No concept is arguably more popular in higher education policy today or seems to have broader consensus than institutional “skin in the game”: the idea that colleges need to be on some sort of financial hook when their students don’t succeed.
Students and families are spending near-record amounts on postsecondary training, yet students are dropping out and defaulting on loans at disturbingly high rates. Mix in high-profile collapses like Corinthian Colleges and near-daily stories of college graduates struggling to find employment, and we get policy makers coming to the disheartening conclusion that our higher education institutions are incapable of doing the very thing we expect of them -- creating capable graduates -- unless threatened with financial sanctions.
Yet is this really the case? Colleges spend a lot to recruit and retain students, and every one that leaves without completing represents lost time, money and effort that require more recruitment and retention dollars to replace him or her. Students who don’t finish or who complete but struggle to find employment create nothing but negative reputational outcomes that institutions must invest both time and resources to counteract. Plus, when those same students leave with loan debt and struggle to repay it, the institution may yet again spend dollars and effort on default prevention services.
Put it all together and it’s pretty clear that when students fall off a successful education path, institutions pay a very real financial price. But this is exactly what having skin in the game entails. So why are we pushing for policy and regulation to accomplish what’s already taking place?
Making colleges pay a second time for poor outcomes doesn’t make much sense, although critics will say that market-driven financial penalties are obviously just not doing enough to change institutional behavior. To believe that, however, we have to believe institutions, as producers, actually prefer to see some of their education outputs fail.
That’s awfully strange. If institutions could control how much students learn, then why would they consciously choose to send unprepared graduates into the labor market where they struggle to find and keep employment? And if they could control who graduates and who doesn’t, what economic rationale do they have for producing a mix of graduates and dropouts? If they really had a choice, why would they ever produce anything other than graduates?
Colleges today face a continuous barrage of criticism about whether they provide value for money, and so we’re left to ask under what circumstances colleges that capably control learning, degree completion and postgraduate employment outcomes would actually opt to produce substandard products. Does a business approach that thrives on threats of greater regulatory scrutiny exist? Does a “student failure” model bringing about additional enrollment management, default prevention and reputational costs make operational sense?
It’s pretty obvious that if institutions could control the types of outcomes that skin-in-the-game proposals wanted to see improvements on they’d already be doing so. What colleges and universities wouldn’t benefit from high graduation rates, stellar job placement statistics and graduates who earned enough money to comfortably pay off their student loans?
It’s also why the argument that the financial costs institutions already face just aren’t harsh enough doesn’t make much sense. It’s like suggesting that my dog doesn’t speak English because I’m just not spending enough time teaching him. The outcome and process we’re trying to link don’t fit the way we think they do.
What’s missing from the equation is the idea that academic success is a two-way street where students’ academic preparation, motivation and effort do as much to shape the outcomes we care about as the resources institutions provide them. In its absence, the obvious consequences of policies that only hold colleges accountable for outcomes that they share control over is that they put their effort into the things they can control -- which, in this case, is picking students they think are most likely to succeed.
All of this means that the losers from skin-in-the-game proposals end up being students who have less academic preparation and who come from underresourced school districts. We actually end up creating undermatching by putting greater pressure on colleges to pick “winners” and discouraging them from taking chances on individuals who may benefit the most from the type of education they offer.
It’s also likely to hurt institutions with open admissions policies and that currently enroll larger percentages of minority and nontraditional students. Community colleges, with their limited state budgets and high transfer rates, would suffer most, but so would any college drawing large populations of students from disadvantaged communities. In the long run, those institutions could face unsustainable financial and reputational costs.
There’s certainly a place for risk sharing in higher education, which is why institutions currently pay the real financial costs I described earlier. But if what we care about is making institutions more responsive to students’ long-run needs and expectations, then the solution lies in policies and practices that make such goals their focus.
Income-Share Agreements (ISAs) -- whereby colleges finance their students’ education in return for a fractional share of those students’ future income -- are a good example. They create not only financial penalties but also financial rewards for institutions that help students achieve long-term, sustained success. Driving more institutional revenues through ISA-style agreements also discourages the kinds of deceptive marketing practices that policy makers believe institutions engage in since colleges and universities would, over time, end up having to financially absorb the costs of misrepresenting their programs’ job placement prospects.
The fact is that it’s easy to think that simply imposing penalties on bad actors will fix the problem, yet the logic has to be there to justify the approach. The basis on which risk sharing proposals today are being crafted doesn’t meet the standards of sound policy. We owe it to both colleges and students to craft policies that work toward, not against, the system’s overall objectives.
