Rankings, Relevance and the Future of the Regional Public University

The New York Times ran an interesting article today about the proliferation of college rankings and the increasing importance of outcomes–especially post-graduation employment and starting salary–in these rankings.

But first a tangent and semi-rant: Do you ever read the Higher Education supplement (Education Life I believe it is called) that the NYT runs about once a month or so? Do you ever get the same feeling I get? That according to the articles (and ads) in the Higher Education supplement, higher education in America is pretty much the sole province of prestigious private liberal arts colleges or massive R-1 universities? That students going to college are all 18-22 years old, and all are planning to be residential full-time students. That the biggest struggle students face is which paid internship they are going to take next or whether they should stay at Harvard or drop out and develop their start-up? The lead article in the last edition: Finals clubs for the rich and privileged.

OK–so a little resentment at the establishment. I am from the Midwest–flyover country–so it’s permitted.

There is, however, more than resentment here–what readers get is a very selective view of what higher education is like today, and this very selective view is the one that resonates with the audience for the NYT (still considered  the unofficial newspaper of record for the US, and still the publication that probably is most read (or at least followed) by the powerful in political and business circles), and then the view that helps shape what we think about when we think about higher education. Comm scholar geek break here: Reminder of what agenda setting theory tells us – mediated messages don’t tell us what to think, but they do tell us what to think about.

So what does that have to do with us? Back to the NYT article on rankings, with a little side-trip to a past Chronicle of Higher Education article on the future of the regional public university.

The rankings game–though admittedly still trying to improve–uses metrics and measurements that privilege the full-time student at the full-time school: Four year graduation rates, and initial salaries upon graduation. The part-time student (the second degree student, the transfer student, the returning adult student, the working two jobs to afford school and help out the family student) is largely invisible or, based on the metrics, a drag on rankings.

But that student is also more the representative of the future of the public regional university. We are where students come for a great education–even if they aren’t 18 years old, only attending school and living on campus. Regional public universities are just that–we serve our public, and that means we serve the students in our geographical areas even if their life circumstances may make it more likely that rankings based on a traditional stereotype of the college student mean we will not be as highly ranked as we should be.

With all of the attention being paid to higher education nationally and locally (you should all be watching closely what is happening in Trenton with a series of bills about higher education in New Jersey), how we are covered in the media and how the rankings promote one vision of higher education matters. Perception shapes reality, and the perception right now is that public higher education is not as strong as it should be. We need to be fighting for the future of the regional public university.


The Imperfect Importance of “Finish in 4”

My university, William Paterson, struggles with a problem shared by many public state universities, especially those that serve a student population strong on first generation students, whose economic situation requires that they work a great many hours while attending school, and who may need additional developmental education to succeed in college courses.

Our problem? We want (and need to a large extent) our students to take full course loads (15 credits each semester), take these 15 credits every semester for 8 semesters, and then graduate with 120 credits and their degree in four years. We also need to balance this desire (and necessity) with the needs of our students to self-fund much of their education (and possibly also contribute to family expenses) and to meet family and other needs while going to school.

A problem.

First, a reminder why we as a university want and need students to finish in 4:

  • The longer a student stays in school, the greater the likelihood that student doesn’t ever finish
  • Each year in school is another year of paying tuition, taking out more loans and delaying the move from student to full-time employment–reducing a student’s overall financial health for years
  • State and federal governments are continuing to increase the pressure on all schools–but especially public schools–to improve their graduation rates
  • Publications that rate and rank schools weigh four-year graduation rates in their calculations
  • Parents and students look at the our-year graduation rate in making decisions about which schools to attend

In one sense, this is (or appears to be) an easy decision: Economically (at least in the long-term) and personally, finishing a bachelor’s degree in four years is the best route. The benefits are clear.

Of course it is not that simple. Students (always but more so as the share of educational cost covered by tuition continues to  rise) look not only at the long term but at the short-term and immediate needs. Finish in 4 sometimes looks more difficult when it conflicts with pay the rent by Tuesday. Students also, as they always have, sometimes change their minds–one may start out with a plan to become the world’s greatest accountant only to discover that graphic design is really where their heart and mind is. Students sometimes just really want to learn more–and that’s hard to resist as a teacher.

