How Greek Membership Shapes Our Students’ Experience

Listening to some faculty talk, you’d think that fraternities and sororities at Augustana are a deadly concoction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Mardi Gras, Las Vegas, and Carnival, whipped up in a blender and chugged through a fire hose from a second story beer bong.   Yet, we all know of greek organizations – at Augustana and elsewhere – that make important contributions to the local community and the development of their members.  Thankfully, we don’t have to settle for dueling anecdotes.  We have plenty of data on students in Augustana’s greek organizations that allow us to test this clash of narratives.  So, since I’m on a bit of a mythbuster’s kick lately . . . let’s see what we can find out.

When the entering class of 2008 arrived at Augustana, little did they know that they would be studied like no class before.  They provided data three times as a part of the Wabash National Study (beginning of freshman year, end of freshman year, and end of senior year).  They were also the first class to complete the new senior survey in the spring of 2012.

From the data gathered at the end of the freshmen year (spring, 2009), we found one set of troubling results among first year greek members.  Freshmen who joined greek organizations reported larger increases than their independent (non-greek member) peers on three items during the first year.

  • The number of times in a week that they drank alcohol
  • The number of times in a week that they had five or more alcoholic drinks
  • The number of days in the week that they felt sleep deprived

In addition, greek members, on average, earned a lower spring GPA – even after accounting for students’ incoming ACT score and academic motivation.  Unsurprisingly, being male exacerbated each of these differences, while being female minimized them.  Interestingly, despite these potentially negative effects, greek membership did not decrease the likelihood of retention, probably because students don’t join greek organizations until the spring term, and the primary driver of persistence or withdrawal – academic performance – has already culled the herd during the previous winter and fall terms.

Fast-forward to the end of the senior year.  At this point, what initially seemed a more negative picture becomes more complicated.  While greek members’ average GPA still trail that of non-greek members, the gap noted in the spring of the first year has shrunk by about 25%.  Again, being female mitigates further, likely making the difference in average GPA between female greek and non-greek members insignificant.

However, in numerous cases greek students’ scores on several senior survey items suggests that this experience provided some important benefits.  On average, greek members’ responded more positively (defined by differences that proved statistically significant) to these statements:

  • My co-curricular experiences provided numerous opportunities to interact with students who differed from me in race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or social/political values.
  • My co-curricular involvement helped me build a network of healthy lasting friendships.
  • My co-curricular involvement helped me develop a better understanding of my leadership skills.
  • I felt a strong sense of belonging on campus.
  • The college emphasized an atmosphere of ethnic and cross-cultural understanding.
  • Augustana faculty and staff welcomed student input on institutional policy and handbook decisions.
  • If you could relieve your college decision would you choose Augustana again?

Taken together, these findings spell out much of the good and the bad of greek life.  On one hand, during the first year it appears that some behaviors emerge among greeks that could – and sometimes do – negatively impact students’ success.  On the other hand, by the time this group of students graduates, at least one of those deficits has been legitimately reduced, and the educational efforts of the college – particularly on the co-curricular side – appear to have produced a series of benefits that match our own educational intentions.

Of course, one important question – and a longstanding one – is how we might eliminate the bad without losing the good.  Our student affairs staff continually works to counter the impact of pledging on student success, even in the face of stiff pushback from many greek members and alumni.  Might there be a role for faculty to play in this endeavor?  Probably.  Does that role include railing against a stereotype of greeks that actually perpetuates a stereotype of faculty among students and, in so doing undermines the very trust necessary to influence students’ behavior outside of class?  Probably not.

But the question that jumps out at me is slightly different.  While it’s great to see graduating seniors from greek organizations respond so positively to all of these questions, should we actually be celebrating this?  What is it about NOT belonging to greek organizations that produces systematically lower scores on so many important markers of the college experience we are trying to deliver?  For example, I’m not comfortable with finding that the greek members’ sense of belonging on campus score was more than half a point higher than non-greek members (4.26 vs. 3.71); not because I begrudge greek organizations, but because I’m not sure I see a compelling reason for greek membership on our campus to produce such a stark difference.

It’s easy to point to anecdotes of the college experience at its best; and we have many wonderful tales of students – greek and non-greek – who have changed fundamentally during their four years at Augustana.  But as I look at these findings, my concern tends toward the students who experience less than our best.  I’d be curious to figure out what we might do to minimize, or even eliminate, the statistically significant differences between greek and non-greek members across all of these senior survey experience questions.

