Much of the attention in higher education circles focuses on getting more vulnerable students to and through college. We have finally acknowledged that access to and entry into post-high school education not enough; we need to focus on graduation – whether from a certificate program, a community college or a four-year college or university. We have targeted improving graduation rates as a goal that symbolizes success, enabling some to claim victory when those rates rise.
But we are mistaken. We are claiming success too early. This point – which had been gnawing at some of us for months as we have watched and listened to our current seniors – was brought to the fore in Jeff Hobbs' new book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. The story of Robert Peace is poignant, examining how a kid from Newark graduated from Yale with a degree in molecular biology and ended up murdered in a drug-related crime. The lost potential is agonizing; the pain of Peace’s mother is staggering.
Robert’s story is not unique. Of course, the individual stories are not identical nor necessarily as tragic. But consider the plight of many first-generation, low-income students who leave their homes and land on college campuses (whether elite or not) where some excel academically and then graduate. Normally, we stop the story there and celebrate success. Since graduation rates are so low for vulnerable students, we assume that the awarding of a degree is the crowning achievement.
In this book and through our lived experiences, certain questions recur: What more could have been done to save Robert? Could he have been saved if colleges saw their responsibility as extending beyond the moment a degree is awarded? Think about how many high schools consider their jobs done when students get accepted to college and complete high school. Check the box. Move on. But do these high-schoolers actually get to college and graduate? High schools are cutting short the scope of their work.
We think that colleges like the one where we work now have a greater obligation than we realize. We offer our first-generation students a career-launching liberal arts education but we do not address with enough deliberateness how our students will transition from our institution into employment or graduate school. Where will they live? Should they return home? How can they navigate their friendships from before and after college? What about their families back home?
Yes, we have career services offices. Yes, we match academic programs with careers. Yes, we have graduate fairs and job fairs. Yes, we have résumé-writing workshops. Yes, we do mock interviews. We do GRE prep. But what we are missing is what would have helped Robert Peace: an effort to focus on the transition from college to graduate school or the workplace in terms of its psychological dimensions. In the toolbox of skills we provide our first generation, low-income students who are graduating, we have failed to give them the skills to “crosswalk” effectively and smoothly between their past and their present and their future.
We should know better. We have experience with our younger veterans now returning stateside. Many of these veterans understandably struggle to navigate effectively from military life to civilian life. Settling into and then succeeding in college are mighty challenges. This reinforces the need to pay attention to our college seniors – preparing them not just for graduation and a career. We need to help them transition from college back to the “outside” world. Robert Peace was left to figure that pathway out on his own and he failed. Interventions from friends and family did not help.
We recognize that there is no magic pill here. But, here are two strategies that can help.
First, if student success has been accomplished on campus by helping students believe in themselves and believe they belong in college, then the mentors who have enabled this to occur need to keep in touch with these students post-graduation – in person, online, via Skype. This is part and parcel of the workload of these mentors. These new graduates need to know that their supporters’ belief in them was not time-delimited and did not end with graduation. Distance does not change, then, the commitment mentors have to their mentees even when those mentors themselves move on to different positions. An online set of modules could be created to achieve this end – engaging graduates and their mentor on a go-forward basis.
Second, it is worth adding the following quasi-mandate for vulnerable students who graduate, outlined to them at the get-go: a commitment that they return to campus and develop a mentor/mentee with a new student who was similar to them? This accomplishes several goals. It gets graduates back to campus, back to a place where they experienced success. It creates an expectation at the beginning that with success comes a commitment to pay it forward. But here is the key: in paying it forward, graduates can appreciate how far they have come, and that in and of itself can shed light on their comfort with their own pathway into the future. Both the graduates and their mentees benefit.
Perhaps there was nothing that would have saved Robert Peace. But whether or not that is true, there is now one college president, one program director and one campus reflecting on how future Robert Peaces could be helped and what is it we can do on our campuses to improve the odds that that difficult post-college transition can be navigated more effectively.
Getting a degree is a major accomplishment; using that degree and finding a place outside the protections of academia where one can flourish and contribute meaningfully to society and handle the complexities of the different worlds in which we all move would be a success. Sadly, this is a victory denied Robert Peace.
Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College. Ivan Figueroa is director of diversity and the Mountaineer Scholar Program at the college.
In the scramble for colleges and universities to stem the tide of sexual violence that has come onto their campuses, California has become the first in the nation to enact a “yes means yes” standard into law. On September 28, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that requires colleges and universities receiving state funds to adopt sexual assault policies that include affirmative consent as the key element in determining whether sexual activity was consensual.