And life just gets in the way from time to time.

So back to the title: The Imperfect Importance of Finish in 4. Even with all the caveats above, completion of the bachelor’s degree in four years is extremely important. It is vital, therefore, that universities do all they can do to make this possible. We may not be able to resolve a crisis in a family and our financial aid support probably can’t cover all the expenses for every student.

But we can identify and eliminate needless barriers to timely completion. We can provide academic advising so that students can select the major that they really want to complete. We can provide academic support so that students can learn and succeed in their classes. We can set our course schedules and craft our curriculum so that students can get the courses they need in a sequence that makes sense and at times that work best for students–nor just for university employees.

Imperfect? Yes. But still vitally important.


Future Perfect?

We are back. Fall 2016 school year has started. Students are still finalizing class schedules (drop-adds and re-registrations and other changes will  continue for a few more days) but in another week or so we will all have settled down to a more regular routine.

Here at William Paterson, we are just a couple of days into the new fall semester (and thankful that we have been spared any wrath of Hurricane/Tropical Storm/(and as of this writing, now officially a post-tropical Cyclone Hermine–will leave it to the meteorologists to parse the distinctions). We have officially welcomed our new students, the President has welcomed the community, and I have just finished my fall all-faculty address and welcome.

Fall is a new beginning for academics, with plenty of promise: New students (we have about 2600 new students–new first year and transfer) and new faculty ( we just welcomed 21 new tenure track faculty at a new faculty orientation on September 2–and it is really good to be able to say that we are still hiring sizable numbers of tenure track faculty).

However, even with beginnings we have recurring challenges. It is very disappointing to note that almost all of our faculty and staff remain without a contract. The state of New Jersey has settled with one union, but negotiations have not yet resulted in a settlement for faculty and most of our professional staff. Having spent almost all of my career at collective bargaining institutions (and having served on two statewide bargaining teams, including one that took almost two years), I am aware of the difficulties of bargaining, but also aware of the need to have an agreement in place.

As we move through the 2016-17 academic year, we, along with most every other public regional state university, will also continue to face financial pressure, enrollment pressure, and pressure to improve retention and graduation rates. This may seem like another verse of the same old song, but the refrain is as real as the pressure.

So as we start the year at William Paterson, we are excited and happy to be back. We have a good number of new students and a great crew of new (and of course veteran) faculty. The state has not reduced our budget (and in today’s new normal that becomes something to celebrate) and we are in pretty good financial shape. We are looking to continue to improve our metrics, and we are looking at how we can grow our enrollments, especially at the graduate level.

So is our future perfect? Of course not, but there is room for growth and reason to think we can grow. There is plenty of doom and gloom about higher education out there (I sometimes think both The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed should come wrapped in shrouds), but fall for academics is like spring for lovers–we can both be as giddy as a baby on a swing (thank you Rodgers and Hammerstein).

Welcome to fall 2016.




The Future of Higher Education?

So first off (if it matters) an apology: I have not been very good at meeting my schedule of blog postings. Blame, if any, rests solely with me–and I will work to be more on schedule.

That said, as we approach Commencement here at my University (William Paterson, where we are pleased to announce that we will be having two ceremonies this year, with Graduate Commencement on campus on May 18 and Undergraduate Commencement at the Prudential Center in Newark on May 20–with Senator Cory Booker as our Commencement speaker) and all across the country, perhaps it is a time to reflect on what we do and what our future may hold.

To be clear–the following is in no way an endorsement. But this is an issue that keeps popping up over and over again. There are significant cultural, structural and economic forces at play (and yes–there are ALWAYS significant cultural, structural and economic forces at play–but I would offer that we appear to be in a time and place where change is coming more rapidly than it has for some time–perhaps more akin to the Industrial Revolution or even to the rise of Modernity).

The digitization of information and knowledge is advancing at breakneck pace. The United States Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to Google’s project to scan and digitize printed material for which Google has no copyright. The University of California system libraries are partners in this project. Here at William Paterson, we have significantly increased our use of e-books, continue to use more digital than print sources, and are increasing our own digitization efforts.

