Posts Tagged “student life”
Almost 21 million people attend some variation of a college or university in the United States. For some, the purpose is obvious – to improve their skills, increase their wages, and enhance their marketability in the workforce. But for many – especially those in the traditional 18-22 year cohort – the reasons may not be as clear.
For many of these young students, the goal was to get into college. Most residential liberal arts campuses provide an often bewildering set of opportunities to explore, try out new things, and form or challenge personal assumptions.
Colleges create the opportunity for students to imagine a future — one of the best justifications for the value of a college degree.
In American society, college is the best and sometimes last opportunity for a student to grow within a carefully prescribed set of protected parameters. It can be an idyllic moment when friendships form and core beliefs take hold, free from many of the pressures that will beset new graduates after they enter the job market.
College is also a perfect moment for a student to postpone the future, especially for those who may not have figured their future path. It’s further complicated by the nature of the workforce into which they will enter. College graduates seldom transition into a first job that they will hold until retirement. There’s little chance for a seamless pathway to emerge, no matter how much introspection and reflection occurs in the quiet moments of college life. The global job market changes too rapidly.
In fact, it’s better to prepare generally – acquiring skills that liberal arts training provides – including the ability to speak well, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting – than to assume that more narrow training will open the first doors to productive employment. But this reality does not mean that students can hide their head in their books, extracurricular activities, and friendships.
Post-Graduation Outcomes are Where Rubber Meets the Road for Colleges
This is where the rubber meets the road. Colleges do a wonderful job at inputs, likely because inputs prepare students for a successful classroom experience. They are also improving their assessment capabilities, often because of pressure from discipline-based and regional accrediting associations. But they are weakest at outputs – the kind that prepare students to enter the workplace successfully.
Many colleges tout their graduation placement records. They eloquently promote the percentage of their students who find employment and take advanced degree training within six months after graduation.
Graduate placement stats are a good indication of success but imperfect at best. Colleges with professional degree programs like business, engineering, and nursing will logically have higher placement rates because the market aggressively seeks those graduates. Other strong “pre” professional schools that prepare students for advanced degrees in law, medicine, dentistry, and graduate programs like health sciences and public policy may also expect higher levels of placement.
There are two problems with using graduate placement as measurement of success.
The first is that a college or university normally gears its career center toward programs that support employable majors. While there are exceptions, it’s hard to find a college career center that supports humanities majors as strongly as it assists the engineering and business students. Second, the students are not motivated – especially self-motivated – to use college resources wisely or prepare for life after college.
Students Must Take Responsibility for Future Before Graduation
And that may be the next lesson for colleges to learn. Students – soon to be alumni and graduates – must take some responsibility for their own futures. While colleges can provide better tools for graduates in all majors to succeed in their employment searches, the student must also be encouraged to use the four years wisely. It’s imperative in a global market that students prepare for what’s coming.
It begins by encouraging colleges and universities to be more intentional about their student life programs:
- What does an institution hope to teach in the thousand teachable moments that occur outside the classroom?
- Does it offer a residential life program beyond the classroom and laboratory experience that introduces students to communal living and then encourages progressive choices in a controlled experience to prepare them for independent living?
Students Must Be Thoughtful Advocates for Their Own Futures
Further, should students also be as intentional about their college extracurricular experiences as they are presumably about their academic careers? Some students will have the luxury to seek unpaid internships, externships, and summer employment that prepare them for work after graduation. Others need to work when they are not in school to pay their tuition and living expenses, beyond grants and loans.
Whatever the situation, students can develop an individually tailored strategy that introduces them to the workforce, even if it means only on a volunteer basis.
For students of limited means, having to work can differentiate them from their more fortunate peers as individuals better equipped to be successful after graduation.
Whatever the circumstances, students must learn to use the resources available to them. They cannot put off their future nor be overwhelmed by the challenges it takes to make a healthy career happen. It begins with a thoughtful self-examination and ends with the recognition that they may ultimately be their own best advocates.