Carlo Salerno is a Washington, D.C.-based education economist and private consultant.
Nearly every college and university in America has refocused its attention on “student success.” Like many institutions, Cleveland State University, where I work, has erected an entire enterprise devoted to this endeavor. We have reorganized ourselves administratively, invested in new staff, updated technology and taken a deep dive into institutional data to ensure we are best positioned to make sure all our students have a high potential to graduate. We have improved as a result.
People outside academe who witness our urgent efforts might justifiably ask, “Why all the fuss? Isn’t student success what you were supposed to be focused on all along?” In truth, the student success agenda is a recognition that higher education has not delivered on its promise to all students. The six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time college students at four-year institutions is less than 60 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. For students who are minority, low income and first generation, it is markedly lower.
This newfound attention to student success has created a measure of perplexity within the academy as well from faculty and staff members who, for decades before it was fashionable for their institutions to do so, have considered themselves devoted to assisting students on the margins. These quiet champions generally operated from the premise that their colleges and universities were, at best, apathetic -- and in some cases, hostile -- to the students who were struggling most.
In response, these faculty and staff members served as advisers outside the formal advising structure. They created informal mentoring programs and sometimes intervened with systems on their campuses and off to advocate on behalf of students. One only need to listen to the stories of minority alumni from past decades to understand how these underground interventions operated and to appreciate their significance in helping students succeed.
Today, many of these underground advocates are still at their institutions, and some are still skeptical of their college or university’s commitment to students who traditionally have been left behind. Their skepticism is exacerbated by the fact that many generally believe they have not been acknowledged, affirmed or consulted in this overt student success push. In some cases, the opposite has happened: We have discredited their tactics in our rush to embrace new policies and practices as part of our institutions’ “legitimate” student success strategies.
As institutions seek to advance and accelerate their student success agendas, it is imperative that they reconcile the efforts of longtime student success pioneers with the emerging practices and data that are informing higher education strategies today.
I have witnessed this tension between old-school guidance and cutting-edge assistance around the issue of credit hours. At Cleveland State University, as at many institutions, we have adopted a strict policy to drive students to take 15 credit hours a semester. The effort comes from compelling evidence that when students fall short of a 15-credit hour, eight-semester schedule, and it takes them longer than four years to graduate, their likelihood of graduating diminishes. In combing through institutional data a couple years ago, we discovered that African-American students were more likely than other students to take fewer than the 15-credit expectation.
One explanation has become apparent: for years, black students were counseled to do just that by a network of underground advisers. Their rationale was simple: time and time again, they had intervened with black students who were struggling because their course schedules were weighted down unnecessarily with math and science courses during their first semesters. Inevitably, students would perform poorly under the pressure, become discouraged and drop out. Convinced that many in the institution’s student advising corps were not sensitive to that reality, these informal advisers would quietly encourage students to drop one of their classes, keeping them at full-time status while relieving the pressure to give them a better chance of remaining in good academic standing.
We now know the best solution for students is a course load that keeps them on track to graduate in four years, along with attentive advising, more creative pedagogy and better support systems to increase students’ chances of succeeding in introductory math and science courses. However, some old-school advisers have not felt as though we have respectfully responded to their apprehension over whether those improvements are adequately in place. Instead, they too often only receive messages that they are out of compliance with the institution’s directive and that, in fact, they’re doing students more harm than good. The translation for them is that the administration, in its newfound wisdom, now thinks it knows more than they do from their years of experience about how to help these students succeed.
Similarly, as new insights come our way, we are quick to overlook those who have been articulating them for years. For instance, research in the past few years by David Yeager, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and others shows how racial and ethnic minorities are hindered more than others from academic success by negative mind-sets that institutional conditions impose on them. It is old news to these underground champions who, without compelling data, were sometimes dismissed as apologists for raising such concerns.
As a consequence of these slights, many underground advisers are not enthusiastic about aligning with institutional directives around student success. Continued progress, however, will require deeper levels of participation and synergy among everyone who touches students’ lives across our colleges and universities. If we are not all on the same page -- especially those who are motivated to be engaged -- we will not maximize the opportunity.
Institutions can generate this comprehensive level of collaboration by inventorying such quiet efforts -- past and present -- and acknowledging that they contributed to the success of students in need even before we had offices assigned to do so. Indeed, if they hadn’t been doing what they were doing, higher education might have done an even poorer job with underserved students.
