‘Administratively Adrift’

Author discusses his new book on “institutional barriers for college student success.”

September 16, 2022
Cover of Administratively Adrift by Scott Bass.

The title of Administratively Adrift: Overcoming Institutional Barriers for College Student Success (Cambridge University Press) sounds a bit like that of Academically Adrift, a 2011 book that said students were not learning enough in college. Scott A. Bass, the provost emeritus at American University, who is also director of the Center for University Excellence there, is the author of the new book. He agrees that students aren’t learning as much, and he believes administrators share the blame with faculty members (as well as praise for the successes). He responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: The title of your book sounds like Academically Adrift, and your book is very much about student learning (or not learning enough). Why focus on administrators?

A: Learning extends well beyond the classroom. A well-managed, integrated and holistic administrative support system creates an environment that facilitates learning. A fragmented, sclerotic and unresponsive administrative system impedes it. Much attention has been paid to the role of faculty and what happens in class, but much less to the critical role of the administrative structure and those who work within it.

That underlying administrative structure, commonplace in nearly every college and university in America, with distinct loosely coupled semi-independent divisions, offices and units of specialization, makes an integrated and supportive educational experience difficult to achieve. Instead, its fragmented array of policies, practices and services forces students to navigate a dizzying array of offices in search of a solution to an academic, administrative, financial or personal issue. Such a cumbersome set of exchanges aggravates an already stressful situation and ultimately interferes with the learning experience, as case studies in my book demonstrate.

We have a problem: fewer than half of those who start a nonprofit four-year college graduate in four years. Even more disconcerting are graduation rates for low-income and students of color. Rather than pointing to failures among individual students for their lack of persistence, I argue that at least part of the failure is due to the structural inability of existing administrative and service structures to meet the needs and expectations of a more diverse, more wired and more stressed generation of students.

Q: You note in the book that at least 36 national professional organizations have been formed in higher education. Are there too many associations?

A: Professional staff members are immersed in an academic culture that highly values specialization and expertise. Staff, in such a competitive culture, understandably seek respect and stature for their own specialized expertise. To that end, they tend to emulate the faculty, establishing national professional associations, sponsoring journals and convening at national conferences. National professional associations provide for the transfer of new ideas and best practices and enable staff to build their professional networks. But in doing so, they also foster a level of uniformity across different campuses. This is further reinforced as specialists move among campuses for career advancement. The result is the intensification of institutional isomorphism, where powerful organizational forces push settings to become more similar to one another.

The number of associations is less of a concern than the degree of their members’ normative professional standards, supported by the association, that can restrict the expert flow of timely information to only those with the same specialized authorization. This segmentation by specialists of actionable data can undermine any effort to provide a comprehensive assessment and resolution of a multifaceted student problem.

Efforts have been undertaken to collaborate or merge different relevant associations, but over the years, they have failed. As early as 1937, the American Council on Education published the “Student Personnel Point of View,” which explicitly stated that higher education had an “obligation to consider the student as a whole.” The document specifically identified the areas of intellectual life, mental health, physical health, socialization, career trajectory, moral and spiritual values, financial condition, and aesthetic considerations as the elements of a holistic framework from which to successfully educate a college student. However, the reality is too often incongruent with these broader goals. A challenge for campus leadership is to focus on the entire student experience and reimagine how a more holistic approach that embraces all student encounters, whether curricular or beyond, can be undertaken. The emphasis on the whole person should remain an “obligation” in fostering a successful pathway for an educated graduate.

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Q: How are Gen Zers different from prior generations of students?

A: Generation Zers have grown up in a world where technology is ubiquitous. The remarkable convergence of function and simplicity of acquisition enabled by the smartphone has become a norm they expect as a service recipient—and this includes their encounters with higher education. No other generation has experienced such an immersion with technology.

This diverse and multicultural “digital generation” has encountered a barrage of crucible events in the 2020s, the impact of which is still being assessed. They include a public health crisis, a racial reckoning and social justice movement, the enablement of the far right and the threat to democratic institutions, an environmental crisis, a volatile economy, and an unprovoked war in Europe initiated by a nuclear-armed nation—all accessed in granular detail through their smartphone.

The state of their mental health even before the COVID-19 pandemic was of concern but since has become ever more dire. Many have lost loved ones, know what it is to be doxxed or harassed online, and a shocking number feel that life is hopeless to the extent of suicidal ideation. They worry about their sexuality and body image, experience political polarization and conflict, and are forced to cope with extreme and unprecedented weather events—fires, floods and droughts that they did not cause. They are more anxious and stressed than any previous generation.

