Small Colleges Need “Gold Medal Selfies”

Higher education has been a favorite news topic for months. Stories have addressed every issue from rising costs to access for vulnerable students and completion of a college degree, to the importance of “fit” in the college selection process. President Obama and the first lady have entered the national conversation, particularly around issues of cost and graduation rates for low-income students—addressing education in the State of the Union, at White House events and in speeches across the nation. In the midst of these discussions, little attention has been paid to the role of non-elite small colleges in the higher education landscape.
For the record, few folks are worried about the small elites, with their solid endowments, their abundant state-of-the-art facilities, their broad, quality educational offerings and highly selective admissions. As for the small non-elites, while some articles have touted the benefits of “small,” most have focused on the economic vulnerability of these institutions, including the HBCUs.

It is true that small, non-elite institutions are fiscally fragile but—and this is an important but—many of them have had success with vulnerable students. What occurs on many small, non-elite campuses can inform the work of more elite institutions that are increasingly serving the growing number of Pell-eligible students—if only these successes were more widely studied and shared.

This leads to the observation that little to no attention is being paid to the capacity of small institutions to be learning laboratories, studying in rigorous fashion their own successes and failures and sharing those outcomes to improve their own campuses and to inform the larger effort to enhance the success of vulnerable students across the nation.

Taking “selfies”

A critical first step is for small non-elite institutions to take “selfies”—studying themselves. Large institutions and smaller elite institutions have faculty, including undergraduate faculty, who conduct groundbreaking research in their fields of expertise, enhancing our world’s knowledge base and improving our lives. We know about the stunning research at colleges and universities on cancer research, literature, history, neuroscience and economics, among other fields. Professors from these institutions win Nobel prizes, Pulitzers, John Bates Clark and Field medals and McArthur Fellow awards, among others.

These types of awards rarely go to individuals at non-elite institutions for a very good reason: smaller institutions do not have the resources to reward this research as effectively. It is not that faculty aren’t capable of valuable research. Indeed, faculty at small non-elite institutions do produce quality scholarship.

But small non-elite institutions also encourage and reward faculty teaching—and the faculty carry significantly higher teaching loads in exchange for pursuing research in a less fulsome way. Promotion and tenure or long-term contracts unequivocally reward teaching quality—in addition to scholarship. The rationale is clear: Vulnerable students truly need to be taught whereas, as my colleagues at elite institutions note, their students come ready to learn and professors have to hope they do no harm—as many students are already quality self-learners.

I think many small non-elite institutions have missed an opportunity to engage in meaningful scholarship that can influence literally thousands of students: scholarship that focuses on how vulnerable students can learn and succeed in higher education. Here’s how: Small, non-elite institutions can enter the research effort through selfies—not just any selfies. Gold Medal Selfies.

The word “selfie”—the act of taking a photograph of oneself—may be relatively new but it has already entered our lexicon and is included in the online version of the OED and named “2013 Word of the Year.” Yes, really. To be sure, not all selfies are the same quality. Some are self-revelatory in a negative way (provocative photos; celebrity celebrating photos; toilet photos). Recently, we have seen the growth of mixed quality Olympic Selfies and Sochi Selfies—some of which show outrageous stunts to mimic the “rad” Olympic sports.

Way of self-reflection

Instead, I am talking about high quality self-reflection where institutions look inward, study and then share “photographs” of the results of their work on vulnerable student success. We would be well served to encourage Gold Medal Selfies across the educational spectrum. I appreciate that this is not scholarship in the “traditional” sense but self-reflection and self-study are forms of study valued in psychiatry and psychology, among other fields. For institutions without large research budgets, selfies provide an outlet for sharing the enormous and valuable contributions these institutions are making to the higher education landscape.

My own institution started taking selfies five years ago. As we launch new initiatives, we are proactive, introducing empiricism at the front end—to insure that outcomes are thoughtfully produced. To be sure, the level of sophistication of these selfies has been rising as we progress. We are increasingly focused on control groups, regression analyses, publications and presentations. We have hired an institutional researcher, and we have a relatively new but high-functioning institutional review board.

Here are several examples of what we have studied—an album of selfies so to speak. Several years ago, we were concerned about low pass rates in Anatomy and Physiology I, the gateway course to the healthcare professions. So we launched a “stretch” course where A&PI extends over two semesters rather than one, and A&PII is offered in the summer without charge. Three key points: This effort was based on a detailed empirical study of a similar effort to stretch law school for weaker students (augmenting their bar passage rates in the process), and we benefitted from that research; we wrote an article that shares the results of our own effort and outlined future research topics. We are “stretching” other courses in the near term based on the successes of the A&P Stretch course and will evaluate our outcomes.

