Monday, February 7, 2011

Choice & Student Success

A number of conversations of late have me thinking about the psychology of choice. I don’t know much about what the research says, but I’ve heard others talk about how people can, at times, be overwhelmed with too many choices. For example, I remember being a first-generation college freshman sitting with my advisor at Mott Community College. My initial goal was to make every credit to count toward whatever degree I might someday receive. He said, “take these 31 credits and they’ll transfer to any of these five state universities – they’re all good schools.” I took those classes, transferred all 31 credits to one of those five schools and graduated three years later. With my advisor’s solid advice, I was not only able to make every credit count, I was able to achieve my big goal of graduating with a college degree.

My recent blog posts on performance funding and student success prompted a few comments from people. Increasing student success and completion is a complex endeavor. Efforts are underway to redesign our ED 100 College Success Seminar curriculum that is part of a multi-year effort to bring intentional strategies to enhancing the first-year student experience. While a number of wonderful accomplishments have been achieved, like a new student orientation and the development of DegreeWorks – a new advising tool. However, like so many college freshmen across the country, new students at MVCC face a similar wide array of curriculum choices that I did all those years ago at Mott. Students are asked to choose from a long list of possible courses when the first year of a college curriculum is, arguably, pretty standard across most colleges and universities.

Over the past twenty years, higher education curriculum has expanded to accommodate the information explosion. As more research is conducted and information shared via the Internet and other means, specialized courses have been developed with increasing frequency. Commonly justified as “elective” credits, these boutique courses have satisfied the academic interests of many undergraduate faculty and staff, but have added unnecessary complexity to an already convoluted student transfer mobility process. This came to light recently when I was speaking with a couple of Presidents who mentioned the following article in the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/21/AR2011012104554.html). Although the author certainly writes from a somewhat unique perspective, the article posits that higher education has become so segmented that even today’s Rhodes Scholars graduate with such specialized knowledge and limited world views, that they are unable to entertain many of the major questions facing the world today. 

We need reflective practitioners with a strong liberal arts background. However, one way to increase student success is to get each degree-seeking student off to a clear, productive start through a more narrow set of choices to begin pursuit of a college degree. With the ever-growing difficulty some students face when pursuing a degree, and the escalating price of a college education the collective tolerance for wasted credits that don’t apply to a degree is diminishing with each passing semester. It’s not so much that we should make the choices for first-year degree-seeking students, but narrowing those choices early in their studies will provide them with the focus and foundation to more likely achieve the larger goal of graduating. If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.