What Keeps You Up At Night?

Last week I had the opportunity to take part in a private meeting chaired by Jeff Selingo, the purpose of which was to provide him (and his colleagues at Georgetown and Arizona State) with feedback on a (soon to be) new executive education program designed to prepare the next generation of higher ed leaders. The meeting, that followed a very interesting panel discussion, included a mix of university presidents, deans and other senior leaders, foundation executives, search consultants, and others working in and around senior leadership in higher ed.

The facilitator for the session was a former member of George Mason‘s Board of Visitors, Kathleen deLaski, who started us off with the following question: “What keeps you up at night when you think about the future of higher education?”

As you might expect from such a large (30 or so participants) and diverse group, there were many answers to this question, but at the top of the list were concerns about access and the growing inequality that restricted access to higher education is causing. Other big concerns included finding sustainable financial models, issues around teaching and learning, a perception that the pool of potential senior leaders has gotten too shallow, and worries that the internal systems in higher ed are not up to making the changes that will be needed in the coming decade. But only a few of the participants didn’t mention access in some way, shape, or form.

Not convinced that access to higher education is a problem? As Selingo points out in his recent book, College Unbound, a young person’s odds of obtaining a bachelors degree are closely tied to his/her family income. Children coming from homes with a family income above $90,000 per year have a 1:2 chance of obtaining a BA/BS degree by age 24. If the family income is between $60,000 – $90,000, those odds drop to 1:4, and if the family income is below $35,000, the odds fall all the way down to 1:17. Not surprisingly, the odds of someone from a lower income family getting into a highly selective institution are also terrible compared to students from upper income families. (168)

That’s an access problem that should be keeping us all up at night, especially when you realize that 21 percent of children aged 5-17 in the United States are living in poverty, which is a 24% increase over 1990. In other words, the likelihood that any American high school senior is going to graduate with a bachelors degree is just going to keep falling until (a) we figure out a way to get more kids out of poverty and (b) we figure out how to provide greater access to those kids. Otherwise, frankly, we’re in serious trouble as an industry, not to mention as a country.

The solutions to getting kids out of poverty are well above my pay grade, but solutions to access are something I know a little bit about. And what I know is that it is not enough to throw money at the problem — greater funding opportunities for students help, and help a lot, but scholarships and other forms of financial aid are not the only answer. Just as important is creating the circumstances in which students who do enroll can graduate in a reasonable amount of time, i.e., four to six years.

Many colleges and universities devote an incredible amount of energy to student retention programs, and proactive administrative efforts do help. But what also helps, and this is where historians have a role to play, is faculty members who think carefully about student success and design courses and curricula that will facilitate success and learning simultaneously.

This is a complicated problem for history, because when it comes to our majors, too often we don’t see them at all until they are sophomores, because future history majors very often have taken an AP history course in high school and so have placed out of our freshman courses. And those freshman courses all too often exist just to serve the demands of a general education curriculum, not the history major.

Given this reality on so many college campuses, it seems to me that history departments can play their own small role in the larger access/retention problem by rethinking the sequence of courses from the first semester of a freshman’s college experience right through to graduation. And, we need to reach out to our campus retention specialists and ask — what is it that makes it more difficult for our students to graduate? And what can we do to help change that, especially for the students who are at most risk?

Changing the reality of student access and success in higher education is a big issue — far too big for any one discipline to fix. But as historians, we also know that grassroots efforts across a broad population often aggregate into something bigger than one has any reason to expect. In the historical literature we often call those “popular movements” or “change from below.”

It’s high time we started our own popular movement or joined someone else’s.


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