Answers?  You wanted answers?  Oh, grasshopper . . .

Have a great Homecoming week – and let’s not leave anyone on the outside looking in.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

The myth of the vanishing humanities professor

As much as I try to be a kind, sensitive, and empathetic institutional researcher (group hugs every fifth Tuesday – no, not really!), I can’t resist salivating just a little bit whenever word of a new uber-explanatory claim pops up on my radar.  Part of my interest comes merely from a persistent drive to apply evidence to better understand what we do.  Sometimes, we make decisions that produce unintended consequences – and many times the impact of those decisions rises to the surface inductively, through the observations of some who, thankfully, are uniquely predisposed to see it.  However – and I fully own up to my dark side here – the chance to test a claim that has already gotten itself a bandwagon, a theme song, and the specter of pitchforks and torches storming the Bastille is an institutional researcher’s dream chance to “speak truth to power.”  It’s bratwurst to a Bear’s fan, grog to a Viking, a soy latte to an NPR member . . . you get the picture.

For many, the recent decision to merge the German and Scandinavian programs has felt like another body blow to the core values on which Augustana was founded.  Moreover, this decision all too easily feeds into a larger narrative that Augustana, like many traditional liberal arts colleges before it, has long since abandoned its commitment to the liberal arts even as it has disingenuously held on to the relative prestige of claiming to be something that it is not.

So . . . have we gutted our commitment to the liberal arts?  I purposefully choose this inflammatory language because it is exactly the wording that was used when the claim was made to me - complete with raised intonation and eyebrows.  While there are many ways to unpack this question; I’m writing a blog, not a book.  However, there are a couple of ways that we might examine our data to test this claim.  To that end, I’d like to introduce a couple of data points and one observation that might flesh out this story just a little bit.

One way that an institution might shift its commitment away from the liberal arts would be to move faculty positions away from core liberal arts disciplines like the humanities, foreign languages, and fine arts and add faculty lines to new or existing pre-professional programs.  While this by no means should be consider “smoking gun” evidence, if this were indeed the case, it would provide strong evidence to support the claim that Augustana had given up its commitment to the liberal arts.

So I decided to look for any evidence of a shift in faculty distribution over the past ten years. (Whether we should have gone back further to the late sixties or early seventies is an entirely valid critique).  Nonetheless, we started by building a baseline from 2001.  Thanks to Sarah Horowitz and Jamie Nelson in Special Collections, we tracked down a 2000-01 college directory and manually counted the number of faculty in each discipline.  As best as we can tell (it’s possible that some faculty were not listed in the directory for some reason), there were 78 faculty FTE (full time equivalent) employed by Augustana in the humanities, foreign languages, and fine arts ten years ago.  To put that in context, these 78 faculty FTE made up 49.6% of the 157 total faculty FTE.

So how does the 2000-01 distribution compare to today?  Last year, 2011-12, 114 faculty FTE were employed in humanities, foreign languages, and fine arts disciplines – 53.3% of our 214 total faculty FTE.  In the particular case of foreign languages, in 2000-01 there were 18 faculty FTE teaching in foreign language departments.  In 2011-12, there were 20.33 faculty FTE teaching in foreign language departments (we included classics in this analysis to be sure that Latin and Greek weren’t left out).

This evidence hardly supports the assertion that Augustana is gutting the liberal arts.  Just as a reminder, I am not suggesting that this is “smoking gun” evidence to dismiss the aforementioned claim. There might be evidence that other academic departments have lost positions to the pre-professional programs or that the relative distribution of full-time and part-time instructors has shift away from the core liberal arts disciplines;  although a cursory glance suggests to me that neither of these possibilities are likely.  So, at least in terms of overall faculty distribution in the traditional liberal arts, the trend over the last ten years suggests an increased investment in the most traditional liberal arts disciplines.

But this data doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a shift in students’ academic behavior patterns that might translate into a different distribution of majors and minors.  In this context, there certainly might be some perceived winners and losers.  Our institutional data does show some changes in student academic interests over ten years, but the totality of these shifts merely complicates the story.  While the proportion of students declaring their “primary” major in the humanities has declined, the proportion of students declaring a “secondary” major or minor in the humanities has remained strong and maybe even ticked up slightly.  Some of this is due to an overall increase in the number of second majors and additional minors that students now obtain.  So even thought this data might reflect a modest shift in student priorities, its a long way from suggesting that the college is gutting the liberal arts.

