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Policy and Culture at the AAC&U Annual Meeting

One of the benefits of attending the AAC&U Annual Meeting is the chance to hear directly from those working on the “big-picture” issues of higher education. I was especially interested to hear the session on “Innovation and Equity: A Candid Discussion of Policies in the Making.” Some of the things I heard about creating more equitable access to higher education for more students were heartening, while others were unsettling in revealing the scope and complexities of the problems we face, as well as raising doubts about proposed solutions.

On the heartening side of things, for example, Ted Mitchell, under secretary of the US Department of Education, talked about a greater focus on completion rates for college students, and how seemingly simple innovations—like Metrocards given to CUNY students—can have a big impact. Innovations, he emphasized, don’t automatically mean reliance on high tech “gizmos.” More comprehensive direct loan programs, a smaller and simpler FAFSA form, and income-driven loan repayment programs are some of the other efforts designed to help make college a more affordable reality.

But perhaps the most encouraging, in my view, was Mitchell’s statement that although online learning has its place, the Department of Education does not see it as the primary vehicle for access to higher education; blended and multimodal approaches are better, he added. I say “most encouraging,” because it seemed to acknowledge the difference between education (as a social process) and educational products, like MOOCs and other pre-packaged content—a distinction that too often gets lost in discussions about how to “fix” higher education.

As fellow panelist Shanna Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, online courses are no solution for closing the achievement gap for poorer students. Jaggars cites evidence that low-income students are less likely to enroll in, complete, or enjoy entirely online courses. So what does help low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minority students? According to Jaggars’s research on student success in community colleges, there are three areas or points of redesign that can make an impact: (1) intake and support systems that help students stay on track; (2) program structures and pathways that are clear and clearly communicated to students; and (3) instructional delivery that moves from a knowledge transmission model to a learning facilitation model.

Panelist Terrell Strayhorn, director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise at The Ohio State University, questioned why there was even a discussion about whether online education was an appropriate solution when the research shows that faculty quality, curriculum, and financial aid are the critical factors in closing the achievement gap. Strayhorn also shared some sobering statistics that highlight the enormity of the task that is improving access to higher education: 400,000 youth are in the foster care system, with 23,000 of them aging out every year. How might institutions reach out to, support, and educate this vulnerable population and the other demographic groups who fall under the “new majority” rubric once they’re on campus? Strayhorn focused on the student experience, asserting that “institutions are nothing without its people.” And who those people are matters in how students fare. He talked about the importance of students feeling a sense of belonging, of connectedness, community, and safety.   

My main takeaway from the discussion was this: Creating practical, solution-oriented policies that address real barriers to education—what Ted Mitchell referred to as a “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs approach”—is very important and much needed. But we’re only doing half the work if we don’t also attend to the culture of institutions and the people whose beliefs, assumptions, values, and habits form that culture. Making meaningful changes that will create more welcoming, supportive, and truly inclusive institutional cultures in which the “new majority students” see themselves reflected as integral members of the community, not simply as guests who are politely tolerated, requires not just policy changes, but visionary leadership and a collective commitment to change on a systemic level. As Terrell Strayhorn pointedly remarked, black male students don’t need another mentoring program.

And I think this is what student protesters at colleges and universities across the country, from the University of Missouri to Claremont McKenna to Yale and elsewhere, are trying to say. We need, in effect, to address the whole student, to focus not just on all the things they need, but also on all they bring and can contribute. Building an equitable and inclusive learning environment means not simply making accommodations for the perceived “others” within dominant structures, but creating opportunities for all of us to learn through and across difference, and thus to create the conditions for questioning, assessing, and reinventing existing structures and norms for the good of all.

This last point leads me to a lingering concern that the session raised for me. Peter Ewell, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the fourth distinguished panelist, pointed out that “cheaper” is not the same as “cost effective,” and that efficiency can more effectively be achieved through coherence (coherent curricula, coherent programs, coherent transfer initiatives, etc.) than through short-term cost-cutting or cost-saving measures, which seemed to underscore the findings of Jaggars’s research.

At the same time, though, Ted Mitchell talked about “unbundling” education, describing a future students aren’t wedded to a single institution or program, where “nontraditional partners” like Coursera and other MOOC providers and third-party Boot Camp programs for Pell -eligible students would offer educational services in more flexible, modular, and cheaper forms.

So the most encouraging statement I mentioned above was trailed by this more unsettling information, which seemed at odds with the calls for coherence and connection that much of the research supports. (AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider has previously made a strong case against unbundling, suggesting that, far from opening up high-quality education to previously underserved students, this trend will perpetuate existing inequalities.)

How much can we unbundle education from institutional structures and still offer a sense of belonging and community? How do we create spaces for transformative learning that are public and democratic—that is to say, common and communal—if, increasingly, the contact between “new majority” students and largely “new majority” faculty is fragmentary and mediated by proprietary platforms? How do we align the access imperative with the equity and quality imperative? These were the questions still swirling in my head as I sought shelter from the historic storm swirling outside in Washington, DC.


Soo La Kim is the director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching Excellence at Columbia College, Chicago.