Monday, March 19, 2018

The Problem with the UMBC "Cinderella Story"

Last week, college basketball fans witnessed a historic event. For the first time ever, a No. 16 seeded team upset a No. 1 seeded team. The University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers not only beat the University of Virginia Cavaliers--they beat them by 20 points. As often happens with upsets, the story of UMBC’s victory went viral on social media, especially during a time when many Americans are desperate for some good news. UMBC was quickly branded this year’s “Cinderella Story.”

Writing about the idea of a “Cinderella Story” for NPR, Linda Holmes notes: “Americans will call almost anything a Cinderella story that involves a good thing happening to someone nice. We slap that title on movies and books, but also on basketball games won by tiny schools full of scrawny nerds.” She goes on to suggest that most variations of the story include “a mistreated young woman, forced to do menial work, either cast out or unloved by her family. She has an opportunity to marry well and escape her situation, but she gets that chance only after being mistaken for a higher-status person.” In many ways, I think this latter description better fits UMBC and many institutions like it.

UMBC is an excellent university with a strong reputation, particularly in the mid-atlantic region. This reputation developed largely separate from athletics. Yet it took playing in the most competitive tournament in college basketball, and pulling off an almost miraculous feat, for people to suddenly wake up and see UMBC. In the words of Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post, “After a 74-54 win over Virginia, UMBC has America’s attention. It is ready to listen to every remarkable thing about the university.” This is wonderful for UMBC’s players, students, faculty, staff, and leadership. However, it reveals a major problem in this country: our long-term, systematic neglect of public regional universities. Although UMBC got its moment in the spotlight, hundreds of institutions will never get a shot at the big dance. And this big-time oversight has big-time consequences.

I have spent the last four years working at a public regional university, and I also happen to research them. Incidentally, my university’s basketball team fell to Virginia in the first round of last year’s tournament. So, I know a few things about public regional universities and being the underdog. Having spent 7 years working in higher education in Maryland, I was certainly familiar with UMBC before their big win. Let me tell you a few reasons why we should not only pay attention to public regional universities, but also better fund and reward them for their unique contributions to U.S. higher education, irrespective of what happens during March Madness.

First, public regional universities educate a significant number of Americans. One estimate shows that public regional universities enroll two-thirds of people attending public, four-year colleges and universities. Some people might understandably ask, “So what?” After all, bigger and more elite institutions also educate many students. The difference is that public regional universities educate a much larger proportion of low-income, racially minoritized, and first-generation students than bigger and more elite institutions. Using the same estimate referenced above, public regional universities educate an astounding 85% of African American students, 74% of Hispanic/Latino students, and 70% of American Indian students attending public, four-year institutions. As one president I interviewed put it, public regional universities are “institutions of opportunity for the underserved.”

Second, public regional universities are affordable and efficient. Many Americans are worried about the price of college and how public institutions are stewarding taxpayer money. Public regional universities have had to figure out how to keep their prices low for a long time because of the types of students they serve. Raising tuition too high at public regional universities can have disastrous consequences for enrollment, retention, and persistence. Even though all public institutions have been affected by reductions in per-pupil state funding, there is reason to believe public regional universities have been disproportionately hurt by state disinvestment. Unlike bigger and more elite institutions, public regional universities can’t frequently rely on alternative revenue sources like major private gifts or overhead from federal grants to offset budget cuts. Instead, they have to figure out how to pursue excellence with insufficient resources. It shouldn’t be too surprising that research shows that many public regional universities are cost efficient.

Third, public regional universities are committed to high-quality teaching and student success. One persistent myth I have encountered in my research is that, based on metrics like retention and graduation rates, public regional universities are lower-quality compared to bigger and more elite institutions. My contention is that we shouldn’t give much weight to comparisons between public regional universities and institutions that enjoy phenomenally more resources and educate very different students. If we instead focus on what is actually happening at public regional universities, several features stand-out. Public regional universities are home to scholar-teachers who devote significant time to teaching and provide an unparalleled level of care to students. This type of personal attention to students, by the way, is particularly important for low-income, racially minoritized, and low-income students. It is worth noting that, as many other institutions figure out how to attract and educate the growing population of “non-traditional” students, public regional universities have been helping these student succeed for decades. We should start seeing public regional universities as thought leaders in serving these students.

Lastly, public regional universities are regionally-oriented, anchor social institutions, many of which serve economically depressed and rural areas. One president I interviewed called his university a “beacon of hope” in the region because it was the only organization hiring people during the Great Recession. If we were to remove public regional universities from the regions they serve, we would effectively eliminate a major employer, a major producer of well-educated employees, a major cultural institution, and a major source of hope in one fell swoop. And we shouldn’t shortchange this last point. As recent reporting has demonstrated, a public regional university is sometimes one of a few sites of opportunity in areas struggling with poverty and unemployment. My hypothetical scenario may sound extreme, but we should keep in mind that several states are experimenting with their systems of public regional universities, and some are considering closings and mergers.