In addition, institutions should consider holding information forums on student success that specifically enlist these quiet champions. That would allow the veterans to share insights from which others can learn. It would also provide an opportunity to share with them new data and best practices that are informing institutional strategies, as well as to identify practical ways to enlist these champions more effectively in the overall student success agenda.
There are no quick fixes or easy answers for the tremendous challenge of eliminating racial and economic disparities in academic performance and persistence. It will take every ounce of innovative thinking and creativity our people can muster -- that which has prevailed quietly in the past and that which we are boldly implementing today. Integration of the two will not occur by happenstance. It will require deliberate acts of leadership.
Byron P. White is vice president for university engagement and chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University.
“Look to your left and look to your right. The odds are one of you is not going to graduate.”
Many of us who attended college in years past will recall receiving some such an admonition from a professor or adviser. The message was simple: our job is to give you an opportunity; your job is to take advantage of it. If you don’t, oh, well.
It was a fairly straightforward arrangement that for decades buffered higher education from a harsh reality that only recently has come under public scrutiny: more than one-third of students who begin their degree never finish. Those in higher education didn’t think too much about it because we did not consider ourselves responsible.
You’re either college ready or you’re not, we reasoned. And if you’re not, don’t blame us. The fact that those who did not make it were disproportionately less economically privileged and more likely to be a racial or ethnic minority was simply the way it was.
Today, colleges and universities are not getting off the hook so easily. The public is demanding that we do a better job of not only admitting students, but ensuring that they complete. Gains are being made but they have been glacial. There is general agreement that President Obama’s goal of the United States attaining college completion rates comparable to the most successful nations in the world by 2020 will not be reached until, at best, another decade.
To accelerate the pace of reaching this goal, we must abandon once and for all the college-ready paradigm that has allowed higher education to deflect accountability. It is time that we fully embrace the burden of being student-ready institutions. After all, not only is the notion of college ready an excuse, but new practices in student success have exposed it as something of a farce. It turns out the problem was not as much about the students as we thought. It was largely us, uninformed about what it takes to help them succeed or unwilling to allocate the resources necessary to put it into practice.
These new interventions are exposing the fact that colleges and universities, for the most part, have been equipped to serve one fairly narrow population of students, which institutions have conveniently defined as college ready. Meanwhile, for decades, higher education has passively accepted the conventional wisdom that minority, low-income and first-generation students disproportionately underperform other students because they are the unfortunate casualties of inadequate systems -- low-achieving public school systems, poor neighborhoods, unsophisticated households -- that leave them woefully unprepared for college success.
However, we are beginning to acknowledge that our institutions have been inadequately equipped to assist students from these populations. The revelation comes not so much from our altruism, but from new pressures from policy makers, employers and civic leaders who demand that these students succeed. Permanently distressed urban neighborhoods and a burgeoning prison system, perpetuated by a poorly educated underclass, are causing unbearable social and economic stress on the nation. At the same time, more jobs require higher levels of education, and there are not enough educated citizens to fill them.
At the same time, the pool of prototypical college-ready students -- recent high school graduates from high-performing schools whose parents have had a successful college experience -- is shrinking due to demographic shifts. That means more institutions are looking to so-called underrepresented students to meet their enrollment goals. That, combined with the emergence of performance-based state funding formulas, which reward public colleges and universities based on the number of students they graduate rather than how many they enroll, has made it a financial imperative that we succeed with students we previously deemed unfit to be in college. As Cleveland State University President Ronald M. Berkman has said, “We have a responsibility to educate students as they are, not as we wish they would be.”
Colleges and universities are showing success, and strategies that are working are largely driven by changes in institutional behavior rather than dramatic shifts in student preparedness. Organizational reforms such as incentivizing students to take 15 credit hours, pushing enrollment in college-level courses and establishing structured course schedules are producing improvements in student retention and graduation rates. Use of technology and predictive analytics now allow us to anticipate academic challenges before they occur so that they can be addressed through focused support.
In light of these advancements, it appears that the line that defines who is deemed college ready routinely is drawn at a point that conveniently aligns with the capacity of colleges to have success. Thus, predictably, folks on one side of the line do well and folks on the other side do not. We’re now learning that with the right investment the line can be moved to embrace more students.