So where does this leave us?  That isn’t my question to answer.  My goal here was only to test the veracity of a claim that seems to be a popular rallying cry in some circles at the moment.  Based on this evidence, and if the degree to which our investment in and distribution of faculty lines across the college represents our educational philosophy, it’s pretty hard to make the case that Augustana has abandoned its commitment to the liberal arts.

However, this evidence doesn’t address the question of whether or not our collective emphasis on an interdisciplinary, liberal arts education has waned in the face of increasingly siloed major requirements, a growing belief in the perceived value of a double major and/or a second minor, and institutional policies that waive course requirements fundamental to the liberal arts (e.g., foreign language competency).  But that conversation is a very different one – one that probably involves an examination of our espoused values, a hard look at the ramifications of our actual curricular and co-curricular policies, and a mirror.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Hiding under the “average” blanket

Higher ed folks often toss around numbers that supposedly describe the quality of a given college or university.  But a funny thing happens on the road to an “average” score.  Although it might approximate everyone, it rarely describes anyone in particular.  So unless a college hires an Institutional Psychic to predict the individual path of each new student (The Nostradamus Endowed Chair of Student Success?), metrics like an average retention rate or a student-faculty ratio don’t tell us as much about a place as we might like – or want – to think.

But this doesn’t mean that the data is useless.  In fact, we can learn a lot about ourselves by looking for differences between subsets of students on a variety of such metrics.  For example, an overall retention rate could – and often does – mask stark differences in persistence between high and lower ability students, high and lower income students, or men and women.  Identifying the nature of those differences could point us toward the solutions that would help us improve what we do.

Over the last several years we’ve increasingly employed this approach to squeeze more useful information out of our student experience data.  Many of you have already seen the way that the experiences of your majors might differ from other Augustana students in your senior survey departmental reports.  Taking the same approach that we use to better understand student retention (dividing students by gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and academic preparation/incoming ACT score) reveals a layer of nuance that I believe deepens our understanding of the Augustana experience across diverse students types.  It also helps us use evidence to think about how we might engage specific types of students in specific moments to more carefully mitigate these differences.

As an aside, the differences that we spend most time considering are those that cross a threshold of statistical significance – meaning that there is less than a 5% chance that the likelihood of the observed difference is coincidental (the formula that we used is called a t-test).  In this post I am going to focus on differences between low income and middle/upper income students.  Future posts will consider the differences the emerge across a range of variables including gender, race/ethnicity, and academic preparation.

Comparing low income students with middle/upper income students presents a great example of the complexities this kind of analysis can provide.  We used Pell Grant eligibility as the marker of lower income – its an easy way to categorize financial need, even as it probably over-simplifies the impact of socioeconomic status (SES).  As you look through the items on which differences emerged, think about the possible factors that might produce a statistically significance difference between the two groups’ responses.

Lower income students scored higher than middle/upper income students on several items.

  • My co-curricular activities provided numerous opportunities to interact with students who differed from me in race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or social/political values.
  • My out-of-class experiences have helped me connect what I learned in the classroom with real life events
  • In your non-major courses, about how often were you asked to put together ideas or concepts from different courses when completing assignments and during class discussions?
  • My interactions with the librarians helped me improve my approach to researching a topic.
  • Augustana faculty and staff welcomed student input on institutional policy and handbook decisions.
  • When you had questions or concerns about financial issues, were the offices you contacted responsive and helpful?

Conversely, lower income students scored lower than middle/upper income students on one item.

  • My out-of-class experiences have helped me develop a deeper understanding of myself.

The scope of these differences is fascinating.  In some instances low income students’ responses seem comparatively more positive than the rest of the student body.  While this might suggest that some of our efforts are indeed providing a compensatory impact, I think these findings highlight the relative lack of pre-college opportunity that lower income students often must overcome (fewer communal resources like libraries or access to technology, less exposure to some of the ideas fundamental to the liberal arts, etc.).  In other cases, these findings might be evidence of the quality of our effort to be sensitive and inclusive to these students (e.g., the relatively more positive interactions for low income students when asking for help with financial issues).  Understanding the nature of these differences could play an important role in shaping our daily interactions with students who may, unbeknownst to us, come from a lower socioeconomic background.

