ADMINISTRATIVE JOBS

An alternative view on competency-based education (essay)

We read Steven Ward’s Feb. 1 critique of competency-based education -- “Let Them Eat Cake (Competently)” -- with some sense of weary bemusement.

Where to start? Let’s start with a simple fact: CBE programs that offer associate or bachelor's-level degree programs and are regionally accredited (in other words, the majority of programs) have to include liberal arts and general education.

Indeed, we would argue that CBE strengthens the case for liberal arts by more clearly outlining the claims for that part of the curriculum, defining those competencies with well-designed rubrics and administering rigorous assessments.

While Ward’s students can slide by with a B or C in his class and one would be hard pressed to know what students actually learned or can do with their learning based on their transcripts, our students must demonstrate mastery, even if that takes two or three times longer than the mere 14-week term Ward’s students experience. When CBE students are successful, we know what they have learned and what they can do with that knowledge, and employers do not have to guess.

Ward erroneously posits liberal arts in CBE as “a light, fast and vocation-friendly version,” but in our CBE models learning is fixed and nonnegotiable, and we can stand behind the claims we make for our students. Can the professor say the same for his classes in a traditional model, where nationally students routinely graduate with poor writing, math and critical-thinking skills (and in half the cases don’t graduate at all)?

Consider this post from College for America graduate Shannon Lougee:

“While in the program, I learned about so many things. I learned about lean principles, the Federal Reserve, globalization and the moral philosophies of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. I learned about the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment while exploring art from masters such as Giotto, Donatello, Rembrandt, Manet and Picasso. I studied how the earth cycles water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous; the enormity of the Great Pacific garbage patch; and the devastating impact pollution is having on sea turtles, birds, fish and the overall health of our precious oceans. Through CfA, I strengthened my listening skills, practiced giving and receiving feedback, and improved my ability to resolve conflict while working on teams. I even learned how to better manage stress, which helped me juggle work and family while earning my degree.”

Shannon’s education does not sound merely “vocation friendly” or reflective of “mundane knowledge,” but full of the breadth, depth and richness of liberal learning that we value and that Ward worries about.

What he seems to worry less about is evoked in Lougee’s last sentence, her life as a student while also taking care of a family and working full time. Ward imagines CBE as “an education system that is ‘restructured to stream youth into the flexible labor system, based on a privileged elite, a small technical working class and a growing precariat.’” The great majority of our students are not youth. They are in the labor system, often making minimum -- non-family sustaining -- wages, and looking for the competencies and credentials that will allow them to get better, more meaningful work, so they can take better care of their families.

A hallmark of CBE is to assess a student's prior learning and to add efficiency to the student's pursuit of education. Why force students to relearn what they already know or to learn at the same pace? Ward makes an assumption that not only do all his students come to the class with the same background and experience, but that all will follow the course calendar and are moving on whether material is learned or not.

So yes, an important part of CBE is that it is focused on labor market value, and we won’t apologize for helping our students get better-paying jobs.

We think CBE can work in almost any context for any kind of student, assuring quality in learning in ways that the traditional models simply do not touch, but we know that it can be transformative for students who have been marginalized or failed in the traditional models Ward valorizes. For those students, real skills and a college degree can mean food on the table and a pathway to advancement. This end result of “democratizing knowledge” through CBE is what higher education was always intended to do.

Workplace relevancy aside, it is telling that Ward seems oblivious to the considerable failings of the model he defends, whether it be high attrition rates, slow completion rates (isn’t it telling that we measure success in four-year programs by using a six-year measuring stick?), high costs and the amount of debt students are now asked to assume, and the general loss of faith in what it produces in terms of quality, knowledge and skills.

Quality is ostensibly Ward’s chief concern, and as such, he should embrace CBE. Not only because it can strengthen the liberal arts by making clearer its value and making sure our graduates meet the claims we make for them, but because well-designed CBE programs work so well.

