Wondering about fall-to-spring retention? Well, guess what?!

Even though most of us only wonder about retention in the fall, down here in the belly of the data beast we’ve been paying closer attention to our term-to-term retention rates for each cohort of students. Although those numbers can fluctuate more, they can also give us an early hint about whether we might be trending in the wrong direction, in the right direction, or if we are just holding steady. More specifically, in the context of last year’s excitement over a record high fall-to-fall retention rate for first year students, it makes some sense to have a look and see if our broader retention efforts are continuing to hold strong … or if all of last year’s hubbub was just that.

So now that we’ve locked in our enrollment numbers for the spring term we can calculate fall-to-spring retention rates for each cohort. Although we also record winter-to-spring retention rates, it seems like it’s a little easier to make sense of fall-to-spring numbers since winter-to-spring rates are, in essence, a percentage of a proportion (i.e., the number of students enrolled in winter term is only a percentage of those who enrolled in the fall, so a winter-to-spring retention rate by itself can be deceiving).

To put our present numbers in context, the table below shows last year’s fall-to-spring (2015-16) retention rates, the prior three-year average (Academic Years 2013, 2014, 2015) fall-to-spring retention rates, and finally our most current fall-to-spring retention rates.

Cohort 2015-16

Fall/Spring

Prior 3-Year Average

(13/14, 14/15, 15/16)

2016-17

Fall/Spring

1st year 94.2% 93.7% 93.8%
2nd year 96.8% 95.9% 97.2%
3rd year 97.5% 97.0% 98.1%
4th year 92.9% 93.4% 95.2%

A couple of things jump out. First, our first-year fall-to-spring retention rate is down slightly from last year’s high. To put this difference in real terms, we would have needed to retain three additional students to match last year’s percentage. However, we did manage to beat the prior three-year average by a hair, which is often a good way to tell if we are headed in the right direction. It’s also good to remind ourselves that a few years ago, we estimated that if everything went perfectly with a first-year class, the best retention rate we could hope for would be 90%. Last year we hit 88.9%. So we are already close to banging our heads on the proverbial ceiling. We will just have to wait to see how this translates into a fall-to-fall retention rate for the first year cohort.

Retention within the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year cohorts is a different story. In each case, our fall-to-spring retention rate clearly beats both last year’s rate as well as the prior three-year average. Some folks have rightly suggested that we should be careful not to lose touch with the needs of upperclass students as we strive to bring up our first-year retention rate. These numbers seem to suggest that we might have managed to maintain that balance pretty well.

And if you are wondering if all of these increased retention rates translate into more students on campus this spring, indeed they do. Last year at this time, we had a student FTE of 2345 (FTE stands for “full-time-equivalent” and is calculated by taking the number of full-time students and adding a third of the total number of part-time students – supposedly, three part-time students roughly equals one full-time student). Coincidentally, the prior three-year average spring FTE is also 2345.

But this spring, our FTE is 2399. That’s the largest spring FTE we’ve ever recorded.

Congratulations to everyone for your hard work on behalf of our students! In the face of all the budget pressures that we can’t control, it’s really heartening to see us so successful on one metric that we can influence.

Make it a good day,

Mark

This March, it’s Survey Madness!

Even folks who are barely familiar with social science research know the term “survey fatigue.” It describes a phenomenon, empirically supported now by a solid body of research, in which people who are asked to take surveys seem to have only a finite amount of tolerance for it (shocking, I know). So as a survey gets longer, respondents tend to skip questions or take less time answering them carefully. When the term first emerged, it primarily referred to something that could happen within an individual survey. But now that solicitations to take surveys seem to appear almost everywhere, the concept is appropriately applied in reference to a sort of meta survey fatigue.

But if we want to get better at something, we need information to guide our choices.  We ought to know by now that “winging it” isn’t much of a strategy. So we need to collect data, and oftentimes survey research is the most efficient way to do that.

Therefore, in my never-ending quest to turn negatives into positives, I’m going to launch a new phrase into the pop culture ether. Instead of focusing on the detrimental potential of “survey fatigue,” I’m going to ask that we all dig down and build up our “survey fitness.”

Here’s why . . .

In the next couple of months, you are going to receive a few requests for survey data. Many of you have already received an invitation to participate in the “Great Colleges to Work For” survey. The questions in this survey try to capture a sense of the organization’s culture and employee engagement. For all of you who take pride in your curmudgeonly DNA, I can’t argue your criticism of the name of that survey. But they didn’t ask me when they wrote it, so we’re stuck with it. Nonetheless, the findings actually prove useful. So please take the time to answer honestly if you get an email from them.

The second survey invitation you’ll receive is for a new instrument called The Campus Living, Learning, and Work Environment. It tries to tackle aspects of equity and inclusion across a campus community. One of the reasons I signed on for this study is because it is the first that I know of to survey the entire community – faculty, staff, administration, and students. We have been talking a lot lately about the need for this kind of comprehensive data, and here is our chance to get some.

