Some unsolicited feedback on the degree completion and retention strawmen

Like everyone else at EMU, I received an email from Provost Kim Schatzel on Thursday afternoon about EMU’s degree completion/retention plan and the chances for feedback on all this from students, staff, administrators, faculty, and I guess just about everyone else that start today. Here’s a link to the main web site for all this; here’s a link to the focus group schedule, here’s a link to the place where you can give online feedback, and here’s a link to the “Strawmen Proposals.”

No one asked me specifically my opinion about all this, but since the blog was here anyway and I have opinions, I thought I’d share them.

This isn’t exactly my first rodeo when it comes to seeing grand proposals from administrators, and it probably should be that way. Part of the job of being a suit is to have “a vision,” so every Provost (and President and Dean and Director and Department Head) needs some kind of initiative. I’m not so sure it even matters much if the plan succeeds or not, but having a plan and what the plan is about matters. So in that sense, having a plan to help improve degree completion and retention is probably a pretty good idea. I mean, the Provost’s initiative could have easily been a bad idea– rolling out/buying into MOOCs for general education, for example (and by the way, there are lots of academic administrators around the country drinking the MOOC Kool-Aid).

But after reading and thinking about them carefully, I’ve got a lot of issues and I’m not quite sure what these proposals are supposed to be. Part of my problem is calling them “Strawmen Proposals.” Straw man refers to an argumentative strategy where you purposefully misrepresent your opponents’ position in an effort to strengthen your own. For example, when opponents to “Obamacare” say that it’s bad because it will  set up death panels to ration care on your grandma, those opponents are offering a straw man argument because that’s just not something in the new health care law. Or when supporters of college football respond to critiques of the college football system something like “you just don’t like sports or America!” they’re making a straw man argument.

Which reminds me of this classic little snippet:

think what these are supposed to be is more like broad ideas, talking points, trial balloons, etc., as ways to begin debate.

I have many more thoughts after the break, but the thing that really makes me nervous about all this is the heavy emphasis on “career training” and all the squishy and vaguely offensive language about things like “soft skills” and “emotional intelligence.”

I like to think that a college education as a whole– not just general education– helps our students learn some of these hard to label soft skill things and helps our students to “grow up” a little, and I also realize that students come to college with the expectation that their degree will lead to some kind of post-college career. At the same time, a lot of this language suggests to me an especially non-academic experience, a sort of vision of an institution that is some combination of Cleary College and a finishing school from the 1950s.

I’ll start with the “Academic and Student Preparedness” strawman proposal.  First off, it bothers me that the only thing mentioned under “current or recent strategies” is the class “UNIV 101L– Introduction to the University, and Living & Learning Communities.”  This seems to forget things like the Holman Learning Center, the University Writing Center, the support services in the library, things like math tutoring, and probably a bunch of stuff I don’t know about.  Then there’s this:

Assessment of first year courses: The University should conduct a thorough assessment of the success of the UNIV courses and of the academically based first-year seminars. Consideration should be given to expanding and/or more clearly promoting these opportunities to students. In addition, the University should consider developing a series of workshops focused on first year transition issues that could be completed in lieu of the UNIV course. The University may also want to consider making a skill based intervention a mandatory part of the General Education Program.

Maybe this raises some concerns for me because of my connections with the first year writing program, but I’m kind of curious as to what this means. What is going to be assessed and how is this assessment going to be done? What does “a skill based intervention” mean? When it comes to writing, I sure hope it doesn’t mean an overbearing “drill and kill” approach to grammar and correctness because there are lots and lots of studies in my field that prove this doesn’t work.

And hopefully, this assessment is not going to be relative to these UNIV courses, which a) aren’t in an academic department and aren’t vetted by any faculty (as far as I know), and b) receive mixed reviews from students and faculty at best.