At the same time, sometimes these differences in responses suggest that some of these students’ experiences are less positive.  Given the small numbers of lower income students at Augustana, it seems likely that they would recognize the extent to which they interact across socioeconomic difference more often than middle/upper income students.  In some cases this might contribute to a sense of marginalization for low income students.  Finally, the difference in responses on the question about “out-of-class experiences develop a deeper understanding of myself” is particularly intriguing.  I’d like to know more about the underlying factors that might influence that difference.

Taken together, these findings replicate the results of many recent studies regarding the impact of social class on college students – an impact that extends far beyond financial constraints.  What have you observed in your interactions with low income students?  Are there things you have done that seem to help these students succeed at Augustana?  As you interact with students this week, I hope these findings expand your sense of the ways in which our students experience Augustana differently, and how our sensitivity to these differences can improve our educational impact.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Complicating the extrinsic motivation and getting good grades narrative

Faculty often cringe when students ask, “what do I have to do to get an “A” on this assignment?”  For most educators, this question feels more like an unsolicited back alley proposition than a genuine expression of intellectual curiosity.

Yet from the student’s perspective, grades may represent a very different kind of negotiation.  Not only have grades dictated their access to future educational opportunities, extra-curricular experiences, and sometimes even cash(!) since elementary school, but the categories of “A” student, “B” student, and “C” student have all too often come to represent individual worth and long-term potential – not just the quality of one’s work on a particular assignment.  Sadly, we’ve done a pretty good job of validating this conception.  Remember the “My kid is an honor student at ____ school” bumper stickers that still adorn many a late model mini-van or SUV?

Luckily, disentangling the relationship between our students’ perception of grades and their motivational orientations can be approached as an empirical question.  Last year we began a four-year study of the experiences that shape our students’ intrinsic motivation.  As a part of this study, we included a measure of extrinsic motivational orientation and a question that asked students to indicate the importance they place on getting good grades.

This summer, we tested the relationship between extrinsic motivation and the importance of getting good grades at the end of the first year.  We assumed we’d find a significant relationship between these two variables.  So we were quite surprised to find no significant correlation between extrinsic motivation and importance of getting good grades.  However, we found a statistically significant positive – and moderately sized (.332) – correlation between students’ intrinsic motivational orientation and the importance of getting good grades.  Hmmm . . .

At the very least, this suggests that we might need to think more carefully about the assumptions we make when students ask how they can earn an ‘A’ from us.  One student inquiry about earning a high grade might be an indication of the degree to which we simply have not communicated our expectations for an assignment clearly.  Another inquiry might reflect the degree to which a student considers the entire educational enterprise to be about jumping through hoops and collecting credentials.  Still another inquiry might only mean that the student has too many irons in the fire and is simply triangulating their available time, the expectations they perceive that you hold, and the grade they can afford to live with.

There are two additional considerations about grading practices and their relationship to student motivation that are worth noting.  First, letter grades emerged during a time in which the learning expected of students was primarily about content knowledge.  But as content has shifted from an end to a means – with colleges now focused on developing more complex skills and dispositions in addition to content knowledge, we have done very little to think about whether the traditional metric for assessing student performance might benefit from some reconsideration.

In addition, at Augustana we don’t impose a single definition of what a grade represents.  Does an ‘A’ mean that a student has met an externally defined threshold of competence?   Or does it mean that a student has improve substantially over the course of a term?  Or is it some combination of the two that shifts as the course progresses?  Or maybe it should depend on the role of the course within the larger curriculum to determine whether grading should be about improvement or competence.

Faculty employ varying iterations of these conceptions across the array of courses that they offer, and all three approaches seem entirely appropriate for different situations.  But from the students’ perspective, unless they actually understand that there are different approaches to grading, and that these approaches can (and probably should) vary depending upon the course, they are likely to feel blindsided when the conception chosen by the instructor differs from that expected by the student.  Any one of us would likely be frustrated by such a realization, and in that moment it seems entirely reasonable to ask the question, “How DO I get an ‘A’ in this class?”  Moreover, I think we would have good reason to be offended if someone responded to our question by challenging our motives for learning.

