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,


What’s the Problem We’re Trying to Address?

If you’ve had to sit through more than one meeting with me, you’ve almost certainly heard me ask this question. Even though I can see how the question might sound rhetorical and maybe even a little snarky, I’m really just trying to help. Because I know from my own experience how easy it is to get lost in the weeds when trying to tackle a complex issue that is full of dicey trade-offs and unknown unknowns. So sometimes I’ve found that it can be useful to pause, take a couple of deep breaths and refocus on the problem at the core of the conversation.

By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the discussion about transitioning from an academic calendar based on trimesters to one based on semesters. Last week, Faculty Council provided a draft proposal to the faculty to be discussed, vetted, and even adjusted as legitimate concerns are identified by the community. Since I’ve already seen a calendar discussion sap us of most of our energy twice (or once if you count the two-year discussion a few years back as a single event), I hope that this time we can find a way to get through this without quite so much emotional fallout.

With that in mind, after listening to the calendar conversation for the last few months I thought it might be helpful to revisit the question at the top of this post:

What’s the problem we’re trying to address?

It is true, in one very real sense, that there is not a single answer. In fact the “problem” looks different depending upon where you sit. But since the topic of semesters was formally put back onto the front burner by the senior administration and the Board of Trustees, it’s probably useful to understand the problem as they see it. From their perspective, the problem we are facing is actually a pretty straight-forward one. In a nutshell we, like a lot of colleges and universities these days, have a balance sheet problem. In other words, we are having an increasingly difficult time ensuring that our revenues keep pace with our expenses (or put differently, that our expenses don’t outpace our revenues).

The reasons for this problem have been presented countless times, so I’ll try not to dive down that rabbit-hole too far again. But suffice it to say that since American family incomes have been stagnant for a long time, each year that our costs go up we lose a few more prospective families that might otherwise be willing to pay what we charge. Combine that with a shrinking population of high school graduates in the Midwest overall, and you can imagine how it gets harder and harder to come up with the increased revenue necessary to pay for inescapable increases in expenses like electricity, gas, and water, not to mention reasonable salary raises, building and sidewalk repairs, and replacements of worn out equipment.

The possible solutions to a straight-forward balance sheet problem like ours are also relatively straight-forward. If we decide to think of it primarily as insufficient revenue, then we would likely choose a way to increase revenue (e.g., enroll more students, add graduate programs, start online programs . . . each of the examples in this category are perceived by many as a potential threat to our philosophical core). If we decide to think of this problem primarily as excessive expenses, then we would likely choose a way to reduce expenses (e.g., make the college demonstrably smaller, eliminate Augie Choice . . . the only examples in this category that I can think of are pretty depressing). If we don’t see plausible options to increase revenues or reduce expenses, then the only other possibility is to find ways to become more efficient (i.e., achieve similar results from smaller expenditures). Of course, we could concoct some combination of all three approaches.

From the administration’s perspective, the possibility of moving to a semester-based academic calendar addresses the balance sheet problem by giving the college access to an expanded set of opportunities for increased efficiency (i.e., achieving similar results from smaller expenditures). Some of those efficiencies are more self-evident, such as reducing the number of times we power up and power down specific buildings. Some of them are more abstract, such as reducing the number of times we conduct a large-scale process like registration. But the central problem that the semester idea attempts to address is an issue of imbalance between revenues and expenses.

Although some have suggested otherwise, the semester idea is not primarily intended to improve retention rates or increase the number of mid-year transfer students. It is possible that a semester calendar might be more conducive to retaining students who struggle initially or attracting transfer students just after the Christmas break. But there are plenty of similar institutions on semester calendars with lower retention rates and fewer transfer student. Of course, that doesn’t disprove anything either; it just demonstrates that a move to semesters doesn’t guarantee anything. Increases in retention and mid-year transfers will happen (if they happen at all) as a result of what we do within a new calendar, not because we move to a new calendar.