So if you find yourself getting annoyed at the increased number of survey requests this spring, you can blame it all on me. You are even welcomed to complain to me about all the surveys I’ve sent out this term if that is what it takes to get you to complete them. And if you start to worry about survey fatigue in yourself or others during the next few months, think of it as an opportunity to develop your survey fitness! And thanks for putting up with a few more requests for data than usual. I guarantee that I won’t let the data just sit at the bottom of a hard drive.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Additional evidence that our first generation students might need more explicit guidance

Sometimes social science researchers get too excited about testing new hypotheses and forget about the importance of retesting old ones. Although it’s understandable (why drive a used car when you could drive a new car?), this tendency is exceedingly detrimental to the body of knowledge we claim to know. Because no matter how perfect the study design or how fantastic the results, one set of findings just doesn’t mean that much – a reality that often gets lost in the hype.

In recent years, the tendency to overhype a single set of findings has become the subject of much hand-wringing. In 2010, the New Yorker published a longer piece about a phenomenon called the decline effect where efforts to replicate prior studies are increasingly producing comparatively smaller and sometime even insignificant results. Such results call into question the validity of many prior research findings. A 2013 article in the Economist outlined other research that produced similarly chilling reminders of the fallibility of science and scientists. Not to be outdone, this conundrum starts to get really weird when a 2015 replication study appearing to challenge the validity of 100 well-known psychology findings was taken apart by a 2016 study that critiqued many of the 2015 study’s replication designs and summary conclusions.

I say all this to set up what might otherwise seem like a pretty mundane data point about first-generation students. But first, what do we think we know about first-gen students?

According to the current body of research on first generation students, the existing evidence suggests that these students a more likely to lack basic knowledge about how college is supposed to work. In the absence of this knowledge, the fog is a little thicker, the path is less clear, and they are more susceptible to feeling lost and uncertain about their progress. All this sets up an increased vulnerability that heightens the potential for difficulty and early departure. Although we can see the gap in first-second year retention rates between first-gen students and their peers, differences in retention rates don’t necessarily confirm the more granular elements of prior findings about the first-gen experience.

To find that kind of granular confirmation, we need to identify specific items in the first year surveys that could suss out these differences, parse the array of data we gather from first year students by first generation status, and test for statistically significant differences.

One prime possibility is a survey item from the end of the first year that asks first-year students to respond (i.e., choosing from 5 options that range from strongly disagree to strongly agree) to the statement, “Reflecting on the past year, I can think of specific experiences or conversations that helped me clarify my life/career goals.” If the first-generation student experience involves a relatively higher frequency of feeling lost or unsure about how to connect all of one’s activities, classes, and experiences into a coherent narrative, then first generation student responses, on average, should end up lower (and statistically significantly lower) than the overall response.

It turns out that this gap in average responses is profound.  While the overall average score is 3.83 (which translates to just south of ‘agree’), the average score for first-gen students is 3.23 (just north of ‘neither agree nor disagree’), a gap that amounts to an “extremely” statistically significant difference (i.e., p<.001 for all you quant nerds out there). Since we can conclude from these two mean scores that the average response from non first-gen students is a good bit higher than 3.83, it’s even more clear that whatever is going on isn’t merely a function of chance.

It’s possible that this difference mirrors the degree to which first-generation students simply do not engage in as many potentially influential activities and experiences as other students. If this were the case, we’d likely see these differences emerge elsewhere in the data. However, every other measure of involvement and participation suggests that there are no differences in frequency of engagement between first-generation students and their peers.

So maybe this difference in recalling specific experiences of conversations that helped clarify life/career goals is exactly the kind of thing that we might expect based on our prior understanding of first-generation students’ experience. Maybe first-gen students are engaged in the same average number of experiences as other students, but they are less likely to recognize the potential value of these experiences. As a result, maybe not knowing to look for the potential value of an experience makes it less likely that these students would see a way to connect these experiences to a longer-term goal.

It seems that this finding fits with our prior understanding of first-generation students. It also has important implications for the way that we talk with first-gen students about what they are doing in college. More than simply suggesting what they might do, it appears that first-gen students might need even more explicit guidance about how to reflect on the impact of a given experience, how that reflective activity might help them decide what experiences to prioritize, and how to connect what they might have learned through one experience with the developmental purpose of a subsequent experience.

In future years it’s very likely that a healthy proportion (about a third) of our new students will continue to be first-generation students. Much of what they don’t know about college is stuff that they don’t know they need to know. So our job is not only to tell them what they could do, but to show them how to decide what to do and how to use what they learn through those experiences to guide their future choices.

Make it a good (snow) day,

Mark

Differences in our students’ major experiences by race/ethnicity; WARNING: messy data ahead

It’s great to see the campus bustling again.  If you’ve been away during the two-week break, welcome back!  And if you stuck around to keep the place intact, thanks a ton!

