President's Blog


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Higher education has its fair share of myths, biases and stereotypes. Last week, for example, I provided some evidence to address the bias against the value of online degrees and the myths about on-ground (face to face) instruction.

There are also many myths, biases and stereotypes related to classroom instruction. For example, most people inside and outside of higher education tend to believe that the quality of instruction is better with full-time (tenure track) faculty rather than adjunct or part-time faculty. But the results of a recent research study conducted at Northwestern University challenges this preconception.

Last week, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper entitled, “Are Tenure-Track Professors Better Teachers?”  The study was based on data drawn from over 15,000 students who attended Northwestern University from 2001-2008. It focused primarily on instructional quality in introductory courses, the courses every student is required to take.

According to the authors of the study, there was “strong and consistent evidence that Northwestern faculty outside of the tenure system outperform tenure track/tenured professors in introductory undergraduate classrooms.”  These qualitative differences were consistently found across disciplines and subject areas. The differences were even more pronounced for students of “average” ability and those “less qualified.”

The data also revealed other interesting trends. Students who took an introductory course taught by an untenured instructor were more likely to take a second course in that same discipline than those instructed initially by a tenure-track/tenured faculty member. Students taught by untenured faculty tended to earn higher grades as well.

Critics of the study point to the facts that it was conducted at a single institution and one that attracts students who are not necessarily reflective of the entire college-bound student population. However, while the authors accept these limitations, they state, “Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial.”

From my perspective, this study’s greatest benefit is to help break down the myth or stereotype about adjunct faculty. I doubt that any college or university will use this study to dismantle its full-time, tenure-track faculty. But many institutions utilize many part-time faculty and this study corroborates what some of us already know.

Good teachers are good teachers. Whether full-time or part-time … tenure-track/tenured or adjunct, colleges and universities have great instructors and those who are less inspiring. The common element is not the type of contract or employment status. Rather it’s the knowledge and understanding of the material, the creativity and dedication to effective pedagogy, and the abiding commitment to serving the educational and learning needs of the students.

College students are fortunate to have so many wonderful instructors who enter the noble profession of teaching for all of the right reasons. Some pursue their teaching careers full-time … others part-time … but they all share a love for teaching and a dedication to student learning.  

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

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More and more colleges and universities are offering online degree programs. The rationale in most cases relates to accessibility and flexibility. Online degrees are accessible to students from anywhere in the world and are not restricted by geographic boundaries and proximity to campus. Online degrees allow learners to engage in the course material at flexible times that better meet the needs of their hectic lives with competing expectations and obligations. Anna Maria College has been offering online degrees for a number of years.

Questions that often get raised relate to the quality of these degree programs. Are they of the same quality as an on-ground (face to face) learning environment? Are they perceived by the public as valid and credible? The educational quality issue has been answered repeatedly through extensive research. Quality learning has much more to do with the instructor, course content, pedagogical approaches, levels of student engagement, etc. than with modality (on-ground or online). Perhaps I will return to this topic in a future blog.

But there is less evidence related to external perceptions. So I was interested in a recent headline that read, “Employers View Online, Traditional Degrees Equally.”  The article compiled data from a number of research studies conducted by credible organizations … some that engage in online educational programs and services and others that address more widespread higher ed issues. The article itself was sponsored by an institution promoting its own online university. But I think the data is both valuable and valid.

According to studies conducted by the Zogby International Survey and Inside Higher, the U.S. News and World Report, the Sloan Consortium, the Society for Human Research Management, and the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, employers and recruitment professionals view online degrees and traditional degrees equally if they meet three criteria.

The first criterion is accreditation. Employers and recruiters feel strongly that only online degree programs that are accredited are equivalent to traditional programs. It is interesting to note that U.S. News and World Report, which publishes a list every year of the ”Best Online Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree Programs,” will only include those that are regionally accredited.

The second criterion is that the online degree program is offered by a college or university that also has a traditional campus. While 70% of academic leaders in the Sloan Consortium Study expressed some confidence in online only institutions, the percentage increases to 89% if the online program is offered by an institution that also has a traditional campus. This high level of support for programs from colleges and universities with a traditional campus was also expressed by HR Directors, CEOs and hiring managers (Zogby Survey).

The third criterion relates to brand. Online programs are viewed more often as equal to traditional degree programs if the institution offering the program has an established brand. If the college or university has name recognition and a good reputation, the online programs are judged to be the same in quality as the traditional programs.