Then there’s this:

Creation of a Co-Curricular Transcript: The University should develop strategies to encourage the early practice of engagement that will help develop missing social aptitude. For example, consider the development of co-curricular transcripts to encourage students to develop out-of classroom experiences. Students could set goals with their advisor to develop a co-curricular developmental plan to help build soft skills which employers find desirable. We also know that students are entering college underprepared in Math and English. This is something that colleges and universities are struggling with on a national level. Students and graduates need strong analytical and writing skills to be successful in college and in their careers.

Help develop missing social aptitude? Soft skills?  What does that mean? Surely it can’t mean things that I take as a given is happening in most college courses– that is, we prepare students to go forward as educated and informed citizens of their state, nation and world; to be aware of the professional expectations and different intellectual and cultural discussions in their chosen fields; etc.  Is “missing social aptitude” and “soft skills” a concern about the dang kids today who don’t respect their elders and who are wasting their time with video games and rock and/or roll? Is it a concern about hygiene, dress codes, hair styles, manners, civility? Is it about which fork one uses at a table and which way to pass the food? Is it about saying “yes sir” and “no sir?”

There’s also language here about a “co-curriculuar transcript,” which I guess means students somehow take some courses at EMU before they actually enroll and take classes like “developmental math courses and/or ENGL 120 prior to enrolling in their first full semester of course work.” I’m not exactly sure how it would work to allow students to take courses before enrolling them (I would think students are by definition enrolled when they take classes). I do think more students should take ENGL 120– actually, I’d like to see it required of all students coming to EMU– but I’m mot sure it makes sense to say these are the courses you have to take before you become students.

The “Curriculum Structure and Service Delivery” proposal begins with the assumption that a lot of students have a hard time graduating because it’s hard for students to schedule some required courses to satisfy degree requirements. This document also points out that somewhere around 45% of students have completed at least 60 credits and “didn’t make it into their major of choice – and are now in a position of having many credits and no clear career path.”  For example, a student takes a bunch of pre-req/entry-level classes for a major like Nursing that has a lot of specific pre-req courses where students have to have a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 or better to be considered for admission to the program. And as I understand it, because the program is very competitive, that’s no guarantee you’ll get into it. They take these courses, they don’t get the 3.0 GPA, and they’re forced to consider a “plan B” major with a lot of credits that probably won’t be applicable to that new major.

The other problem is how many credits it takes to complete a major is all over the place.  Many programs require a ton of credits– Nursing is 60 credits, Marketing is 60 credits, Accounting Information Systems is 69 credits, Technology Management is between 60 and 79 credits– while other programs are a lot less– Literature, Written Communication, Political Science, and Economics are are all 30 credits, Art is 39 credits, etc.  Anyway, some of the recommendations here are the “Creation of a General Studies degree,” a review of prerequisites and requirements in different majors, ” and an “examination of course scheduling patterns.”

First off, one way to help students “sustain progress and momentum” is to have a policy about not canceling classes at the last minute, especially classes with 10 or so students. My point is it’s not just a matter of “scheduling” that causes students problems. In fact, I think that’s probably fairly low on the list.

Second, I think it might be worthwhile for different programs to review their prereqs and requirements: do some of these majors really need to be 60+ credits, and do majors really want to require particular gen ed classes (which seems to defeat the purpose of general education in the first place)?  That said, it seems to me that we could do a lot better at heading off the problem of juniors/seniors who have too many credits and a lack of plans by getting those students to focus in their first two years on gen ed that will be applicable to whatever they major in later on. In that sense, I think the problem is actually that students declare a major too early in their college careers rather than too late.

Third, we have a General Studies program at EMU already– it’s called “Individualized Studies” and it’s designed to do what this proposal is suggesting, to help students who have a ton of credits and who just want to graduate. Of course, existing major or proposed “general studies” major seems at odds to me with all of this emphasis on college for career. I can’t think of any job ad I’ve ever seen asking for students who have a background in “general studies.”

Anyway, this strawman/proposal also calls for a “Professional development institute,” which is more about this soft skills stuff and “emotional intelligence.”  Here’s a couple of more quotes about that:

Increasingly, employers are speaking out about a noticeable gap between college graduates’ applied skills and the emotional intelligence needed to transition from student to professional. While EMU’s academic programs are adequately preparing students with technical and practical aptitudes, a deficiency exists (for many students) in the development and strengthening of “soft skills” for job preparedness.