Just in case you’re under the impression that every nugget of data I write about comes pre-packaged with a statistically significant bow on top, today I’d like to share some data findings from our senior survey that aren’t so pretty. In this instance, I’ve focused on data from the nine questions that comprise the section called “Experiences in the Major.” For purposes of brevity, I’ve paraphrased each of the items in the table below, but if you want to see the full text of the question, here’s the link to the 2015-16 senior survey on the IR web page. The table below disaggregates the responses to each of these items by Hispanic, African-American, and Caucasian students. The response options are one through five, and range either from strongly disagree to strongly agree or from never to very often (noted with an *).

Item Hispanic African-American Caucasian
Courses allowed me to explore my interests 3.86 3.82 4.09
Courses seemed to follow in a logical sequence 3.85 3.93 4.11
Senior inquiry brought out my best intellectual work 3.61 4.00 3.78
I received consistent feedback on my writing 3.72 4.14 3.96
Frequency of analyzing in class * 3.85 4.18 4.09
Frequency of applying in class * 3.87 4.14 4.15
Frequency of evaluating in class * 3.76 4.11 4.13
Faculty were accessible and responsive outside of class 4.10 4.21 4.37
Faculty knew how to prepare me for my post-grad plans 3.69 4.00 4.07

Clearly, there are some differences in average scores that jump out right away. The scores from Hispanic students are lowest among the three groups on all but one item. Sometimes there is little discernible difference between African-American and Caucasian students’ score while in other instances the gap between those two groups seems large enough to indicate something worth noting.

So what makes this data messy? After all, shouldn’t we jump to the conclusion that Hispanic students’ major experience needs substantial and urgent attention?

The problem, from the standpoint of quantitative analysis, is that none of the differences conveyed in the table meet the threshold for statistical significance. Typically, that means that we have to conclude that there are no differences between the three groups. But putting these findings in the context of the other things that we know already about differences in student experiences and success across these three groups (i.e., differences in sense of belonging, retention, and graduation) makes a quick dismissal of the findings much more difficult. And a deeper dive into the data both adds more useful insights to the mess.

The lack of statistical significance seems attributable to two factors. First, the number of students/majors in each category (570 responses from Caucasian students, 70 responses from Hispanic students, and 28 responses from African-American students) makes it a little hard to reach statistical significance. The interesting problem is that, in order to increase the number of Hispanic and Black students we would need to enroll more students in those groups, which might in part happen as a result of improving the quality of those students’ experience. But if we adhere to the statistical significance threshold, we would have to conclude that there is no difference between the three groups and would then be less likely to take the steps that might help us improve the experience, which would in turn improve the likelihood of enrolling more students in these two groups and ultimately get us to the place where a quantitative analysis would find statistical significance.

The other factor that seems to be getting in the way is that the standard deviations among Hispanic and African-American students is unusually large. In essence, this means that their responses (and therefore their experiences) are much more widely dispersed across the range of response options, while the responses from white students are more closely packed around the average score.

So we have a small number of non-white students relative to the number of white students and the range of experiences for Hispanic or African-American students seem unusually varied. Both of these finds make it even harder to conclude that “there’s nothing to see here.”

Just in case, I checked to see if the distribution of majors among each group differed. They did not. I also checked to see if there were any other strange differences between these student groups that might somehow affect these data. Although average incoming test score, the proportion of first-generation status, and the proportion of Pell Grant qualifiers differed, these differences weren’t stark enough to explain all of the variation in the table.

So the challenge I’m struggling with in this case of messy data is this:

We know that non-Caucasian students on average indicate a lower sense of belonging than their Caucasian peers. We know that our retention and graduation rates of non-white students are consistently lower than white students. We also know that absolute differences between two groups of .20-.30 are often statistically significant if the number of cases in each group is closer in size and if the standard deviation (aka dispersion) is in an expected range.

As a result, I can’t help thinking that just because a particular analytic finding doesn’t meet the threshold for statistical significance doesn’t necessarily mean that we should discard it outright. At the same time, I’m not comfortable arguing that these findings are rock solid.

In cases like these, one way to inform the inquiry is to look for other data sources with which we might triangulate our findings. So I ask all of you, do any of these findings match with anything you’ve observed or heard from students?

Make it a good day,

Mark

Can I ask a delicate question?

Since this is a crazy week for everyone, I’m going to try to post something that you can contemplate when you get the chance to relax your heart rate and breathe. I hope that you will give me the benefit of the doubt when you read this post, because I can imagine this question might be a delicate one and I raise it because I suspect it might help us more authentically and more honestly navigate through some obviously choppy waters as we make some key decisions about our new semester design.

Sometimes, when we advocate for the value of double majors and similar, or even improved, access to double majors in the new semester system, it seems like the rationale for this argument is grounded in the belief that double-majoring is advantageous for Augustana graduates and, as a corollary, relatively easy access to a double-major is helpful in recruiting strong prospective students. In other instances, it sounds as if we advocate for ease of access to double-majoring because we are afraid that programs with smaller numbers of majors will not survive if we build a system that produces fewer double majors.