The growth in online education has been exponential. The reputation of these programs has been negatively impacted by too many for-profit institutions that are viewed as being “diploma mills.”  What is clear from these studies is that employers and recruiters are more discerning and assess a person’s degree carefully. If the degree is awarded from a traditional college, regionally accredited, and well respected, the online degree is equally valued.

As more and more well respected colleges and universities expand their online degree options, this can only be a good thing for those interested in quality education in a more flexible and accessible modality. It is nice to see that students have more and more choices. It is nice to know that these students’ efforts will be respected … if they make the right choice!

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

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 The Scorecard May Not Tell the Score   

After the recent bus tour by President Obama proclaiming his new assessment proposal for higher education, I wrote an op ed piece raising some of my concerns about this approach. The piece was published in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette on Friday, August 30, 2013. I thought you might find it interesting. I would appreciate hearing your comments.


Friday, August 30, 2013

Scoring higher ed's success


By Jack Calareso

In recent days, President Obama has unveiled his plan to reform higher education. The plan includes a "report card" for every college and university that measures affordability (tuition rates and increases, scholarships, loan debt), access (percentage of students eligible for Pell grants), and outcomes (graduation rates, transfer rates, graduate earnings, graduate school admissions). 

The federal government is not alone in promoting this simplified grading system. For years, families have used published rating systems from magazines, book companies and educationally related organizations to determine college rankings. Ranking systems abound so that you can not only find the college with the highest graduation rates, but the institution that parties the most. 

Scorecards and rating systems have become a phenomenon. Self-appointed experts frequently publish lists and assessments based on partial and unsubstantiated data and analyses that are not fully explained or vetted. Sadly, these get published (often self-published on the Internet), read by prospective students, and add to the confusion of college choice. 
Clearly, colleges and universities need to be transparent about their success and held accountable for their performance. Furthermore, access, affordability, success in graduation, etc., are important variables. But they simply do not tell the whole story and hardly provide the right score for every prospective student. 

The fact of the matter is that all college-bound students are not the same. President Obama has often said, and I agree, that every American should have the opportunity for a college education. I would go further and say that every American should have the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree. But not every student is academically able, and some will need more time and extra support. 

My advice to every parent and prospective student is that if you can be admitted to Harvard, Yale or Princeton - and can afford it - go. If you want to be further away from home, Stanford is not a bad choice either. But not every student can either meet the admission standards or afford an Ivy League school. And thankfully, there are colleges and universities willing to admit these students and help them to succeed. 
The point is that the missing factor with these scorecards is the profile of the student population. At a highly selective college, it is no surprise that graduation rates are high. One would expect them to be close to 100 percent. But perhaps a college that admits and educates more at-risk students is equally or even more successful if it graduates 60 percent or 70 percent of its students. 

President Obama's plan also calls for colleges to be penalized for low performance with less federal financial aid. While this seems to be a logical outcome to a scorecard approach, I wonder if this will cause colleges and universities to become more selective and only admit students who demonstrate a greater ability to succeed. 
Who then will educate the more marginal students? Do they not deserve the opportunity for a college education? What are the implications for this country with a less educated population? 
It is certainly important to review academic and retention statistics and financial obligations, as well as other similar information when exploring a college or university. But this is only part of the necessary assessment of a college or university. 

The most important variable for students and families to consider when looking for the right college is fit: will the student be able to connect academically, socially and emotionally with the academic programs, campus life and values of the institution. If these aspects of a college search aren't priorities, the possibility of a student not succeeding in college life is compounded, no matter the grade the college or university received from some rating system. 

Students along with their parents need to have serious discussions prior to undertaking the college search process. What is the goal for the college experience? What institutions offer the academic programs and rigors that fit the student's goals and past achievements? What values are students and families looking for in the living and learning environment of a college? How will the financial obligation of attending college impact the student and the family? What is the ability of the student? 
Once these and similar questions are answered, students and families should visit the campuses of the institutions that will best meet their goals and objectives. And it is when you are on these campuses that you should explore and gain a better understanding of the data and statistics of the institution that can then be analyzed as part of the entire experience. 

As most qualified researchers know, statistics can vary depending on the sources used, methodology and analysis procedures. Don't let skewed data and grading systems compromise the college search process. Use all of the accurate information you can obtain from qualified sources, as well as the college or university itself, and then visit, visit, visit before you make your decision. Not every college is Harvard - but Harvard isn't for everyone.

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Over the past few weeks, Anna Maria College has lost two extraordinary Trustees, Al Lagan and Edith LaVigne. Both led extraordinary lives, had wonderful families, and displayed exemplary bravery and faith as they faced battles with illness and ultimately passed away. They were good friends of the College and will be missed by all of us.

