasize the degree to which the students who leave are in some way not smart enough, not mature enough, or not adaptable enough to acclimate to the rarified air of the college campus. In short, the prevailing opinion is that students need to change to fit in, regardless of the cultural distance between their lives prior to college and the embedded environment at their college. So although the demographic makeup of college students has been changing for a long time, most institutions have done little more than add small spaces or programs at the margins while leaving the historically homogenous dominant culture of the campus intact.
Until the early part of the last decade, Augustana could probably have gotten away with that approach. For example, looking over the proportions of students who were not white throughout the 1990s, the percentages hovered between five and eight percent. But in the early 2000s that proportion began to climb substantially. By the fall of 2014, the proportion of non-white students had reached 20% of the total student population.
The scope of this change really jumps out if we look at two numbers across a roughly 25-year span. In the fall of 1990, there was a total of 134 non-white students at Augustana (scattered throughout an overall student population of 2,253). By comparison, in the fall of 2014 there were 146 non-white students in the freshman class alone and a total of 489 non-white students among an overall student population of 2,473.
Although this change is substantial, it is only one of several ways in which Augustana’s student demographics has shifted dramatically. In the last ten years, the number of students who qualify for a Pell Grant has almost doubled (from 355 to 606) and the proportion of freshmen with unmet financial need has jumped almost twenty percentage points (from 39.6% to 56.6%). At the same time, the proportion of Lutheran students has dropped by more than half since 1990 (from 31.7% to 12.8%) while the proportion of students with no religious affiliation has almost doubled (from 9.2% to 17.2%). Add to these changes a growing LGBT population (a number we didn’t even track until a few years ago), and the multi-dimensional scope of change in our student demographic makes previously narrow definitions of diversity – especially those that limit their focus to the color of one’s skin – surprisingly insufficient. Furthermore, the implications of this explosion of difference suggest that merely revising our assumptions, or even adding more layers of assumptions, about the backstory of our students will almost certainly leave us short. Things are changing in too many ways simultaneously for us to merely come up with a new “normal.” Even if we were to come up with a new background template for the typical Augustana student, we would almost certainly be wrong more often than we are right.
Instead, the extended scope of this change and the increased prominence of this tapestry requires that we revisit an old but useful adage. We must genuinely know our students. That doesn’t mean just knowing their names, their high school, and their academic ability. We must know their backstory; the multi-layered context through which they will make meaning of this educational experience. It is the nuance of each individual context that will define the lens through which each student sees us and the way that they hear what we say. Knowing this context and knowing how this context might shape our students’ first impressions will make a world of difference in helping all of us – student, educator, and institution – adapt together to ensure that every student succeeds.
Make it a good day,