Since a large proportion of our students understand the impact of grades on their future prospects for graduate school or the job market, it is likely that many place great importance on getting a high grade regardless of their motivational orientation.  So, it appears that maybe – just maybe – the implications of a student asking, “How do I get an ‘A’ on this paper?” are, let’s just say . . . complicated.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

 

 

The faculty adviser as a student’s GPS

At Augustana, we have always believed in the importance of faculty advising.  And we have solid evidence to support this approach.  In addition to the many proud stories of students who have blossomed under faculty tutelage, our recent senior survey data and our prior NSSE data both suggest that overall, our students are satisfied with the quality of our advising.  In fact, other NSSE data suggests that faculty ask students important advising questions about career aspirations more often than faculty at similar institutions.

Yet many of us share a gnawing sense that we can, and need, to do better.  Because even though these average scores roughly approximate general satisfaction, the degree of variability that lurks beneath them hides an uncomfortable truth.  For each advising relationship that inspires a student to excel, there are students for who gain little substantive benefit from their advising interactions.

One way to strive for improvement with some measure of confidence is to collectively apply a theoretically grounded framework of advising with a formative assessment feedback mechanism to guide our advising conversations and hone them over time.  One theory of advising, often called developmental advising, positions the adviser as a guide to help students both select and weave together a set of curricular and co-curricular experiences to attain important learning outcomes and post-graduate success.  In many ways, it harkens back to the artisan/apprentice model of learning placed in the context of the liberal arts.  In our senior survey, we included a set of questions informed by this framework to assess the degree to which students experience this kind of advising.  The table below reports the average responses to these questions among students who graduated in 2012.

Question

Mean

St.Dev.

My adviser genuinely seemed to care about my development as a whole person.*

4.13

1.003

My adviser helped me select courses that best met my educational and personal goals.*

3.98

1.043

How often did your adviser ask you about your career goals and aspirations?**

3.55

1.153

My adviser connected me with other campus resources and opportunities (Student Activities, CEC, the Counseling Center, etc.) that helped me succeed in college.*

3.44

1.075

How often did your adviser ask you to think about the connections between your academic plans, co-curricular activities, and your career or post-graduate plans?**

3.31

1.186

About how often did you talk with your primary major adviser?***

3.47

1.106

The response options are noted below.

*1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3=neutral, 4=agree, 5=strongly agree
**1=never, 2=rarely, 3=sometimes, 4=often, 5=very often
***1=never, 2=less than once per term, 3=1-2 times per term, 4=2-3 times per term, 5=we communicated regularly throughout the term

 

First, I think it’s useful to consider the way that each question might enhance student learning and development.  In addition, it is important to note the relationship between questions.  It seems that it would be difficult for a student to respond positively to any specific item without responding similarly to the previous item.  Taken together, this set of questions can function as a list of cumulative bullet points that advisers might use to help students construct an intentionally designed college experience in which the whole is more likely to becomes qualitatively greater than the sum of the parts.

Second, the data we gather from these questions can help us assess the nature of our efforts to cultivate our students’ comprehensive development.  Looking across the set of mean scores reported above, it appears that our students’ advising experiences address optimal course selection more often than they help students connect their own array of disparate experiences to better make the most out of college and prepare for the next stage of their lives.

Yet, if we were to adopt this conception of advising and utilize future senior survey data to help us assess our progress, I am not sure that continuing to converting each question’s responses to a mean score helps us move toward that goal.  The variation across students, programs, student-faculty relationships, and potential pathways to graduation doesn’t lend itself well to such a narrowly defined snapshot.  Furthermore, suggesting that we just increase an overall mean score smells a lot like simply adding more advising to all students instead of adding the right kind of advising at the just the right time for those who need it the most.

A more effective approach might be to focus on reducing the percentage of students who select particular responses to a specific item.  For example, in response to the question, “How often did your adviser ask you to think about the connections between your academic plans, co-curricular activities, and your career or post-graduate plans?” 25% of the 2012 graduating students indicated “never” or “rarely.”  It is entirely possible to reduce that proportion substantially without markedly increasing an average score.  For example, if we were to find a way to ask every student to consider the questions outlined in the senior survey once per term while at the same time focusing less on whether students indicate “often” or “very often,” we might find that the proportion of students indicating “never” or “rarely” drops considerably while the mean score remains about the same.  More importantly, I would suggest that at the end of the day we might have become more effective (and dare I say more efficient) in making the advising relationship a positive and influential piece of the educational experience without exhausting ourselves in the process.

As we embark on our HLC Quality Initiative to improve our advising efforts, I hope we will think carefully about the way that we utilize our data to understand our progress.  Our goal is to improve our educational effectiveness – not just move a number.

Make it a good day,

Mark