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Podcast - Interview with an Expert

Student Motivation with Don Fraser

Don Fraser is one of North America’s leading authorities on student success and retention. A professor at Durham College for the past 30 years, Don publishes the national best-seller Making Your Mark, which has sold over one million copies. Don has delivered student motivation seminars to over 17,000 college staff at various conferences and at over 300 colleges across North America. In this podcast Don talks about student motivation.

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“We Refund 43 Percent of What We Take In,” or, An Open Invitation to William Bennett

William Bennett was a prominent figure in the culture wars of the 80’s and 90’s. He later gained prominence in higher ed policy circles for “the Bennett hypothesis.” The Bennett hypothesis is the idea that the availability of financial aid dollars drives tuition increases. If we want to get a handle on tuition, the argument goes, cut off its oxygen.  

The Bennett hypothesis has been treated with an inexplicable respect in policy debates, as if it were somehow true.  

On Monday I had a discussion with one of the financial folks at the college, who mentioned in passing that the college refunds 43 percent of the aid it takes in. And I thought, hmm. That’s not what the Bennett hypothesis would have you believe.

But we do.

“The aid it takes in” encompasses the combination of grants -- mostly Pell, though some others too -- and loans. “Refund” means the aid was in excess of what the college charged, so the extra was given to the student to cover indirect costs, such as transportation, housing, or food. (Textbooks fall into an in-between zone; the college sometimes issues vouchers based on financial aid awards, and students can use those vouchers in the campus bookstore.) Refunds are typically given in a lump sum, though there’s a movement afoot in some campuses across the country called “aid like a paycheck,” in which it would be paid in biweekly installments.

The idea behind refunds is that students need to eat, and working too many hours for pay while going to school tends to imperil academic success and completion. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s recent book Paying the Price is excellent on this point. Room and board are eligible for financial aid at residential colleges, so it makes sense that there would be some sort of living allowance for commuter students. If anything, as Goldrick-Rab makes clear, the living allowances are often much too small to be practical.

But if the Bennett hypothesis were correct, we wouldn’t refund anything. We’d raise our prices enough to keep it all.

We don’t. And neither do most community colleges across the country.  Our full-time tuition and fees for a year are less than the maximum value of a Pell grant, before even counting loans.  

It’s almost as if Bennett ... didn’t look.

Hey, he’s a busy guy. I get that. I mean, sure, there are over 1100 community colleges across the country that he could have dropped in on and checked, but hey.  There are over seven universities in the Ivy League alone! Legwork is tiring.

Or maybe he just wasn’t invited. I can do something about that.

Mr. Bennett, I’ll be happy to host you on a visit to Brookdale. I’ll set up a meeting personally with the financial aid staff and some students. Heck, I’ll even personally set up a meeting with our CFO if you want to talk numbers. Because this hypothesis that some people are using as protective cover for systematic disinvestment does not square with reality on the ground.  It simply isn’t true.  

We hear a lot about the one percent, or the forty-seven percent. Let’s talk about the forty-three percent of money that we give back to students. Then tell me with a straight face about the need to cut off our oxygen. Look me in the eye and say it. I’ll be looking right at you.

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Redesigning college processes with the student in mind (essay)

Even the most well-intentioned colleges and universities have a hard time figuring out where to start on the path to improving student success and completion. Financial incentives that keep students on track toward graduation have, in many cases, proven effective, but they often don’t scale in an era of tight budgets. Emerging technologies promise transformation, but they can fall short in a world where financial or organizational challenges tend to stymie implementation.

As it turns out, the road to innovation is lined with real-world hurdles. Initiative fatigue abounds. And all too often, fiscal and organizational barriers can win the day when colleges and universities consider doing something new.

But what if colleges and universities flipped that model on its head? What if the most successful initiatives started with doing less, not more? Can colleges and universities drive outsize gains without spending any money or imposing new responsibilities on faculty and staff members?

Savvy colleges and universities are doing just that, by embracing basic engineering strategies like design thinking or process mapping. Process mapping, as the name suggests, entails mapping out an institutional process from start to finish. The goal is to understand processes from the perspective of the person encountering a product or service -- in the case of higher education, students. It requires institutional leaders to ask, “How does a student engage with our college or university when trying to do X?”

The exercise is inherently empathetic -- it demands that administrators and faculty members put themselves in students’ shoes. And it guarantees, at the very least, greater self-awareness and knowledge of pain points and hurdles that students experience and that need to be removed.