As libraries move to more digital offerings, what about the university itself? Online courses and online programs have been around so long that they have moved from new to “of course we offer online courses and programs.” But we here at William Paterson, and still the great majority of all other colleges and universities, continue to offer campus-based educational programs as the standard approach to teaching and learning.

There are other models out there. Southern New Hampshire University, a fully-accredited regional university with a campus and many “traditional” students, is expanding rapidly into the world of digital education. But this growth is still in the tradition of an educational model that most of us in higher education readily recognize.

What happens when someone (or something that is getting to be as influential as traditional higher education–if not more so) comes to play with us?

Amazon U anyone?

A somewhat provocative and imaginative article came out a few months back–a blend of what is already taking place and a vision (you can consider the plausibility) of a potential future.

As noted above–not in any way an endorsement. Reading this article, however, does get me thinking about the not-so-distant future. We are living in a time where major industries (bookstore chains have just about died–wondering how long Barnes and Noble will hang on) have disappeared or or altering their company DNA so much that they bear little resemblance to what came before (traditional print journalism is something that is more part of history than it is of the current or the future). So what about higher education?

My perspective? Traditional face to face education will continue. We are still people, and we still like to get together with each other and share–and that is an important element of education. Knowledge (defined as information) will continue to be digitized. Understanding seems a little less amenable to digitization and a lot more dependent on the shared construction that takes place with learning. So perhaps less a paradigm shift (and yes I have read my Thomas Kuhn) and more a chance to think a little bit more about what we do. Education can be less about the transmission of information and more about understanding.

Nudges – Part Two

The “nudge” is still a hot topic. In my last post I discussed the concept of “nudging,” of providing little incentives or removing annoyances, inconveniences and unnecessary barriers in order to influence behaviors–in this case, behaviors that encourage students to stay in school and graduate in a timely fashion.

Nudges are powerful, as noted in the articles cited in the last post. Probably the best discussion of the concept of nudges is found in the 2009 book Nudge (how original) by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (who, not incidentally, then worked for the Obama administration in an organization designed to apply the principles of “nudge” to a variety of government and policy issues).

So yes–nudges (and the behavioral economic and social psychology theories and research that support the concept) are powerful.

But–there is almost always a but.

A recent (February 23) article in the NY Times, while acknowledging the power of the nudge, also reminded us of the power of reality.

Nudges can’t overcome material realities.

As Eduardo Porter notes, nudges are successful only when the capacity to act is present. Nudges are just that–a way to nudge people to do what they “ought” to do, and what they have the capability to do if they only so chose to do so.

Nudges don’t work when the capacity is missing.

Porter’s key example was in trying to encourage people to save more for retirement. We certainly ought to do so, and many of us have the capacity–but not all. People who live from paycheck to paycheck often lack the capacity to squeeze out funds for retirement.

Likewise, at times, for our students. We can (and should regardless) keep working to eliminate unnecessary barriers to student success–help students register on time, provide assistance when needed, encourage students to seek out assistance–but nudges may not work when a student faces a real economic choice: Do I register now knowing I will need to pay my bill soon, or do I wait to register so the money that would be needed to pay my school costs can be used for rent? Or food? Or medicine? Do I buy the required textbooks for my class, or do I use that money to buy clothes for my children?

We need to continue to address these material realities at the same time we keep trying to nudge our students to success. Without that capacity, a nudge is just another barrier.

Nudging toward success?

Yes, still talking about student success issues.

And most likely going to keep talking about student success for quite some time. We are seeing some positive news, and even some positive trends (4-year graduation rate), but there is still room to grow.

More importantly, growth that we will have in terms of student success will only take place if we are consistent in our efforts and employ these efforts across the broad spectrum of student life. We help our students in the classroom, in tutoring centers, with registration and advising, with financial issues, with health and wellness issues–and more and more and more. There are so many possible hindrances to student success, so there is no such thing as a magic bullet.

Which brings me to today’s topic: The Nudge.

