For a college president, Michael Schneider of McPherson College spends an awful lot of time talking about horsing around on playground equipment.
It's not because he's immature, though at the age of 37 he is one of the youngest college presidents in the country. It's because "jumping off swings" is Schneider's metaphor for entrepreneurship -- students shouldn't be afraid to take risks, just like they did as children -- an idea he hopes will seep into every corner of McPherson.
Whenever kids get together for pick-up games they always run the risk of someone getting upset and shouting, “I’m gonna take my ball and go home!” And if the sore loser makes good on the threat, everybody loses.
The stakes are similar in the debate over the future of athletics in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III. None of the 400-plus D-III colleges offers athletics scholarships, but to some it seems that’s about all we have in common. With enrollments ranging from fewer than 2,000 to more than 10,000, smaller schools regularly compete against institutions five times their size. And with large schools from state systems competing against private colleges, the difference in tuition prices can be equally vast. Adding to the rift are philosophical differences that lead some schools to endorse red-shirting and out-of-season practices, while others encourage specialization at the expense of multi-sport athletes.
The differences in cost, enrollment and institutional priorities have created serious issues of competitive imbalance within D-III, and this has presidents and athletics directors across the division contemplating a split.
The topic has appeared on the agendas of several athletics conferences this fall, and will be teed up again in membership discussion groups at the NCAA’s 2008 convention in Nashville. A possible vote on membership may be a year away, but the time to consider these important questions is now. As someone who is focused on enrollment, I want to urge caution; splitting up Division III could throw us all for a loss. I ask those who favor a split to carefully consider three critical questions as they move forward.
1. In a time of declining male enrollment, can your institution afford to be seen as less competitive athletically?
Any split of D-III will result in a perception that institutions splitting off from the status quo lack the desire to compete and win against the division’s best athletics programs. Colleges that reframe D-III will send a message that athletics should be less important than they are perceived to be at this time. Why else would they form a new alliance of schools?
This shift in the perception of competitiveness could have a disastrous impact on male enrollment at these colleges. If there is one thing we know, it is that teenage boys like athletics and often form their identity around athletic achievement and participation. If a new division is perceived by these same boys to be less competitive, then male enrollment at great liberal arts colleges is likely to plummet further, something neither we nor society can afford. Despite the literature on the Millennials that suggests everyone should be a winner, it is clear that many students -- particularly boys -- want competition and believe it is OK to have winners and losers. We ought not dismiss the possibility of a split resulting in a perception of a less competitive option. Presidents considering this move, can your institution afford to be seen as less competitive athletically?
2. Are you ready to address other areas of imbalance in campus life?
A second area of concern is that a Division III split may send the following unintended message from those institutions that break off: If your passion is athletics, you are not welcome here. I’m told some of the presidents behind the split long for the days of multi-sport athletes who can do everything on campus.
I find it ironic that we encourage diverse interests when it comes to science and literature and music and activism, but not athletics. I’m sorry to say these nostalgic ideas of what should be possible at schools that form a new division are unlikely to be realized and are inconsistent with what this generation of students have been conditioned for -- not to mention what they expect. The students of this generation are fully committed to their passion. As a society we have encouraged and perpetuated their pursuit of a singular passion in our word and deeds. There is not a college-bound soccer player who doesn’t play club soccer throughout the whole year. And, there are few multi-sport athletes who don’t participate in one sport as preparation for their main sport.
Most college athletes -- and their families -- have made a choice of a specific pursuit. They have invested countless dollars in equipment, travel, coaching and camps and they have celebrated that passion as a family. This is life for a Millennial family. Isn’t there a disconnect that the focus of presidents is athletics when we ask musicians and thespians to make the same choices and develop the same passions? Why is it OK for musicians to spend countless hours cultivating their passion, often at the expense of other important areas of liberal education? Why does this concern apply exclusively to athletes? As a president, are you ready to address the other areas of imbalance in campus life in the same way you are moving to address the lives of athletes?
3. Can you risk abandoning the well-established Division III identity at a time when considerable uncertainty exists in the market place?
A final concern is the probable recasting of D-III and the values many have worked hard to establish over the course of the past four decades. I can’t for the life of me figure out why any institution would voluntarily leave the NCAA division that owns the best reputation – even if not the most attention – of them all. It is my impression that what those who are leading the charge want out of the split is for certain “undesirables” (or at least those schools that don’t share the “right” approach to athletics) to voluntarily leave D-III. But, what is the incentive for such schools to leave D-III? I just don’t see this happening. Expulsion is even more unlikely. Because the “undesirables” are unlikely to leave and we are too collegial to kick anyone out, it is more likely there would be secession from D-III by those leading the charge. This is what really concerns me. Because many have spent the past 40 years building the D-III brand and it will be impossible for those who leave to take the brand with them, what are that values around which a new athletic division would coalesce?
This is a serious problem with any proposed split. Not only is it likely that those seceding would be perceived as offering less competitive athletic competition as mentioned above, it could also be thought of as an abandonment of an established brand within the market place. It could take decades to establish, explain and promote a new brand and level of athletic completion. As a president, can you take the risk of losing an established program at a time when demographics are shifting and considerable uncertainty exists in the market place?