As enrollment continues to soften at four-year residential colleges, college administrators must increasingly justify the philosophies behind and the costs associated with them.
It’s a sad commentary when colleges must defend what was once perceived to be the best justification for students to attend them.
The older argument fell along these lines:
- Attendance at a four-year residential college offers students the luxury to explore their interests, grow in maturity, and broaden their horizons.
- Residential colleges impose expectations on students. They must learn to live together. They must utilize the dozens of student-organized clubs and activities that can shape their extracurricular experiences to become well educated, committed, and productive citizens.
In short, the residential college supports the academic interests to provide a comprehensive education for their students.
Indeed, many residential colleges do just that. They have a clear focus, mission statement, and governing and operational philosophy. They offer a wide variety of programming and link their residential experience to in-class philosophy and practice.
But as the market softens, there are growing problems with how residential colleges will develop against a backdrop of the mounting pressures on them.
The first pressure is internal. While many colleges have a respectable sense of self, for countless others the student life programs that shape the residential college experience are often a mishmash “cookie cutter” hodgepodge drawn from peer and aspirant experiences that are not explicitly linked to their college’s strategic direction or even a precise program fit.
A review of most residential college literature, for example, seldom produces a clear statement of mission or how students translate their first efforts at interdependence to independence.
What is the seamless path that prepares them to move psychologically, socially, and culturally into the workforce after graduation?
Second, colleges must be judged ultimately by the buy-in their programs receive, especially from students, staff, and faculty. At many colleges, student life programs operate quite separately from the academic programs they should support.
Further, student life professionals lack the level of respect that the faculty enjoys. They are decidedly junior players in the campus pecking order. Senior administrators often see them less as developmental agents and more as some combination of truant officer and baby sitter.
These problems extend to student life professionals’ relationship with the students. In this regard, campus culture can play a large role in how residential life develops.
More progressive campuses involve students in residential life, including in critical areas like discipline. Progressive campuses often have honor codes and student disciplinary boards. But these processes require that campus administrators share power with students. This act can translate into a teachable moment for students on the best-run campuses. And it can also foster the trust and transparency that make good residential life programs better.
Third, the cost of residential life plays directly into the impact it has on campus. A good residential life program is expensive. Colleges that do not take a hard look at their programs also run the risk of adding programs to ensure comprehensiveness while seldom rejecting what no longer works. The result is that many colleges run a much larger offering of programs than is needed. Students should be able to start new programs, especially when the costs of the proposed program is prioritized and matched to the available resources. But in the end a residential life program is a rationing tool.
As such, residential life administrators can support any program that they choose but not all of the programs that students want. This is where strategy comes into play.
There must be a clear sense of direction, an ability to execute and assess, and a strong connection to the academic programs to determine whether the teachable moment provided by residence life staff meets the academic standards espoused by the college. There must be synergy between student life and the academic programs in a residential setting.
The best educational strategies balance people, programs, and facilities. A residential life program is also an open invitation to intersect the needs of the college with those of the community. In a fully integrated strategy, the social, cultural, wellness, human rights, and philanthropic initiatives supported by residential life programs are grounded in the neighborhood, town, and region. They share common purpose and direction. They avoid duplicating facilities.
In an era of diminishing resources, a robust residential life program is essential to a college’s identity. But if its purpose is unclear, its detractors will take advantage to open residence life to debilitating cutbacks.
The solution begins with a deeper commitment to the four-year residential college. It starts with a reaffirmation of why the residential learning experience defines them and who and what they teach. Their renewed commitment must establish metrics that shape each of the four years in a student’s life, linking the programs to critical outcomes like retention and graduation rates.
A residential college is an expensive way to educate students. Yet for many students, it is the transformative experience of their lives. Its advocates must shepherd its programs into responsible and cost-effective alignment to demonstrate to families as consumers — without apology and with considerable pride — that “you get what you pay for.”
Athletics contribute enormously to college life. They provide a unifying force across the campus community in which the college’s principal stakeholders – faculty, students, staff, alumni, parents, donors, and the community – can rally with pride in support of the institution.
