What Educators Need to Know About Higher Education Today

As an educator and advocate for better education in the United States, you need to know what’s going on in higher education today. Why? Because—and it’s not an exaggeration to say this—much of what happens on college campuses both reflects and affects the climate of the rest of the country. Read on to find out which big issues are on the mind of college students…and why you should care about these issues.

How to make college worth the investment

  1. Prepare students for the real world.

I’ve covered this extensively on my website: more and more, students do not feel like they are getting their money’s worth from college.

Consider this: almost 90 percent of students in America go to school for better job opportunities.

In a startling new survey conducted by the Higher Education Authority, a significant amount of international college students “feel they are not learning job skills” — which clearly is the point of spending tens of thousands on earning a college degree.

Nearly 28,000 students from Ireland participated in the survey where they were asked about questions geared towards their college experience as well as future career outlook.

While many of students who participated DO feel unprepared, the vast majority state that they “felt they were gaining knowledge and skills that boosted their chances of getting a job.”

The study also reveals how students who major in certain disciplines feel about their job prospects post-graduation.

“In general, scores for “work integrated learning” were lowest among students studying courses in the arts and humanities, which tend to be broader and may not include work placements.”

The study also found that students majoring in business administration and law, services, and “comm. techs” indexed higher scores when it came to career readiness. Each area seemingly has higher job placement than arts and humanities because the positions in those fields are far more static.

The Irish Times reports that “he survey was developed in response to a key aim of the national strategy for higher education to 2030” which may be to incorporate more of what students want into learning the curriculum.

Compared to students in the United States, the findings are the same. Back in 2010, a study prepared by the York College in Pennsylvania found the same evidence: students in America “seem to be ill prepared for the demands of the workplace.”

Same goes for managers hiring students fresh out of college in America. According to Forbes.com, Harris Interactive found that “fewer than two in five managers believed college graduates were well-equipped for a job in their field of study.”

The study went on to find that many managers feel that new college graduates lack clear writing skills, can’t conduct a meeting, and cannot manage a project.

If anything, this collection of studies abroad and domestically show that a college degree may be tangible and lead to a job post-graduation, but skills learned in college may not help former students keep them.

  1. Think about whether standardized testing is the way to go.

The idea of standardized testing at the college level can be tempting. After all, it can help measure how effective that expensive education is for that student.

However, it gets messy quickly. Think about it. Standardized testing in K-12 education is already a perennial hot button issue. Proponents feel that measuring knowledge in these rigid ways helps lift the entire educational system. Critics say the measurements do nothing but encourage “teach to the test” methods and narrow the scope of what instructors can teach if they want to have acceptable test results. These arguments are nothing new, but they are now seeing a new audience.

What if the same principles of K-12 standardized testing were applied to colleges and universities? Americans spend over $460 billion on higher educational pursuits every year, yet there is no official worldwide system in place to determine whether students are learning what they should, compared to other schools. In June, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development unveiled research on whether a global testing system for college students is possible. The group will continue to review its findings and decide if it wants to push for implementation of the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes test, abbreviated as AHELO.

Right now the comparison system for colleges and universities lies in the many rankings that are released each year by sources like U.S. News & World Report and hundreds of bloggers who weigh in on the topic. The AHELO would be a “direct evaluation of student performance at the global level…across diverse cultures, languages and different types of institutions.” It would provide institutions feedback meant to help them “foster improvement in student learning outcomes.” In a nutshell, the test would not measure student achievements as much as shine the light on instructors that need some improvement.

To K-12 students, this sounds familiar. To college faculty, the idea is fraught with landmines. How can one test take into account so many variables in higher education across the globe? Would instructors be punished by the institution, or even worse held to some misguided accountability scale by peers, if students did not rank highly enough on an AHELO or some other test? If college is a time for fostering critical thinking skills, would a standardized test take away some of that freedom?