Consider that Western Governors University, a pioneer in the CBE world, has the top-ranked teacher education program. Or that associate-level students in College for America outperformed 7,815 of their peers from 27 conventional institutions in seven of eight categories on the externally validated ETS Proficiency Profile.

We of course worry about poorly designed CBE programs, as we worry about poor online programs and poor programs on traditional campuses.

But we know that well-designed CBE programs that make very clear the claims for student learning -- all kinds of learning, including the liberal arts -- and then subject their students to rigorous assessment can not only offer very high-quality learning, but we also believe they will have a positive impact on traditionally delivered programs.

Indeed, it is our belief that CBE, with its focus on quality, disregard for time and prices that working people can afford (the majority of College for America students graduate with zero debt), can save higher education in many ways.

Paul LeBlanc is President of Southern New Hampshire University, and Jim Selbe is a higher education consultant.

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Education Department denies federal aid to two for-profit chains

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Two proprietary institutions lose federal financial aid after a series of investigations by the U.S. Department of Education.

Student activism provides institutions opportunities (essay)

From angry student protests to the backlash that paints them as coddled and pampered, we have reached a watershed moment on college and university campuses across this country as we begin 2016. Empowered and emboldened by their peers at the University of Missouri and many other institutions, students have presented college presidents, faculty members and administrators with lists of demands meant to address discrimination, racism and sexism, and to create more inclusive environments.

Those requests have been wide-ranging: hire more minority faculty, remove the names of donors and patrons implicated in colonialism and racism from buildings, include questions about microaggressions against students in faculty evaluations. And that’s just the short list.

The pushback against these students has been equally lively and includes outright mockery and ridicule -- citing the grammatical errors in a list of demands, for example. Some observers have criticized the students for being too sensitive. The president of one university accused some of them of wanting to “arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn.” Unfortunately, those are precisely the responses we would expect when those with power are being challenged.

But some of the reactions of college administrators and faculty members are well reasoned. Certain things can’t be accomplished within existing faculty governance structures -- or if they can, they will take time. For example, much of the faculty hiring process is well beyond the jurisdiction of students. Colleges and universities have a duty to protect not just students but also faculty members.

Those are, in fact, reasonable responses. But sometimes administrators, faculty members, and other campus leaders have undercut those responses with an air of impatience and frustration: students just don’t get it. They don’t understand how the college or university works. They don’t understand the role of faculty. They don’t understand history.

All of which prompts me to ask, as students return to classes: Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for? Until this past year, our hand-wringing about students focused on their apathy and selfishness. We criticized Millennials for their passivity and lack of empathy. But lately they’ve been standing up, asking questions, criticizing the system and arguing not just for themselves but also on behalf of others. Isn’t this precisely the behavior we wanted?

Certainly, their responses are sometimes naïve, sometimes overly ambitious. They haven’t always reflected the complexities of the higher education environment and its management. But that’s OK. They’re college students. College should be the place where they try on controversial ideas, push the envelope, make demands. And get things wrong sometimes.

What if we -- administrators and faculty members -- leveraged this moment? There is an opportunity here. We have the students’ attention -- perhaps for some less than ideal reasons, but we have their attention nonetheless. The question is, what are we going to do with it?

We could simply rebuff them and say that they need to “humbly learn.” What if, rather than rejecting their ideas outright and saying they just don’t understand how things work, we taught them how the university works, acknowledging that it doesn’t always work well? What if we engaged their demands and told them to bring their critical-thinking skills (which we say we are teaching them in every curricular assessment report I’ve ever read) to bear on the situation?

To take just one example: the historian in me can’t help but wonder what would happen if we harnessed the student critique of donors, patrons, named buildings and the like to examine our institutional histories. I’m envisioning a series of conversations among faculty members, students and administrators that explored the lives of the historical figures whom students find controversial and whose names they want erased from the institution. Rather than dismissing such demands out of hand as too sensitive or misinformed, we should use students’ demands and critiques to further their education and the cultivation of critical-thinking skills.

