Letter to the Editor: Maximizing student success

We recently had the pleasure of reading through student evaluations from the courses we had taught at the University of Akron in fall of 2012. Many of the comments were words that every faculty member dreams of hearing: “I learned more in this class than in any other class I’ve ever taken.” or “I enjoyed class and the discussions made me want to participate.”

These and other comments reaffirmed our feeling that we had collaborated with our students to create a strong face-to-face learning environment, an environment where students received individualized attention and developed the higher level skills and knowledge that made them more prepared to graduate into a rapidly changing world and to succeed not only as leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs, but as informed and thoughtful citizens.

Unfortunately, this type of fully-engaged and affirming learning environment is now threatened by what campus leaders have called a “riptide” of change that, in battering down the walls of the traditional university model, has placed the institution, faculty and students on a “fast-moving train on a track that is still being built, to a destination still uncertain.” These phrases reflect the intense pressure faced by The University of Akron and other state institutions to drastically cut costs and increase graduation rates.

Recent recommendations made by the Ohio Higher Education Funding Commission require UA and other peer institutions to graduate more students and to do so faster. Yet in the effort to shorten time to graduation, limit increases in tuition and increase enrollment, we worry that we have fallen behind in providing students with what the Higher Learning Commission terms the “breadth, depth, currency and relevance” of student learning.

As an increasing number of colleges and universities – in Ohio and across the nation – seek to expand their funding streams through increased teaching loads, increased class sizes and online course offerings that can be managed from afar rather than taught by our faculty, we are concerned that the “fast-moving train” of changes in higher education is just as likely to jump the tracks as it is to lead students to their educational and career goals.

At first look, UA’s efforts to enhance student success by expanding online offerings and increasing faculty teaching loads appears to benefit some of our most at-risk and non-traditional students.

However, new research on online teaching, for example, indicates that students’ performance and course completion rates worsen when face-to-face courses are moved online. Researchers with the Community College Research Center at Columbia University also find that African American students, men and students who enter college needing remediation – in other words, the highest-risk students at mid-major institutions such as The University of Akron – report the greatest declines in course performance and a greater likelihood to drop out of a course when the course is moved online.

Other studies note that teaching effectiveness is greater when students are taught by faculty actively engaged in research. This means that if current plans to expand online courses and increase teaching loads are enacted, then graduation rates, student performance and student persistence in courses are likely to fall, leading to further cuts to our state subsidies and even poorer outcomes among the students who would benefit most from a college degree.

Increasing the size of face-to-face courses will similarly limit our ability to maximize students’ course completion and graduation rates. Larger classes limit opportunities for active learning. Courses of 50 or more students limit opportunities for students to engage in class.

For these large sections, Computer-Based Testing (CBT) is the only reasonable way to evaluate performance, yet CBTs mean that faculty members are less able to attend to students’ individual learning styles.

We recognize that Ohio universities must cut costs in order to remain viable in an environment of lower state subsidies and reduced enrollment. Yet, if our goal is to minimize costs while maximizing student success, then the latter of these goals deserves as much attention as the former.

If not, then how can we as a community be assured that the changes being imposed will lead to improved student performance, higher graduation rates and increased educational quality? The Higher Learning Commission asks institutions to demonstrate use of evidence-based practices to implement new campus policies. Have campus leaders indeed assessed whether the proposed changes will serve our students by accelerating time to degree while preserving the quality, breadth and depth of learning?

We agree with President Proenza that there is “magic in the bond between professor and student,” and that enhancing this bond is the key to achieving our shared educational goals.

But if our campus leaders have responded to the pressure to graduate more students by implementing policies that can be instituted quickly, yet lack evidence of success, then indeed a “riptide” of change on campus threatens to place our students at greater risk rather than enhance their educational and career success.

Adrianne Frech and Rebecca Erickson,
Department of Sociology