By Elizabeth R. Lehr
Director CAS First-Year Success Program
Lecturer, Department of English
Faculty Program Coordinator - Navitas
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
A February 24, 2016 article written by Katie Lannan and published by the Massachusetts State House New Service calls our state colleges and universities to task for failure to redefine our mission by thinking not about “college and career readiness,” but about “college and career success.” The article, titled “Needs of Students and State Forcing Shift in Higher Education,” reported on an appearance by Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education, Dr. Carlos Santiago, before state lawmakers and staff to present a report by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy about the “condition of education” in our state. Also appearing was Rennie Center Executive Director Chad d’Entremont who was responsible for redefining our conceptual framework as mentioned above.
The Rennie Center report further calls for educators to help students develop a skill set that it has identified as critical to college success. This set includes the ability to set goals, self-motivate, monitor progress, seek help, and persist through challenges. These skills have long been integrated into the mission, curricula, and advising practices at UMass Dartmouth, and I suspect, at all of the other state universities and colleges. So it was somewhat puzzling to read that the Rennie Center believes that “focusing on developing these skills could help improve postsecondary enrollment and completion rates.” We agree., which is why we already have this covered!
Why would the Commissioner of Higher Education rely on the Rennie Center to explain this to lawmakers, when the experts who work in higher education have already figured it out and taken the actions proposed? And what is the Rennie Center anyway? It is a think tank. The Center’s website (www.renniecenter.org) includes a clear mission statement that reads like an educational dream. Its supporters include other education nonprofits, corporate sponsors, and the United Way. The Center provides expertise in data collection and analysis and also takes a role in policy-making. It is certainly comforting to know that a lobbying organization like the Center can collect data on higher education in Massachusetts and come to the same conclusion that we came to and acted upon years ago.
At UMass Dartmouth, we have long run first-year courses in which students learn the importance of setting goals, taking responsibility, seeking help when needed, keeping track of their grades, and persistence, among many other things. Most colleges and universities in the U.S. employ similar models in their first-year curricula.The issue, therefore, is this: In this time of shrinking state budgets for higher education, the February 24th presentation places the onus on universities and colleges for not doing something they already in fact do and do very well. Our access to the state legislature and to policy is through our Commissioner of Higher Education, but Dr. Santiago calls on the Rennie Center.
We would be curious to know what the Commission of Higher Education paid for this research and respectfully suggest it is money that would have been better spent if given directly to Massachusetts colleges and universities to support their continuing efforts.
We understand the difference between “readiness” and “success.” However, it is unclear to us why the Rennie Center believes our focus on readiness is misguided and that we lack a focus on success. Both are needed. We, the educators, know this.
AFT Local 1895 President Susan Krumholz contributed to this article.