Underlying this approach is a somewhat controversial premise: colleges and universities were not, historically, designed around the needs of students. Like those in charge of many organizations that evolve to meet new demands, well-meaning administrators and faculty members have put processes into place with an imperfect understanding of the user experience. Most campuses have unintentionally put the onus on the students to navigate the complexity of a college campus. When you start looking at problems from that perspective, design flaws leap out.

As consumers, we expect that retailers or service providers have designed the experience around the customer. We become frustrated when things are counterintuitive, bureaucratic, slow, difficult or painful. So why should we tolerate flawed processes that frustrate our students? If colleges and universities really want students to complete their degrees, why is it up to students to let the university know when they are ready to graduate? And why should the students then have to apply to graduate -- and often pay a fee?

Process mapping allows the university to identify and confront the roadblocks for students and then work to remove them, yet it also reveals where faculty members, advisers and administrators are encountering inefficiencies and unnecessary work.

In fact, some of my favorite examples of campus transformation began with process mapping.

Georgia State University has used process mapping to better understand how the university communicates with students, mapping out every email, letter and call that students receives from dozens of offices across campus from the time that students first apply through the end of their first semester. The results of the exercise -- showing an overwhelming stream of often repetitive, conflicting and uncoordinated messages -- inspired the university to better organize how it orients news students and how it explains the choices that they face.

Those insights, in turn, led to more substantive changes -- changes that helped them transform the institution into a national model for student success, eliminating race and income as a predictor of academic outcomes. For instance, university administrators saw how freshmen immediately upon enrolling were expected to make a choice between dozens and dozens of majors, an overwhelming and stressful experience with students too often feeling pressure to make ill-informed decisions. Instead, they paired down the initial choice into seven “metamajors,” or broader-themed categories of study, to give students an opportunity to explore and discover during their first year of college. That small shift has led to a decline of more than 30 percent in the number of changes in major among students at Georgia State -- saving students both time and money in earning their degrees.

Georgia State’s success inspired Michigan State University to bring together representatives from across the campus to map all the ways the university interacted with students from the time they were admitted to the end of the first semester. They discovered that each new student was being barraged with about 400 emails from admissions, financial aid, the registrar’s office, student life, housing and residence life, academic advisers, the student accounts office, academic colleges, and more. The process mapping team found messages that were redundant, that could have been delivered in a different format or that could have been delayed so that other, more critical communications would get noticed.

The campus was overwhelming new students with noise during the time when they really needed clear and thoughtful guidance. That was especially problematic for first-generation and low-income students, who often lack external support in navigating university processes.

The team at Michigan State immediately started work on identifying ways to streamline, prioritize and redesign their interaction with students to be particularly sensitive to the needs of low-income and first-generation students. Financial aid communications now take priority for new students, while notices about extracurricular activities like intramural sports or clubs can wait until students arrive on the campus.

In the past, students who ended up on academic probation at the end of their first semester would receive four different emails from four different people. Now, Michigan State sends one email with clear information about how the student should seek academic advising help and get financial aid questions answered. Viewing the institution through the eyes of the students has allowed Michigan State to find new ways to help students who are at risk of going off track just out of the gates.

Most higher education institutions can benefit from a similar exercise. I have never found a campus that is too self-aware of how they impact their students, faculty members and administrators. Process mapping takes very little time and no additional financial outlay. The team at Michigan State, for example, was able to convene over the course of a day to map out the various communications students were receiving and, in the following weeks, agree upon which messages would be prioritized in the admissions-to-enrollment process.

Process mapping isn’t limited to enrollment and admissions. Colleges and universities can also use process mapping to examine a wide variety of operational challenges, such as course scheduling bottlenecks, barriers to graduation or the delivery of nonacademic student support services. Process mapping can also help the university ensure that students from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and supported on the campus.

Change doesn’t have to be complicated. The harder we make it to change, the less likely it is to happen. If you are asking yourself where to start working to improve student success, a simple exercise like process mapping is the right answer.

Bridget Burns is the executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, a national consortium of large public research universities collaborating to improve outcomes for students across the socioeconomic spectrum through innovation, scale and diffusion of best practices.

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University Websites Used in Search Engine Ranking Scheme

Dozens of colleges may have had their websites hacked in a wide-ranging scheme by one gambling site to boost its own search engine ranking. The SEO and web marketing firm eTraffic last week discovered that a number of search terms involving online gambling -- including "real money slots," "online slot casino" and others -- had been inserted into other websites to boost the gambling site's ranking. For example, in a lecture posted about two years ago on the website of the University of Washington's Center for Child and Family Well-Being, the text now reads, "Dr. Schonert-Reichl noted that within the classroom, children shouldn’t merely be focused on real money slots academics but also encouraged to explore who it is they are going to be" [emphasis added]. Dartmouth College, Nassau Community College, Stanford University and the University of Florida are among the many institutions affected.