As a D-III athlete, I found balance by singing in the college choir, working several part-time jobs on campus and holding student leadership positions. I value my diverse undergraduate experience greatly, and I understand and respect the motives of many presidents who seek change. But I think some are misjudging the generation of students (and parents) we serve and are approaching this discussion and decision in an institution-centered fashion, rather than a student-centered fashion. If we dismiss our students’ desire for competition and passionate involvement, it could have dire consequences for enrollments at many colleges that may be forced into a decision they are not fully prepared to make.
So for those presidents seriously considering taking a lead role in the split of Division III, I urge you slow down and examine the consequences and the potential impact of this on your enrollment and the enrollments of great small colleges from across the nation. We’re all better off if we stay in the game.
W. Kent Barnds
W. Kent Barnds, vice president for enrollment at Augustana College, in Illinois, was a member of both the track and field team and the choir while a student at Gettysburg College. Before coming to Augustana, he was dean of admissions and enrollment management at Elizabethtown College.
When college presidents and other higher education leaders talk about federal policy these days, the most common theme is dismay at proposed new regulations from the Department of Education. But a close second is the inadequacy of data from the Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for evaluating anything.
This is a problem that has vexed us for years, and it's time for us to do something about it.
Every sector is affected. Colleges with many students transferring out to other colleges complain that even when those men and women graduate from the second institution, they still count as failures for their first college.
Universities with large numbers of entering transfer students know that even when they graduate they will not count as successes anywhere in IPEDS accounting. Juniors entering with degrees from community colleges will not help the statistics of their new university when they receive a B.A. or B.S.
Colleges with large percentages of part-time and commuter students know that they normally take longer than six years to graduate. Everyone reminds each other that a large percentage of Americans graduating from college now have credits from more than one institution, often more than two institutions. Many people taking courses at community colleges do not intend to complete degree programs.
Yet six-year graduation rates from the first point of entry are the only figures we seem to have for evaluating completion success. IPEDS data are not useful for management purposes, but they can be outright dangerous for policy making, particularly if leading to conclusions that whole segments of our country can be written off as not college-worthy. The figures are least reliable for low-income populations who do have to “stop out” some semesters, who are more likely to attend part time, more likely to need time for pre-college courses because of weak high schools, more likely to transfer, and more at risk.
So, rather than leaving this for the U.S. Department of Education to fix, I am challenging colleagues in higher education to design an alternative system that is more valid, reliable, and useful.
My institution, Heritage University, in the Yakima Valley of Washington, is one of the institutions fully committed to creating opportunities for a region’s underserved, low-income, largely minority and almost entirely first-generation-college population that, by and large, has not been well-prepared by local high schools. Until my arrival last summer, Heritage’s founding and only president, Kathleen Ross, had for 28 years been building an inspirational learning environment with thousands of success stories from that population. Many of those graduates are not only productive citizens but also leaders in the Pacific Northwest, reaching goals no one would have imagined possible for them before they came to Heritage.
Most Heritage students, to be sure, do need pre-college developmental work; almost all have to hold jobs; many have to “stop out” for a semester from time to time. Some 70 percent are women, many of them single parents determined to raise their families up out of poverty. Graduation figures in the IPEDS data for those who entered at the start of the last decade look miserable at first glance, something like 18 percent in six years. A certain portion of that deficiency derives from Heritage having had in its early years an enrollment policy a bit too close to open enrollment for a college with high standards.
The history of Heritage has been, in effect, a search to understand which students can be remediated to do rigorous college work and which, despite a high school diploma and a respectable grade point average, lack the academic skills and work ethic to succeed. As a consequence Heritage, now with much time-tested data at its disposal, is advising a number of applicants in other directions; is developing stronger pre-college modules for those with ability and commitment to succeed; and is investing in robust advising to complement academic rigor.
One might hope that Rich Vedder, who in a recent Forbes blog post suggested Heritage might best be shut down for wasting Pell Grant dollars, would reconsider that conclusion and decide that Heritage is actually a very good Pell investment in America’s future.
For if he and others study the data more closely, they'll also learn that of those students who actually matriculated as full-fledged freshmen between 2003 and 2005 -- that is, students who had completed any necessary remedial work -- the 8-year graduation rate was 41 percent, not including those who transferred to another college. Of those who successfully became sophomores at Heritage, the graduation rate was 81 percent. Of those who became juniors, as well as those who transferred in as juniors from community colleges, the graduation rate was 81 percent. In each of those last three data sets, Heritage University compares quite favorably with other colleges that have comparable populations. Hundreds of other colleges, moreover, have good stories to tell if they can use metrics that are truer to and more relevant to actual performance than are the IPEDS data.
So Heritage is now developing a metric to assign to every entering student -- based on credits transferred, remediation needed, and planned full-time or part-time schedule -- a predictive graduation date, a benchmark against which success can be measured, with a factor also to account for those known to have transferred to another college.
