President's Blog

 

There are very few things in the world that are irrefutable. Two plus two will always equal four; the sun will always rise in the east and set in the west; and even when they win, the Red Sox will cause us “agita!”

But it is rarely surprising to find research that seems to contradict or at least provide an alternative perspective about educational issues. There are multiple theories and applications and there are always varying opinions and interpretations.

A little over a month ago, I wrote a blog entitled, “The Value of an Online Degree” (September 8, 2013). Referencing highly reliable research, this study indicated extremely positive views towards online degrees … views comparable to perceptions of traditional degree programs. But a recent Gallup Poll provides a significantly different perspective.

Gallup recently polled two groups of 1000 adults asking them if they thought “online education was better” in a number of categories. The results were mixed at best.

In terms of overall quality, only 34% of respondents rated online programs as “excellent” or good” compared to 68% rating traditional four-year programs as “excellent” or “good.” Online programs only received highly favorable ratings in terms of the “wide range of options for curriculum” (72% say online better) and providing “good value for the money” (67% say online better).

However, respondents believe that online programs provide “less rigorous testing and grading,” less qualified instructors, and, in direct contrast with the previous study I reported, “less credence with employers compared with traditional, classroom-based education.”

As I reflect upon this data, I think the reader has to retain a clear perspective. These results are likely an accurate reflection of the general public. The 2000+ respondents in the two samples in Gallup’s study were picked in a way to insure randomness and conformity to national demographic trends. They were all 18 years old or older.

But they were not disproportionately college educated. We know that fewer than 30% of Americans earn a college degree. So what did these respondents know about online programs or traditional programs? Only 5% had any experience with online education in any form. So how were they sufficiently informed to assess?

Public perceptions tell us a great deal about how we communicate the value and quality of online education to the general public. The previous study focused on the assessment of employers and recruitment professionals, who may not have taken an online course or program, but have a database of candidates and employees who come to them with varied educational backgrounds.

From my experience, the best way to understand and appreciate online education is to try it. I have been amazed to see faculty and students wary of the comparability of online programs in terms of quality and personal attention go through a conversion experience once they teach or take a class.

There will always be traditional on-ground programs. But the reality is that online education is growing because of the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s students. There is still a lot of educating to do about online education, but it is worth it.

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

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Last week as I was scanning the higher ed trade journals, an article caught my eye entitled, “Corruption in Higher Education Appears to Be on the Rise Globally.” In reading the article, I was introduced to an organization new to me … Transparency International.

Transparency International was founded in 1993 and now has 100 national chapters worldwide. This organization describes itself as “independent and accountable” ... stating that they “are politically non-partisan and place great importance on our independence. We alone determine our programmes and activities – no donor has any input into Transparency International’s policies. Our sources of funding are made transparent as is our spending.”

The organization was founded for a simple but challenging purpose … to address corruption in the world in areas of government, business, society and individual lives. The organization takes public positions, conducts research, and is active in many projects throughout the world. One of their recent studies focused on education.

The lengthy study provided two interesting and important perspectives. First, there is a delineation of corrupt practices. In the United States, the most challenging concern is plagiarism. This finding comes as no surprise to those of us who teach college students. We continue to find evidence of students using someone else’s work as their own or more commonly, using the “cut and paste” feature on their computers without appropriate citation and reference.

The corruption problems in other parts of the world are more pervasive. The report cites entire systems of education that are totally corrupt. Unethical practices include widespread falsification of grades, payoffs to faculty and administrations prior to completion of degrees, requirements to purchase professors’ books in order to receive a passing grade, sexual exploitation of students by faculty and administrators and falsification of applications.

While most of these systemic problems were found to a greater extent in other parts of the world, falsification of application materials is also an issue in this country. This study found this problem to be more common with international students seeking to study in this country who submit personal statements written by someone else and falsified Toefl and other language proficiency scores.

But a large part of this study may be even more important than exposing corrupt practices. The report reflects the organization’s priority to “ensure that the next generation is prepared to say no to corruption.” It describes a number of specific actions and strategies to combat corruption, and address the abuse of power, bribery and secret dealings that are “corroding the educational experience.” The report challenges governments, international organizations, businesses, educational systems, and civil society to “ensure good governance is promoted in education policy all over the world.”