While I am tempted to share more personal details about their lives, I think the more important lessons we can learn from Al and Edith are the true meanings of service. They were both good people, but they were great Trustees. They were great leaders and servants.

To be a good servant, a person has to have a deep and abiding commitment to the mission of the organization. Some people serve on Boards for self-interest or to do the organization a favor. But a great Trustee cares deeply about the mission of the organization and believes in the value of the organization.

Edith LaVigne was an alumna of AMC (as were her two sisters). Her dedication to AMC generated from her experience as a student and her reflection on the ways the College changed and transformed her life. Al Lagan had no affiliation with AMC before agreeing to serve as a Trustee. But he had a deep commitment to Catholic education and valued institutions like AMC that provided educational opportunity to those with limited means and great potential. While they may have arrived at their point of commitment to the mission from different directions, they shared and demonstrated this belief in the core values of AMC in similar ways.

To be a good servant, a person has to be willing to devote time and energy to the work of the Board. It is not enough to simply attend meetings and events or lend your name to a Trustee roster. A great Trustee reads the documents, studies the issues and comes prepared to critique, comment, analyze and help to make the best decisions for our students.

Al’s background was in financial planning. He was always prepared to help the College better understand issues related to budgets, investments and financial viability. But he contributed equally to areas related to education, programs, fund raising, governance, etc. Edith was an educator, but shared her real life experience and her astute insights in many ways. Both cared about the whole AMC and worked hard to be the best Trustees possible. They were both engaged leaders of the Board and the College.

To be a good servant, a person has to understand the difference between leadership and management. Trustees have a leadership role and need to be careful not to interfere with day to day administration. Edith and Al understood this balancing act perfectly and never crossed the line. They were deeply involved in strategic planning, policy development, program approval, and took their fiduciary responsibilities seriously. They held the administration accountable, but never tried to be college administrators. They helped make the best decisions and then supported these decisions fully.

Finally, it is often said that a good servant shares her or his time, talent and treasure. Al and Edith epitomized this maxim. They were always available to take a phone call or to meet; to offer insights, advice and support; to share their knowledge and wisdom; and, to generously support the College financially.

Anna Maria College has lost two great Trustees and two even better friends. I don’t know if I will find new friends like Edith and Al, but I hope for the College’s sake that we find similar Trustees in the future. And their model of service and commitment will serve as the standard for all Trustees now and forever.

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

There is a book that will not be released until next February that I am anxious to read. Entitled, How College Works, this book will provide insights on how colleges can provide the highest quality education even with limited budgets and modest increases in financial aid. The book promises to provide strategies to improve the educational experience of students that, according to the authors’ research, can be successful, but not terribly expensive.

The authors, Christopher Takacs and Daniel Chambliss, recently made a presentation at the American Sociological Association annual meeting and shared one of their key findings that will be included in the book. Simply said, their research supports the notion that a student’s decision about his/her major is significantly influenced by the first professor who teaches an introductory course. An inspiring and caring faculty member will lead to a positive decision to continue in that major. A single negative experience in this introductory course will often lead to a decision to look for another major.

The basis for this conclusion was a study of 100 students at a small college. The researchers tracked the educational choices of these students. Through interviews, these students shared their original educational plans and the reasons why they either continued with that major or changed to another major. Student interviews covered both the four years of college and post college years.

The results raise significant questions about the common belief that students choose majors because of the potential for financial success.   According to this research, “quality of teaching” and personal attention from faculty members is more important. The authors note that the attempts to attract students to STEM majors (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) typically include data about job opportunities and income levels. This research argues that who teaches these courses, especially at the introductory level, could very well be a more important recruiting tool.

The authors’ recommendations are logical and straightforward. If departments and majors want more students to study their disciplines, they need to have their best faculty members teach introductory courses. These are often courses in the general education curriculum where students are first exposed to various fields of study.

While this may seem logical, it is not the common practice. Most often the senior faculty in a department are assigned to upper level courses and/or allowed to spend part of their time in research or individual work with upper class majors. Many of these faculty members prefer not to teach introductory classes which can be larger in size and include students less serious about the discipline.

The authors make it clear that the affinity for the discipline is not simply related to the quality of lectures and classroom presentations. Student interest is more highly correlated to “the extent to which professors were engaged with students, took steps to get to know their students, were personally accessible, and so forth. This is about the caliber of the people you meet in the classroom."

Freshmen will be arriving on our campuses in a matter of days. Decisions about field of studies and majors will be made in the coming months. Hopefully, their interests will be matched with the best professors we have!

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