Gatekeeper or rubber stamp? Recent tenure denial raises questions about a president's role in tenure decisions

Faculty advocates argue that tenure decisions are the primary domain of professors, and yet most institutions still involve presidents in the process. So what is the appropriate role of a college or university president in tenure cases?

That’s what faculty members and administrators at Lafayette College are trying to figure out in light of a recent presidential tenure veto that roiled the campus. Yet while Lafayette captured national attention -- in part because of the rejected professor’s protest method (a hunger strike) -- it’s not alone in trying to iron out the president’s role in tenure decisions.

“We do have a standard that if a president is going to overturn a faculty recommendation, it has to be for compelling reasons,” says Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary of academic freedom, tenure and governance for the American Association of University Professors. “But that does raise the question ‘Who gets to decide in the end whether reasons are compelling?’”

Tiede was speaking generally about AAUP policy, but the “compelling reasons” language is also at play in case of Juan Rojo, the assistant professor of Spanish at Lafayette who launched a hunger strike after being denied tenure last month despite the unanimous or majority support of three separate faculty review panels.

The reason? President Alison Byerly, citing what she called a pattern of negative student evaluations of teaching, said Rojo didn’t meet the college’s standard for exceptional instruction -- its most important tenure criterion. Lafayette’s Faculty Handbook mimics AAUP’s standard for presidential tenure vetoes, namely that they should happen in “rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.” And Byerly argued that just being a good teacher instead of a superb one was, in fact, compelling.

Rojo and a faculty panel disagreed with the assessment and the rationale, pointing to Rojo’s broader record of positive student evaluations of teaching and increasingly positive peer reviews. The faculty passed a motion at a special meeting earlier this month asking Lafayette’s Board of Trustees to rescind its negative decision, which was based largely on Byerly’s recommendation.

The board did reconsider -- or at least gave the request “serious consideration” before again backing Byerly, Edward W. Ahart, chair, wrote in a letter to the clerk of the faculty last week.

While the Rojo decision stands, Ahart said, “We fully support the suggestions made by [Byerly] and several faculty leaders that further discussion and examination of our tenure process is needed. … The board recognizes that this case has been painful for the community and has revealed significant differences of opinion within our community about some important aspects of the tenure review process.” Ahart asked the faculty to designate a group of representatives to “begin the dialogue that is needed to create a greater level of mutual understanding and agreement.”

A Lafayette spokesperson referred questions to Ahart’s letter, but it’s likely that the compelling reasons standard will be one point of discussion. Rojo thinks it should be, along with more general questions about the role of the president in tenure cases.

“The role of the president is understood by the faculty to be limited,” he said. “The faculty's reading of ‘compelling reasons’ differs dramatically from both the board's and the president's. So much so that over 100 faculty members have urged both the president and the board to change their positions based on what they perceive as presidential overreaching.”

Referring to Ahart’s comment to the faculty clerk that “successive layers of review provide a system of checks and balances in which the responsible parties at each level must affirm their concurrence with a preceding recommendation,” Rojo said, “There has been no balance here. The decision was overwhelmingly in my favor.”

Again, like Lafayette, AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities says that presidents and boards should normally concur with the faculty judgment, except in rare instances for compelling reasons that should be stated in detail. AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance has said a bit more about the “compelling reasons,” but not much:

“Even if the administration and governing board are persuaded that the faculty judgment is incorrect, they should reverse it only on that rare occasion when they can provide convincing reasons for rejecting the faculty’s presumed academic expertise. A compelling reason should be one which plainly outweighs persuasive contrary reasons.”

If AAUP is short on examples, it’s helpful on process. Tiede said that in the event of a presidential veto, there should at least be additional elements of academic due process, “in particular an opportunity to appeal to an elected faculty body when discrimination, an academic freedom violation or inadequate consideration are alleged.”

Rojo has publicly expressed concern that research suggests student evaluations of teaching are unreliable indicators of teaching quality, and that women and minorities are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to student bias. Lafayette’s board formed a special subcommittee to study his case, which referred it back to the collegewide faculty tenure and promotions committee -- something Tiede said was in keeping with the spirit of shared governance. Yet that committee again endorsed Rojo, to no avail.