I truly don’t have a strong opinion on the question of calendar. Both trimesters and semesters can be done well and can be done badly. This is why Faculty Council and others have thought long and hard about how to construct a semester system that maintains our commitment to an integrated liberal arts education and delivers it in a way that allows faculty to do it well. Nonetheless, I think it is useful to remind ourselves why we are having this conversation and the nature of the problem we are trying to address. If you think that we should address our balance sheet issues by expanding revenue sources or by reducing expenses, then by all means say so. If you don’t think a balance sheet problem exists, then by all means say so. But let’s make sure we understand the nature of the problem we are trying to address. At the least, this will help us have a more transparent conversation that leaves us in a healthier place at the end, no matter what we decide to do.

And one more thing. Let’s not equate “increasing efficiency” with “doing more with less.” Increasing efficiency is doing differently with the same resources in a way that is more effective. If we are in fact continually doing more with less, in the long term we’re doing it wrong.

Make it a good day,



Some Myths Just Won’t Die

I’ve recently heard more than a few folks suggest that the number of administrators at Augustana College is going up at the expense of faculty positions. This seems to be a particularly popular hypothesis, one that has been around at both the national level and on our campus for a long time. I’ve tested this assertion with our local data several years ago and, to be fair, it’s worth retesting hypotheses every once in a while to make sure that previous findings, and more importantly previous conclusions, still hold true.

Below I’ve laid out a table of our own Augustana data over the last ten years that includes instructional faculty numbers, non-instructional staff numbers, student enrollment, and ratios that give some sense of the relationships between a variety of combinations. Please note that the first column is the academic year 2014-15; data moves back in the time from left to right.

2014-15 2013-14 2012-13 2011-12 2010-11 2009-10 2008-09 2007-08 2006-07 2005-06
Tenured Professors 114 102 98 104 102 94 90 102 90 94
Tenure Track Professors 33 42 52 51 62 64 55 35 46 41
Total Tenure and Tenure-Track 147 144 150 155 164 158 145 137 136 135
Full-Time Instructors Off the Tenure Track 50 44 36 27 20 16 35 36 28 14
Proportion of Full-Time Instruction Workforce Off the Tenure Track 25.4 23.4 19.4 14.8 10.9 9.2 19.4 20.8 17.1 9.4
Academic Administration/Salaried Operations Administration * 153 135 171 158 172 183 172 167 159
Hourly Employees * 170 178 158 158 171 197 190 192 190
Total Full-Time Non-Instructional Employees * 323 313 329 316 343 380 362 359 349
Student Enrollment FTE 2483 2514 2538 2506 2529 2455 2531 2516 2450 2371
Ratio of Non-Instructional Employees to Full-Time Instructors * 1.7 1.7 1.8 1.7 2.0 2.1 2.1 2.2 2.3
Ratio of “Administrators” to Full-Time Instructors * 0.8 0.7 0.9 0.9 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.1
Ratio of “Administrators” to Total Tenure/Tenure Track Faculty * 1.1 0.9 1.1 1.0 1.1 1.3 1.3 1.2 1.2
Ratio of Students to Full-Time Instructors 12.6 13.4 13.6 13.8 13.7 14.1 14.1 14.5 14.9 15.9
Ratio of Students to Non-Instructional Employees * 7.8 8.1 7.6 8.0 7.2 6.7 7.0 6.8 6.8
Ratio of Students to “Administrators” * 16.4 18.8 14.7 16.0 14.3 13.8 14.6 14.7 14.9
*not reported to IPEDS until April, 2015

First, while the number of tenured professors has gone up and the number of tenure-track professors has gone down over the last ten years, the total number of traditional faculty (i.e., faculty within the tenure system) has gone up 9%. Moreover, the overall number of full-time instructional faculty has increased over the last ten years by 32%. (Although it’s a somewhat separate issue for a separate post, I couldn’t help but note the increase in the proportion of our full-time instructional workforce that is not a part of the tenure system.)

Second, the number of administrators and the number of hourly employees has dropped over the last ten years, from 159 to 153 and from 190 to 170, respectively. This change strikes me as particularly interesting given the increase in student enrollment over the same period, especially for the hourly employees who often are on the front lines of serving students’ non-academic needs.