College instructors and administrators are right to have doubts, and particularly before any testing mandates go into effect. Take the classic college entrance exams – the SAT and the ACT. Though research has found little correlation between results on these tests and actual knowledge or intelligence, they are a standard part of college admissions. It is more difficult to reverse a testing mandate than to fight it off at the outset.

It is easy to see why colleges and universities are leery of standardized testing, but K-12 instructors should be too. Presently, K-12 instructors guide students through the formative education years, dealing with standardized tests and other demands of contemporary teaching. Success with those students is ultimately determined by two other numbers: graduation rate and college placement. At that point, a K-12 teacher’s job is done, at least in theory. Adding another layer of teacher testing (cleverly disguised as core knowledge testing) at the college level could have an impact on K-12 instructors too.

If the AHELO is designed to “foster improvement” in the higher education schools that are tested, who is to say that those ideals of improvement will not then be extended to the K-12 schools that came beforehand? A student who demonstrates below-college-level proficiency in language or math would in theory not be the product of college that failed him or her – that student’s incompetency would be a result of a previous school, or schools. Could a global test for college negatively impact the K-12 schools that preceded it?

As with any measurement of teaching and learning, the AHELO and other similar initiatives need scrutiny before becoming global law. I am not sure of the necessity of such a system, and it will take some hard arguing by the other side to convince me otherwise.

  1. Consider unconventional ways to strive for a more—and better educated—population.

Many states are struggling with creating a more educated and prosperous workforce.

Some of them have solutions.

According to the Times Free Press, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has a plan that would create independent boards “for the University of Memphis and other four-year universities in the Tennessee Board of Regents system.”

The plan falls under Haslam’s “Drive to 55” goal that would increase the number of adults in Tennessee with “some form of post-high school credential” by 23 percent, to a total of 55 percent.

Just under a third of the state’s adults currently possess a college degree or vocational program certificate.

This move may not impact the University of Tennessee as the governor has yet to state if his new plan will include the University of Tennessee system.

Other portions of Haslam’s plan include the creation of a task force to come up with the best ways to work out the plan details.

Because the governor doesn’t have political or legislative autonomy, his plan will have to be approved by the state legislature when they return for a session in January.

So far, there has been no indication as to how the legislature will vote, but judging by the reaction from some Republican lawmakers, Gov. Haslam’s plan has been met with glee by those on the right side.

This plan is ambitious on the surface but may lack details of what’s needed to push more adults to obtain a post-secondary education. Giving some of the state’s universities its boards and governing power is great and allows for singularity, but it doesn’t show how doing so would push more adults towards a college education.

How to help students feel safe on campus

Just like in the real world, where diverse populations coexist, tensions sometimes arise between different groups. And sometimes, this does not turn out well for students in marginalized groups.

Think about rape and sexual assault, for example. Last year, comedian Bill Cosby made headlines when some decades-old allegations resurfaced. While these allegations are receiving the lion’s share of attention, there is some equally disturbing information from the campus of the University of Virginia about consistent cover-ups regarding allegations of rape from the young women on its campus.

You can read all about these cases in their corresponding news stories from a variety of outlets — but what I don’t see being discussed in depth is the role of colleges in preventing and reporting these incidents. The safety of students is certainly of utmost importance to colleges but to what extent? Where does the responsibility for student safety end — or is it all-encompassing?

And if the answer to that question is that colleges really should shoulder a lot of the responsibility for student safety, especially when it comes to issues of sexual assault, what else can be done to solve this problem? Should there be national standards that colleges and universities pledge to uphold — and then who will reinforce them? President Obama has already called on the young men of the nation to speak up when they see sexual crimes taking place on college campuses. Is that where we should shift our focus?

It’s clear that at least some of the crimes committed against our young adults on campuses where they feel a veil of safety are falling through the cracks. It will take a concerted effort to turn that tide, but so far the solution does not seem obvious.

Speaking of sexual safety, LGBTQ students deal with problems in this arena to an alarming extent.

According to AmericanProgress.org, over 70 percent of LGBTQ students “reported experiencing sexual harassment, compared with 61 percent of non-LGBT students.”