In reading this report, I was simultaneously depressed and enthusiastic. It is sad to see the continued evidence of corruption and the erosion of integrity in the educational systems throughout the world. Teaching and learning are noble professions and I always want to believe that those who choose to teach and lead educational institutions do so with a commitment to truth, fairness and quality.

But this report also embraces the value of shaping both minds and hearts. While we have a responsibility to provide students with knowledge, we must also help them to develop wisdom. We are responsible to help them develop values that will serve their personal goals and the Common Good.

I encourage you to visit the website of Transparency International. The battle to overcome corruption may be daunting, but this organization is fighting the good fight!

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

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Typically, I change the topic of my blog from week to week. The exception is when I am commenting on a large study where the data and findings seem better shared over several weeks. I had a new topic in mind for this week, but then the reactions to last week’s blog came pouring in.

From week to week, I receive 20-30 responses to my blog. Last week’s blog on “What Would Pope Francis Say?” generated over 70 responses. About half agreed with my perspective. The rest were critical and followed two lines of thought.

Some argued that the Pope didn’t mean that issues related to life and contraception were not paramount in the Church. For these responders, this is the first and primary issue about which the Church should speak and advocate.

Others argued against big government and social service programs. If I ever see a picture of Pope Francis reading Dr. Seuss, perhaps these responders are correct that the Pope’s position is similar in some way to that of Senator Ted Cruz. But I really don’t think so.

First, none of us can really speak for Pope Francis. It is a rhetorical question. But what is clear after six months of his papacy is that this Pope is still an enigma. His every word and action is interpreted and used to advocate for a position. But we all need to listen more, read more, pray more, reflect more … and over time, we will come to understand his vision and his leadership for the Church and for the world.

My major concern, however, is with those who argue for a narrow agenda for the Church and a singular definition. If one agrees that the dignity of human life is paramount in the teachings of the Church, why is this the only issue about which the Church could, should, must speak? There are many Gospel values that we share with fellow Christians and people of all faiths and traditions. Shouldn’t the Church also speak out about injustice throughout culture and the world? Shouldn’t Church leaders speak out often and loudly?

More important, I find it difficult to accept the most narrow interpretation of the dignity of life. I share the belief in the sanctity of life and the need to protect unborn children. But the dignity of life that I read about in the Gospels and I hear preached about by Pope Francis has equal concern for the sick and the poor; the young and the old; the able and the disabled.

As passionate as the Church is about abortion and life issues, should we not also be as concerned that all people have health insurance and access to medical care; that all people have enough food and are paid a livable wage; that all people live free of war, violence and abuse; that all people are treated with respect and dignity; that all people experience the love of God if only through each of us?

Last week, the students of Anna Maria College, assisted by our Campus Ministry Department, sponsored a Homelessness Awareness Week. Every day, these dedicated students learned about issues related to homelessness, engaged in community service to directly help and support the homeless in our region, and even slept outside overnight with little comfort to experience if only briefly what it is like to be homeless. I was honored and humbled to address these students at their closing prayer service. Words can not describe how proud I am of their commitment to gospel values and their response to a call to action.

Homelessness Awareness Week is an expression of dignity of life. Social service programs are an expression of dignity of life. I cannot wait to hear what else Pope Francis helps us to better understand as we walk our journey of faith and service.

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

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Ten days ago, the world read with fascination and interest the interview conducted with Pope Francis six months into his papacy. For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Pope Francis has been interesting to listen to and observe as he reveals more and more his approach to leading the Church.

Many, who are often uncomfortable with the grandeur of the hierarchy in contrast to the message of the Gospels, are energized by Pope Francis’ choices to live in community and in a more simple lifestyle. His spontaneous and never-ending pastoral approach and his smile are infectious.

But what is more important is to listen … to really listen to his words. While clearly conservative in his theology, Pope Francis seems determined to reframe the world’s understanding of the message and meaning of the Church rooted in hospitality to all and a spirit of hope.