One candidate for stretching is math, where we are seeing growing “math phobia” among both male and female students. Their anxiety is seeping beyond the math course, taking time, energy and confidence away from their other courses.  We suspect that math “desensitization” could be a component within the stretch initiative, much like that developed for individuals afraid of travel.

We initiated a program called Pipelines into Partnerships where we welcome vulnerable students to SVC. Key features of this program include: Mountaineer Scholars selected by their sending institutions (high schools, afterschool programs), upending the traditional admissions process; scholars placed in cohorts before they arrive on campus and then visit campus with their family members before they enroll; and a unique orientation including both academic and psychosocial activities. We have appointed a dedicated program director and counselor for added support.

Our data show that these students are retaining, performing and participating at remarkable levels—well in excess of the other data being collected on vulnerable students.

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Today, we are exploring which of the many features of the Mountaineer Scholars program are the most successful and which are replicable, including features that can benefit all of our students. To that end, we have launched a program titled “Counselor Select” where guidance counselors who know SVC and have visited campus are invited to select a student to attend SVC. We will assess both the counselors’ interest and the success of the students they identify for enrollment.

We are also launching a Veteran Scholars program, adapting the best practices from the Mountaineer Scholar program to military veterans. We have already written about some aspects of this program and plan a detailed empirical assessment of the successes of the Veterans who join us, obviously meeting a critical need as 1.4 million service men and women who will return to the U.S. in the next five years.

We are also launching an initiative to curb rolling default rates by designing a program for our graduates. At present, repayment information is provided when students are approaching graduation, hardly an optimal teachable moment. We suspect that later outreach, with more effective communication, can provide graduates with the capacity to make wiser repayment decisions that take into account the array of government options.

While this extends the obligations of SVC beyond commencement, it is way—if it works—to make good on our promise that our graduates will have productive work and family lives. Fiscal stability is surely a part of that capacity.

Why students stay—”lasticity”

Finally, we have shifted our retention focus. Originally centered on why students left us, we are now studying the attributes of the students who stay through graduation. The existing literature on grit and resilience is gaining traction, including how these “non-cognitive skills” can be taught. But these terms do not fully capture what we are seeing on our own campus. Before arrival to and while on our campus, many of our students have experienced what the literature terms “small t-trauma” to distinguish ongoing trauma from a singular event like Sandy Hook or the World Trade Center collapse.

What we have found and what we are now studying is that some students have the capacity to bounce forward, forever changed by their experience but capable of making wise future choices. This capacity occurs in an environment where there is reciprocity—where their small t-trauma experiences are recognized, acknowledged and affirmed by supportive adults. I have termed this set of cognitive and experiential skills “lasticity”—a new word that incorporates the concepts of elasticity and plasticity. Indeed, we are exploring the need to add “lasticity” to the educational lexicon. Like “selfies,” it is a word with real power.

If we can successfully define and then measure lasticity, we will be adding to and perhaps in some instances supplanting the existing literature on grit and resilience. And most importantly, we will be looking for ways to identify lasticity not only as a way of predicting vulnerable student success, but also to teach lasticity to younger students. One of our professors of psychology, our institutional researcher and I are already hard at work on this project.

We are not naïve with respect to the research challenges before us: identification of distribution channels for results and a seeming lack of attention to and respect for this work when conducted by non-elite institutions. Research is expensive in terms of faculty and staff time, and SVC, like many small non-elite institutions, does not have a large research budget to cover the costs of empiricism. Indeed, for the pilot lasticity study, I committed personal monies to enable the first stages of the study to progress (including payment to subjects and focus group food). Also, we recognize the need for independent assessment, another large but necessary expense to ensure replication and scalability.

Some recommendations

I am sure other small institutions have their own treasure trove of data—some already mined and some ready to be mined—which gets me to these recommendations:

First, small colleges should take selfies—starting with easy subjects and then ramping up.

Second, small colleges need to display their selfies in places where other educators across the educational pipeline can see them and where politicians and policymakers can have access to them (albums of Gold Metal Selfies).

Third, we need to interest larger institutions and elite small colleges serving vulnerable students—and the foundations that support them—to take note of these selfies and consider how these studies can improve their own campuses and the services they provide to their most vulnerable students.

If successful, our selfies will support the adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Let’s get our cameras out and start photographing. Powerful outcomes await.

Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College.



Gross has written for NEJHE on:

The Disease is Poverty, says SVC President Gross on Educating “First-Gens”

Helicopters, Lawn Mowers or Down-to-Earth Parents? What Works Best for Higher Education

Saving Pell Grants in an Era of Cost-Cutting

College Tries “Mini-mesters” and More to Improve Readiness


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