What I Learned in Minneapolis

Takeaways from a conference featuring higher ed’s workhorse institutions.

August 5, 2019

I recently spoke at the academic affairs meeting of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Minneapolis. The AASCU consists of the true workhorses of bachelor’s degree-granting institutions. Its nearly 400 urban and regional universities serve over 3.5 million students – over a third of all undergraduates attending four-year institutions and a grossly disproportionate share of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. 

Under-resourced and too often underappreciated, these universities contribute mightily to workforce formation, regional economic development, and upward mobility. Their ranks include institutions as diverse as Austin Peay State University, The City University of New York, Cal State Los Angeles, Lincoln University, and Texas State University.

Often founded as teachers’ colleges, the AASCU member institutions are caught in a bind. These institutions face six fundamental challenges:

1.  Sustaining their business model in a highly constrained and competitive economic environment

2.  Raising retention and graduation rates and reducing achievement gaps

3.  Better serving transfer students

4.  Integrating more active learning, experiential learning, and project-based learning into their academic experience

5.  Providing enhanced student support services at scale

6.  More closely aligning their academic pathways with careers

And they need to do all these things in the face of severe economic challenges. Burdened with legacy technologies, these institutions are situated in an academic environment that often fails to appreciate the serious problems these schools face.

Indeed, when one AASCU institution, the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, attempted to radically rethink its curriculum, it faced overwhelming criticism, generally from academics who teach at far-better-funded institutions. The UW Stevens Point strategy may or may not have been misguided, but given the depth of the challenges the institution faces, its administrators and faculty deserved much more sympathy than they received.

Some of the AASCU institutions are located in regions in demographic decline. Others are squeezed financially by mega online providers: ASU, SNHU, WGU, and the for-profits. Many face a long-term trend in which the students who are best prepared academically or who come from the most affluent families gravitate toward more selective institutions. The result is to increase costs for financial aid and support services.

Unlike flagship and land grant campuses, these institutions have limited ability to diversify their revenue streams – through philanthropic donations, funded research, and large-scale (or expensive) online master’s and professional programs.

As states shift to performance-based funding, these schools are under intense pressure to raise retention and graduation rates and reduce achievement gaps. Since most of their students exhibit one or more risk factors, these universities must provide support services at scale rather than focusing on a discrete minority. Their many transfer students mean that they must offer expensive upper division courses rather than less expensive introductory or general education classes. Their public support hinges, to a great extent, on their ability to serve their local economies.

In a session I led, I heard a remarkable number of innovative solutions. 

Holly Shadoian, the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs at Rhode Island College, offered two ways to address the challenges transfer students face. One was a Transfer Minor, which seeks to combine related courses that transfer for elective credit into a minor. The other was a degree map, in which a feeder and a four-year institution agree on community college classes that will automatically fulfill bachelor degree requirements.

As a way to scale advising, participants recommended greater use of near peer mentors as well as embracing technology to identify, target, and nudge students. Although peer mentors need to be used with care, and only after intensive training, these individuals can greatly augment campus efforts to reach out to fellow students.

Many of these institutions incentivize departments to integrate career development across their curriculum, by introducing students to career options, incorporating authentic, career-aligned projects into classes, and integrating internships and other forms of experiential learning into degree pathways.

The AASCU meeting was a sort of swan song for George Mehaffy, the organization’s Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change, who has spearheaded many of the association’s institutional effectiveness and student success initiatives and has been one of higher education’s most respected champions of innovation from within. 

Two of his maxims should remain firmly implanted in our minds.

The first is that too much of what we – administrators and faculty – do is for their own convenience rather than for students. We need to ensure that our schedules, courses, degree requirements, pedagogies, and institutional priorities are designed with our students’ best interests at heart.

A second saying is that higher education’s problem isn’t an idea problem; it’s an execution problem. Ideas abound. Implementing and institutionalizing ideas is the real challenge, and this requires skilled leadership: establishing priorities, instilling a sense of urgency, identifying allies, achieving buy-in, incentivizing innovation, and astutely deploying scarce resources.

I might add a third maxim. For the academy to fulfill its historic functions – driving economic growth, nourishing the arts, uplifting the culture, creating new knowledge, and bringing many more students to a bright future – higher education must reassert its democratic promise. We must remember that much of the higher ed’s heavy lifting takes place well outside the Ivy League or the flagship campuses.

Elite schools may well be, as Anthony Kronman puts it, national treasures. But in the end, it’s the urban campuses and regional comprehensives that will largely determine whether this country can tackle its biggest problems: income stagnation, economic stratification, ethnic and racial division, and political polarization.

Steven Mintz is special advisor to the President of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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