As America’s college student population becomes increasingly diverse, school administrators must be open to replacing old and ineffective ways of teaching with new modes of learning that ensure broader student success.
That was the essence of the message delivered Monday by a panel of higher education leaders at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education. The national conference began over the weekend in Washington, D.C., and continues through today.
But embracing innovation for innovation’s sake is not enough, one of the speakers said during the plenary session, titled “Improving College Readiness and Completion.”
“If you have innovation, it’s wonderful,” said Dr. Diana G. Oblinger, president and CEO of Educause, a nonprofit with the mission of advancing higher education through intelligent use of information technology. “But until you have something that reaches all these millions of students, you won’t have success.”
The panel discussion focused on a range of issues shaping the college completion agenda — from the growth of online learning to a student population that is becoming older and more female. The panel also questioned the wisdom of several longstanding higher education practices.
For instance, some speakers questioned the value of requiring students to take college algebra in order to earn their degree. Another criticized institutions that make students who didn’t fare well in traditional educational settings endure more of the same when they take remedial courses in college.
“This is really about optimization,” said Mark Milliron, deputy director of postsecondary improvement at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a member of the panel.
Milliron pointed to research suggesting that the longer students remain in “academic catch-up mode,” the less likely they are to be successful.
“What our early research is showing is the course-based model does not have to be the solution to every learning challenge,” he said. “If we do better assessments and accelerated remediation, it will have better results.”
He said having students spend up to two years in a structured model like the ones in which they failed in the first place is “a recipe for disaster.”
Gerardo de los Santos, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College, voiced similar concerns.
“Our students are more and more swirling,” he said, referring to the fact that many older learners are in and out of school for various reasons.
“The idea is to have them do that for the rest of their lives,” de los Santos said. “We can no longer think about a linear projection. It’s got to be a more flexible model.”
Other speakers addressed the need for students to be given particular learning experiences to ensure their success. Those experiences include learning communities, internships, first-year seminars and global experience.
Students who have such experiences are more likely to succeed, said Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Schneider also touched on the need to have more information and smoother transitions for students who transfer from one type of college or university to the next.
Nicole Chestang, vice president and executive director of GED Testing Service, said her organization is developing a new GED that will be geared more toward preparing students for college and careers instead of just serving as a high school equivalency degree.
Meanwhile, at a policy and practice forum, newly installed National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert vowed to work to increase the Academic Progress Rate — a metric the NCAA established to measure academic performance for all sports teams on a term-by-term basis. This would involve penalties, such as loss of scholarships, for teams that do not meet APR benchmarks — but at the same time to do so in a way that recognizes some institutions struggle to meet APR goals. He also spoke of the role that college sports has played in boosting completion rates and sought to dispel misconceptions about student athletes and college games.
Emmert said statistics counter the prevailing image of college athletes as more “athlete” than “student.”
“Student athletes have higher graduation rates, better retention rates. Those are just the facts,” he said, noting that 88 percent of student athletes graduate. By comparison, the national college graduation rate hovers just above 55 percent.
Emmert further emphasized the “student” aspect of student athletes in saying he would “never” support paying athletes. He said they are students who happen to be athletes, not professional athletes.
“They are our students. They are pre-professionals and deserve all of our support as such,” Emmert said. “But they are not employees and they are not professionals.”
He also refuted the claim that college athletics is about generating revenue, saying most varsity sports fail to turn a profit and require subsidies to operate
At the plenary luncheon session, TIAA-CREF presented its Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence to Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for his work to increase the representation of minority students in science and engineering.
In accepting the award, Hrabowski repeated a question that was asked throughout the conference — why do colleges and universities matter? — and answered it with a simple response.
“Because the nation needs educated people. The future of humankind depends on it.”