Byerly’s not the first president to get into a shared governance spat with faculty members over personnel decisions. Phyllis Wise, former chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was widely criticized for blocking the hiring of American Indian studies scholar Steven Salaita for his anti-Israel tweets, for example.

Presidential Input Varies Widely

Scandal hasn’t scared presidents away from the tenure process altogether, however. A 2015 Inside Higher Ed-Gallup poll of presidents found about 60 percent of respondents across institution types want more of a role in tenure decisions -- at the associate’s degree-granting level, 70 percent of presidents say they do. Some 58 percent of presidents say they have blocked the hiring of scholars whose competence they questioned, and 54 percent say they’ve blocked scholars from getting tenure for the same reason. Presidents at doctoral-level public institutions were the least like to say they’ve blocked someone from getting hired due to concerns about competence (42 percent), but the most likely to say they’ve blocked someone from getting tenure over such doubts (76 percent). About half of surveyed presidents say they conduct their own tenure reviews.

Robert O’Neil, former president and professor emeritus of law at the University of Virginia, said a “compelling” basis for presidential reversal struck him as “imprecise” and in need of clarification. Yet he described even his own experiences with overturning faculty-approved personnel actions at different institutions over his long career as “varying widely.”

He’s reversed several strong faculty recommendations because “thin”-seeming research records, for example, he said, and reversed one negative recommendation in the interest of what he described as affirmative action. Arguments for and against tenure can differ between campuses, he said -- in which one values research over teaching or vice versa, for example -- but generally, institutions and their boards are “empowered to determine and apply the core criteria for promotion and tenure.” That’s particularly true at private institutions, he said, since boards at public institutions may be subject to statutory or constitutional restraints.

One irony of the Lafayette case is that colleges generally receive much criticism for valuing research over teaching, yet this situation centers on a president saying she is concerned about teaching issues, consistent with the liberal arts mission.

Judith Shapiro, president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College, said she wasn’t privy to private details about the Rojo case. But in general, and ideally, she said, presidents are involved enough in the tenure process that vetoes of faculty recommendations don’t come as surprises -- or don’t happen at all.

Shapiro said she read every tenure case as president at Barnard, and sat in on a collegewide appointments committee as a nonvoting member. As a result, she said she was so actively engaged in faculty-led tenure decisions that she never vetoed a single recommendation, for or against.

That level of presidential involvement is more feasible at a liberal arts college than other kinds of institutions, Shapiro admitted. But in any setting, she said the president’s role boils down to “maintaining the integrity of the tenure process.” That means making sure all procedures are followed, she said, and -- perhaps -- helping the faculty make a tough call about a colleague who isn’t living up to professional standards.

“Sometimes faculty members need to step up to the plate and make a hard decision about their colleague,” Shapiro said.

Kiernan Mathews, director and principal investigator of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, said his organization didn’t have a stance on the issue of presidential vetoes, but that colleges and universities, first and foremost, must follow their own policies and procedures regarding tenure and promotion. Similar to O’Neil, Mathews said that if those rules allow a veto for "compelling" reasons, they should be clear about what meets that standard, "and perhaps allow the candidates to address any new concerns that have arisen."

Like Shapiro, Mathews also argued that presidents can sometimes play an important gatekeeper role when the faculty is truly divided over a candidate’s fitness for tenure. In one such example at an unnamed institution, Mathews said, a large minority thought the candidate fell short, but because “collegial faculty suffer few direct consequences for passing the buck, they all voted in favor, then let the tough decision fall on the administrator -- whose salary, they’ll argue, reflects the hazard pay afforded for making unpopular decisions.” Such pressure towards “collegiality” can be especially strong in small college settings, where anonymity -- both on and off campus -- is limited, he added.

In any case, Mathews said, it’s importantly to remember that the “human cost” of tenure denials “falls squarely on the candidate’s shoulders.” Careers and even one’s mental health can be devastated by rejection. So it’s important to reflect on how a candidate got so far, only to be denied at the presidential level, he said. “How many chairs, mentors, colleagues failed this poor professor? Where was the communication, the push and pull, between faculty and administration about what it takes to get tenure at this institution?”

Mathews said he looks to institutions to prove their “mettle” in the year after controversial tenure denials, through soul searching and, when appropriate, restorative justice. In one case at another unnamed institution, he said, a major research university denied five professors tenure in one year, all of them women. After determining that such outcomes weren’t in line with its values, the university made concerted efforts in some of those cases to find the professors suitable employment elsewhere.

“Universities can do (and some do) better in fully supporting their own on the way out the door,” Mathews said via email.

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