Despite my “Debbie Downer” introduction, we should absolutely celebrate UMBC. Buy UMBC t-shirts. Donate to UMBC. However, if we wait for the next big game to pay attention to public regional universities, we continue a pattern of under-appreciating and under-investing in what I believe are the most important higher education institutions in this country. Aside from cheering on the Retrievers, here are a few things we can do to reverse this pattern.

One simple thing we can do is to scrutinize our language. Many people refer to public regional universities as “non-elite,” “non-selective,” or “non-flagship.” These labels often position public regional universities in negative relation to something we see as more valuable. I actually think we should throw the label “flagship” out the window. It wrongly suggests that there is one important institution in a state and a whole bunch of supporting institutions that don’t merit notice. I use the term public regional university, but others use regional comprehensive university.

If we are in a position to donate money to a college or university, I contend we ought to donate to public regional universities. As an employee of a public regional university, I’m biased, but I think the donation goes farther at our institutions. My undergraduate alma mater is a wealthy private college. I have the fondest memories of my time there, but they are financially in good shape. My donation makes more of a difference at a place like UNCW.

Journalists and researchers need to get over their infatuation with bigger and more elite institutions. Research on public regional universities is not nearly as developed as it should be, given the importance of these institutions. And much of it is quantitative in nature, which can be helpful, but doesn’t always tell the story of these institutions in a nuanced way. Journalists (and researchers) almost always discuss public regional universities from a deficit perspective, recycling a narrative of institutions in crisis, struggling to stay open, on the brink of extinction. Stop that. Take the enthusiasm that emerged from the UMBC victory and apply that appreciative lens to public regional universities broadly.

Finally, we should ask big questions about state funding formulas and other processes by which institutions receive public support. I’ve heard from many people at public regional universities that a disproportionate share of resources flows to bigger, more research-oriented universities. It’s possible that performance-based funding exacerbates these inequities. I struggle to argue for cutting funding to any public institution, but I’m more uncomfortable with the idea that public regional universities are not being funded at levels commensurate with their contributions.

Like Cinderella, many public regional universities are cast out, mistreated, and unloved unless they are given the chance to be viewed as something higher-status. UMBC got that chance, but it is just one institution among many. My hope is that we can view public regional universities as national treasures without having to rely on the magic of a major sports victory.

Friday, March 2, 2018

What I've Learned Advising Ed.D. Students

Although it wasn’t planned, I’ve recently written a series of posts based on my role co-coordinating an Ed.D. program. In previous posts, I speculated about the growth of Ed.D. programs and some things to consider when looking at Ed.D. programs. In this post, I share some insights I’ve learned advising/mentoring Ed.D. students. As is my custom, let me start with a caveat: I’m not an expert on this topic and have had to figure things out as I go, often through trial and error. I’m still learning and see this post as part of that process.

My lack of experience is part of the reason why I wanted to put my thoughts down. I had no training in advising/mentoring graduate students before I started in this role. My entire knowledge of advising/mentoring graduate students stemmed from my own experiences with advisors and the approaches that served me well. However, having been advised/mentored doesn’t automatically make me ready to effectively advise/mentor students. Moreover, I was a full-time Ph.D. student and my students are part-time Ed.D. students. The approaches that served me well don’t necessarily work well for my students. So, we’re talking about limited capacity here to do an important part of my job. What’s a junior faculty member to do? I jumped and tried not to mess up too badly.

As I mentioned, my experiences as a PhD student didn’t necessarily apply well to my Ed.D. students. I was a full-time Ph.D. with a part-time graduate assistantship. I had no children, and for several years lived within biking distance of campus. When I was working on my dissertation, I really had few distractions. My graduate assistantship was low-pressure enough that I could even write for a few hours per week while working that job. Honestly, my advisor didn’t have to push me too much. My Ed.D. students are working, typically more than 40 hours per week, in stressful jobs. Many of them have families and are juggling the expectations associated with work, classes, and loved ones. Some of them are putting in very long nights and giving up weekends to pursue their education. I have so, so much respect for my students and what they are doing. It is a small miracle each time one of them graduates. Nevertheless, the truth is that they need significant help to reach the finish line.

Here are some of the things I’ve done to help them get there. And many of these things help me, too, with time management and stress.