Finally, I’ve included six lines of ratios that put these relationships between numbers of faculty, administrators, staff, and students into context over the past ten years. As you can see, there are now fewer non-instructional employees for every full-time instructor, fewer administrators for every full-time instructor, and fewer administrators for every tenured or tenure track faculty member. Moreover, even though the total number of students has increased, the number of students per instructor has dropped while the number of students per non-instructional employee and number of students per administrator has gone up.

So no matter how you slice it, asserting that the total number of administrators has gone up while the total number of faculty has gone down is, well, hogwash. Even in the context of the relationships between administrators and faculty, administrators and students, or faculty and students, this assertion is, well, hogwash. Nationally this assertion might hold some water, but at Augustana College . . . it just ain’t so.

Certainly, within those big-picture numbers there are lots of positions that have been moved from one office to another or faculty lines that have been moved from one department to another. You might not agree with one or more of those moves, but that sounds to me like a separate issue entirely – one worth a robust discussion no doubt, but a separate issue nonetheless.

Make it a good day,


Work hard, party hard!

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a series of articles and commentaries on the discomforting relationship between colleges and alcohol. Not surprisingly, they began the first article (“A River of Booze“) with the stereotypical “beer and circus” images of a large flagship university. Although much of what I read reminded me of the struggles I observed during my time at the University of Iowa, our residence life staff reminded me that many of the student justifications for drinking noted in these articles sound just like comments made by our own Augustana students.

So instead of writing something myself, this week I’m just going to refer you to this series of articles in the Chronicle. I’ve inserted the link to the opening piece above, and I’ve added another that digs into the challenges that colleges and universities have faced in trying to address dangerous drinking behaviors here.

Although we might be a small college, we struggle with many of the same issues noted by the Chronicle reporters. I hope you’ll find some time to read some of these articles and find out more about our own students’ alcohol-related behaviors. Like a lot of things, we will only succeed in addressing these issues to the degree that we tackle them together.

Make it a good day,


Week 10 + Halloween + Slicing Data = Disengaged Zombie Students!

I suspect that the confluence of Week 10 and Halloween brings out a little crazy in each of us.  So I thought I’d share a brief response that I prepared for a recent media request regarding the potential existence of one underserved student population on our campus.

From our senior survey data, we find that students who self-report as Zombies also report statistically significantly lower levels of engagement across a wide range of important student experiences. These differences include lower levels of participation in class discussion despite higher satisfaction with faculty feedback.

Zombie students also report lower levels of co-curricular influence on understanding how one relates to others. Further qualitative study suggests a broad lack of self-awareness.

In addition, Zombie students indicate that they have fewer serious conversations with students who differ by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or social values.  Instead, Zombie students seem to congregate together and rarely reach out of their comfort zone.

Interestingly, our first-to-second year retention rate of student zombies is 100%, despite the high number of PUGS and CARE reports.  Yet our six year graduation rate is 0%. While some have expressed concern over this dismal data point, a few administrators who are closely involved in managing the graduation ceremony have suggested that the graduation ceremony is long enough already without having Zombie students shuffling aimlessly across the stage to get their diploma.

Interestingly, Zombie students report an increased level of one-on-one student/faculty interaction outside of class.  We find no evidence to suggest that this correlates in any way with the substantial drop in the number of part-time and adjunct faculty from last year (108) to this year (52).

Happy Halloween and have a wonderful Week 10.

Make it a good day,


In Search of the Mysterious Muddler

On several recent occasions I have heard it said that about 25% of our students aren’t involved in anything on campus.  I am always intrigued by the way that some assertions or beliefs evolve into facts on a college campus, and this number seemed ripe for investigating.   Researchers into human behavior have found this phenomenon repeatedly and suggest that, because we want to believe our own intuition to be true, we tend to perk up at data points or anecdotes that support our beliefs.  We’ve all fallen prey to this temptation at least once – at least I have.  So I thought it might be worth testing this claim just to see if it holds up under the glare of our actual survey data.