This is the time, however, to challenge all of us in higher education -- the presidential associations, those who oversee accreditation, and other higher education organizations -- to come together to propose an alternative to IPEDS, or at least a parallel system, that colleges and universities themselves find useful for management and that policy makers can trust.
It must account for transfer patterns, for differential rates of progress among low-income populations, for developmental needs of students, and for the wide array of kinds of institutions in American higher education. It is complex but it is doable. It will give all of us a better system for measuring completion success rates.
John Bassett is president of Heritage University, in Yakima, Wash.
When I first heard about it, I said to myself, “How do I kill this idea?”
My chancellor wanted to participate in a reality show. What a nightmare!
It was during my first months on campus. A new job, at a University of California campus on the rise. Great plans to help this campus break into the national consciousness. So very many heavy, strategic communications activities to organize.
And now a reality show. What a nightmare!
My internal dialogues simmered: “Boy, they really need me here. Who in his right mind would want to engage with this side of network programming? We have no editorial control! What if they catch something bad on film and there’s hell to pay?”
How could I, a communications professional with years of university experience, embrace such a thing? I had little choice. The conversations had been going on for more than a year. Welcome to campus, James. We’re doing “Undercover Boss.”
Getting a real dose of reality reminded me, with extreme clarity, that: (1) I don’t know everything; (2) authenticity counts; and (3) I don’t know everything.
Get Us in The New York Times
What does it take to get someone’s attention these days? How do we break through the clutter we created, along with thousands of other distinguished research universities and fine liberal arts schools and wonderful community colleges?
Given the lives we transform, the discoveries we create, the communities we help, we all deserve to be on the front page of The New York Times. It’s a fact I have been reminded of frequently, across 25 years’ worth of media relations and communications management at NYU, UCLA, Thunderbird, USC, UC Merced, and a few places in between.
We hear it from students, professors, board members, parents of students: “Why can’t you get The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal to write about us? If we just told our story better, we’d get more publicity!”
(Did you ever find yourself at a loss for words? Not because you can’t think of anything to say -- rather, because there is too much to say? You want to take the NYT, WSJ, LAT or WaPo, roll it up, shake it wildly, and say: “Well why don’t you just pick which of these stories should be bumped off the front page for a smarmy feature on our campus? The major political story? The major economic story? The compelling bus strike? The investigative piece on misuse of public funds?”)
But of course, we don’t do so. We don’t yell. Not externally, at least. We put on that serious “trust-me-I’m-a-communications-professional” look and stammer a few things about our recent pitches (and successes, if any) to The Gray Lady. Our comprehensive strategy for national and global communications domination. Our extensive experience talking with journalists and meeting their needs and those of their readers. That’s how I felt in this situation and what I’d have liked to have said out loud.
Lessons learned: (1) I don’t know everything; (2) authenticity counts; and, (3) I don’t know everything.
In the build-up to the filming, only a few of us on campus were allowed to know about the project. We drove others crazy asking for help for a special initiative we couldn’t discuss. We signed legal nondisclosure forms that included the prospect of personal liability of six figures if we broke the code. That’s six figures per incident! I didn't even tell my wife. (About the show. If she knew about the show that’d be O.K., probably, but I didn’t know how to tell her I just signed the rest of our financial lives away if we slipped up. So I didn’t tell her anything.)
Behind the scenes, the chancellor’s top associates, sworn to secrecy, then begin asking managers across campus to do things we’d usually never do. (“Can you please find us staff and faculty members with compelling stories who wouldn’t mind signing their own nondisclosure forms, and then will work and be filmed for a few hours with a strange man named ‘Pete?’ Um, and trust us, this is all above-board?!”)
Enter our protagonist, “Pete.” Chancellor Timothy P. White. Dude is so sure this reality show segment will be great for our campus that he agreed to shave his own head to make sure he’d look different while filming took place for “Undercover Boss.” One of the reasons I came to UCR -- along with several other newbies here -- is Tim White.
White had his own personal journey: immigrant to California from Argentina as a kid. Community college at Diablo Valley in the Bay Area, then a bachelor’s from Fresno State University and a master's from Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), then finally a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.
Despite his serious chops as an academic, Chancellor White is an authentic person first, an academic leader second. He makes others comfortable, he’s funny, he’s direct. Those of you who watched the show on CBS last Sunday saw what I mean. Chancellor is the real deal -- on a reality show! I’m not quite sure how one charismatic, grounded person can hold such sway over the camera, over a crowd. But one thing that comes through is that he’s able to laugh at himself, take a ribbing, and stay on message.
And I’m also finding out that he’s a pretty good teacher.
What I learned: (1) I don’t know everything; (2) authenticity counts; and, (3) I don’t know everything.
James E. Grant Jr.
James E. Grant Jr. is assistant vice chancellor for strategic communications at the University of California at Riverside.
Nobody wants to be the next American University. After weeks with its now ex-president, Benjamin Ladner, under a barrage of fire for his lavish spending habits and benefits package, universities are making sure that they don’t face similar vulnerabilities.
Given all the publicity in Washington over American, it’s not surprising that George Washington University is among those institutions, creating a new position to monitor executive compensation and conducting an in-depth audit.