Without question, both rationales come from the best of places. Doing all that we can for the sake of our student’s potential future success or the possibility of attracting a stronger and larger pool of future students seems utterly reasonable. Likewise, ensuring the health of all current academic departments, especially those that currently enjoy a smaller number of majors, and therefore ensuring the employment stability of all current faculty, is also utterly reasonable.

Yet I wonder if our endeavor to design the best possible semester system would benefit from parsing these concerns more clearly, examining them as distinct issues, and addressing them separately as we proceed. Because it seems to me that prioritizing double-majoring because it benefits post-graduate success, prioritizing double-majoring because it improves recruiting, and prioritizing double-majoring because it ensures employment stability for faculty is not the same as more directly identifying the factors that maximize our students’ post-graduate success, optimizing our offerings (and the way we communicate them) to maximize our recruiting efforts, and designing a system that maintains employment stability and quality for all of our current faculty members. The first approach asserts a causal relationship and seems to narrow our attention toward a single means to an end. The second approach focuses our attention on a goal while broadening the potential ways by which we might achieve it.

Certainly we can empirically test the degree to which double-majoring increases our student’s post-graduate success or whether a double-major friendly system strengthens our efforts to recruit strong students. We could triangulate our findings with other research on the impact of double-majoring on either post-graduate success or prospective student recruiting and design a system that situates double-majoring to hit that sweet spot for graduates and prospective students.

Likewise, we could (and I would argue, should) design a new semester system that ensures gratifying future employment for all current faculty (as opposed to asking someone with one set of expertise and interests to spend all of their time doing something that has little to do with that expertise and interest). However, it seems to me that we might be missing something important if we assume, or assert, that we are not likely to achieve that goal of employment stability if we do not maintain historically similar proportions of double-majors distributed in historically similar ways.

Those of you who have explored the concept of design thinking know that one of its key elements is an openness to genuinely consider the widest possible range of options before beginning the process of narrowing toward a final product or concept. At Augustana we are trying to build something new, and we are trying to do it in ways that very few institutions have done before. Moreover, we aren’t building it from an infinite array of puzzle pieces; we are building it with the puzzle pieces that we already have. So it seems that we ought not box ourselves prematurely. Instead, we might genuinely help ourselves by opening our collective scope to every possibility that 1) gives our students the best chance for success, 2) gives us the best chance to recruit future students, AND 3) uses every current faculty member’s strengths to accomplish our mission in a new semester system.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I am NOT arguing against double-majors (on the contrary, I am intrigued by the idea). I’m only suggesting that, especially as we start to tackle complicated issues that tie into very real and human worries about the future, we are probably best positioned to succeed, both in process and in final product, to the degree that we directly address the genuine and legitimate concerns that keep us up at night. We are only as good as our people and our relationships with each other. I know we are capable of taking all of this into account as we proceed into the spring. I hope every one of you take some time to relax and enjoy the break between terms so that you can start the spring refreshed and fully able to tackle the complex decisions that we have before us.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Time to break out the nerves of steel

When I used to coach soccer, other coaches and I would sarcastically say that if you want to improve team chemistry, start winning. Of course we knew that petty disagreements and personal annoyances didn’t vanish just because your team got on a winning streak. But it was amazing to see how quickly those issues faded into the shadows when a team found themselves basking in a winner’s glow. Conversely, when that glow faded it was equally amazing to see how normally small things could almost instantaneously mushroom into team-wide drama that would suck the life out of the locker room.

Even though one might think that in order to win again we just needed to practice harder or find a little bit of luck, almost always the best way to get back to winning was to get the team chemistry right first. That meant deliberately refocusing everyone on being the best of teammates, despite the steamy magma of hot emotion that might be bubbling up on the inside. In the end, it always became about the choice to be the best of who we aspired to be while staring into the pale, heartless eyes of the persons we could so easily become.

You might think that I’m going to launch into a speech about American values, immigration, and refugees. But actually I’m thinking about the choices that face all of us at Augustana College as we start to sort through the more complicated parts of the design process in our conversion to semesters. Like a lot of complex organisms, a functioning educational environment (especially one that includes a residential component) is much more than a list of elements prioritized from most to least important. Instead, a functioning educational environment – especially one that maximizes its impact – is an ecosystem that thrives because of the relationships between elements rather than the elements themselves. It is the combination of relationships that maintain balance throughout the organism and give it the ability to adapt, survive, adjust, recover, and thrive. If one element dominates the organism, the rest of the elements will eventually die off, ultimately taking that dominant element down with them. But if all the elements foster a robust set of relationships that hold the whole thing together, the organism really does become greater than the sum of its parts.