First – to be fair, this claim isn’t totally crazy.  I can think of a particular data point that clearly nods in the direction of the 25% uninvolved claim.  For a few years, we’ve tracked the proportion of seniors who don’t use their Augie Choice money, and – although the number is steadily declining – over the last few years an average of about 25% have foregone those funds.  Others have suggested that every year we have a group of somewhere between 600 and 800 students (henceforth called “the muddlers”) who aren’t involved in anything co-curricular; athletics, music groups, or student clubs and organizations.  More ominously, some have suggested that there is a sub-population of students who are only involved in Greek organizations and that these students help to create an environment that isn’t conducive with our efforts to make Augustana a rigorous learning experience. (All of that is a wordy euphemism for “these lazy bums party too much.”).

Although the question of what should count as true involvement is a legitimate one, the question of simple participation is an empirical question that we can test.  So we looked at two sets of data – our 2013 senior survey data and our 2013 freshmen survey data – to see what proportion of students report not being involved in anything co-curricular. No athletics, no music, and no student clubs or organizations.  Then we added the question of Greek membership just to see if the aforementioned contingent of deadbeats really does exist in numbers large enough to foment demonstrable mayhem. (another wordy euphemism for “be loud and break stuff.”).

Well, I’ve got bad news for the muddlers.  Your numbers aren’t looking so hot.  From the students who graduated last spring, only 17 out of 495 said that they didn’t participate in anything (athletics, music, student groups, or Greeks).  When we took the Greek question out of the equation we only gained 5 students, ultimately finding that only about 5% (23/495) of our graduating seniors said that they didn’t participate in athletics, music, or some student group.

But what about the freshmen?  After all, the seniors are the ones who have stayed for four years.  If involvement is the magic ingredient for retention that some think it is, then we should expect this proportion to be quite a bit bigger in the freshman class.

Alas, though our muddler group appears a little bigger in the first year, it sure doesn’t approach the 25% narrative.  After eliminating freshmen who participated in athletics, music, a student group, and a Greek organization, we were left with only 15 out of 263 first year students who responded to our survey.  When we left out Greek membership, we only gained 4 students, increasing the number to 19 out of 263 (7%).  Now it’s fair to suggest that there is a limitation to this data in that we got responses from only about 45% of the freshman class.  However, even after calculating the confidence intervals (the “+/-“) in order to generalize with 95% confidence to the entire freshman class, we still end up with range in proportion of students not involved in anything co-curricular somewhere between 4 and 9 percent.

There are two other possible considerations regarding the muddler mystery.  One possibility is that there are indeed more than we know because the non-participant would also be more likely to not fill out the freshman survey.  On the other hand – as some of our faculty have observed, it’s possible that our muddlers are also the students who study more seriously; just the kind of students faculty often dream of teaching.

My reason for writing this post is NOT to suggest that we don’t have some students who need to be more involved in something outside of their classes.  We certainly have those students, and if it is almost 10% of our freshman class (as the upper bound of the confidence interval suggests), then we clearly have work to do.  Rather, it seems to me that this is another reason to think more carefully about the nature of involvement’s impact on students.  Because it appears that the students who depart after the first year are not merely uninvolved recluses (again, the limitations of the sample requires that I suggest caution in jumping to too certain a conclusion).  It seems to me that this evidence is another reason to think about involvement as a means to other outcomes that are central to our educational mission instead of an end in and of itself.

Make it a good day,




Do student’s GPA suffer when they take more classes?

One claim (given as advice) that I’ve heard ever since I was a plump, pimple-faced college freshman is that taking a heavier academic load in a given term (no matter the calendar) increases the likelihood that one’s grades will suffer.  It seems intuitive:

more classes (and thus more homework) / the same number of hours in a week =          less study time to allocate to each class and therefore potentially lower grades

At Augustana we are understandably sympathetic to this concern because of the degree to which we often try to pack an extensive amount of learning into our shortened academic terms while maintaining the comparatively higher number of hours in class that we require for a credit hour.  Many of us can weave a harrowing tale of students’ swamped by the academic requirements of a four-course term, but it would be wise to wonder whether our individual anecdotes actually represent the experiences of most students.  So a few weeks ago, we decided to empirically examine this wide-spread belief.  Since this concern is often raised by faculty and administrators when discussing the merits of potential policy changes, this hypothesis seems a compelling argument to test.

