Colleges and universities are, generally, well-resourced. Although the statement may be unpopular, consider how well-resourced colleges and universities tend to be. Despite years of budgetary cuts, movement toward performance funding models, rising tuition, etc., etc. it may be hard for some to imagine that we remain resource-rich environments. Think about it this way, colleges and universities are staffed with some of the best people to support student learning and success. From our faculty members to our professional staff, we have around us well-intentioned, well-educated individuals who form our team of scaffolding to support student learning and student outcomes. As someone steeped in positive psychology, I’m working to employ my “optimistic explanatory style” that I hope would make Professor Seligman proud!
An Optimistic View of Resource Availability in Higher Ed
It’s easy to become pessimistic in higher education these days, but I like to take the long view on our overall outlook. Our external realities have changed. The diversification of the academy following WWII and the introduction of the GI Bill alone changed the landscape of American higher education. The rise of the community college and its maturation over the past 60 years has also shifted how access-oriented education serves as both a means and an end for students of all backgrounds. Although I will not write off completely the importance of tackling challenges like rising tuition and rising overall costs to provide a higher education, especially in the shadow of dramatically declining public funding to higher education, I cannot view the vast resources available on any given modern college campus as anything but an expression of immense ‘wealth’.
The Efficiency Problem
Our main problem is that our model of education is not terribly efficient. In the context of an environment with increasing costs and declining appropriation, that makes an inefficient model extra challenging. I am not advocating for a model of educational efficiency. The time alone needed for educational transformation is inherently ‘inefficient’ by sheer economic standards. Not really knowing what is working and for whom when it comes to the pathways toward student educational transformation, amplifies the inefficiency however. Determining what students need, when they need it, and in what modality and exposure would be immensely helpful to best deploy our resources – not only for the sake of efficiency, but really for the sake of the learners, our students. Think of it as a model and expression of stewardship.
Consider one of our often more well-resourced areas of student success – advising. Effective academic advising is often cited in the literature as a key component to student success; however any advisor will tell you that a one-size-fits-all model for advising just does not work. We need to identify the kind of advising students need and the time when they need exposure to that advising. True gains are made, then, when we can determine which students need more intrusive and time-intensive supports, and when other students need lighter-lift support. This is where the power of prediction and measurement come to bear fruit in helping determine what is working and for whom so adjustments can be made with our finite resources.
Bolstering Students through Support Services
Another important resource on campus is tutoring and writing center support resources. Writing has been called the ‘currency of the academy’ and those of us who have had the opportunity to study at the graduate level understand well the importance of crafting language in our field. Writing, in particular, is a learned and developed skill that requires much practice. Our ability to support our students with writing center resources is great, but we often do not know exactly how much support students will need along their journey to success. A universal ‘come and get it’ approach to writing support services is not always enough – especially for students who exhibit certain risks. We can, therefore, be more intentional and purposeful with our resources by channeling students toward campus services like writing and tutoring centers if we 1) understand who is at risk in the first place, 2) understand who is using services on campus, and 3) know better how the usage of those services assists individual students.
Getting Friendly with your Resources
This is really just an exercise in getting wiser and more intentional with our resources. I’m not advocating for programmatic cuts when something is not working; instead, I assume that behind every program on a college campus is a well-meaning, well-intentioned professional with a desire to serve students. If we can provide that well-intentioned professional with a better understanding of how students are impacted by the services they provide, can we not assume that individual is equipped to change toward more effective and better-practice models if we then support them toward change? (Hint, hint senior administrators – this is where leading to create a culture that is more nimble toward adaptation can be the best way to serve students).
My colleague at Utah State University, Dr. Mitchell C. Colver says it best, so I can merely paraphrase him – if, as leaders, we can provide our professional staff with data on the students they serve, with autonomy to make informed decisions and changes, and supports to help them make those changes in light of those data, then we are actually leading. A culture aimed at continuous improvement that is also rooted in evidence-based practices can do great things. Our colleagues in healthcare practices provide us a decent model to examine. Is this working? For whom and in what ways? What is its ideal dosage? In the presence of this information, how do we go forth and make others also healthier?
We now have the methods to perform rigorous efficacy analysis and predict risk … let’s create the cultural sweet spot on campus that reconsiders our resources less as declining, and more as merely finite. Our true resource richness affords us myriad opportunities should we become increasingly nimble toward changes that support our ever-changing student populations.