What if professors and students engaged in the process of curricular design to increase the diversity of course offerings? We could harness student enthusiasm for particular issues and topics and involve them in the research and work necessary to guide curricula in new directions.

What if we pulled back the curtain and let students see what shared governance and the administration of higher education looks like? I’ve mentioned a university’s obligation to protect its faculty members -- which to students often sounds like an excuse for inaction. But what if we invited them to participate in a series of conversations about academic freedom and what it protects?

Even as I pose these questions, I know why we haven’t done it yet. Digging deep into the past of our institutions’ donors and patrons might result in some uncomfortable discoveries. It might even incite the removal of those names from our campus buildings. Involving students in curricular design would mean exposing our teaching and pedagogy. And a conversation about academic freedom? I can’t even get my colleagues to have such a discussion among themselves, much less with students and administrators.

The reason we hesitate is because these protests and these demands, even when they are naïve and even when they overreach, challenge our power and authority. But that’s just it: we have the power and the authority in this situation. And without perhaps fully realizing it, our students may be asking us to use it in the service of their education. Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for?

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Honors College and Mandel Professor in Humanities at Cleveland State University and vice president of the teaching division of the American Historical Association. She blogs at Tales Told Out of School.

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Calif. community college accreditor loses bid to reverse U.S. findings against it

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The embattled accrediting organization will now have until January 2017 to resolve the Education Department’s findings that it failed to meet federal standards.

For-profit Westwood College won't accept new students

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After years of allegations of deceptive marketing practices, for-profit Westwood College is no longer accepting new students after another multimillion-dollar agreement with a state attorney general.

Colleges continue to rescind Cosby's honorary degrees

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Honorary degrees are the last remaining tie many colleges have with Bill Cosby. More and more institutions are rescinding them, but some are refusing to do so.

Why colleges engage in certain admissions practices (essay)

Earlier this past summer, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would eliminate a student’s opportunity to list in rank order the colleges and universities to which he or she had submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Many in higher education, and most involved in college counseling, applauded the decision.

Then, this month, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling amended its ethical guidelines to memorialize the department’s action, and it now discourages colleges from asking applicants to list in rank order the colleges they are considering.

These recent changes will force many of us who work at colleges and universities to more directly ask students about their level of interest in our institution. Because we will no longer be able to rely on our ranked position on the FAFSA, which had very high predictive value related to a student’s prospect for enrolling, we now will have to do the asking. This will be new territory for many of us and for students, but I believe such directness can be good for colleges, admissions offices, families and students.

I suspect this shift in communication may have been unintentional on the parts of both the Education Department and NACAC. I also think their actions were the result of a “parade of horribles” -- what-ifs and speculations -- that undoubtedly will bring focus to other important strategies and tools used by many colleges in the contemporary practice of admissions.

Oft mentioned among the parade of horribles are:

  • the potential for admissions offices to use (“misuse” is a better term) information, like rank order, to influence admissions and financial aid decisions;
  • the pressure on students to develop a strategy in developing their list order to make sure to maximize their options;
  • the potential that first-generation students and those from underserved or underresourced areas will not understand the process.

These sound pretty awful, while the actions of the Department of Education and NACAC, designed to protect students, seem sensible. So why in the world would admissions and enrollment professionals, also presumably interested in serving and recruiting students, engage in such practices?

Let’s start with two premises.

First, there are three types of colleges: superselective institutions that have the luxury of “crafting a class,” open-access colleges that accept everyone who applies and colleges that work tirelessly all year just to make each class.

Second, one of the primary responsibilities of today’s enrollment manager or senior admissions leader is to predict who will enroll.

While my institution may be positioned between the superselective and the just-make-the-class types, my sympathies are more closely aligned with the latter, given the realities of demographic shifts, changes in ability and willingness of students and their families to pay, and the affordability advocates who tout cutbacks to areas such as marketing, administration and recruitment.