Likewise, we are designing a new organism that is devoted to exceptional student learning and growth. Moreover, we have to design this organism so that each of the elements can thrive while gaining strength from (and giving strength to) each other. We give ourselves the best chance of getting it right if we keep the image of an ecosystem fresh in our minds and strive to design an ecosystem in which all of the relationships between elements perpetuate resilience and energy.

But in order to collaboratively build something so complex, we have to be transparent and choose to trust. And this is where we need to break out the nerves of steel. Because we all feel the pressure, the anxiety, the unknown, and the fear of that unknown. The danger, of course, is that in the midst of that pressure it would be easy, even human, to grab on to one element that represents certainty in the near-term and lose sight of 1) the relationships that sustain any given element (including the one you might currently be squeezing the air out of), and 2) the critical role of all of those relationships in sustaining the entire organism.

As we embark toward the most challenging parts of this semester conversion design, I hope we can find a way, especially when we feel the enormity of it all bearing down on us, to embody transparency and choose to trust. That will mean willingly deconstructing our deepest concerns, facing them openly, and straight-forwardly solving them together.

Think about where we were a year ago and where we are now. We’ve done a lot of impressive work that can’t be understated. (Based on the phone calls I’ve received from other institutions asking us how we are navigating the conversion to semesters, we might just be the golden child of organizational functionality!). Now, as the more complex challenges emerge and the pressure mounts, let’s remember what got us here, what will get us through this stretch of challenging decisions, and what will get us safely to the other side.

Make it a good day,

Mark

What experiences most effectively improve our students’ intercultural competence?

Looking back, we must have been a little bit clairvoyant to start a four-year study like this in 2012. After all, how else does one explain the serendipity of having such robust data on our students’ intercultural competence growth precisely when current events on campus and across the country seem to epitomize our societal need for more substantive intercultural skills?

On Friday afternoon, I presented the second of three Friday Conversations focused on our examination of the four-year study of our students that concluded in the spring of 2016. If you missed the first presentation, you can see the power point slides and get a sense of our conversation in the subsequent Delicious Ambiguity post from last fall. In essence, last fall we focused only on the nature of our students’ change and how it might differ across various types of students.

Last week, I shared what variables we had found seem to correlate, and might therefore predict, the change that we see in our students. Again, if you missed it, you can click on the following hyperlinks to see the power point slides and look over the final table of regression results.

In essence, what we found mirrors what researchers who examine the impact of college experiences on student learning outcomes consistently find. Mere participation in various experiences isn’t enough. Instead, it is the nature of what happens within those experiences, and the degree to which those experiences are designed to address specific learning goals, that matters most. In this case, the degree to which students’ out-of-class experiences helped them develop a deeper understanding of how to interact with someone who might disagree with them turned out to be the largest and most pervasive factor in driving our students’ intercultural competence growth. Importantly, when we accounted for participation in specific experiences and accounted for the quality of those experience (i.e., what happened within those experiences), whether or not the student participated in a particular experience didn’t matter.  Instead, almost every bit of our findings pointed toward the nature of their experience across their college career.

Take the time to scroll through the linked slides and scan the final table of results above. I think you’ll see that there are clearly ways that we can implement educational design elements across a variety of experiences that will improve our students’ intercultural competence growth.

At our third Friday Conversation focused on this topic (April 7th), we will tackle the biggest challenge: what changes are we willing to implement based on our findings that should help us improve what we do? It’s all well and good to stroke our chins and puzzle over the data. But the mark of a great college is the willingness and ability to jump in, make a change, and commit to it. I hope you’ll join us in April. In the meantime, if you have questions about the findings, the study, or the implications we’ve noticed, don’t hesitate to post them below.

Make it a good day,

Mark

“We all want to belong, yeah …”

I just watched a wonderful TEDx talk by Terrell Strayhorn, Professor of Higher Education at (the) Ohio State University, called “Inalienable Rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Belonging.” With enviable ease, Dr. Strayhorn walks his audience through the various factors that impede college persistence and demonstrates why a sense of belonging is so important for student success. He concludes his talk with his remarkably smooth singing voice, crooning, “We all want to belong, yeah . . .”

If you’ve been following my blog over the last year you’ve seen me return to our student data that reveals troubling differences in sense of belonging on campus across various racial and ethnic groups. The growing body of research on belongingness and social identity theory continues to demonstrate that the factors that shape a sense of belonging are extensive. While these complicated findings might gratify the social scientist in me, the optimistic activist part of me has continued to beg for more concrete solutions; things that individuals within a community can do right away to strengthen a sense of membership for anyone in the group who might not be so sure that they belong.