The headlines ten days ago focused on the Pope’s concern that the focus of the Church in recent years has been too limited to teachings related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraception. While clearly affirming these teachings the day after his interview was released, Pope Francis called for “a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

As one would expect, the news reports simply highlight only the most surprising comments made by the Pope in this interview. I would strongly urge those seriously interested in Pope Francis and his leadership to read the entire interview, readily available online. It helps us to understand better the depth and spirituality of this man. It also helps to understand Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s life (For Italian opera fans like me, it was wonderful to read the Pope’s reference to Puccini’s great work, Turandot, in his response regarding the importance of hope!).

Over the past two weeks, the reactions to the Pope’s statements have been relatively few from within the Church. Hopefully, his vision of the Church will be embraced in word and deed by dioceses all over the world. But I wonder?

On the same day that the Pope’s interview was released, the House of Representatives in Washington voted to cut $40 billion dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as the Food Stamps program. The rationale for this draconian decision was the improving economy and the waste in the program.

If waste was the primary criterion for reducing government programs, they should all be cut immediately. Administering federal programs of this magnitude have an inherent element of mismanagement and abuse. The fact is that a high number of Americans still cannot afford food and basic sustenance. The percentage of families in Worcester County who qualify for food stamps is 20%. There may be signs of an improving economy, but not among the poorest of our neighbors.

In light of Pope Francis’ speech, I have been waiting to hear the American Catholic Church speak out against this potential cut in a critical program in this country. I scan the web and news reports regularly, but have yet to find any statements from Church leaders. I was hopeful when I found an article entitled, “Food Stamp Cuts a Cruel Proposal.” But this well written critique of this potential congressional decision was authored by political strategist Donna Brazile.

Maybe Church leaders have been silent because they assume this legislation will not pass the Senate. But maybe they are silent because it does not relate to the limited moral issues so prevalent in the rhetoric today. Maybe it would help if they would read the interview with Pope Francis. Because I wonder … if Pope Francis was an American Cardinal … what would he say? Actually, I think I know!

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

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A couple of weeks ago, my blog included an op ed piece I wrote for the local newspaper. The focus of the editorial was a critique of the proposed federal government scorecard for colleges. My main argument was that not all colleges are the same and not all college students are the same. Therefore, a unitary system is neither fair nor accurate when determining an institution’s success.

Most readers agreed with my perspective. But many readers objected to one of my contentions that all students deserve a college education. Some argued that not every child in America deserves or is qualified to attend college. I had been thinking about this issue when I came across a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan.

Whether or not every high school graduate should attend college, no one I know believes that disadvantaged students of ability should be denied access and opportunity. And this research study affirmed strategies that seem to be extraordinarily effective with this population.

For the past 22 years, a non-profit organization called College for Every Student (CFES) has focused on “raising the academic aspirations and performance of underserved youth so that they can prepare for, gain access to, and succeed in college.”  CFES currently works with 20,000 students in 200 rural and urban schools and districts in 24 states.

A team of researchers from the University of Michigan conducted a study to assess the effectiveness of CFES and its programs. Using a sample of 1,100 middle school students from 21 schools in 10 states, they found that 75% of the participants in the CFES program planned on attending a four-year college compared to only 5% of the students in their control group.

What are the strategies used by CFES? The three key elements of the program are early exposure to college, mentoring, and community service leadership. Participants in the program are selected by the individual school and are named CFES scholars. At the young age of middle school (or even elementary school), CFES scholars learn about the possibility of attending college and are encouraged to begin planning for this important step in their educational lives.

Over the course of several years, CFES scholars interact with mentors both in their schools and on college campus visits to receive guidance and to become familiar with the world and life of a college student. CFES scholars are also provided with the opportunity to exercise leadership in the community in order to develop both skills and confidence.

What is clear from studying the programs and services of CFES and the corroborating data from this research study is that the result is a student who gains confidence in his or her ability to succeed in college, and an inherent expectation that this is the logical and necessary next step after high school. In addition to the ultimate benefit of significantly more CFES scholars attending college, there is also ample evidence that while in the program, these students improve their academic performance, improve their behavior and improve their attendance.

For many disadvantaged young people in this country, a college degree is only a dream. While there will always remain challenges to earning a college degree, programs like CFES are helping us to better understand how to make some dreams become a reality.

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