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Higher education was already reeling from a tumultuous 2015-16 academic year. Serious campus climate issues about race and class surfaced across the country in the form of student, and even employee, protests. Those protests came as a surprise to many in higher education who have worked hard to build inclusive communities on campuses. But they nonetheless clearly demonstrated that colleges and universities still have a long way to go.
Then last month’s presidential election sent another shock wave across higher education. It was a reminder that many experts, the news media, some elected officials and, to a certain extent, the highly educated elite are still “missing something.”
That something is a better understanding of what’s truly going on in our country, on our campuses and in citizens,’ students’ and employees’ lives.
If we in higher education want to have a deeper and clearer understanding of why there is considerable unrest on our campuses and across our nation, we must grasp a fundamental attribute of democracy that we seem to have lost track of: opinions being heard and counting.
Certainly, tens of millions of opinions were just heard in the form of votes cast for president of the United States. But being heard is about more than being counted once every four years. It’s about people being given a chance to exercise their opinions, on a regular basis, about many aspects of their lives. It’s about exercising their opinions at work, too -- where most of us spend many of our waking hours. It’s also -- most especially -- about people feeling that their opinions matter, that they counted and weren’t simply asked for. Those are very different things.
If, for example, you conduct a survey and ask someone’s opinion about something, that’s a decent first step. Certainly better than not asking them at all. But if you never do anything about that survey -- never provide any of the results or insights to those who responded to it and never take any action based on it -- you might actually be making things worse.
Higher education isn’t alone in this challenge; organizations of all kinds struggle with the process of collecting, disseminating and acting upon data. What’s clear, however, is we must both ask and respond. We also need to ask different and better questions.
Behavioral economics tells us that about 30 percent of the decisions we make as human beings are based on rational information, while 70 percent are based on emotion. Emotions are therefore the biggest driver of our decisions and behaviors, and they are as real as any concrete data might be -- in fact, they might be more so. Gallup research has demonstrated that, in the United States and across the globe, measures of people’s well-being (how they feel about and evaluate their lives) are often a stronger predictor of unrest than classic measures such as gross domestic product.
Behavioral economic measures of emotions will forever revolutionize how we come to understand how people are doing -- and how we can accomplish goals like building more inclusive communities. The only way to do so is to ask people directly and to ask questions about how they feel. This is not data we can gather about them; it has to be from them.
Gallup’s extensive research in higher education sheds light on the problems and opportunities for institutions of higher education when it comes to how they can build more inclusive communities. In the past year, Gallup has conducted several campus climate and employee/faculty engagement surveys for colleges and universities. What we’ve learned is that whether someone feels they are part of an inclusive campus community boils down to two absolutely crucial questions. These questions account for more than half of the variance in whether someone feels their campus is inclusive.
The first and most important question is whether they strongly agree that their opinions at work count. And the second is whether they strongly agree that someone cares about them as a person. Unfortunately, higher education institutions do not score well at all on these measures. Nor do K-12 schools. Teachers, for example -- of professions in America -- rank dead last in feeling that their opinions at work count.
Implicit and explicit in this is that institutions need to do more than just ask students, employees and alumni for their opinions; they must do something as a result -- whether that is communicating the findings and insights back to the constituents surveyed or taking action steps toward changes as a result of what was learned.
Emotions must be measured as well. As an example, think of how we typically measure something like student engagement. It’s usually about measuring activity levels -- such as how many times a student volunteered or visited the library or met with an academic adviser. Rarely -- if ever -- do we measure how they felt regarding those activities and interactions. Did they feel their adviser cared about them as a person? Were they excited about what they learned in the library? Did they feel they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom to their volunteer experience?
Higher education has worked hard toward creating more diverse campus communities. Indeed, as we look at the demographics of colleges and universities today, it’s clear we have accomplished a lot in this regard. While we certainly still have a lot of work to do, we’ve made much more progress on diversity than we have on inclusivity.
That’s a crucial distinction. Diversity is what we see. Inclusivity is how we act and what we feel. The two are interrelated, of course. Diversity serves as a foundation upon which inclusivity is built. But achieving inclusivity requires something quite different from what most of us have probably thought.
Before I started leading Gallup’s higher education work, I would have never guessed that inclusivity was fundamentally about opinions counting. But if someone doesn’t feel their opinions count, they are essentially and fundamentally disconnected from their community. What we have learned from the recent examples of student protests about campus climate and race -- and from many Americans in the aftermath of this election -- is that they are examples of people who felt their opinions have not counted for some time.
In higher education, we must embrace a new era in which we seek to carefully understand how students, employees, faculty members and alumni feel about their studies, work and lives. We have to move from simply asking about their opinions to ensuring those opinions matter and count. And we need to understand that people’s feelings are facts. We can’t dismiss feelings; we need to treat them with great care. If we do, we will make a lot of progress toward creating the inclusive communities we have long sought to build.
Brandon Busteed is executive director of education and work force development at Gallup.
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I spent last January teaching somewhere unexpected: at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi, established six years ago. And this class was different from any other in which I’ve been involved.
My creative writing class had 25 students of extraordinarily diverse backgrounds. Some were traditional-age seniors, soon to graduate. Others were older security personnel, several of whom had never been able to attend a college or university. Yet their differences didn’t matter. For three exciting weeks, I taught storytelling to matriculating students and staff members. More important, they taught each other.