In the disciplines of social psychology and (getting more of the press–perhaps economists have better PR people than do the social psychologists) behavioral economics, there has been a great deal of academic research and popular press coverage of the concept of the nudge.

What does that mean? Very simply put, the idea is that little steps (alone but also in combination) may do more to influence and change human behavior than large scale campaigns and traditional persuasion.

This concept has been explored in relation to student success. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article (probably behind a paywall), there was a nice summary of this approach, and, even better, references to additional research (including a book–not that I am recommending a purchase, but I might) and an article (which I have read and do recommend–especially because it is free).

The article is basically a lit review–and a pretty good one I think–of research that explores a myriad of ways that student success (and in this case, the focus is on access to higher education as much as success while in higher education). I do recommend reading the article so you can have your own views–my takeaways:

  • Most universities have perfectly rational processes in place for admission and retention–and most individuals, especially 18-year-old first time college students, do not routinely engage in highly rational long-term benefit thinking.
  • The completion gap between low-income students and the rest of the population starts way before these students get to college and makes it even less likely they will consider college at all.
  • Complexity is a killer (from the article: “In sum, the complexity of the college-going process itself may hinder students from achieving greater rates of success.”).
  • Choice seems like a good thing, but choice may be hurting more students than it helps. Structure and support and guidance have greater impacts on a student’s likelihood to succeed than does student choice.
  • The transition to college is far more difficult than “we” think–because, after all, most of us have already succeeded in the college setting
  • More information doesn’t necessarily help; active intervention makes the difference
  • Timing matters–just in time information seems to be better than all at once information

So we keep thinking about student success, and we need to keep in mind that big and bold may look good–but little things may make more of a difference. A $1,000 scholarship looks great; not sending a student from office to office may keep more students in school than that $1,000 scholarship.

Some thoughts on nudges.

Fin de semester?

The stockings are hung (on the stairwell as I have no chimney) with care, and the calendar year is drawing to a close.

The end of a semester and end of a calendar year is always an interesting time for an academic. Our year really runs from September to mid-May (and then summer school is an entirely different beast). The calendar and seasonal changes that take place as December moves to January still apply–but it is a little different. January may be the new year; but for those of us who live in the rhythm of academia, January is really just the start of spring semester. The “new” year starts in September.

Nonetheless, there are still nice rituals,even for academics, as the semester ends and the calendar year ends.

As I am out of the classroom now, some of the end of the year rituals are no longer part of my year-end: No more sitting in front of piles of papers, reading and commenting and grading–smiling when I see that my students “got it.” Making other facial expressions (and other expressions) when I see that something was missed–routinely, and so knowing that I need to make some changes to the class the next time I teach it. No more the feeling of satisfaction when that last paper is read and that last grade entered. No more the search for anything else I can do other than sit there and grade papers!

As a faculty member, at least for me, the end of the semester really did bring a feeling of completion and closure–and, just as importantly, the promise of a fresh start with the beginning of the next semester. A course ended; a new course will begin–new students, new goals, new teaching ideas.

Out of the classroom now, and so much of my work doesn’t end and begin with the semester (and of course it never really all did as a faculty member–there are always ongoing projects, but the heart of what I did–teaching–had a self-contained beginning and end).

But there are still possibilities for end of the year rituals.

I clean my desk. I do my best to address those e-mails that have been lingering in my in-box (I have never been completely successful at the one read and respond method so many of those productivity people recommend–too many e-mails that have longer-term implications and can’e be read and responded (or turfed)). I file (and as much as I try there as well–I still have paper files and haven’t been able to make the transition to a paperless office).

At the end of the semester, especially at the end of fall semester, the last few days before the university shuts down are a little more quiet. Fewer people on campus each day; the phone rings less often; the e-mails don’t roll in quite so fast–a chance to work and not just dash from meeting to meeting, e-mail to e-mail, mini (or perceived) crisis to next perceived crisis.

A respite.

I hope you are all enjoying a little time away, a chance to wrap up one semester and plan anew for spring, and an opportunity to remember why we do what we do and what about our work gives us joy and satisfaction.

Enjoy the holidays and we will see you in 2016.