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This February, I had the opportunity to keynote the National Student Success Conference in Orlando, hosted by the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities. It was a wonderful event, where a few hundred people talked seriously and passionately about all the ways we can work together in our colleges and universities to ensure that students succeed in school and in their lives beyond school. I focused on four key issues.

We need to:

  1. Engage every student. (Are there graduation rate discrepancies at your institution–economic, gender, race, field, ability? Focus there! “Every” means “every.”)
  2. Strengthen relationships across admissions, academic advising, career services/placement, faculty, alumni, employers 
  3. Connect classrooms to careers
  4. Redesign faculty reward and recognition systems to include “academic success.”

Let’s start with engaging every student. What does success look like at your institution–and is everyone succeeding? If not, think about the hidden obstacles to success. My colleague and coauthor Christina Katopodis introduced me to the concept of “curb ramps,” designed to ensure accessibility to chair users but, in fact, invaluable to all of us at one time or another (suitcases, shopping carts, baby carriages, or wheel chairs). “Curb ramps help everybody.” Same with designing our institutions with every student in mind.

“Academic success” means thinking about the entire institution together–our students, our faculty, our staff. And it requires thinking about the whole student, inside the classroom and beyond. We know from many students that the #1 reason students drop out of school is economic, not academic. We also know the #2 reason is they don’t know “why” they are in school, how their classes and various course requirements lead to a better life outside school. And there’s a lot of bad counter-factual publicity out there that a college degree is no longer “worth it” (when, in fact, we know the discrepancy in earnings between college graduates and their non-college graduate peers is greater than ever).

We know from the abundant research that higher education is “worth it” in all the ways that count–from material considerations to emotional ones. As one of our students (a first generation college student and first generation American noted), he came to college originally for social mobility and then he learned something amazing along the way. He learned that he could “have a career that feeds my children and my soul.”

We’re quite good at finding “outcomes” for the former–how much students will “make” after they graduate. That is indisputably important. At the same time, some professions that require a college education are not particularly lucrative. Indeed, six or seven years ago I attended a conference where Dr. Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress, noted that one reason the “metrics” for “student outcomes” seem to indicate a college degree isn’t worth as much as it was twenty years ago is that women now make up some sixty percent of college students–and the top five professions that disproportionately attract female college graduates don’t pay very well: teaching, nursing, social work, arts curation/editing, and librarianship. Though these are not as financially lucrative as say hedge fund traders or corporate lawyers, these are crucially important professions that can be profoundly rewarding. How can we also measure and celebrate “outcomes” for job satisfaction, personal fulfillment, having the best possible life because of a college education? Those are deep and real questions for all of us dedicated to student success.

Finally, if we want to support student success, we must also think about faculty success. Research shows that only about 20% of students visit their career centers. Classrooms are the ideal place for students to begin to understand the pathway from what they do in school to what they do outside, in the real world. Do they do group work, for example? Collaboration is one of the single most important skills in the work place? What other higher-order thinking or so-called “soft skills” do we teach in our classrooms every day? How often do we articulate the “meta” level of what we are doing? The National Association of College and Employers (NACE) has conducted interviews with over 3000 employers and knows that these soft skills are exactly what employers seek in new employees. But, if we want the classroom to also be a career pathway (along with all the other things faculty teach in a course), then that requires new dedication and training so we also need to rethink our reward and recognition systems for faculty. Very few faculty have even had serious pedagogical training on the way to being college teachers; even fewer have been trained to help students find their ideal careers beyond the classroom. If we want faculty to invest their time and effort in their students’ success, we have to “count” that activity so it contributes to the faculty member’s own success. We have to think about academic success, the way forward for all of us to work together towards a healthy, nourishing future.

If we can do all of this together, then perhaps the fifth pillar we should add in our quest for academic success is to communicate all this to our students (many have no idea we care about this) and to the general public.

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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