Holding on to the college-ready paradigm serves only to provide a crutch that prevents us from putting forth the full measure of creative energy, resources and accountability required to significantly expand college attainment. It is time to abandon the college-ready myth and adopt, wholesale, a student-ready paradigm, which means rejecting policies that label students as “remedial” and discarding the notion that initiatives to assist them require some extraordinary act of charity that is beyond the legitimate role of higher education.
That does not mean colleges should have no thresholds for entry or that students bear no responsibility for their own success. But as we accept our capacity to educate a broader group of students -- and commit to graduating every student we admit -- we can establish those thresholds in ways that discriminate less against a predictable demographic. Doing what it takes to graduate them would become the new normal, not an exceptional act. It would motivate us in new ways and drive strategy and resources accordingly.
The college-ready paradigm may have always been a myth. Now it is one we can no longer afford to perpetuate.
Byron P. White is vice president for university engagement and chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University.
If your professor has sent you a link to this page, two things are likely true. First, you probably sent an email that does not represent you in a way you would like to be represented. Second, while others might have scolded you, mocked you or despaired over the future of the planet because of your email, you sent it to someone who wants to help you represent yourself better.
In part, because only a click or swipe or two separate emails from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and texting, the lines between professional emails and more informal modes of writing have become blurred, and many students find the conventions of professional emails murky. We think we can help sort things out.
In the age of social media, many students approach emailing similar to texting and other forms of digital communication, where the crucial conventions are brevity and informality. But most college teachers consider emails closer to letters than to text messages. This style of writing calls for more formality, more thoroughness and more faithful adherence (sometimes bordering on religious adherence) to the conventions of Edited Standard Written English -- that is, spelling, punctuation, capitalization and syntax.
These different ways of writing are just that -- different ways of writing. The letter approach to emails is not always and forever better (or worse) than the texting approach. Knowing how and when to use one or the other -- based on why you are writing and whom you are writing to -- makes all the difference. So, if you use emojis, acronyms, abbreviations, etc., when texting your friends, you are actually demonstrating legitimate, useful writing skills. But you aren’t if you do the same thing when emailing professors who view emails as letters.
Effective writing requires shaping your words according to your audience, purpose and genre (or type of writing, e.g., an academic email). Together these are sometimes called the rhetoricalsituation. Some of the key conventions for the rhetorical situation of emailing a professor are as follows:
1. Use a clear subject line. The subject “Rhetorical Analysis Essay” would work a bit better than “heeeeelp!” (and much better than the unforgivable blank subject line).
2. Use a salutation and signature. Instead of jumping right into your message or saying “hey,” begin with a greeting like “Hello” or “Good afternoon,” and then address your professor by appropriate title and last name, such as “Prof. Xavier” or “Dr. Octavius.” (Though this can be tricky, depending on your teacher’s gender, rank and level of education, “Professor” is usually a safe bet for addressing a college teacher.) Similarly, instead of concluding with “Sent from my iPhone” or nothing at all, include a signature, such as “Best” or “Sincerely,” followed by your name.
3. Use standard punctuation, capitalization, spelling and grammar. Instead of writing “idk what 2 rite about in my paper can you help??” try something more like, “I am writing to ask about the topics you suggested in class yesterday.”
4. Do your part in solving what you need to solve. If you email to ask something you could look up yourself, you risk presenting yourself as less resourceful than you ought to be. But if you mention that you’ve already checked the syllabus, asked classmates and looked through old emails from the professor, then you present yourself as responsible and taking initiative. So, instead of asking, “What’s our homework for tonight?” you might write, “I looked through the syllabus and course website for this weekend’s assigned homework, but unfortunately I am unable to locate it.”
5. Be aware of concerns about entitlement. Rightly or wrongly, many professors feel that students “these days” have too strong a sense of entitlement. If you appear to demand help, shrug off absences or assume late work will be accepted without penalty because you have a good reason, your professors may see you as irresponsible or presumptuous. Even if it is true that “the printer wasn’t printing” and you “really need an A in this class,” your email will be more effective if you to take responsibility: “I didn’t plan ahead well enough, and I accept whatever policies you have for late work.”
6. Add a touch of humanity. Some of the most effective emails are not strictly business -- not strictly about the syllabus, the grade, the absence or the assignment. While avoiding obvious flattery, you might comment on something said in class, share information regarding an event the professor might want to know about or pass on an article from your news feed that is relevant to the course. These sorts of flourishes, woven in gracefully, put a relational touch to the email, recognizing that professors are not just point keepers but people.
