I just got off another call in my new role as Chief Academic Officer at Campus after hearing a statement that I have listened to hundreds of times in my career and twenty or more times in the last 30 days. It’s a statement that is both defeatist and gnarled with context but is also extremely real. This statement, said in dozens of ways, essentially boils down to this – maybe you’ve heard it before:
“Our institution is pretty siloed, so I’m not sure the other executive management team members will be interested in making it work. I’ll need a few weeks to see what their appetite might be…”
On its face, that statement may seem innocuous. It may just feel like a realistic, pragmatic view of life at an interdepartmental organization. It may just feel like a fact of life. But if you dig, even just a little bit, that statement may be the most substantial problem higher ed is facing.
In fact, if you’re part of a just about any organization with multiple department heads, none of whom work together, instead choosing to work in parallel, you will know what I’m getting at here. But look at the ripples for a minute – the tangential problems this kind of work brings out.
One Example: Who is responsible for retention? Traditionally this question was suited for professors or academic affairs. While a handful of schools are satisfied with exceptional retention rates (typically schools that only recruit the cream of the crop), most schools are struggling to find ways for students to persist.
In the 1980’s most experts agree that the problem with college went from one of ‘access’ to one of ‘success.’ But I don’t think it’s overly controversial to suggest that laying retention solely at the feet of academic affairs has not worked. (It was historically their problem, yet the problem is larger than ever, ergo) In fact, it’s probably important to note the problems from the AA side of the fence.
Ask Deans or Chairs about retention, and you’ll soon hear a real struggle between quality and lowering expectations. Talk to a President about retention and the savviest administrators will explain that academics consistently complain about having to retain students who aren’t “ready” for college or “dumbing down” content to keep underprepared students in the class. Meanwhile, their student life administrators are whispering in those same President’s ears about how hard it is to overcome academic struggles just by using carnivals or free schwag.
That’s why in recent years, more and more research shows that student retention should be everyone’s issue. Why do students drop out? Academic problems? Yes. A lack of readiness for studying, test taking, paper writing, math ability? Yes. But why else?
Do people drop out because of “life” issues, like a sick parent, job loss, lack of child care, etc.? Yes.
Do students drop out of school because of feeling disconnected from peers, their major’s department, or the university itself? Yes.
Do students drop out because they struggle to see purpose weighted against the amount of time it takes to succeed? Yes.
Do students drop out for financial reasons? Yes.
Do students drop out because they don’t believe they are smart or capable? Yes.
Do students drop out because of technology foibles, non-intuitive systems, or bad helpdesk experiences? Yes.
Do students drop out because of feeling intimidated, bad advising, perceived policies, or possibly even bullying? Yes.
I think you see where I’m going…
I can give you dozens of specific examples of exactly that. In fact, if you read Dweck, Duckworth, Lieberman, or a host of others, “life” skills beyond academic are now being touted as more predictive of both failure and success than academic readiness, above parental achievement, GPA, or SAT/ACT scores. Researchers can point to resiliency, social awareness/connectedness, open-mindedness, motivation, self-awareness, social intelligence, volition, and other factors we rarely measure as more predictive of a person’s success than any academic data point.
So whose problem is student retention again?
Keep in mind; retention is just one example. When I heard the silo comment from an executive administrator, it was about a technology strategy that would better connect the campus. In fact, you could even look at the platform play as a Trojan Horse of sorts – it better connects people and departments even when they don’t fully realize it. But still, she alluded to the notion that if the idea weren’t from one of the specific Vice Presidents, then it would not likely be entertained.
It’s a fascinating, albeit unsettling truth about higher education and is often why private business struggles to find commonality with institutions. Good companies and business leaders know the importance of a shared vision, shared goals and shared implementation procedures. Rare is the business that allows each unit leader to manage in their way, for their purposes, to achieve their outcomes. In fact, in this day and age, that strategy (or lack of it) would mostly be seen as a recipe for disaster. Yet it contextualizes 99% of colleges and universities. Imagine the potential of fixing that problem.
Look, I understand why “fixing” K-12 education or even all of higher ed is beyond daunting. Mainly because there is no structure in place by which to do so, those massive swaths of our career landscape cannot be fixed promptly. It’s why many of the sideline detractors shout for revolution instead of transformation.
There is no way to transform higher education right now, so starting over after a major crisis is often their answer. But fixing a college or university… that IS possible. Granted, it’s rare, but if someone was willing to expend the energy, political capital, and focus resources, it’s entirely possible. A Lee Iococa or Jack Welsh type could come in and bind together a single institution.
Imagine the power of your entire staff and administration working as one! That could quickly impact 10,000 or even 60,000 students. It wouldn’t mean a disruption in service, nor would it put accreditation at any risk. In fact, both of those things would improve. But it would mean breaking down those silos. All of them.