So here are a couple of ideas that poured some of the best kind of fuel onto my fire over the weekend: Micro-Kindness and Micro-Affirmations. Both terms refer to a wonderfully simple yet powerful idea. In essence, both concepts recognize that we live in an imperfect world rife with imperfect interactions and, if we want the community in which we exist to be better than it is (no matter how good or bad it is at present), then individual members of that community have to take action to change it. Applied to the ongoing discussion of microaggressions and their potential impact on individuals within a community (particularly those from traditionally marginalized groups), both ideas assert that there are things that we can do to emphasize to others that we welcome them into our community and reduce the existence of microaggressions. These actions can be as simple as opening a door for someone and smiling at them, making eye contact and saying hello, or engaging in brief but inclusive conversation. Instructors can have a powerful micro-affirmative impact by taking the time to tell a student who might be hesitant or struggling that you know that he or she can succeed in your class.

Researchers at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA have found that validating experiences, much like the micro-kindnesses and micro-affirmations described above, appear to have a significant impact in reducing perceptions of discrimination and bias. In fact, after accounting for the negative impact of discrimination and bias on a sense of belonging, interpersonal validations generated by far the largest positive effect on a sense of belonging.

Research on the biggest mistakes that people can make in trying to change behavior has found that trying to eliminate bad behaviors is much less effective than instituting new behaviors. Since individuals often perceive microaggressions to come in situations where a slight was not intended, eradicating everything that might be perceived as a slight or snub seems almost impossible. But if each of us were to make the effort to enact a micro-kindness or a micro-affirmation several times each day, we might set in motion a change in which we

  1. substantially improve upon the community norms within which microaggressions might occur, and
  2. significantly increase a sense a belonging among those most likely to feel like outsiders.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Rethinking our “competition” for future students

Welcome back! I hope you found a way to carve out at least a few moments of relaxation and rejuvenation during the holiday break. Of course, the phrase “holiday break” doesn’t mean nearly the same thing for everyone, especially this time of year. For example, the folks in admissions are in the midst of working their tails off. Nowadays, the mayhem of recruiting high school students to a private liberal arts college doesn’t take a holiday, ever.

Over the last few years, we’ve learned a lot about the nature of our “competition” for prospective students. Not so long ago, many of us might have assumed that a high school senior considering Augustana College would therefore have already limited their list of potential colleges to a set of small liberal arts colleges, mostly located in the Midwest. Several decades ago this assumption was almost always correct. However, these days we know that the majority of prospective students who consider Augustana tend to look hardest at Midwestern public or larger urban private institutions as they narrow toward their final choice, not other small liberal arts colleges. This knowledge has clearly helped us make a more convincing case for choosing Augustana College, since knowing which institutions we are competing against helps us make our case more precisely and concretely.

Over the last few years, we’ve heard rumblings about other looming competitors, mostly in the form of online colleges or MOOCs (massive open online courses). Fortunately, most of those up-and-comers have blown themselves up on their own launch pads. But the underlying assumptions that justify the continued quest to build similar launch pads might be the real “competition” that we need to understand most of all.

During the holiday break I stumbled upon an opinion piece that lays bare those assumptions in a way that is as explicit as it is cocky. Neil Patel, a bigwig in the online start-up and entrepreneur world (exemplifying his marketing chops with the hyperbolic clickbait headline “My Biggest Regret in Life: Going to College”) asserts that going to college was a waste of time and money because it didn’t teach him any of the things he needed to learn in order to succeed as an entrepreneur. He argues that his college classes were little more than instances of learning isolated facts, theories, and concepts solely to regurgitate them on a test or in a paper before the end of that academic term (sort of the academic equivalent of “lather, rinse, repeat”). He argues that the entire exercise fails an ROI (return on investment) analysis because he could have learned much more useful information, grown in more substantive ways, and ultimately made more money by diving into the real world right out of high school.

I am not sharing this article to suggest that Patel is right, although my own experience at big public universities as both a student and as an employee doesn’t do much to squash his argument. Rather, I share this article to lay bare the nature of our real competition. Because whether it is less expensive public institutions (2-year or 4-year schools), online institutions, some combination of MOOCs and competency-based education, or merely the simplification of a college choice to the largest financial aid package, in most cases our real competition isn’t other institutions. Instead, it is embedded in a series of assumptions that set up an entirely reasonable conclusion . . . IF those assumptions are, or appear to be, true. The logic stream goes something like this:

  1. College is primarily composed of a series of discrete experiences (AKA classes) that require regurgitating information that has been recently memorized.
  2. The information that is to be regurgitated exists in isolation (AKA is rarely transferable to other college experiences or to life after college).
  3. Accumulating completion approval (AKA at least a passing grade) for set number of classes across a set of categories earns a credential of completion (AKA a bachelor’s degree).
  4. Therefore, find the least expensive way to ensure a reasonable likelihood that one earns this credential.

The hardest part of facing the real world implications of this rationale is that we aren’t talking about our truth. We are talking about prospective students’ truth – the conclusions they draw as they take in what we tell them online, in print, and in person. This is the “truth” that drives real behavior. So as much as we might want to passionately argue that college transforms or that students just can’t know how what they learn will be useful until long after they’ve learned it, if the information that prospective students gather as they look at Augustana College doesn’t emphatically dispel the assumptions that undergird the logic stream spelled out above, all of our hot air (hot print, hot pixels, etc.) will likely end up sounding like a lone coyote howling at the moon.