To compound the issue, many college campuses are still in the slow process of growing to become more inclusive regarding the needs of students who identify as LGBTQ.

The report featured on AmericanProgress.org also suggests that some college campuses “may not include certain sexual acts in their definitions of rape” because “the perpetrator is of the same gender as the survivor.”

What an awful feeling knowing that the college that one attends is insensitive to the needs of its students, specifically those within the LGBTQ community.

It’s vital that students have a sense of safety while on campus. It’s supposed to be a place of freedom, a space for creativity, and an educational asylum. When those protections are removed or never placed at all, students are left vulnerable.

LGBTQ students looking for colleges to attend that make safety paramount should look to AffordableCollegesOnline.org‘s new guide, “LGBTQ Resource for College Students.”

The guide features an array of resources for students to utilize, but also offers a way for students to find supportive campuses that are “more welcoming and supportive.”

There are two diversity experts featured in the guide, and both are interviewed on the subject of student safety, recommendations for LGBTQ students, and much more.

In essence, it is a total resource of comfort for LGBTQ students to utilize when looking for the school that closely fits their wants and needs.

Let’s address another way in which students can feel unsafe on campus: unaddressed racial incidents.

A collection of black University of Missouri football players is refusing to practice or play in games until the school’s president Tim Wolfe resigns.

The move comes after Wolfe has been criticized for his handling of several race incidents across campus.

According to uppermichiganssource.com, Wolfe’s decision not to act to correct the racial tension encompassing the campus has forced one student to forge a hunger strike.

“The latest controversy kicked off with Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler going on a hunger strike Monday. Butler says he’s not happy with Wolfe’s handling of several racial incidents on campus, and will not eat until Wolfe steps down or is fired.”

Some of those incidents include claims of a swastika drawn in human feces “on a college dorm’s brand new white wall” and many black students, including the school’s student association, were “racially abused.”

The school was slow to react, and it has taken the bravery of one graduate student to create a power vacuum.

For the students, head coach Gary Pinkel has tweeted his support of their decision and so has the school’s athletic department.

State lawmakers called for Wolfe to step down and the Missouri Board of Curators.  He ended up doing so in November 2015.

If students feel unsafe on campus due to threats from other students and the school’s leadership have aided in cultivating an unsafe environment, then the first domino of many to fall should likely be the school’s president.

How to Deal With Racial Stereotyping on College Campuses

The past few years have brought the deep-seeded ugliness of racial profiling to the surface. From the shooting death of the unarmed Trayvon Martin in Ferguson, Mo., to the … Whether it is brute force from the very people who commit to protecting citizens or discrimination in everyday life, racial profiling holds back all Americans because it prioritizes fear over the truth.

Racial profiling is even evident in the private sector, with the most recent evidence of this found in a study that found that just before the housing crash in 2008, black families with a combined income of $230,000 annually were just as likely to receive sub-prime loans as white families making just $32,000 annually. It seems that racial profiling trumps actual statistics and documentation of financial stability in minorities.

Racial profiling happens, and it’s dangerous – even on college campuses, which are often advertised as some of the most progressive places in the country. The latest example of this in action took place on one of the largest campuses based on population in the nation: The University of Central Florida. In late April, UCF students received an emergency text notification that there was a “POSSIBLE MIDDLE EASTERN MAN/WOMAN” with a gun in the UCF main campus library. The alert was prompted by a later-unsubstantiated report of a young woman in a headscarf praying and wielding a gun in a common area of the library. Once the relief of no actual threat sunk in, students and faculty started to speak out against the anti-Islamic rhetoric that surrounded the entire scenario.