Just what is affirmative consent? What will count as a yes? It’s hard to say. It seems obvious, but the parameters of affirmative consent are illusive and hard to define. Even the Department of Education, which has been so aggressive in imposing onerous Title IX requirements on colleges and universities, has been resistive to defining affirmative consent. It is all a little reminiscent of Justice Stewart’s standard for pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
The California law adds little to the dialogue. It contains a succinct definitional statement, that is then followed by a long list of things that affirmative consent is not, which seem every bit as essential to understanding the term as the definition itself. Affirmative consent is: “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.”
It is not silence, lack of protest or resistance, the existence of a dating relationship or previous sexual relations. It cannot exist when a sexual partner knew, or reasonably should have known, that the other was asleep, unconscious or incapacitated due to drugs, alcohol or medication, or unable to communicate due to a mental or physical condition.
The bill originally required that affirmative consent be “communicated.” This was taken out, and the final version permits affirmative consent to be nonverbal. Nonverbal communication can take many forms and will always be subject to misinterpretation.
Because each institution that receives state funds must adopt its own policies that include the new affirmative consent standard, it is predictable there will be subtle variations in the local language adopted at different institutions, and resultant uncertainty, confusion and potential inconsistency in enforcement. It is not clear whether state regulations will follow that might add to the definition of affirmative consent.
Both the University of California and the California State University already had affirmative consent policies in place by the time the new law was passed. Both actively supported the bill. Several other institutions -- e.g., Grinnell, Dartmouth, Yale, Claremont McKenna -- also have affirmative consent policies already in place. It has been proposed or is under active discussion at dozens of other institutions. Governor Cuomo of New York has recently announced that all of the SUNY campuses must enact policies that include the affirmative consent standard.
The California law requires training of both students and faculty about affirmative consent, including all incoming students as a part of orientation. Since Title IX already mandates much training around campus sexual behaviors, presumably this will be a natural and complementary add-on. How each campus goes about that training will vary. Students may be advised about the policies in live or video training, compelled to watch role-playing episodes performed by actors, required to take online tests to confirm their understanding, or even obliged to participate in live practice sessions on how to ask for, give and refuse consent.
But even if affirmative consent is, and likely always will be, subjective, the new California law makes a monumental change that is much less ambiguous, and will fundamentally change the way consent is determined in disciplinary proceedings.
The law places a burden on both parties to ensure that they have the affirmative consent of the other throughout any sexual activity. Consent can be revoked at any time, and must be renewed as sexual activity escalates. This means that when one sexual partner claims in a student discipline context that the other did not have affirmative consent to engage in any challenged sexual activity, the burden will shift to the initiator of the sexual activity to offer objective evidence of consent. He or she cannot claim confusion, or that his or her sexual partner did not establish boundaries. If there was no clear invitation to proceed, the college or university must conclude there was no affirmative consent.
There will still be situations where one student claims to have had consent and the other denies it. There will be cases involving alcohol, where one student claims that the other was not incapacitated. There will continue to be he said-she said disputes with no witnesses. But this new burden placed on the party claimed not to have had consent, to offer evidence of consent, transforms the institutional disciplinary process.
Some claim that the law is too much governmental intrusion into private sexual behavior. Maybe. But it is hard to argue in these times of egregious sexual misbehaviors that creating a clearer dialogue between sexual partners, and encouraging especially inexperienced young people to exercise great caution in their sexual lives, is a bad idea. The new law does not compel colleges and universities to be in the room or dictate what happens when students engage in sexual conduct. Rather, the college and university obligation is to adopt policies, only tested or enforced after the fact, when affirmative consent is claimed to have been lacking.
There are other important elements in the new law that should not be overlooked. Campus policies must be “victim-centered,” include privacy protections, interview standards, coordination with law enforcement, participation of victim advocates, and discipline exemption for student witnesses who participated in underage drinking. Campuses must provide trauma-informed training for those involved in investigation or adjudication of complaints. On- and off-campus support must be provided for students, both victims and perpetrators.
But the most remarkable aspect of the new law is the shifting of the burden in disciplinary hearings to the initiator of sexual activity to demonstrate that he or she had the permission of the other party to proceed.
Will the law make any difference? No one knows. There will likely be some chaos, confusion and controversy in the short term, before getting to consistently fair and balanced results. But the shift in expectation and proof is a game-changer and will most likely produce different student discipline results -- whether for better or worse remains to be seen.
Christine Helwick is former general counsel for the California State University system and now advises college and university clients at Hirschfeld Kraemer.
