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I try to restrict my blogging to issues related to higher education.  From time to time, I write about topics related to the Catholic Church from the context of my experience as the President of a Catholic College.  But the first anniversary of the papacy of Pope Francis and his recent meeting with the President of the United States has really caused me to reflect on the difference between perception and reality.

On March 27, President Obama visited the Vatican and spent close to an hour with Pope Francis.  I am not sure why the President asked for this meeting, but spending time with the most popular leader in the world cannot hurt a President who has approval ratings hovering at or slightly above 50%.  President Obama has been an outspoken advocate for social issues and his efforts are clearly laudable for those of us concerned about the Common Good.

After the meeting, both sides issued separate reports on their time together.  In byzantine language familiar to both Washington, DC and the Vatican, the summaries of their discussions were different and somewhat opaque.  It seems to me that the perception that was promoted is that these two leaders had a friendly conversation and share a common agenda focused on social issues. 

President Obama clearly has a concern for social justice.  In fact, his sentiments are rooted in his experience with the Catholic Church.  Anyone interested in this history should read the March 22, 2014 article in the NY Times by Jason Horowitz entitled, “The Catholic Roots of Obama’s Activism.” 

In the mid 1980’s, Obama arrived in Chicago to work as a community organizer.  According to Horowitz, Obama was deeply affected by the writing and speeches of Cardinal Joseph L. Bernadin, who first developed the concepts of a “consistent ethic of life” and the integration of life issues and social justice into a “seamless garment.”

But despite these roots in a Catholic notion of life and justice, and the good work he is trying to do, the President holds many views contrary to the teaching and belief of the Catholic Church and its leader, Pope Francis. 

There is a perception vs. reality confusion with the Pope as well.  His personal approach, his humility, his outreach to the poor, his smile, etc., all seem genuine.  His direction to focus less on the issues of contraception and homosexuality has been welcome to those who believe that the Church has become too fixated on certain issues to the exclusion of the broader social gospel.

But the reality is that the Pope has said nothing and done nothing to undermine the fundamental beliefs of the Church related to life issues.  In fact, while he has broadened the agenda and invited a more intimate relationship between the Church and the faithful, he has been consistent theologically with his predecessors.

Perhaps the one clear sign that we need to pay more attention to reality rather than perception can be found in the gift exchange been Pope Francis and President Obama.  Pope Francis gave the President a copy of his recent apostolic exhortation, “Evangelium Gaudium.”  The President promised to read it.  If he does, he will quickly realize that while the Pope and the President share some views, they are very different in many other values and beliefs.  And that’s just the reality of the situation!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

For the past twenty years, a consistent concern of faculty is the limited writing proficiency of incoming students.  Sometimes we relate this to the perceived lack of writing training in high schools.  More recently, we surmise that the way students communicate through social media with acronyms, abbreviated words and short statements limits their ability to write sentences and paragraphs.

Colleges like AMC address this concern in multiple ways.  Writing is central to the Colleges summer bridge program which is offered to incoming freshmen.  Most freshmen take a writing course in their first semester.  The Success Center provides multiple opportunities and resources to assist students with their overall writing skills and their specific assignments in their classes.  The good news is that we see the results of these efforts in the increased writing proficiency of our students throughout their undergraduate experience.

With this as the context, I was interested in a recent article regarding the self-assessment by freshmen of their writing skills.  While described as an impressionistic picture of the views of incoming students rather than a formal or scientific study, the results were surprising to me.  This may explain why some freshmen resist the multiple offers of assistance to improve their writing until they receive repeated feedback from their instructors.

The Conference on College Composition and Communications, the Two-Year College English Association, and the Council of Writing Program Administrators collaboratively organized conversations between students and faculty members on a number of campuses.  The results reflect information generated last Fall from 63 professors teaching 2,200 students.

A vast majority of the students who participated in these conversations believe that they arrive on campus with college-level writing skills fully formed.    They also state that they write about 25 hours per week.  They define their writing time as being related to their coursework and not primarily texting or other social media activities.

