Monday, March 19, 2018

Live from the League, Day 2: That Pesky Human Factor

The cheerleaders were gone on Monday, leaving a noticeable void in their wake.  But the show must go on.

My somewhat idiosyncratic panel selections shared an unintended common denominator: they were each, in their different ways, about how the human factor makes any system complicated.

The day started with Ken Steele, a professional futurist, which raises the obvious question of how you get that job.  I was prepared for the worst, but he was actually quite good. He focused on his top ten trends that will affect higher education over the next ten years, none of which was terribly surprising.  (His first, declining demographics, is hardly news to anyone in the Northeast or Midwest.) But he brought an international perspective, sharing examples of ways that colleges in Norway, Canada, and New Zealand, among others, are responding to these trends.  

For instance, he shared that Canada’s rate of two-year post-secondary credentials is 2.5 times higher than the United States’, and that Canada has a much more developed system of students enrolling simultaneously in two-year and four-year programs.  The idea apparently is to allow students to pick up both the immediate employability of a two-year program, along with the more refined skills of a four-year program to turn that job into a career. I filed that one for future reference.

He brought the house down, though, with a clip of an ad from a university in New Zealand that aired in several Asian countries, trying to recruit international students from Asia.  (He pointed out that countries all over the world are trying to increase their international recruitment, except for the United States. A knowing murmur rumbled through the crowd.)  It showed a young man and young woman passionately kissing in a hot tub for an uncomfortably long time. When they shifted positions, you saw a middle-aged couple behind them, watching them and looking disgusted.  The tag line was something like “New Zealand: Get Farther Away from your Parents.” It needed no translation.

The rest of the day featured similar nuggets of acknowledgement of the crooked timber of humanity, as it shows up in our students.

Kathy Mullins, the development director at Grand Rapids Community College, did a talk on the use of scholarships to improve student success.  I went in thinking that it would be about front-loading scholarship offers in a student career, to use them for recruitment, but it wasn’t. Instead, she focused on Sara Goldrick-Rab’s data on student food and housing insecurity, and the ways that carefully re-targeted scholarship aid allowed students with complicated lives to remain in, and complete, their programs.  I was happy to have been wrong.

Mullins pointed out that one powerful predictor of student retention and completion is having someone on campus who knows their name.  So she instituted a mandatory scholarship recipients’ meeting, in which they get to know the staff and the staff get to know them. They also shifted focus away from “merit” awards, given mostly to students with 3.8 GPA’s or higher, towards need-based.  To the extent that “merit” still matters, they’ve reduced the GPA cutoff to 2.5. She showed a few videos of students tearfully explaining how the new help enabled them to escape difficult lives, including one young woman who had been living in her car with her 10-month-old baby before finding her way to the CNA program at GRCC.  A discussion of basic needs statistics is one thing, but a tearful testimonial from a formerly homeless young mother is something else.

The day ended with a presentation on OER adoption by Joel Welch and James Cook, of Forsyth Tech in North Carolina.  Returning to basic needs, they mentioned a specific student who lives in a trailer park and walks through a forest to get to class.  She expressed gratitude for the cost savings of OER, and is on track to graduate in May. Forsyth’s breakthough, in my mind, was replacing the “z-degree” -- meaning zero textbook cost -- with the “r-degree,” meaning reduced textbook cost.  Tidewater CC pioneered the z-degree, and it works where it works. The R-degree involves designating low- or no- textbook cost courses with an R, so the students can find them. That allows for partnering with a vendor that curates the material, provides homeworks and test banks, and does the supplemental stuff the lack of which can preclude faculty from jumping in.  In what may be the most “generation X” statement I’ve ever written, I was impressed by their pragmatism.

Students are three-dimensional people with complicated lives.  Building systems around that reality shouldn’t be considered innovative, but at this point, it is.  I’ll take it.

On to day three, cheerleaders or not.