So we examined our students’ term-by-term GPAs over the last three years (nine terms from the fall of 2009 to the spring of 2012), comparing the GPAs of students who attempted between 8 and 11 credits – less than four three-credit courses – with the GPAs of students who attempted 12 or more credits – four three-credit courses or more.  Moreover, we conducted this analysis in two stages.  In the first analysis we only tested whether the number of credits attempted significantly impacted students’ end-of-term GPA.  In our second analysis, we accounted for two potentially confounding factors: (1) a student’s pre-college academic ability, and (2) a student’s year in school, to make sure that any statistically significant effect we might find wasn’t a function of another plausible explanation.

Our first set of analyses surprised us.  Because we thought we’d find one of two possible outcomes – either the reigning hypothesis would hold true or we would find no significant difference between the two groups.  So we were pretty shocked when we found that in every academic term from fall of 2009 through spring of 2012, students who attempted 12 or more credits, on average, earned a HIGHER GPA (between .05 and .12 points) than those who attempted 8-11 credits.  Huh?

In the second stage of our analyses, we held constant students’ incoming ACT score and year in school.  At this point, I was sure that we’d end up with insignificant findings.  Instead, the finding from our first analyses held throughout.  Not only do students who are taking a heavier load not suffer in terms of a lower GPA for that term, but their GPAs (no matter the year in school or their incoming academic ability) were marginally higher.  Huh.

So what does this mean?  Certainly, the obligations of a heavier credit load can adversely affect a student’s stress level or sleep patterns even if they don’t necessarily impact grades.  And unfortunately, the only data we have readily accessible is term-by-term GPA and term-by term-credits attempted.  In addition, the findings might be different if we looked at each student’s term-by-term GPAs longitudinally instead of comparing all students cross-sectionally across a given term.  However, students must pay overage fees to take more than 33 credits a year, so the chances of a substantial portion of students consistently taking 12 or more credits, earning strong grades, and compromising this finding is pretty low.  In the end it seems that a heavier credit load doesn’t impact students’ grades in the way that we might have thought.

I wonder if this finding exemplifies a disconnect between the way that we tend to think students engage college and the way that they actually manage their college experience.  For years we have lamented the difference between the amount of time we think that our students should study and the amount of time our survey data suggests that they actually study.  Yet these same students graduate with an average GPA of 3.3, an increasing number of them graduate with honors, and many of them go on to successful, challenging professional lives.  And lest some might want to resurrect the allegation that this is further evidence of the corrosive effects of grade inflation, (1) we have multiple sources of evidence that suggest our students make more than respectable gains on various learning outcomes, and (2) we tested the grade inflation claim last year and found it to be explained by increases in our students’ incoming ACT scores over the past two decades.

I wonder if this is an indication that students are more capable of prioritizing their time and effort than we might give them credit sometimes.  And while I’m not suggesting that this finding should be used to require that they take a heavier academic load every term, I wonder if we might take our feet off of the academic gas pedal a little too easily sometimes – which is easy to do in the face of a roomful of scowling students to whom you have just assigned an additional assignment.  One student experience measured in the Wabash National Study that was particularly predictive of learning gains was the degree to which students were challenged to work harder than they thought they could to meet their instructor’s expectations.  Our finding regarding grades and course load suggests a similar result.  If we push our students, they might surprise us.

Make it a good day,



How Greek Membership Shapes Our Students’ Experience

Listening to some faculty talk, you’d think that fraternities and sororities at Augustana are a deadly concoction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Mardi Gras, Las Vegas, and Carnival, whipped up in a blender and chugged through a fire hose from a second story beer bong.   Yet, we all know of greek organizations – at Augustana and elsewhere – that make important contributions to the local community and the development of their members.  Thankfully, we don’t have to settle for dueling anecdotes.  We have plenty of data on students in Augustana’s greek organizations that allow us to test this clash of narratives.  So, since I’m on a bit of a mythbuster’s kick lately . . . let’s see what we can find out.

When the entering class of 2008 arrived at Augustana, little did they know that they would be studied like no class before.  They provided data three times as a part of the Wabash National Study (beginning of freshman year, end of freshman year, and end of senior year).  They were also the first class to complete the new senior survey in the spring of 2012.