In a piece for UCF’s daily newspaper The Central Florida Future, Tahoora Ateeq, Pakistani Student Association President, wrote:

“It would have been more beneficial if the UCF alert was sent out with a description of the person’s manner of dress, the person’s shoes, the person’s height or the person’s gender. In the future, I hope that UCF acts more wisely and does not utilize such a vague description that feeds into people’s stereotypes and prejudices.“

UCF’s story isn’t isolated, though. In a 2013 paper in the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Black students reported being treated differently by their professors than their white peers. A particularly disturbing portion of the paper accents an experience by a black female computer science student who said her professor associated her with stereotypical interests and called her “one of you.”

Minorities often feel unfairly profiled and stereotyped outside the classroom as well. In the fall of 2015, a black student at Hinds Community College in Mississippi reported being arrested after a police officer felt his baggy pants violated the college dress code. How can our minority college students be expected to focus on the academics at hand if they are constantly on the defensive against racial profiling and discriminatory policies?

There is a mental toll that goes along with racial profiling on college campuses, too. Black students and other minorities, even white women, often report feeling like they have to “prove themselves” beyond typical college work to somehow show that they deserve their spot – especially at schools with known diversity recruitment programs. This need to always fight back against negative stereotypes hurts students academically, which is understandable considering the energy that should be geared toward actual learning is channeled to being on the defensive. Instead of just being free to focus on their studies, too many students feel the weight of racial and other stereotyping.

So what can college and university campuses do to fight back against racial profiling?

It starts at the top. Administrators need to listen when students report incidents of racial injustice and not look the other way, as a faculty member at Yale suggested when black students were outraged by white peers donning blackface for Halloween. Campus police and security officers must be trained in the best policies for keeping the peace without unjustly profiling the very students they are meant to protect. Faculty members should not only support diversity awareness, but they should BE diverse themselves. Universities must recruit a variety of employees that are from diverse backgrounds at all levels of the organization. The more blended the student and faculty population is on a college campus, the better the chance that racial profiling and other stereotyping will simply not exist. It starts with an awareness, though, and actual policies that boost diversity and speak out against discrimination.

How to stay aware of drug use on college campuses

One thing that you might want to be aware of is drug use on college campuses.

While it is nothing new, the drug of choice seems to vary by generation.

A new survey released by the University of Michigan shows that marijuana use with college students is on the rise.

For the first time since 1980, more college students are getting high on a daily basis.

“Daily or near-daily marijuana use was reported by 5.9 percent of college students in 2014 — the highest rate since 1980, the first year that complete data was available in the study. This rate of use is up from 3.5 percent in 2007.”

Even for students who only use it socially or just occasionally, there has been an uptick in the numbers.

“The percent of students using marijuana once or more in the prior 30 days rose from 17 percent in 2006 to 21 percent in 2014.”

Without the study saying it, I’d guess this rise in use is an indicator that marijuana is no longer viewed so negatively and as a dangerous drug.

But if one views this is as bad news, there is a silver lining attached. College students no longer smoke as many cigarettes as they used to. Just 13 percent of college students said that they smoked a cigarette in the last thirty days.

While this information is certainly good to know, it is not necessarily an indicator of bad behavior with college students, if you put the use aside.

If cities continue to decriminalize the use of marijuana, use of the drug is likely to continue to increase on college campuses. How we view and measure the drug’s impact on academia would certainly serve as a fascinating follow-up study down the road.

How to pay faculty what they deserve

A gap of three percent separates the California State faculty and California State officials. At least that’s the number that may end up causing a strike.

According to PE.com, professors and lecturers are asking for a bump in pay, but CSU officials aren’t budging.

It is the fourth time in eight years that Cal State faculty so riled up about salaries that it is threatening an all-out strike. Today the school administrators will vote whether to listen to the demands or risk the faculty refusing to work for wages they feel are too low.

The percentage that’s causing the squabble amounts to $2,900 for a full professor and $1,800 for a lecturer working full-time.

That’s not a lot of money on the front end, but with the size of the school’s faculty, the total comes to around $61 million.

The school is not completely against a raise for faculty members and has offered 2 percent. This is the same raise that other university employees were granted earlier this year.

The vote on whether to strike will take place today. Classes won’t immediately be canceled though. If the faculty union does decide to strike, it won’t take place until the beginning of 2016.