They came from all over with tales to tell. A woman from the Philippines planned her story in her head while on duty as a campus security guard. Another student, an Emirati, composed his off campus, in his family home. One student from Uganda wrote about a young girl who could whistle magically. A student from Pakistan enlisted classmates to perform her manifesto -- scripted as a play -- satirizing arranged marriages. Another student, from the same part of the world, read out a dialogue from a son who wanted only more time with his busy, working dad.
This all started months earlier, when I received an email from Carol Brandt, NYUAD’s associate vice chancellor for global education and outreach. Would I be interested, she asked, to have my class participate in cocurricular activities? I had no idea what that meant. She told me that I could break up the January term’s notoriously intense three weeks of daily classes by, for example, taking students on a field trip or having them interview school staff members, or whatever creative idea I felt was suitable.
In the days before term started, the opportunity expanded. Another email came -- this time from Liria Gjidija, who goes by Lily and works in the social responsibility area of the university. Would I, she asked, be interested in also teaching creative writing to members of the campus staff?
I said yes to the unexpected offer. Of course. Education, after all, is key to developing every citizen’s possible self, while creative writing is vital to finding one’s voice.
Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, I immediately met with Lily, who explained NYUAD’s evolving social responsibility initiative. I was surprised, then thrilled, to hear about her work with campus contract employees -- maintenance personnel, hospitality staff and security guards -- as well as with those working in domestic roles with staff and faculty families. NYUAD now offers all of them access to library and health facilities, intramural sports, film screenings and an expanding range of classes on such subjects as survival Arabic, ESL, photography, business English, storytelling and even cooking.
Rather alarmingly to me, Lily described the creative writing course I’d give to contract staff: everyone had very high hopes, she told me, and you’ll be the captain of the ship.
Carte blanche can sometimes produce great anxiety, especially when teaching for the first time at a foreign school. I retreated to my apartment to brainstorm, knowing well that continuing education presents special challenges. I’d learned that painfully after completing my M.F.A. at Columbia University, when I gave creative writing courses in South Australia at the Workers’ Educational Association. There, I discovered that adult learning is particularly demanding because teachers have little baseline knowledge of what students have previously learned. Faced with the diversity of teaching 16 contract staff members at NYUAD, I became even more anxious.
The solution hit me as I read over the initial completed writing exercises of my nine matriculating NYUAD students. We’d spent our intense first week learning the basics of storytelling. They’d studied elegantly simple short stories, such as “Reunion” by John Cheever and Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Reading the students’ work, it was evident they’d learned their stuff.
I jumped up, excited: Why not have these young students share all they’d learned with the 16 security guards whom I’d be teaching in the second and third weeks of the term? And why not have both sets pair up to learn about narrative by sharing their life stories?
On the first of what would be two Thursday afternoons, both sets of students were equally enthusiastic. For the beginning half of the class, the NYUAD kids shared their new skills with the guards who keep their campus secure. During the latter half of the class, those youngsters interviewed their elders, learning about their lives. Throughout, there was a shared excitement in the air. Nary a moan nor protest was heard when I assigned the busy contract staff members the stories by Cheever and Hemingway as their homework.
The frisson persisted during our second Thursday together, as the young students paired up with different staff members to unpack “Reunion” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” As with the week before, the latter portion of class was spent on interviews, but this time with staff members interviewing students about their lives. At the end of the class, we all parted ways for the weekend -- stories communicated and real connections made.
Too rare, often, are the moments in teaching and writing when you’re reminded exactly why you do it -- when what is learned goes beyond pages or discussions, or standardized demands of exams or reviews. Over the following two weekends, I met alone with the contract staff members to go deeper into what the NYUAD students had taught them. Those older learners then constructed their own stories and shared them with each other. They wrote of distant children growing up without them. Or parents passing far away. They wrote of departures and missed opportunities. Or the unforgotten beauty of their homelands. In writing, my students transcended themselves -- taking a bold step toward finding their voices, so that one day they could raise them beautifully and loudly. Because that’s what creative writing is about.
But rarer, still, are those moments when you see a higher education institution transcend the business that is education. Colleges and universities have classrooms, books, facilities; many have endowments and well-paid professors, or noble ideals like with my own Jesuit and Christian brothers’ alma maters. Colleges and universities engage in socially relevant research or in outreach, give to charities and encourage students to look at our troubled world and ask: Why?
Yet nowhere in my lifetime of studying and teaching have I seen this effort to help further educate the hundreds of workers who exist quietly within hallowed halls, in shadowed corridors -- keeping campuses safe, serving food to young minds, selling or shelving books or tidying up classrooms those long hours they are emptied. We should ask ourselves: Why not?
NYU Abu Dhabi is now doing it, to my great surprise. Their social responsibility program is becoming a model that should be replicated in every able university across the world. If you saw what I saw, what my students saw in those 16 university employees -- from the Philippines, Nepal, Uganda, Pakistan and India -- you would agree wholeheartedly that this initiative is vitally important. Because isn’t what happened in those classes what education is all about?
Miguel Syjuco, a visiting assistant professor of practice at New York University Abu Dhabi, is a Filipino writer from Manila. His debut novel, Ilustrado, was the winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and a New York Times Notable Book of 2010.