The other hard part of facing this reality is realizing that prospective students apply this logic (fairly or not) in real time. So we help ourselves a whole lot when we show concrete evidence, from the very beginning of our interactions with each prospective student, that the experience we provide is not focused on memorizing and regurgitating information. And we help ourselves even more when we can show concrete evidence that the things students learn in one setting are directly applied during college and after college. Unfortunately, the lens through which prospective students increasingly evaluate potential colleges is not an unbiased lens. Rather, it is pre-tinted with the aforementioned assumptions, making it critical that every student sees in the most explicit and obvious ways that our understanding of a college education blows those pre-existing assumptions to bits.

All this leads to a pretty important question. If someone were to look at any of the documents or webpages that describe a given educational experience at Augustana (a syllabus, a program description, etc.), how would someone holding the assumptions described above respond? Is there a chance that the document or webpage in question would leave those assumptions unchallenged? Worse, would a review of those documents or webpages confirm those assumptions? Or would that document or webpage shatter those assumptions and open the door for a conversation about how an Augustana education might be completely different from anywhere else?

For those of us who aren’t on the front lines of recruiting students every day, this post might seem overblown. For the folks who are slogging it out in the trenches, this post might not seem urgent enough. But it seems pretty clear that these assumptions are driving the way that many prospective students and their parents start the college search process. If we don’t actively shatter those assumptions early and often, we leave ourselves susceptible to ending up on the short end of a flawed ROI argument. And to rub salt into the wound, if we end up on the losing end of this argument, we won’t even get the chance to challenge the flawed nature of their ROI analysis, because by then the prospective student has likely already crossed us off their list.

Sorry for the sobering post to start the new year. But sometimes sobering isn’t such a bad thing. In this case, we have the winning argument and the evidence to back it up. So knowing the nature of the “competition” gives us one more advantage that we ought to use every chance we get.

Make it a good day,

Mark

How do we improve a student’s sense of belonging?

For the last few years we’ve been talking a lot about our students’ “sense of belonging” after seeing some troubling differences between various student types. Although the overall scores might seem pretty good, stark differences between black and white students suggest a disturbing problem. Looking deeper, we found that hispanic male students also indicate a notably lower sense of belonging. We’ve since found indications that low-income students, first generation students, and lesser academically prepared students can exhibit signs of a lower sense of belonging as well.

Although this news has been tough to swallow, I’ve been really proud of the way that our whole community has committed to making Augustana a more inclusive place. This is a critical first step that shouldn’t go unnoticed, since there are lots of examples of places that have responded to this kind of sobering news by sticking their proverbial head in the sand (or snow, as the case may be). But finding answers to this challenge is complicated. None of our students fit into neat little exclusive categories like hispanic or low-income or first-generation or male. Instead, every student possesses some mix of characteristics that, taken together, uniquely affect the way that they experience Augustana. So improving any student’s sense of belonging means that we need to know a lot more about the perceptions that lie beneath this more general malaise.

Last spring several of my students and I decided to see if we could figure out a bit more about those underlying perceptions. Although there are probably lots of ways to tackle this challenge, after digging into the relevant research my student-workers and I decided to build a set of survey items derived from research on a concept called microaggressions. In short, microaggressions are expressions that communicate animus, aversion, or disregard toward someone specifically because of that person’s membership in a marginalized group. They can be verbal or nonverbal and are sometimes intentional and sometimes not. Although there are some legitimate critiques of the applications of the microaggression construct, this taxonomy of microaggressions provided a useful framework that aptly applied to our project. After testing and tweaking these items with a small group of students, we plugged them into the freshman survey that went out at the end of last year’s spring term. Each item was accompanied by five response options ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The final list of survey items were:

  • I can learn anything if I set my mind to it.
  • I have to work harder to fit in at Augustana than most students.
  • People on this campus believe that I am just as capable as everyone else.
  • People on this campus believe that everyone has the same chance of making the most of their college career as long as they work hard.
  • I’ve gotten better at bouncing back after facing disappointment or failure.
  • Augustana students recognize discrimination when it happens on campus.
  • People on this campus seem to feel uneasy or nervous around me.
  • People on this campus do not seem to acknowledge the characteristics that make me different.
  • People at Augustana tend to assume that I come from a different culture.
  • More than once students on campus have made inappropriate comments or demeaning jokes about me or the group to which I belong.
  • Students at Augustana often make assumptions about me based on the way I look and dress.
  • More than once I have felt overlooked when trying to interact with faculty or staff.