Group Advising Early in the Process

I still do individual advising with my students, but early in the process I bring students who are at the same general point together for a few group advising sessions. During these sessions, we talk about the nuts and bolts of the entire dissertation process, my approach to feedback, common pitfalls students face, the importance of communication, and other topics. Part of the idea is to bring students together and help them to see there are others they can lean on for help. I also try to remove some of the mystery in the process. Many students see the dissertation as this massive thing that has to be totally groundbreaking. These sessions can help right-size their ambitions and inject a dose of reality.

Tell Them What A Dissertation Is and How It Is Organized

During group advising sessions, I also break down the purpose and organization of each chapter of the dissertation. My approach isn’t to say that these are the magic ingredients of a dissertation that must be present and placed in this exact location. Rather, I stick to a few principles about what is generally included in a dissertation within our program, and I share a few examples. There is still room for students to shape the organization of the dissertation in ways that fit their project and goals. But I found early on that it’s unproductive to expect that my students know what a dissertation is and how it is organized. Telling them to simply go write and send me a draft is a recipe for disaster. So, I give them a bit of a blueprint. I know programs incorporate some of this information into a course. Ours does not in a systematic way, so this is my strategy.

Start Small and Build

This is a new thing I started doing, and I’ve been really happy with the results. Instead of having my students jump right into writing a chapter, I ask them to put together a 2-3 page statement of purpose with research questions. This helps to focus and give direction to subsequent parts of the dissertation. Many of my students have a decent idea of their project, yet when they started writing, they often danced around the purpose. As a result, they included a bunch of content that, while relevant, wasn’t necessary to the project. So, to help them save time, I start with the statement of purpose. After talking about the statement of purpose and agreeing on the research questions, I ask students to start outlining remaining sections of chapter 1. Next, I have them write the first 8-10 pages. Each of these pieces has a deadline, which I don’t police but use from time to time to nudge students. Starting small helps students to see that a dissertation is a big project, but it’s composed of many small, manageable parts that can be tackled in a systematic way, not dissimilar from work they would do in a course. Over time, they develop their own approaches and flow, without as much need for me to help them plan things out. At that point, the scaffolding can come down.

Help Them Protect Time

One of the main hurdles for my students is carving out time to write. They are sometimes their own worst enemies in this regard. After finishing courses, there is a false sense that they have space in their lives to add or change things. So, they take on new professional responsibilities, shifts jobs, and sometimes complicate their lives at a point in time when simplicity is highly valuable. I’ve had to learn as an advisor how to help my students navigate some of these decisions and help them to prioritize completing their dissertations. This means helping them understand how a new opportunity might interfere with their progress and sometimes helping them figure out how to talk with supervisors or supervisees about protecting their time. Ultimately, I can’t create their schedules or make them sit down and write. But I can provide support and gently remind them of why they decided to pursue this degree and how close they are to the finish line.

Advocacy, Empathy, and Tough Love

One of the hardest parts of advising/mentoring, for me, is recognizing that it’s not just a process. It’s a relationship, one that hopefully lasts a long time. My natural inclination is to want to treat everything like a problem that can be fixed with the right structure and systems. What I quickly learned--and this is probably true of all advising/mentoring relationships--is that my students needed more than just an explanation of steps to follow. They wanted to know that I am on their side, that I am as committed to their success as they are. They want someone who knows about them, their goals, their families, their professional joys and challenges. When I get busy, I can sometimes forget this and slip into a “business only” mindset, talking about edits to chapters, paperwork to file, and so forth. When I’m being a little more intentional, I ask a lot of questions, and the answers provide important context for problems and even possible solutions. But this doesn’t mean I sugarcoat things. If a student’s work has slipped, we talk about it. If a chapter isn’t ready, I send it back. Many of my students, by the time they reach the dissertation, are desperate, even zealous, to finish and get back to their pre-Ed.D. lives. One of the toughest, but most frequent, things I have to do as their advisor/mentor is be honest about their timeline.

Remember It’s Not My Project

The last thing--at least for this post--that I’ve had to internalize is that, despite working hard with students over many, many months, it’s their dissertation. This means I have to understand that they might do things differently than I would. There might be imperfections that I have to let go, even if they drive me a little crazy. I could certainly push to have a student edit and edit until their project aligns with my vision, but I’ve come to believe that’s not my purpose. Micromanaging a dissertation can lead to a never-ending spiral of passing drafts back and forth. I don’t think it’s good for students or advisors. At some point, as an advisor, I’ve learned to step away and let my students take the project where they want to take it.

I’ve had a crash-course in advising/mentoring over the past 4 years. I still feel like I have a ton to learn. If only there had been a course on this in my graduate program! Truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have taken that course. But I do wish my field provided more venues for workshops and other professional development on this. It’s such a critical and difficult part of being a professor. It’s also really, really enjoyable, especially when it goes well. My hope is that some of these insights are useful to others, and I absolutely welcome conversation and tips!