I hope the school and faculty can come to some sort of agreement that means students won’t be impacted negatively. The top-notch professors are the reason Cal State is so sought after so the school should consider that heavily when looking over these salary demands. Talent and expertise should be compensated when possible for the benefit for student retention and success following graduation.

How to Use Income Diversity to Replace Affirmative Action

It’s no secret to anyone who works in higher education that affirmative action programs are in danger. Most recently, the Supreme Court upheld the affirmative action program at the University of Texas after a case filed by Abigail Fisher waffled in lower courts for years. Fisher, a white woman, believes that she was denied admission to the school based on her race and claimed reverse discrimination. While the Supreme Court decided against Fisher’s claims, the issue brought contemporary affirmative action programs to the forefront and got people talking.  Critics of the programs wonder if they are outdated and if they lead to reverse discrimination, as Fisher claimed, in some cases.

It’s important to note however that when affirmative action was outlawed in California in 1998, the number of minority students fell 36 percent at UCLA and 61 percent at UC Berkeley. Furthermore, affirmative action programs are credited with tripling minority applicants to universities in some cases, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s tough to argue with its effectiveness when you see those statistics. California isn’t alone. Other states with affirmative action bans include Florida, Nebraska, Arizona, Washington, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire.

Despite its success, it seems that affirmative action’s positive impact on the college landscape is narrowing. So what can colleges do to still recruit, educate, and graduate a diverse student population if affirmative action programs are fading?

The Case for Income Diversity

Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, writes for The Hill that the best way to keep diverse populations on campuses is to put income diversity programs in place. Minority groups are still at an income disadvantage when compared to white peers, so admission policies that take income into account and attempt to distribute those student openings among varying income levels. Levy cites the national poverty rates as proof that these programs would work: for white Americans, the poverty rate was 10 percent in 2013, compared to 26 percent for African-Americans and 24 percent of Hispanic Americans. Simply putting wording in place that reserves space for students based on their income levels has the potential to keep minority students in place.

I think the income diversity programs make a lot of sense. The whole point of affirmative action in the first place is to give traditionally disadvantaged students a shot at a college education. If that’s truly the goal, then students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, including white students, have a better shot at college placement under an income diversity program. A College Board/National Journal Next America Poll tells us that students who have parents who went to college are more likely to go themselves than their peers. We also know via U.S. Census Data that those parents make nearly $1 million more than their non-college peers. So the students who come from lower socioeconomic situations are not just at a cost disadvantage. From a mental perspective, it is more of a stretch that these students will go to college in the first place.

Which leads me to the next immediate thought I had after reading Levy’s piece: how can we make income diversity programs work? It’s one thing to put the wheels in motion with policy; it’s a totally different thing to make it successful. Along with important policy, colleges that are truly serious about income diversity must recruit those students smartly and have support programs in place that help them get to graduation. Recruitment should start early, even at middle school, before students have a chance at envisioning their lives without college. Get them excited as preteens about their futures with a college degree and let them know about income diversity initiatives.

My second point is equally important. As I mentioned above, first-generation college students face different challenges than their counterparts, and it’s important to guide them a little more closely to their degrees. If you’re going to actively recruit students who are economically disadvantaged, and may even be working their way through school, you have to implement programs that support them in those unchartered waters. It’s not enough to admit students from disadvantaged homes – colleges also have the responsibility to graduate them.

Income diversity initiatives have the potential to further diversify college campuses and give more students the opportunity at higher education. With the right implementation, they could finally close the achievement gap at the college level – but first universities have to get on board with the movement.

Why we need to pay attention to what’s happening on college campuses

College campuses often represent our larger society—in distinct, striking, and unusual ways. We know that today, racism, homophobia, and marijuana are hot-button issues in the national news.  As educators, it’s often useful to know how to navigate how college students and faculty tend to handle these issues. As you know, their reactions often influence higher education policy and the state of education in the US.

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