As the CEO of a tech start-up and a former professor, here’s what keeps me awake at night: half of college students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math end up dropping those courses and switching to another major. That is disturbing, not only because I am personally passionate about STEM innovators’ potential to improve lives, but also because it is no secret that we are in dire need of a STEM-proficient work force. If we continue at this rate of attrition, in the next decade, America will need approximately a million more STEM professionals than the field will produce. While we’re pumping much-needed investments into ensuring more K-12 students have access to worthwhile math and computer science education, these investments will mean very little if students abandon STEM once they get to college.
If these skills are so critical, why are students failing to complete STEM degrees? And what can we do to reverse the trend?
In recent years, we’ve gained a better understanding of why students drop STEM majors. Many leave the field early -- even during the first courses they take as undergraduates -- because they’re striving to get good grades in comparison to their performance in non-STEM courses. Some students who struggle the most are discouraged to the point of dropping out of college altogether, which is a devastating outcome for students who once hoped to be computer programmers, doctors and engineers.
The other largest driver of STEM attrition is a lack of engagement with the material. There is a mismatch between today’s students, who understand and interact with the world through technology, and the outdated, two-dimensional delivery of information found in too many STEM courses. This is a shame, given that STEM subjects are inherently engaging, interactive and rooted in exploration.
In classrooms around the world, instructors are tapping into the potential of new technologies to address this learning deficit, and interactive learning models are proving most effective at increasing student engagement and boosting student performance. In STEM programs in particular, these new technologies have been grafted to the established curriculum as one way to improve student retention rates, and the results are promising. Studies show improved student performance in these courses -- more A’s and B’s, fewer D’s and F’s -- with particularly significant gains for the lowest-performing students.
Interactive learning tools using web-based technology, such as digital textbooks and homework assignments, present endless possibilities to improve student engagement and achievement. And we’re not talking about digital copies of static text but rather materials that are alive with animation, graphics and instant-feedback question sets that emphasize learning through action. Such tools work because they disrupt the classic passive learning model and invite the student to become the doer.
Students taking these courses demonstrate not only improved results but also a greater desire to learn. In fact, most report a preference for interactive learning tools and choose to spend twice as much time with interactive textbooks than traditional textbooks, even though there is less text. Students are staying on track and moving on with a deeper understanding of the content.
When I taught at the University of California, Davis, many of my colleagues faced the same issue: traditional textbooks and teaching resources are simply not as effective as we need them to be, leaving even the most talented instructors equipped with inadequate tools. Embracing web-based resources allows us to show movement, cause and effect, and coding outcomes much better than a PowerPoint, chalkboard or old-fashioned textbook ever could. And without the costs of printing and physical distribution, web-based interactive tools address yet another barrier to student retention -- the burden of soaring textbook prices -- head-on.
This is a pivotal moment in developing the STEM work force. We are witnessing a generation of students with inherent talent and capacity give up before they’ve even begun. If we don’t focus our efforts on supporting greater numbers of students to succeed in STEM degrees, we may find ourselves navigating a STEM shortage more stark than the gap we see today. Fortunately, instructors are keenly aware of the challenge and are cultivating the necessary ingenuity to steer this generation back to STEM and to success.
Smita Bakshi is the co-founder and CEO of zyBooks digital interactive textbooks and a former electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of California, Davis.
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.