From the data gathered at the end of the freshmen year (spring, 2009), we found one set of troubling results among first year greek members.  Freshmen who joined greek organizations reported larger increases than their independent (non-greek member) peers on three items during the first year.

  • The number of times in a week that they drank alcohol
  • The number of times in a week that they had five or more alcoholic drinks
  • The number of days in the week that they felt sleep deprived

In addition, greek members, on average, earned a lower spring GPA – even after accounting for students’ incoming ACT score and academic motivation.  Unsurprisingly, being male exacerbated each of these differences, while being female minimized them.  Interestingly, despite these potentially negative effects, greek membership did not decrease the likelihood of retention, probably because students don’t join greek organizations until the spring term, and the primary driver of persistence or withdrawal – academic performance – has already culled the herd during the previous winter and fall terms.

Fast-forward to the end of the senior year.  At this point, what initially seemed a more negative picture becomes more complicated.  While greek members’ average GPA still trail that of non-greek members, the gap noted in the spring of the first year has shrunk by about 25%.  Again, being female mitigates further, likely making the difference in average GPA between female greek and non-greek members insignificant.

However, in numerous cases greek students’ scores on several senior survey items suggests that this experience provided some important benefits.  On average, greek members’ responded more positively (defined by differences that proved statistically significant) to these statements:

  • My co-curricular experiences provided numerous opportunities to interact with students who differed from me in race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or social/political values.
  • My co-curricular involvement helped me build a network of healthy lasting friendships.
  • My co-curricular involvement helped me develop a better understanding of my leadership skills.
  • I felt a strong sense of belonging on campus.
  • The college emphasized an atmosphere of ethnic and cross-cultural understanding.
  • Augustana faculty and staff welcomed student input on institutional policy and handbook decisions.
  • If you could relieve your college decision would you choose Augustana again?

Taken together, these findings spell out much of the good and the bad of greek life.  On one hand, during the first year it appears that some behaviors emerge among greeks that could – and sometimes do – negatively impact students’ success.  On the other hand, by the time this group of students graduates, at least one of those deficits has been legitimately reduced, and the educational efforts of the college – particularly on the co-curricular side – appear to have produced a series of benefits that match our own educational intentions.

Of course, one important question – and a longstanding one – is how we might eliminate the bad without losing the good.  Our student affairs staff continually works to counter the impact of pledging on student success, even in the face of stiff pushback from many greek members and alumni.  Might there be a role for faculty to play in this endeavor?  Probably.  Does that role include railing against a stereotype of greeks that actually perpetuates a stereotype of faculty among students and, in so doing undermines the very trust necessary to influence students’ behavior outside of class?  Probably not.

But the question that jumps out at me is slightly different.  While it’s great to see graduating seniors from greek organizations respond so positively to all of these questions, should we actually be celebrating this?  What is it about NOT belonging to greek organizations that produces systematically lower scores on so many important markers of the college experience we are trying to deliver?  For example, I’m not comfortable with finding that the greek members’ sense of belonging on campus score was more than half a point higher than non-greek members (4.26 vs. 3.71); not because I begrudge greek organizations, but because I’m not sure I see a compelling reason for greek membership on our campus to produce such a stark difference.

It’s easy to point to anecdotes of the college experience at its best; and we have many wonderful tales of students – greek and non-greek – who have changed fundamentally during their four years at Augustana.  But as I look at these findings, my concern tends toward the students who experience less than our best.  I’d be curious to figure out what we might do to minimize, or even eliminate, the statistically significant differences between greek and non-greek members across all of these senior survey experience questions.

Answers?  You wanted answers?  Oh, grasshopper . . .

Have a great Homecoming week – and let’s not leave anyone on the outside looking in.

Make it a good day,




The myth of the vanishing humanities professor

As much as I try to be a kind, sensitive, and empathetic institutional researcher (group hugs every fifth Tuesday – no, not really!), I can’t resist salivating just a little bit whenever word of a new uber-explanatory claim pops up on my radar.  Part of my interest comes merely from a persistent drive to apply evidence to better understand what we do.  Sometimes, we make decisions that produce unintended consequences – and many times the impact of those decisions rises to the surface inductively, through the observations of some who, thankfully, are uniquely predisposed to see it.  However – and I fully own up to my dark side here – the chance to test a claim that has already gotten itself a bandwagon, a theme song, and the specter of pitchforks and torches storming the Bastille is an institutional researcher’s dream chance to “speak truth to power.”  It’s bratwurst to a Bear’s fan, grog to a Viking, a soy latte to an NPR member . . . you get the picture.