Then there’s this:

This mismatch serves as a ‘call for action’ for the implementation of a program to close the gap. According to the National Association of Colleges & Employers data, the top 10 skills and qualities employers seek were:

  • verbal communication
  • ability to work in teams
  • decision making/problem solving
  • ability to plan, organize, and prioritize
  • ability to obtain and process information
  • quantitative data analysis
  • technical knowledge
  • computer software proficiency
  • ability to write and edit written reports
  • sell and influence others

This data indicates the University could increase the marketability of our students by providing a vehicle in which they can cultivate their soft skills and emotional intelligence. This program could be charged with assessing the various soft skills of each student, developing a personalized training plan based on the areas of need and using competency-based assessment tools to prove mastery.

I like to think that these “top 10 skills and qualities” are things that we teach in college generally regardless of major, though I also think that these “skills and qualities” are pretty baggy– might as well “clean, thrifty, and brave” to the list.

But besides the previously mentioned soft skills, now we’re being introduced to something called “emotional intelligence.” If I’m being charitable here, I can interpret this as basically meaning college should teach people how to participate properly in middle/upper-middle class America and how to not be assholes, goals I think are mostly noble but probably not possible to achieve with gen ed programs or “Institutes.”

Uncharitably, it strikes me as an effort to make people behave in a particular way that pleases managers. It’s the same kind of language that has come up in the past with some contract negotiations for codes regarding “civility” or “conduct” among faculty or other workers– there was an article about debate of “civility” at the University of Oregon just a couple weeks ago in Inside Higher Ed. The argument against these civility clauses has been that they restrict academic freedom, something I assume that everyone within a university values highly. So it seems to me that we need to value freedom of expression and freedom of thought in our students, and sometimes that means not being quite as focused on “soft skills” or “emotional intelligence.”

I think a lot of what is in the Advising and Student Support Services proposal makes sense (more on the good stuff later), but I don’t really understand what the “University College” concept. It seems to be for students who haven’t declared a major when they come in. Here’s a quote:

Within the University College, students will be assigned an academic advisor as well as a career coach. The University College will serve as a “home” for these students – where they can explore majors and careers in a supported and  holistic manner. The University College could consider placing holds on accounts for all FTIACs until they have met with an advisor and/or consider additional holds for those students who have not yet declare a major. Additional resources might include streamlined access to tutors, study tables, job shadowing opportunities and mentors.

Well, who is going to decide who is doing all this? Is this going to be an expansion of the UNIV course experience? Who is going to pay for these advisors and career coaches? Given that advising and “coaching” is part of the job of faculty right now, does this represent a shift away from those priorities? In other words, I think the “University College” would inevitably suck away resources from individual departments and centralize them in the Provost’s office. I don’t think that serves students well and I know it doesn’t serve faculty and staff well at all.

But I’ve gone on far too long without saying anything good about these strawmen, and there are good things here. Like I said before, the fact that this is the topic of this initiative is in and of itself good news.

I think there’s something to be said for doing more with service learning and efforts to connect our curriculum with the community. That’s a lot harder to do in general education classes, but I’m for the effort. I like most of the suggestions for advising, particularly more robust online tools like U.Achieve (aka Red Lantern), and I think there ought to be more training for faculty advisors in using this software. I’m for better communication with our students– who would be against that? I agree that we ought to do more to require students to meet with an advisor because while students receiving bad advice does cause a lot of problems, students seeking no advice is a much more significant problem.

And I also agree that we ought to do a review “to ensure that all programs are offered in a way that allows for 4-year graduation,” though with some important reality checks and caveats. You can graduate in four year if you are going to school full time, if you get your gen out of the way first, and if you don’t wildly change your major, and a significant percentage of our students who don’t graduate in four years are not doing these things.

Like I said, far far too much, but I got on a roll. What do you think of these strawmen?