At Augustana College, where I work in admissions, one of my primary responsibilities is to offer the president and the Board of Trustees a data-informed prediction about who will enroll each year. This prediction sets in motion a budget and planning process that impacts the quality of education we offer our students and the livelihoods of the people who serve our students. Therefore, I want to have as many resources as possible to help inform that prediction.

We don’t ask students to rank order the institutions to which they’ve applied, but we do ask admitted students whether Augustana ranks first or in the top three or top five choices. We’ve done this for years, postadmission, and have found it to be very helpful in prioritizing our outreach to students and making the best use of our time as admissions professionals. We’ve used this information along with FAFSA position to help predict who will show up on our campus in the fall.

So, let me offer a few reasons -- not in any rank order -- why an admissions office might want to have a good idea about our relative standing with students in an effort to be efficient and make credible predictions.

Limited, constrained human resources. For most college admissions offices, especially at those institutions that need to work very hard to make the class, human resources must be deployed carefully, thoughtfully and with the greatest good in mind. Given the size of applicant pools, it is usually impossible to develop relationships with everyone who applies. Many admissions offices try to learn where to focus their efforts to make the most meaningful connections. Information like the ranking of colleges, and many other things that demonstrate students’ interests, can help an admissions counselor prioritize work and concentrate on the students most likely to enroll. At institutions that need 20 to 25 percent of our admitted students to enroll, being able to connect with those most likely to choose our college is quite useful.

The need to work smarter. A constant chorus on college campuses today is to “work smarter, not harder.” Data equip an admissions office to do that. I am aware of very few admissions offices that are increasing staff sizes, which means we are expected to work smarter every year in an environment of heavier workloads and shrinking resources. Lacking human resources, we need data, tools and processes that streamline and focus attention and allow us to be smart in our work.

Vital volunteer engagement. When it takes a village to make the class, ensuring that your village of volunteers has meaningful engagements with prospective students is crucial to long-term recruitment and admissions success. Most admissions offices rely on campus partners to supplement the recruitment effort and ultimately be effective. If there’s one thing I know about volunteers, it is that one bad experience can turn an enthusiastic volunteer away forever. Many admissions offices need to do an internal sort to make sure volunteers have good experiences. Data that inform an internal sort are important to maintaining valuable relationships with our volunteers, too.

Efficiency and access. Most important, good use of time means we can focus more on first-generation or underresourced students and families. One of the reasons we must prioritize is so we can spend more hours on creating access -- working with populations who are not as familiar with the college search process or our type of college. Understanding that one student is clear about choosing your college can free you up to counsel others who need more information to make a comfortable and informed decision.

Most people would agree this list does not in any way sound related to a “parade of horribles.” In the end, it may just come down to the fact that communication patterns and predictions keep changing. Perhaps in a couple of years, students, becoming more savvy by the minute, will decide once they’re admitted to tell each college or university that it is number one on their list -- thus hoping to get more attention. To get to the real truth, we will again have to change our approach to how we ask them.

Because, ultimately, we should do all we can to communicate honestly and in depth with our accepted students, and that begins with directness and an effort to truly know what they are thinking. It’s the kind of communication that should precede any commitment of this magnitude.

W. Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment, communications and planning at Augustana College.

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The challenges of advising foreign grad students about careers (essay)

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Career counselors need active partners like enrollment management administrators, graduate deans and faculty members to manage international students’ expectations, says Alfreda James.

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How to Avoid Being Buried by Your Email Messages (essay)

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Kerry Ann Rockquemore offers five ways to climb out from under piles of old and unopened messages.

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The Value of IDEA for Colleges and Their Students

Over the past summer, much fanfare greeted the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including a reception at the White House and parades, speeches and gatherings across the country. By comparison, the anniversary of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) -- which came into being the same year -- came and went without public recognition.

The IDEA might seem tangential to those of us involved with higher education because its legislative reach extends only through secondary school. But as my classes get underway this fall, I’m reminded of its powerful impact on the current generation of college students, disabled and able-bodied alike.

