We're adding a new approach to the blog starting this month; in addition to the periodic news and links to resources and events of interest that I hope will continue, we plan to have a small group of occasional guest bloggers share their personal perspectives--speaking for and representing themselves, not their institutions--on various topics of interest related to assessment, teaching and learning issues in higher education. I hope these postings will become opportunities for our ATL community to engage in collegial discourse and debate about the issues and questions raised, rather than random and unsupported rants (as is too often the case in web comments, unfortunately). Anyway, let's try it and see how it goes!
Whose Agenda Is This Anyway?
I just returned from the annual Achieving the Dream conference that was held this past week in Anaheim. There were roughly
1600 registered participants. That's pretty impressive and, in general, the
purpose of the conference is laudable. After all, AtD seeks to assist
institutions deliver on the promise of a higher education, particularly for
low-income students and students of color. In spite of the good intention,
however, there's always something that has left me a little uneasy about
Achieving the Dream, particularly to the extent that it is allied with and
become a focal point for the “completion agenda.” (For a more careful critique
of the completion agenda, this volume of the AACU's Liberal Education is
a good start.) It's true that completion of degrees and certificates can lead to higher
earnings. No serious person is against that. Yet there are several things that
tend to give me pause. First, there is something underlying those degrees and
certificates that seems lost in the vocabulary and focus of the proponents of
the completion agenda. That something is the student learning that is
antecedent to the awarding of those degrees or certificates and really, at
heart, has to be the true purpose of higher education. If the goal is simply a
degree, that can be achieved easily enough by just printing the things and
handing them out to whomever wants one. Of course, advocates of increasing
completion rates tend readily to agree that quality of learning should neither
be diminished nor sacrificed in the effort to get more students to complete.
Yet saying it and actually paying attention to it in a serious, purposeful way
are different things. If the focus was the "learning agenda" and
ensuring that students were supported and successful in that endeavor, I think
the focus would be on the proper object. I'll leave it at that for now, but
it's a theme I tend to want to come back to and no doubt will in the future.
Second, the value of learning (and a degree or certificate) isn't just in
the increased earnings, or so my intuition--and my own experience--tells me.
Part of the value of higher education is in the confidence and skills it
provides to recipients to enjoy life and to participate in it in a meaningful
way. Not to be too cliché, but education is empowerment, and not just related
to the empowerment that comes along with higher earning power. In my opinion,
Achieving the Dream and other organizations that seek to increase completion
rates could benefit from adopting this latter frame a little more frequently
and intentionally because, ultimately, that leads us back to this fundamental,
underlying promise of obtaining a higher education in the first place.
Kenneth Lawson serves as the Vice President for
Instruction at Skagit Valley College. Prior to that he was Dean for Humanities
and Social Sciences at Seattle Central Community College. Earlier in his
career, Dr. Lawson (or “Kenny” as his friends call him) was a faculty
member at Shoreline Community College, where he taught political science and
international studies. He is interested in educational policy and innovative
approaches to teaching and learning, particularly learning communities and
service-learning. Word on the street is that he enjoys listening to loud,
classic country twang and playing “age-appropriate” basketball.