A few months after Gallup released findings from the largest representative study of U.S. college graduates, there is much to ponder. The Gallup-Purdue Index surveyed more than 30,000 graduates to find out whether they are engaged in their work and thriving in their overall well-being. In simple terms, did they end up with great jobs and great lives?
We learned some stunning things. But one of the most important is that where you went to college matters less to your work life and well-being after graduation than how you went to college. Feeling supported and having deep learning experiences during college means everything when it comes to long-term outcomes after college. Unfortunately, not many graduates receive a key element of that support while in college: having a mentor. And this is perhaps the biggest blown opportunity in the history of higher ed.
Six critical elements during college jumped off the pages of our research as being strongly linked to long-term success in work and life after graduation. Three of these elements relate to experiential and deep learning: having an internship or job where students were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom, being actively involved in extracurricular activities and organizations, and working on projects that took a semester or more to complete.
But the three most potent elements linked to long-term success for college grads relate to emotional support: feeling that they had a professor who made them excited about learning, that the professors at their alma mater cared about them as a person, and that they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. If graduates strongly agree with these three things, it doubles the odds they are engaged in their work and thriving in their overall well-being.
When we looked at these three elements individually, we found that about 6 in 10 college graduates strongly agree they had a professor who made them excited about learning (63 percent). Fewer than 3 in 10 strongly agree the professors at their alma mater cared about them as a person (27 percent). And only about 2 in 10 strongly agree they had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams (22 percent) — which means that about 8 in 10 college graduates lacked a mentor in college.
Given how profound the impact of emotional support can be, it’s thoroughly depressing to learn how few college graduates receive it. A mere 14 percent of all college grads strongly agree that they experienced all three elements of emotional support.
Gallup has talked with many higher ed leaders about these findings, and it has been heartening to learn how many leaders are energized by having fresh insights about the importance and value of mentoring relationships in college. But it has also been frustrating to hear how many believe it’s too costly or unreasonable to ensure that every college student receives mentoring.
How is it possible that some leaders feel this kind of experience is more expensive or less practical than building and maintaining multimillion-dollar athletic facilities or high-end residential complexes? Or that it’s more difficult to provide mentors for students than to commit significant amounts of human and financial resources to eke out a few extra students in their admissions yield or create a massive machine to fund-raise from alumni?
If your college or university wants to get serious about finding mentors for its students, it could start by looking at is own alumni base. Assuming your institution has been around for 10 years or more, your alumni are one of the greatest human capital assets it has — not just as donors, but also as potential mentors.
Let’s use my alma mater, as an example. We have about 6,500 undergraduate students. There are more than 140,000 members of the alumni association. If just 10 percent of alumni agreed to serve as mentors, we would have a pool of 14,000 alumni for the 6,500 undergrads. That’s more than a two-to-one mentor-to-student ratio.
Imagine what would happen if your college applied just a portion of the staffing and budget for its development office toward recruiting alumni to mentor a current undergraduate. This relationship doesn’t have to be complicated — all that’s required is two to three calls, Skype meetings, or Google Hangouts between an alumnus and an undergrad each year for one-to-one coaching, plus some basic framework for how they engage one another. How many of your alumni might take you up on this offer if you made a concerted effort to recruit them? As an alumnus, would you be willing to mentor a current undergrad a few hours a year?
Within just one year, it’s completely conceivable that a college or university could achieve a 100 percent mentoring experience rate for its undergraduates. It’s simply a matter of valuing it and making it happen. For example, in a recent study Gallup conducted of Western Governors University alumni, fully 68 percent strongly agreed they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. That’s three times higher than the national average of college graduates across all institutions – and accomplished at a fully online, adult-learner institution nonetheless.
At WGU, rather than conducting class, faculty members serve as mentors, working with students one-to-one. Upon enrollment, each WGU student is assigned a mentor who stays with them until graduation, meeting regularly by phone and in touch via email and text constantly. WGU mentors provide a wide range of support, from help with time management and finding learning resources to tutoring students on the course materials. It’s possible for all institutions to do this kind of mentoring in many different ways, and it doesn’t have to be costly. And as a side benefit: Imagine how much donations might rise among alumni who have a one-to-one relationship with a current undergrad.
Higher education has never tapped one its greatest human capital assets — its alumni — to provide a service its students might value most. According to Gallup research, it could be one of the most important changes a college or university could make toward supporting the success of its future graduates — or the biggest blown opportunity in its history.
Brandon Busteed is executive director of Gallup Education.