Over the last year, we’ve been using the phrase “student-ready” to describe what’s at the heart of Grand View’s approach to student success. It’s a phrase we’ve heard a lot, but one whose simplicity belies its the dramatic reorientation it asks of us. Traditionally, the discourse in higher education has focused on “college-ready students.” In other words, are our students ready for us? Do they have the necessary preparation in [insert academic subject here]? Do they understand the things we’ll be asking of them, and the necessity of doing those things correctly? Those are legitimate questions to ask, but if they’re the only way we think about our students, we risk seeing them solely as problems, as deficits, as problems to by fixed. And thus the conversation stays stuck in what students can’t do, instead of what they can.
But we live in a society in which economic inequality sits at historically unprecedented levels, and where the ways in which we resource K-12 education reinforce, rather than alleviate, racial and economic injustices. Moreover, higher education itself is a system originally designed for a very specific and elite subset of American society. Even though the ranks of students, faculty, and staff have increasingly diversified over the centuries, the essential parts of the structure (“traditional” curricula, competitive admissions, standardized testing, for example) remain largely intact. It’s like moving into a new house: we can change the carpet, paint the walls, and put in new furniture, but we’re still constrained by the basic structure–where the walls and doors are, for example. For many students from historically marginalized communities, the experience can be similar: they enter a higher educational institution which says they’re welcome there, but the structure itself says something different.
This is where a reorientation from “college-ready student” to “student-ready college” becomes so important. As Tia Brown McNair and her colleagues argue in their book Becoming a Student-Ready College, focusing solely on whether students are “ready for us” places all the emphasis on factors that are largely out of our control. It tends to reward cultural capital (which students learn how to “play the academic game,” and which students aren’t even told they’re allowed to play?) rather than academic achievement. And it exacerbates the very inequities we say higher education should be addressing.
Shifting our focus to whether we are ready for our students, McNair and her colleagues argue, emphasizes factors we can control, and in doing so allows us to create a more equitable campus climate. The profile of a “typical” college student is much different than it was even when most of us were undergraduates, and continues to diversify in a number of ways, to the point where using the phrase “typical college student” is barely viable. And higher education, it has become clear, has not served all of its students well, and the reasons for that have more to do with higher ed itself than our students. As Byron P. White observed, “[i]t turns out the problem was not as much about the students as we thought. It was largely us, uninformed about what it takes to help them succeed or unwilling to allocate the resources necessary to put it into practice.”
Becoming a student-ready institution is more than simply shifting the words we use; it requires a reassessment of some of our foundational assumptions about, for example, the “place” of students and all of our roles in promoting success. As McNair and her colleagues argue:
“What does it mean to be a student-ready college? Being a student-ready college requires more than a mission or diversity statement that touts philosophical ideals of inclusiveness…[it] means more than expressed commitments to inclusion and student-centeredness. A student-ready college is one that strategically and holistically advances student success, and works tirelessly to educate all students…
At student-ready colleges, all services and activities—from admissions, to the business office, to the classroom, and even campus security—are intentionally designed to facilitate students’ progressive advancement toward college completion and positive post-college outcomes. Student-ready colleges are committed not only to student achievement, but also to organizational learning and institutional improvement.”McNair, et al., 2016
What struck me most about this book was the recurrence of “more” as a theme. Being a student-ready college requires us to do more than symbolic gestures, more than sloganeering, more than business-as-usual in classrooms and on campus. In many ways, this “more” might not mean additional labor so much as a refocusing and re-intentionalizing of the work we already do. And while this process might be a difficult one, the payoff promises to be significant.
If you’re interested in finding out more about what “being student-ready” means at Grand View, we invite you to attend the Conversations on Teaching session this Wednesday, September 15, from 3:30-5:00 in the CETL (Rasmussen 208). We’ll have social time from 3:30-4:00 and then move into the program. We will also be streaming on Zoom starting at 4:00 PM. The link was included with the calendar invitation that got sent out last week, but if you need it again, please email Kevin. We hope to see you there!