In late May I wrote an article for the NASH TS3 blog enumerating what I saw to be the most pressing issues and critical impact of COVID on higher education and our students. I shared data on the effect of COVID on student learning, mental health, and finances, as well as what institutions of higher education should expect in coming years.
The data tell the story all too well of COVID’s disproportionate impact on students of color and compounded existing inequalities. I urged universities to act to shoulder some of the burden of that impact, to ask hard questions, and to ensure we were creating the necessary supports to set our students up for success in and out of the classroom. In 2016, Tia Brown McNair and colleagues published Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success as a response to national conversations regarding postsecondary success. I’m sure many readers of this blog have already read this thought-provoking book.
The main point McNair and her coauthors make is that there needs to be a mindset shift away from the college readiness (most often framed as the under-preparedness) of students, to the student readiness or institutional readiness of universities and institutions. The book argues that if significant progress is to be made in the success of students on our campuses, there must be a paradigm shift in how educators design and lead student success efforts and initiatives. Instead of focusing solely on students being college ready, it urges educators to focus on what they can do to create educational environments that meet students where they are and eliminate obstacles to their success. At its core, the argument centers on removing the deficit mindset in thinking about students and examining instead the ways in which institutions are or are not prepared to fully support the students coming into them, whether through policy or practice barriers, lack of culturally responsive, relevant, and inclusive pedagogy, and lack of academic, social, and emotional supports. I would add to this list an explicitly anti-racist culture.
My colleague Dr. Ashley Purgason, Associate Vice Provost for Student Success at the University of Texas at Arlington, helped me think through some of the book’s implications for institutions, particularly what are those insightful, introspective questions we should all be asking ourselves. Here is what Ashley shared:
- We ask the question often whether students are ready to enter our institutions. In addition to that question, we must also ask if we are ready to serve our students.
- We ask students to demonstrate their readiness through admissions processes, placement tests, and other means and yet we don’t always find their preparation or performance levels to be adequate.
- Would a student say the same about how ready the institution was to help THEM navigate processes, establish a sense of belonging, and learn how to learn?
Dr. Purgason’s institution, UT Arlington, is one of the University of Texas System’s six Hispanic Serving institutions, and with large numbers of first-generation and adult learners, the university’s student population has a considerable presence of post-traditional students. This is true for many of the System’s other seven universities and the 182,000 undergraduate students (combined) they serve. Dr. Purgason’s peers meet with System leaders monthly to discuss such questions and the concomitant necessary actions. Here are the themes that have come up in our conversations as we have grappled with what it means to be student-ready institution, and how we can measure our readiness:
- Shifting responsibility and expectations for success from the student to faculty and staff
- Inculcating institution-wide responsibility to ensure each student succeeds
- Emphasizing students’ aspirational capital (the assets they bring to their educational journeys)
- Conducting equity-minded analysis using disaggregated data with clear lines of responsibility to act on the data
- Practicing compassion and intentionally removing of barriers
- Ensuring adequate resources—financial and human capital—to do all of the above
There is action or potential action embedded in all these themes and we know that across the UT System and higher ed nationally these actions are happening in pockets. Far less often are they happening institution-wide in a more coherent, coordinated manner, seamlessly integrated into a tightly woven web of student support. Still more rarely, are these actions taken system-wide, although the NASH systems engaging with the NASH Equity Action Framework are inspiring exceptions.
I’d like to share a more recent quote by Dr. McNair from an article in Leadership Exchange: “The concept of becoming a student-ready institution sounds simple, and the questions and guidance provided in the book should be intuitive for all educators. However, they are not. When you start interrogating and reflecting on how existing institutional culture, policies, procedures, and practices create seen and unseen barriers for student success, you realize that becoming a student-ready institution will require a dismantling of structures and some institutional cultural norms that have persisted for far too long.” (McNair, 2018)
This point underscores Dr. Purgason’s emphasis on the importance of an asset-based approach and the need for student success outcomes to be tightly woven into the policies and incentives that faculty and staff already respond to. It also underscores something else we have discussed and that UT Arlington among others are working on: how to measure institutional readiness. It’s one thing to commit to becoming a student-ready institution. That commitment needs to include measures and metrics to gauge progress and evidence of impact.
What institutional culture, policies, procedures, and practices does your institution need to reflect on in its quest to become truly student-ready? How is your institution measuring its readiness?