Athletics are often the public face of a college. At the largest institutions, this can sometimes create special risk – think Baylor and Penn State – but for the most part a robust college athletics programs delivers far more than it risks.
Too Often College Sports are Separate and Unequal
Too often athletics can be its own fiefdom. There are times when trustees and donors step across a bright red line in the sand to put athletic interests above the academic program. The faculty are often divided over their benefit, seeing athletics as a competing interest for student time and attention. If college governance works, many of the problems emerging from athletics can demonstrate how a college that typically operates with the complexity of a small city works out the pressures of competing interests amicably.
The role of athletics can take on a very different meaning, depending upon the campus. At the largest NCAA Division I schools, the stakeholders treat sports as the defining factor that shapes their loyalty to the university. They see student athletes as budding national sports figures, at least in their premier sports programs. In many cases, these students stand apart from the rest of the student body and are often treated accordingly.
In Division II and III, student athletes are more like the general student body, but they also play a critical role albeit one with less frenzy and hoopla. One of the best-kept secrets at smaller Division III schools, for example, is that athletic programs can not only improve diversity but also directly affect the gender balance of an incoming class. Maintaining a large football roster, for instance, can offset the skewing toward women who matriculate in greater numbers than men at small liberal arts colleges.
Higher education leadership must make a decision on where administratively to house sports. Their decision is colored by how they see the contribution of athletics to student life.
College Athletics Must Be Aligned With Student Life
However athletics fit into the organizational chart, sports programs must ultimately be seen as the most valuable asset – linking the college’s stakeholders together – in the student life arsenal. But it is critical to break up the athletic fiefdom, even at the risk of trustee and donor angst, to align sports with student life.
The biggest problem is that athletic programs can’t meet their “all in” expenses. Most estimates suggest that only one in eight athletic programs support themselves. This issue will become increasingly important as the pressure to look for internal savings grows as the economic model that shapes a college’s operating budgets moves toward collapse.
How can colleges justify high tuition sticker prices, rising tuition discounts, and decreasing net tuition revenue while continuing to bankroll a wide variety of costly sports programs?
Dispelling the Myth that Athletics Can Bankroll a College
One answer may be to rethink how colleges finance athletics. The sports program costs a lot, especially if scholarships are provided and the college makes heavy investments in people, programs, and facilities to recruit and compete. The costs also increase with NCAA reporting and compliance requirements. Finally, the college, especially at the Division I level, must run almost two programs simultaneously – a competitive program for Division I athletes and a general recreational, health and wellness program for the general student body. The costs in duplicated facilities can be enormous.
Colleges Must Get a Handle on How to Finance Athletics Programs
The bottom line is that we must work to get a handle on how to pay for the costs of college athletics. It is pointless to fight an open battle to reduce the number of college sports, since each finds a committed constituency. But there can be expectations placed on how a college or university runs its sports program and pays its bills.
First, not all sports are equal. It is possible to run a tiered competitive program that allocates resources based upon the importance and level of investment required for each sport while still meeting Title IX guidelines.
Athlete Recruitment Must Be Integrated into Enrollment & Financial Aid Strategies
Second, athletic recruitment must not be a stand-alone operation but fully integrated into enrollment and financial aid strategies. If done correctly, the recruiting and student financial aid packaging can neutralize the overall cost of sports on a campus.
Athletic Facilities Should Be Considered Investments in Community
Third, colleges and universities must see their facilities as community investments. In some cases among sports in lower ranked tiers, it is possible to utilize existing community facilities in their regions. In other cases, these facilities can be designed as public-private partnerships. Whatever the solution, they must not tie up a college’s debt capacity unless this investment makes sense as part of a larger comprehensive solution. Indeed, the development of new athletics facilities is an important opportunity to attract micro-targeted donor interest in a college.
In the end, colleges and universities searching for efficiencies must look at athletics. It must be accomplished with an eye to strengthening a sustainable sports program. But done correctly, it may also be the best way to preserve the role of athletics in student life.