The IDEA, which replaced 1975 legislation called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), mandates a “free appropriate public education” to all students from pre-K through high school. Before the passage of the EAHCA, many states had laws barring children with disabilities such as deafness, blindness, emotional disturbance and other cognitive delays from public education.

According to a research study completed in 1970, only one in five children with disabilities had received an education in school.

The 1975 law changed that by requiring schools to place them in the “least restrictive environment,” meaning, to the greatest extent possible, they would be included alongside nondisabled peers. The IDEA of 1990 expanded the age range of protected children, added measures to support families and included new provisions for adaptive equipment and services. Its new name also signaled an important shift away from “handicapped children” (which implied children were defined by their disabilities) to the people-first language of “individuals with disabilities” (which implied that disability was just one aspect of a child’s identity).

The life writing of people with disabilities tells harrowing stories of what it was like to go to school before the passage of the EAHCA. Animal scientist Temple Grandin, whose autism made it hard for her to converse socially, was teased and ostracized by her peers. The parents of Stephen Kuusisto, director of the honors program at Syracuse University, refused to enroll him in a school for the blind and sent him to a school where he received no accommodations for his low vision. Deaf scholar Brenda Brueggemann describes the awkwardness of going with classmates to movies where she was unable to hear or understand the dialogue.

Reading these accounts, I’m reminded that the students with disabilities I find in my classes are the beneficiaries of a very different system. The IDEA ensured that most of them received an inclusive education, and it required the schools they attended to provide adaptive technologies, assistants and support services that would allow them to succeed in classes with their nondisabled peers.

Less often acknowledged is the impact of the IDEA on nondisabled college students. By including larger numbers of students with disabilities in elementary and secondary schools, the IDEA changed how nondisabled kids understood the meaning of disability. It is far less common for today’s students to have attended a school where the “special” kids arrived on the stigmatized “short bus” and marched off to a separate classroom. Having those kids in class -- along with their wheelchairs, canes, adaptive communication devices and assistants -- naturalized disability in a way that would not have been possible in more segregated environments.

Many of today’s students grew up with the assumption that children with disabilities belong in the same classroom and have the same right to an education that they do. Research shows that having kids with disabilities in class teaches valuable lessons about acceptance, patience and diversity. As people with disabilities increasingly participate in the workforce, inclusive education also prepares the current generation of students for a diversity they will likely encounter in their professional lives.

In case I sound overly cheery, let me be clear that the IDEA is no panacea. I’m well aware that many schools still have special classrooms for children deemed too disabled for inclusion. New York City, where I live, is home to District 75, reserved for segregating those "special" kids from their typical peers. On the other end of the spectrum, some of my students attended exclusive private schools that are exempt from the requirements of the IDEA. Their experience of kids with disabilities is limited to the service learning projects that round out their stellar college applications. And despite the law, the families of students with disabilities are often exhausted by fighting for services they are entitled to.

That said, I’m still convinced the law provides a valuable foundation that is worth building on and that should be celebrated.

I’m never more aware of the impact of the IDEA than when I tell my students that I’m the parent of a child with Down syndrome. Because of the IDEA, my son attends second grade at an inclusive elementary school. More than one of my students has responded to this disclosure by saying, “My best friend has Down syndrome!”

In the generation before the IDEA, this scenario would have been virtually unthinkable. If they went to school at all, children with Down syndrome were tucked away in special classes where they learned life skills because nobody thought they were capable of reading and writing. Seeing them banished in this way, their typical peers learned that people with Down syndrome were not worthy of inclusion.

Certainly the world is a better place for my son: ample research shows that people with Down syndrome learn better in inclusive settings. But it is also a better place for his peers, who, thanks to the IDEA, learn to recognize him as a person deserving of respect and friendship. That recognition is high on the list of lessons I’d like my students to learn before entering college.

Rachel Adams is a professor of English and director of the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University.

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