This self-reported assessment is consistent with the findings from the CIRP Survey which I wrote about a few weeks ago.  In that national Freshmen Survey, only about 15% of the respondents thought they would need tutoring in writing and over half thought that their writing skills were above average as they entered college.

Even those faculty who believe students are relatively proficient in their writing when they begin their college education, raised concerns about the meaning of writing proficiency.  What was clear from these responses is that most students view writing as a performance rather than a process.  If they can earn a satisfactory grade, they can write.

Those who teach college-level writing see writing as a process through which students develop a number of skills (e.g., creativity, flexibility, persistence, metacognition) as well as the ability to write in different ways for different audiences.  Most faculty view writing as developmental where improvement is continuous without necessarily reaching mastery.  We can all improve our writing even bloggers.

Our responsibility is to do our best to insure that graduates have both the ability and appreciation for critical thinking, analysis and writing. Whether they come to us more or less proficient, the key is that they graduate ready to use these abilities and open to continuous improvement.


(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

I have written regularly about the growing interest in online education throughout higher education. It has certainly become a major emphasis at AMC and will likely become even more important in the near future.

One of the best sources of keeping up with the trends in online education is the annual report conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group. The eleventh annual report was published a few days ago and provides insightful data about the attitudes towards online education and the role it plays in the higher education landscape.

This report, entitled “Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States”, is a national study. All active, degree granting colleges and universities are invited to participate. Of the 4,726 colleges and universities invited to participate, the analysis reflects the responses from 2,831 institutions (59.9%). Because so many of the non-responding institutions are very small in size, the analysis in this report represents 81.0% of all higher education enrollments. Here are some of the major findings:

-     In Fall, 2012, there were 7.1 million online enrollments. This means that over 7 million college students took at least one online course. These enrollments represent 33% of total higher education enrollments (21.3 million). This reflects a 6.1% growth from the prior year (an increase of over 411,000 students).

-     66% of the responding institutions identify online learning as “critical” to their long term educational strategy. This is slightly lower than last year, but this slight decline actually reflects the consistent number of institutions that still have no online courses or programs. For those who have any online education, the importance to the future has remained high with over 70% reporting that it is “critical”.

-     A majority of chief academic administrators believe that the learning outcomes for online education are “as good as or better” than those for face-to-face instruction (74%). While this is slightly lower than last year (77%), the decrease again reflects the consistency of the views of those who do not offer any online instruction.

-     Regarding the future of online education, the results were somewhat mixed. When asked whether or not a majority of college students would be taking at least one online course within the next five years, 90% of the respondents thought this “likely” or “very likely”. However, close to one-third of the respondents believe that concerns about the relative quality of online instruction will remain.

-     A majority of respondents (68.9%) believe that it takes more discipline on the part of students to successfully complete online courses. What is interesting in this finding is that those who felt the most strongly about this issue are institutions offering associate degrees. Yet, these are the institutions with the most positive views about online education in general and have the highest online penetration rates. Clearly, their belief in the need for more discipline is not a deterrent to offering these programs.

Online education is not only here to stay, but represents a growing presence in higher education. Whether a single course, part of a hybrid program, or a complete degree program, more and more students are choosing to enroll in online education if this option is made available to them.

The time to oppose online learning is past. Our responsibility is to make sure online courses meet the academic standards of our institutions in terms of content, learning objectives, academic rigor and assessment. This is our future and we must take it seriously.


(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

It is a common experience for those with high school age children to watch and agonize as the college admissions process unfolds. Typically, college bound students identify a “first choice” for admission and focus most of their energy on this college. And then the waiting game begins. Will they be admitted? Will their hopes and dreams be fulfilled?

But recent research indicates that while “first choice” institutions are still identified, fewer and fewer first year college students end up attending this college. In the end, it is becoming more of an issue of cost and available financial aid. So while prospective students know their preferred college, they often attend the institution they can best afford.

