AAC&U News, August 2018

Realizing the Full Potential of High-Impact Practices

Ashley Finley is associate vice president and dean of the Dominican Experience at Dominican University of California. She will join AAC&U as senior advisor to the president and secretary to the board on September 1.


The conversation around twenty-first-century skills is getting old. Literally. We are, after all, nearly two decades into that “twenty-first century.” As time has passed in this new(ish) century, we have gained a much clearer picture of just how different students are and what will be required for them to fully succeed in today’s interconnected, complex world. Today’s students are both younger and older. They are younger because more traditionally aged students are coming from historically underserved groups.[1] They are older because more adult students are seeking a postsecondary credential.[2] One-third of college students will transfer at least once, making movement across institutions much more common.[3] Today’s college students are also reporting greater levels of anxiety and stress than ever before. Fall 2017 data from the American College Health Association indicated that 53 percent of undergraduates reported feeling “things were hopeless” at some point in the last twelve months, 87 percent reported feeling “overwhelmed by all they had to do,” and 61 percent felt “overwhelming anxiety.”[4] Thinking about twenty-first-century skills now means taking the above factors into consideration when supporting student learning and success.

We have been talking about high-impact practices, at least as an umbrella term, since 2008.[5] The good news is that profound changes globally and nationally have provided an opportunity to reframe and refresh conversations around the value of civic engagement. Not only is today’s world more globally connected than ever, but students themselves are more connected—to each other, to physical and virtual worlds, and to new modalities of communication and expression. Through heightened interconnectivity, external environments and relationships have become easier to invite into learning spaces, making civic engagement not just one high-impact practice, but a helpful component of every high-impact practice. Aristotle argued that citizens truly flourished when they understood who they were, as individuals, in relationship to a community, the whole.[6] To root students in the communal context of their lives is to help them understand who they are by providing a sense of purpose, self-reliance, and discipline. The ancient philosophers might have referred to these as “virtues.” Today, we might refer to them as forms of personal growth and development, or as affective capacities. Regardless, by explicitly linking such outcomes with students’ engagement in high-impact practices, we are closer to understanding the full potential of these experiences in the same ways that we understand students’ cognitive development.[7]

The focus on cognitive development has, in part, been driven by employers’ support of students acquiring a broad set of intellectual and practical skills.[8] But employers also recognize the essentialness of certain affective abilities, such as self-esteem and resilience.[9] One could argue that it is these affective abilities that enable students to effectively employ valuable cognitive skills. For example, measures of students’ critical thinking abilities may be predicated by or at least correlated with levels of self-confidence or self-worth. Increasingly, the value of articulating affective or intrapersonal capacities are being explicitly identified. For example, AAC&U identified developing students’ sense of “agency” as a guiding principle under its General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) framework. Additionally, the Lumina Foundation’s Beta Credentials Framework identified personal skills such as autonomy, responsibility, and self-awareness and reflectiveness as essential components of students’ overall skill set.[10] Entire state university systems have also begun to recognize particular “noncognitive” skills, such as academic mindset and belonging.[11]

The next frontier of our collective work on high-impact practices is to recognize that who students are and how they feel—about the world, about each other, and about themselves—is every bit as important as what they know and can do. In doing so, we can better blend the curriculum and cocurriculum. We can find new innovations and recognition for advising and mentoring programs. And we can forge new understandings of equity by honoring each student’s affective strengths as part of their path to success.



[1] National Center for Educational Statistics, 2017 Fast Facts, accessed July 29, 2018, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372.

[2] National Center for Educational Statistics, 2017 Fast Facts; Grace Chen, “Changing Student Demographics: Rising Number of Professional Students,” Community College Review, February 16, 2017, https://www.communitycollegereview.com/blog/changing-student-demographics-rising-number-of-professional-students.

[3] Lederman, Doug, “The Bermuda Triangle of Credit Transfer,” Inside Higher Ed, September 14, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/14/reports-highlight-woes-faced-one-third-all-college-students-who-transfer.

[4] American College Health Association and National College Health Assessment, “Undergraduate Student Reference Group: Executive Summary,” (Boston: American College Health Association and National College Health Assessment, 2017), 13, http://www.acha-ncha.org/docs/NCHA-II_FALL_2017_REFERENCE_GROUP_EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY_UNDERGRADS_ONLY.pdf.

[5] George Kuh, High-Impact Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008).

[6] A. W. H. Adkins, “The Connection Between Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics,” Political Theory 12, no. 1 (1984): 29-49.

[7] For more on high-impact practices, see George Kuh, High-Impact Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008); Alma Clayton-Pedersen and Ashley Finley, “Dimensions of High Intensity, High-Impact Practices,” in Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Outcomes, Completion, and Quality, ed. Jayne E. Brownell and Lynn E. Swaner (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2011); Ashley Finley and Tia McNair, Assessing Underserved Students Engagement in High-Impact Practices (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013), https://leapconnections.aacu.org/system/files/assessinghipsmcnairfinley_0.pdf.

[8] Hart Research Associates, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success, (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013), https://www.aacu.org/leap/presidentstrust/compact/2013SurveySummary; Hart Research Associates, Falling Short?: College Learning and Career Success (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015), https://www.aacu.org/leap/public-opinion-research/2015-survey-falling-short.

[9] Anthony P. Carnevale and Nicole Smith, Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020, (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2013), http://cew.georgetown.edu/recovery2020.

[10] Lumina Foundation, Connecting Credentials: A Beta Credentials Framework (Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation, 2015), 6, http://connectingcredentials.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/ConnectingCredentials-4-29-30.pdf.

[11] Tennessee Board of Regents, “Academic Mindset,” accessed August 1, 2018, https://www.tbr.edu/academics/academic-mindset.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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