Their cultural assimilation, encompassing digital lifestyle, crucible experiences, frame of mind and access to information, goods and services, reflects a distinct difference in their perspective and worldview compared to previous generations of college students. It further emphasizes the mismatch between their needs and expectations and the current modus operandi of colleges and universities. We need to meet our current and future students where they are.

Q: What changes can be made—administratively—so more students learn more?

A: I identify 15 different ways to promote a more holistic and supportive educational experience leading to improved learning and graduation rates in the book. Some are much easier to accomplish than others. Two of the most difficult changes involve the modernization of the administrative structure designed to enhance student academic success and personal well-being.

By applying a combination of high tech and high touch, higher education can look to many institutions that have changed a siloed bureaucratic setting into one more cross-functional and end user–focused. One common approach is the creation of a case management system, designating a person to which actionable information flows and with whom the end user initially interacts. The case manager may make a timely referral to a specialist as needed. In a higher education setting, at any point in the student experience, a faculty member or any specialist with direct student contact could send an alert to the case manager and the student about an issue that needs attention. The specialist may maintain a more detailed file, but the case manager is the point of coordination for the end user and the agent for potential problem solving. The case manager through their reporting line has the authority to intervene in thorny areas of cross-jurisdictional administrative problems. For the case management system to function efficiently, it requires timely alerts and the flow of actionable data to both the case manager and student. A difficult front-end task is creating a user-friendly data system that provides summary student information for a case manager and student and is accessible on a smartphone.

A second approach that helps ensure an institutionwide focus on the end user is the establishment of the office of the chief experience officer (CXO). It is also a likely office in which to place an ombudsperson. The CXO reports directly to the president, and their responsibility cuts across the entire president’s cabinet to ensure that broader institutional priorities, such as achieving student academic success and well-being, are carried out in every division and every unit in the organization. An administrative unit with less contact with the end user may focus on their immediate priorities and find later that it has had an unintended adverse effect on an end user. For higher education, this includes those units that have less direct contact with students but whose decisions on financial expenditures, investments, facilities, development, marketing, legal guidance, public safety, IT and communications all have an eventual impact on the student experience. It also includes those units with direct student contact. With line authority distributed among the vice presidents, the CXO needs to be a diplomatically skilled individual to effectively carry out the president’s educational priorities while respecting the authority of each vice president. A setting concerned about appearances of “administrative bloat” needs to be reassured that the role of the CXO can assist in the effective and efficient use of existing campus resources. The primary purpose of the CXO is to ensure that the specific functions of a unit are consistently aligned with the broader priority of the institution—in this case, student success.

Q: What needs to change in the faculty role?

A: Faculty members remain pivotal in rethinking the student experience, both academic and beyond. They are the captains of the cognitive domain. The academic program should remain vital and contemporized for the current generation. In these times of extremist perspectives, the faculty can guide students to better assess truth from fiction. And there is a need for increased vigilance in preparing a generation for the complex challenges they will face, including public responsibility in a pluralistic democratic society. Nevertheless, they confront students in their classes who arrive glassy-eyed, or in tears, and who seem to have difficulty with the readings and assignments that were routine for students before the pandemic. Students’ problems extend beyond academic matters, but nonacademic problems have real academic consequences, impeding a student’s ability to learn.

Faculty have an obvious interest in student well-being. They want students to arrive in class ready and able to learn. There are faculty who want to play a more significant role in improving student success and well-being. In national surveys, faculty have indicated that they are unprepared for the mental health challenges they observe and would like to be more helpful. The establishment of a standing subcommittee of the Faculty Senate on the student experience could routinely examine the effectiveness of the student support and administrative system from the perspective of how well it facilitates student learning. They could work with the campus institutional research officer to examine data from campus climate surveys and NSSE and gather additional information on attrition, including student exit surveys. The subcommittee could engage student focus groups to better understand the institutional challenges they face and make recommendations to improve those administrative or academic areas that are most frustrating for students. Through their fact-finding role, they can become allies for more systematic system changes and recognition that the classic bifurcation between faculty and owners of other student experiences is inefficient and at times counterproductive.

Faculty need to understand how the student administrative and support system operates and how it can be improved. Their vigilance for taking a holistic view of the curriculum remains, ensuring it is constantly updated and enriched while simultaneously acknowledging that their responsibility is not limited to the classroom and the curriculum. They, too, are essential in contributing to student well-being—not by trying to provide support services for which they are not trained, but by assuring that students get connected to a well-managed system of professionals who can provide it.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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