These findings and others are included in the recently released report of the CIRP Freshman Survey. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) has been administering this survey to new college freshmen annually for almost 50 years. This research is valuable not only because it is well done, but also because it provides one of the few longitudinal studies of freshmen behaviors, beliefs and values.

The most recent report reflects the responses of 165,743 first-time, full-time students who entered 234 four-year colleges and universities in the United States in Fall, 2013. The institutions that participated varied in size, type and selectivity.

The results provide a comprehensive picture of freshmen before they begin to take classes at their college. The sections of the report include the following areas:

  • Established behaviors in high school;
  • Academic preparedness;
  • Admissions decisions;
  • Expectations of college;
  • Interactions with peers and faculty;
  • Student values and goals;
  • Student demographic characteristics; and,
  • Concerns about financing college.

While I may return to these data in the coming weeks, I was particularly interested in the shifts in patterns related to the choice of college. Consistent with past years, “academic reputation” and “graduates’ job prospects” remain the top reasons influencing choice. But “cost” and “financial” aid have become far more important.

The result of this shift is that only 57 percent of the respondents enrolled at their first choice college, despite the fact that 76 percent had been admitted. This percentage of students attending their first choice college has dropped by 12 percent in the last decade. Over 60 percent reported that financial aid and the cost of college was paramount to their final decision. This is an even more important factor for first generation college students.

One of the impacts of this trend is that prospective students are applying to more institutions. In the last five years, for example, the percentage of prospective students applying to more than four colleges has increased by 10 percent.

When prospective students identify a “first choice,” it is typically because of a strong sense of fit. They fall in love with the campus, feel comfortable with the faculty and staff, relate well to the students, and are excited about a course of study and extra-curricular opportunities.

But today’s economic challenges have made the college choice more complicated. While there will always be 20-30% who are not admitted to their first choice, more and more will not be able to attend because another college is more affordable. This is a sad reality for both families and colleges.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

There have been a number of reports over the past several years that have questioned both the rigor and the efficacy of college educational practices. The book, Academically Adrift (2011), garnered international attention and painted a dismal picture of the current educational environment on most college campuses.

A new project entitled, College Educational Quality (CEQ), is being led by researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and providing a different perspective. They have just published the results of their pilot study, and though it may be too early to draw too many conclusions, their approach to assessing quality is new and innovative.

The pilot study involved research on educational quality at two selective research institutions, one private and one public. The research team (graduate students) actually sat in on classes (more than 150 classroom observations) and studied curricula through the analysis of almost 150 syllabi. For the most part, the researchers observed classes and/or analyzed syllabi related to their own undergraduate majors.

Their assessment focused on two areas: academic rigor and teaching quality. Academic rigor involved:

-       The quality of cognitive complexity required (based on Bloom’s Taxonomy);

-       The amount of academic work (based on the research related to time on task and the quality of effort);

-       The standards and expectations assigned (based on widespread frameworks of standards and grade inflation).

Teaching quality involved:

-       Teaching in-depth subject matter and ideas;

-       Accessing and transforming prior knowledge;

-       Supporting learning.

What did they learn? In general, this study indicated that while there is room for improvement, the quality of education is better than often reported. Based on the research design, both institutions scored in the middle of the quality scale. In addition, there was no statistical difference between the scores at the two institutions.

More specifically, they found that most students attended classes (82%), instructors effectively introduced complex ideas, and the level of complexity was appropriate for college level learning. That’s the good news.

They also found that too many students were not actively engaged in the course material, expectations for class participation were low, and instructors too seldom connected the prior learning/knowledge of students with the current course.

Additional findings of interest included the correlation between academic rigor/teaching quality and longer classes (i.e., longer than an hour), smaller class sizes (i.e., less than 25) and student engagement (i.e., students asking questions and class discussions).

Those leading the CEQ effort readily admit that this is an initial study with limited data. But the criteria make sense to me and the initial results are hopeful. I will keep an eye on their subsequent research.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)