For many, the recent decision to merge the German and Scandinavian programs has felt like another body blow to the core values on which Augustana was founded.  Moreover, this decision all too easily feeds into a larger narrative that Augustana, like many traditional liberal arts colleges before it, has long since abandoned its commitment to the liberal arts even as it has disingenuously held on to the relative prestige of claiming to be something that it is not.

So . . . have we gutted our commitment to the liberal arts?  I purposefully choose this inflammatory language because it is exactly the wording that was used when the claim was made to me – complete with raised intonation and eyebrows.  While there are many ways to unpack this question; I’m writing a blog, not a book.  However, there are a couple of ways that we might examine our data to test this claim.  To that end, I’d like to introduce a couple of data points and one observation that might flesh out this story just a little bit.

One way that an institution might shift its commitment away from the liberal arts would be to move faculty positions away from core liberal arts disciplines like the humanities, foreign languages, and fine arts and add faculty lines to new or existing pre-professional programs.  While this by no means should be consider “smoking gun” evidence, if this were indeed the case, it would provide strong evidence to support the claim that Augustana had given up its commitment to the liberal arts.

So I decided to look for any evidence of a shift in faculty distribution over the past ten years. (Whether we should have gone back further to the late sixties or early seventies is an entirely valid critique).  Nonetheless, we started by building a baseline from 2001.  Thanks to Sarah Horowitz and Jamie Nelson in Special Collections, we tracked down a 2000-01 college directory and manually counted the number of faculty in each discipline.  As best as we can tell (it’s possible that some faculty were not listed in the directory for some reason), there were 78 faculty FTE (full time equivalent) employed by Augustana in the humanities, foreign languages, and fine arts ten years ago.  To put that in context, these 78 faculty FTE made up 49.6% of the 157 total faculty FTE.

So how does the 2000-01 distribution compare to today?  Last year, 2011-12, 114 faculty FTE were employed in humanities, foreign languages, and fine arts disciplines – 53.3% of our 214 total faculty FTE.  In the particular case of foreign languages, in 2000-01 there were 18 faculty FTE teaching in foreign language departments.  In 2011-12, there were 20.33 faculty FTE teaching in foreign language departments (we included classics in this analysis to be sure that Latin and Greek weren’t left out).

This evidence hardly supports the assertion that Augustana is gutting the liberal arts.  Just as a reminder, I am not suggesting that this is “smoking gun” evidence to dismiss the aforementioned claim. There might be evidence that other academic departments have lost positions to the pre-professional programs or that the relative distribution of full-time and part-time instructors has shift away from the core liberal arts disciplines;  although a cursory glance suggests to me that neither of these possibilities are likely.  So, at least in terms of overall faculty distribution in the traditional liberal arts, the trend over the last ten years suggests an increased investment in the most traditional liberal arts disciplines.

But this data doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a shift in students’ academic behavior patterns that might translate into a different distribution of majors and minors.  In this context, there certainly might be some perceived winners and losers.  Our institutional data does show some changes in student academic interests over ten years, but the totality of these shifts merely complicates the story.  While the proportion of students declaring their “primary” major in the humanities has declined, the proportion of students declaring a “secondary” major or minor in the humanities has remained strong and maybe even ticked up slightly.  Some of this is due to an overall increase in the number of second majors and additional minors that students now obtain.  So even thought this data might reflect a modest shift in student priorities, its a long way from suggesting that the college is gutting the liberal arts.

So where does this leave us?  That isn’t my question to answer.  My goal here was only to test the veracity of a claim that seems to be a popular rallying cry in some circles at the moment.  Based on this evidence, and if the degree to which our investment in and distribution of faculty lines across the college represents our educational philosophy, it’s pretty hard to make the case that Augustana has abandoned its commitment to the liberal arts.