Our first clue that we might be on to something came when we tested the correlations between each of these items and sense of belonging. In all but one case (“I can learn anything if I set my mind to it.”), the correlations were statistically significant and in several cases intriguingly large. (For all you stats nerds out there, by “intriguingly large” I mean approximately .3 and .4 or -.3 and -.4 depending on the phrasing of the item). Then, when we ran more elaborate regression equations that took into account race, gender, incoming ACT score, socioeconomic status, and first-generation status, we found that 10 of the 12 hypothesized sense-of-belonging predictors (all of the above items except “I can learn anything if I set my mind to it” and “People at Augustana tend to assume that I come from a different culture”) produced statistically significant results in the direction that we would expect. In other words, most of these items appear to capture some of the perceptions that underlie a reduced sense of belonging and, consequently, might also give us some hints about the ways that we could bolster sense of belonging among students who lack it.

Lastly, we noticed a curious pattern in our regression equations. In 7 of the 12 equations, race (coded as white/non-white) produced a statistically significant effect, and, in all 12 equations socioeconomic status (coded as receiving a Pell grant or not) produced a statistically significant effect. In other words, race and socioeconomic status consistently play a critical role in shaping a student’s sense of belonging even after accounting for each individual predictor above. So we conducted one more set of analyses to identify the items that might be most prominent in shaping sense of belonging for different types of students.

Although I’ll summarize what we found below, I’ve added a link to the full table of results testing differences by gender, race, socioeconomic status, first-generation status, and incoming ACT score (for clarity’s sake we compared the bottom third against the top third of incoming ACT scores). We’ve included the items where the difference between the two groups was statistically significant as well as the two instances where the difference was just a hair above the p=.05 threshold.

In essence, we found that differences on various items appear between groups across all of the pairings that we tested. In many cases, the differences played out as we would expect. Students of color exhibited disadvantaging self-perceptions on numerous items, particularly items addressing the assumptions (be they perceived or real) that others make about them. Students with lower incoming ACT scores also exhibited a number of disadvantaging self-perceptions. Moreover, “I have to work harder to fit in at Augustana than most students” and “People on this campus seem to feel uneasy or nervous around me” produced statistically significant differences across multiple pairings.

Interestingly, some results challenged prior applications of microaggression theory. For example, the differences between men and women clearly suggested that men potentially suffer from several disadvantaging perceptions. Contrary to the prevailing assertion that women would be the ones to exhibit lower self-perceptions, men scored lower on four items, most notably, “People on this campus believe that I am just as capable as everyone else” and “People on this campus believe that everyone has the same chance of making the most of their college career as long as they work hard.” And although students of color scored lower on a host of items than their white counterparts, they did score higher on the item, “I can learn almost anything if I set my mind to it.”

So what are we to do with all of this? Clearly, this analysis seems to suggest some useful hints about the types of students who might be susceptible to a lesser sense of belonging as well as some hints about ways that we could validate their membership in our community. For example, for students who might feel like they have to work harder to fit in, we can take the time to explain that with regard to academics, developing a robust workrate is a vital precursor to a successful life and if a students already finds themselves increasingly working hard, this may well mean that they are further along than many of their peers. Conversely, if their sense of working harder to fit in relates to their social integration, then we might just have carved out an opening to the kind of conversation or referral that could address this concern. I suspect that some reflection on each of the items noted in the full table might generate additional ideas about how to help students who find themselves wondering if they really belong.

One other implication of these findings seems worth noting. Much of the research on microaggressions has argued that evidence of differences in self-perceptions on items like these is likely, or even necessarily, evidence of discriminatory behaviors or beliefs on the part of members of the pairing who scored higher on that item. In some cases, maybe. But it seems that the pervasiveness of differences that we found across all of these pairings suggests that the factors contributing to a lack of belonging can’t be solely attributed to verbal and nonverbal, intentional and inadvertent slights, snubs, or insults. It’s likely much more complicated than that. It seems to me that this taxonomy of microaggressions is more useful in guiding the way that we might build up someone’s sagging sense of belonging than it is in forcing an interaction to be perpetually framed within the confines of a target/victim label. Intent is a dicey thing to presume, and although we certainly want to help our students understand the implications of their words, arguing about the intentions of another seems likely to become an unresolveable errand after which there is little chance of learning the greater lesson.

As educators, we are always striving for two simultaneous results:

  • to foster an ideal learning environment in the present, and
  • to prepare our students to succeed no matter what life throws at them in the future.

While we absolutely want every student to feel a similarly robust sense of belonging, and while we certainly want every student to feel a similarly minimal set of inferiorities and anxieties, I wonder whether we could ever achieve an ideal learning environment without moments of interactive difficulty that spawn feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty. In the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, we saw that institutions where students’ intercultural skills grew the most also reported higher frequencies of positive and negative diverse interactions. Certainly we will always need to teach students to think carefully about the import of their words, but I hope we can remember to balance our efforts to support our students in the midst of their hurt or offense with equal efforts to push, prod, and persuade our students to grow in the presence of difficulty. It would be in those moments that, when we support and challenge, we will most fully accomplish our educational mission.

Make it a good day . . . and a good holiday break,

Mark