We hope that these rules (or these and these) help you understand what most professors want or expect from academic emails. Which brings us back to the larger point: writing effectively does not simply mean following all the rules. Writing effectively means writing as an act of human communication -- shaping your words in light of whom you are writing to and why.
Of course, you won’t actually secure the future of the planet by writing emails with a subject line and some punctuation. But you will help your professors worry about it just a little less.
With wishes for all the best emails in the future,
PTC and CHM
Paul T. Corrigan and Cameron Hunt McNabb are assistant professors of English at Southeastern University.
This revised framework marks a significant step in the conversation about measuring students’ preparedness for the workforce and for life success based on how much they've learned rather than how much time they’ve spent in the classroom. It also provides a rare opportunity for faculty members at colleges and universities to take the lead in driving long-overdue change in how we define student success.
The need for such change has never been stronger. As the economy evolves and the cost of college rises, the value of a college degree is under constant scrutiny. No longer can we rely on piled-up credit hours to prove whether students are prepared for careers after graduation. We need a more robust -- and relevant -- way of showing that our work in the classroom yields results.
Stakeholders ranging from university donors to policy makers have pushed for redefining readiness, and colleges and universities have responded to their calls for action. But too often the changes have been driven by the need to placate those demanding reform and produce quick results. That means faculty input has been neglected.
If we’re to set up assessment reform for long-term success, we need to empower faculty members to be the true orchestrators.
The D.Q.P. provides an opportunity to do that, jelling conversations that have been going on among faculty and advisers for years. Lumina Foundation developed the tool in consultation with faculty and other experts from across the globe and released a beta version to be piloted by colleges and universities in 2011. The latest version reflects feedback from the field, based on their experience with the beta version -- and captures the iterative, developmental processes of education understood by people who work with students daily.
Many of the professionals teaching in today’s college classrooms understand the need for change. They’re used to adapting to ever-changing technologies, as well as evolving knowledge. And they want to measure students’ preparedness in a way that gives them the professional freedom to own the changes and do what they know, as committed professionals, works best for students.
As a tool, the D.Q.P. encourages this kind of faculty-driven change. Rather than a set of mandates, the D.Q.P. is a framework that invites them to be change agents. It allows faculty to assess students in ways that are truly beneficial to student growth. Faculty members don't care about teaching to the assessment; they want to use what they glean from assessments to help improve student learning.
We’ve experienced the value of using the D.Q.P. in this fashion at Utah State University. In 2011, when the document was still in its beta version, we adopted it as a guide to help us rethink general education and its connection to our degrees and the majors within them.
We began the process by convening disciplinary groups of faculty to engage them in a discussion about a fundamental question: “What do you think your students need to know, understand and be able to do?” This led to conversations about how students learn and what intellectual skills they need to develop.
We began reverse engineering the curriculum, which forced us to look at how general education and the majors work together to produce proficient graduates. This process also forced us to ask where degrees started, as well as ended, and taught us how important advisers, librarians and other colleagues are to strong degrees.
The proficiencies and competencies outlined in the D.Q.P. provided us with a common institutional language to use in navigating these questions. The D.Q.P.’s guideposts also helped us to avoid reducing our definition of learning to course content and enabled us to stay focused on the broader framework of student proficiencies at various degree milestones.
Ultimately the D.Q.P. helped us understand the end product of college degrees, regardless of major: citizens who are capable of thinking critically, communicating clearly, deploying specialized knowledge and practicing the difficult soft skills needed for a 21st-century workplace.
While establishing these criteria in general education, we are teaching our students to see their degrees holistically. In our first-year program, called Connections, we engage students in becoming "intentional learners" who understand that a degree is more than a major. This program also gives students a conceptual grasp of how to use their educations to become well prepared for their professional, personal and civic lives. They can explain their proficiencies within and beyond their disciplines and understand they have soft skills that are at a premium.
While by no means a perfect model, what we’ve done at Utah State showcases the power of engaging faculty and staff as leaders to rethink how a quality degree is defined, assessed and explained. Such engagement couldn’t be more critical.
After all, if we are to change the culture of higher learning, we can't do it without the buy-in from those who perform it. Teachers and advisers want their students to succeed, and the D.Q.P. opens a refreshing conversation about success that focuses on the skills and knowledge students truly need.
The D.Q.P. helps give higher education practitioners an opportunity to do things differently. Let’s not waste it.
Norm Jones is a professor of history and chairman of general education at Utah State University. Harrison Kleiner is a lecturer of philosophy at Utah State.