Meeting Our Students Where They Are

Every year, Beloit College puts out its annual “mindset list,” which is an annual reminder of both the vicissitudes of popular culture and how much older I should feel at the beginning of the academic year. This year’s class of entering students, according to the Beloit list, “are mostly 18 and were born in 1999.” That means, among other things, that we have a passel of new students for whom “Peanuts comic strips have always been repeats” and “the seat of Germany’s government has always been back in Berlin.” There are sixty items on this year’s list, all of them aimed at getting faculty like us to shake our heads ruefully at what it feels like when we keep getting older while our students stay the same age.

But I’m not buying the mindset list as anything more than a way to gauge the shifting terrain of TV shows and popular music. Because at about the same time as the mindset list was published this year, the Lumina Foundation issued its own report on “Today’s College Students,” and it stands as a powerful corrective to the outmoded mindset that the Mindset List embodies. I don’t mean to rain on Beloit’s parade (too much, at least), but every year, its fifty-plus “what the kids are doing these days” items describe fewer and fewer of our actual students. To be sure, a majority of our new first-year students are eighteen(-ish), but their absolute number grows smaller every year as the proportion of so-called “non-traditional” students increases. Indeed, the labels we’ve used for students-traditional” and “non-traditional”-mean less then they ever have.

The most eye-opening number from the Lumina report is the percentage of undergraduate students over the age of 25-it’s nearly 40% of all undergraduates nationwide. Slightly over one-quarter of undergraduates are raising at least one child while enrolled as a college or university students. Nearly 60% of undergraduates are working while they attend school, which is at least partially explained by the fact that nearly 50% of first-year students live at or below the poverty line. And these are just the national aggregates. For students of color, the statistical portrait demonstrates just how complicated the route to a bachelor’s degree often is. The likelihood that students of color are both college students and parents is significantly higher than the national average; 47% of African American students, 42% of Native American students, and 25% of Hispanic students are raising at least one child while attending college. This is a particularly salient statistic, because the report also goes on to reveal that 53% of students who are also parents leave college before finishing their degree. Moreover, while students of color are the fastest growing sector of undergraduate enrollments (Hispanic enrollment in 2- or 4-year schools increased 240% between 1996 and 2010, for example), their rates of degree attainment are significantly lower than those for white students.

As faculty, I think we’ve intuited much of this through our work with the students we teach at Grand View. Our student body is more diverse now that it was a decade ago, though there are still areas in which there is work to be done. But we know, for example, that a majority of our students work, some of them more than 30 hours a week, to help finance their education. Many of us have students who are either parents or soon to become parents. But the Lumina report is a powerful reminder of the many ways in which we encounter diversity with our students. And it also reminds us that, in higher education, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

The report also underscores the importance of working to meet a variety of students where they are in order to help them get to where they need to be in our courses. In concrete terms, this means that things like a welcoming classroom climate, accessible course materials, and differentiated instruction are vitally important parts of our pedagogical repertoire. For today’s students-as they really are-we ought to be asking, for example, if we are designing courses that foster equity and inclusion. A significant part of those elements comes in making sure our courses-as well as the instructional materials and strategies we use-are accessible. (For an excellent resource to use in constructing an accessible syllabi and course design, see Tulane University’s Accessible Syllabus Project.)

As James Lang recently observed, there are more students with documented disabilities entering our classrooms than ever before, largely due to the overall increase in enrollment numbers nationwide. How are we dealing with these disabilities? Do we treat accommodations as something we grudgingly accede to, only because we’re legally required to do so? Or do we “consider our moral obligation: We owe it to the students we’ve admitted to make sure they can learn successfully in our courses[?]”  Lang describes the moving remarks of a student with disabilities who spoke as part of a panel sponsored by his institution’s disability services office:

A student who had described her need for accommodations in response to multiple challenging conditions explained that what she really wanted was for her instructors to see her as a valued member of the course.

“What we don’t want,” she said, “is to be made to feel like we are a burden to you because we have requested accommodations. Many of us already have this feeling that we’re burdening you, and it really helps if you can treat us like you want us to be in your course. We’re not asking for accommodations to make your life difficult, or because we’re trying to get away with something. We want to be in your course. We just need your help learning the best we can.”

I was glad to be sitting in the front row when she finished speaking, so I could hide the tears that sprung to my eyes after hearing her impassioned plea. Although I like to believe that I work hard to make my classroom a welcoming place for all students, I had never fully considered the burdens of a lifetime spent making requests for accommodations, and how that might weigh on their understanding of themselves and their sense of self-worth.

That last observation really struck me. What is it like for students who have to spend their entire academic lives carrying the “burdens” involved in simply trying to achieve equity in their educational journeys? What is it like for students who have to navigate repeated microaggressions based on race or gender? For those who may feel like they’re a “burden” for requesting accommodations that are simply a fair way to level the playing field? If we mean what we say about the importance of student access to higher education, if we want to ensure that Grand View is a place for our students to maximize their academic opportunities, then we ought to be cognizant of the differing paths our students took to get to our classroom. If we meet them where they are, we will be more effective in helping them get to where we all want to be.

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Disclosure: This post was written while a large mastiff puppy gently snored next to me. Yoshi would like everyone to know that he graduated from puppy kindergarten this weekend, but also that he is now exhausted from all that learning.

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