However, this evidence doesn’t address the question of whether or not our collective emphasis on an interdisciplinary, liberal arts education has waned in the face of increasingly siloed major requirements, a growing belief in the perceived value of a double major and/or a second minor, and institutional policies that waive course requirements fundamental to the liberal arts (e.g., foreign language competency).  But that conversation is a very different one – one that probably involves an examination of our espoused values, a hard look at the ramifications of our actual curricular and co-curricular policies, and a mirror.

Make it a good day,



Complicating the extrinsic motivation and getting good grades narrative

Faculty often cringe when students ask, “what do I have to do to get an “A” on this assignment?”  For most educators, this question feels more like an unsolicited back alley proposition than a genuine expression of intellectual curiosity.

Yet from the student’s perspective, grades may represent a very different kind of negotiation.  Not only have grades dictated their access to future educational opportunities, extra-curricular experiences, and sometimes even cash(!) since elementary school, but the categories of “A” student, “B” student, and “C” student have all too often come to represent individual worth and long-term potential – not just the quality of one’s work on a particular assignment.  Sadly, we’ve done a pretty good job of validating this conception.  Remember the “My kid is an honor student at ____ school” bumper stickers that still adorn many a late model mini-van or SUV?

Luckily, disentangling the relationship between our students’ perception of grades and their motivational orientations can be approached as an empirical question.  Last year we began a four-year study of the experiences that shape our students’ intrinsic motivation.  As a part of this study, we included a measure of extrinsic motivational orientation and a question that asked students to indicate the importance they place on getting good grades.

This summer, we tested the relationship between extrinsic motivation and the importance of getting good grades at the end of the first year.  We assumed we’d find a significant relationship between these two variables.  So we were quite surprised to find no significant correlation between extrinsic motivation and importance of getting good grades.  However, we found a statistically significant positive – and moderately sized (.332) – correlation between students’ intrinsic motivational orientation and the importance of getting good grades.  Hmmm . . .

At the very least, this suggests that we might need to think more carefully about the assumptions we make when students ask how they can earn an ‘A’ from us.  One student inquiry about earning a high grade might be an indication of the degree to which we simply have not communicated our expectations for an assignment clearly.  Another inquiry might reflect the degree to which a student considers the entire educational enterprise to be about jumping through hoops and collecting credentials.  Still another inquiry might only mean that the student has too many irons in the fire and is simply triangulating their available time, the expectations they perceive that you hold, and the grade they can afford to live with.

There are two additional considerations about grading practices and their relationship to student motivation that are worth noting.  First, letter grades emerged during a time in which the learning expected of students was primarily about content knowledge.  But as content has shifted from an end to a means – with colleges now focused on developing more complex skills and dispositions in addition to content knowledge, we have done very little to think about whether the traditional metric for assessing student performance might benefit from some reconsideration.

In addition, at Augustana we don’t impose a single definition of what a grade represents.  Does an ‘A’ mean that a student has met an externally defined threshold of competence?   Or does it mean that a student has improve substantially over the course of a term?  Or is it some combination of the two that shifts as the course progresses?  Or maybe it should depend on the role of the course within the larger curriculum to determine whether grading should be about improvement or competence.

Faculty employ varying iterations of these conceptions across the array of courses that they offer, and all three approaches seem entirely appropriate for different situations.  But from the students’ perspective, unless they actually understand that there are different approaches to grading, and that these approaches can (and probably should) vary depending upon the course, they are likely to feel blindsided when the conception chosen by the instructor differs from that expected by the student.  Any one of us would likely be frustrated by such a realization, and in that moment it seems entirely reasonable to ask the question, “How DO I get an ‘A’ in this class?”  Moreover, I think we would have good reason to be offended if someone responded to our question by challenging our motives for learning.

Since a large proportion of our students understand the impact of grades on their future prospects for graduate school or the job market, it is likely that many place great importance on getting a high grade regardless of their motivational orientation.  So, it appears that maybe – just maybe – the implications of a student asking, “How do I get an ‘A’ on this paper?” are, let’s just say . . . complicated.

Make it a good day,