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Five Lessons Institutions of Higher Education Need to Learn

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Recently there has been much discussion related to budget cuts, accountability, and what institutions of higher education need to learn for the future in order to survive and thrive. These are very critical and timely questions, given the current status of the economy, and its impact upon institutions of higher learning.

Here are five lessons that institutions of higher education (IHEs) need to learn:

1. How to better provide for the global developmental care and success of its students.

IHEs need to learn how to better provide for the global developmental care and academic success of its students, which in many ways has been lost. "Global developmental care" refers to intentional and planned initiatives to help students successfully transition into adulthood in all aspects of their lives: emotional, vocational, intellectual, physical, financial, etc. I think everyone can agree that a college career naturally lends itself to much more than simply book learning. It truly does indeed touch every area of a student's life. And I think I can safely say that most college and university mission and vision statements were originally written with this in mind.

Unfortunately, it has been my experience within the realm of higher education that there is a growing sense that the ultimate developmental care and academic success of a student is "somebody else's" responsibility: a veritable "tag-you're-it" type of mentality. Once the admissions folks get them in the door, everyone and no one is responsible for that student. However, when a student has a goal, we should ALL share it. If a student has a problem, we should ALL own it. Student success is systemic, and we ALL have parts to play in it. As they say, it "takes a village" to raise a child. I urge that it "takes a village" to develop a successful college student.

With a fever-pitch consumerist mentality of parents amidst an ever-increasing litigious atmosphere, IHEs in many regards have been making decisions that may be antithetical to educational success. Now this is not to say that every professor and administrative staffer needs to be on their desk inspiring students to vehemently recite "O Captain! My Captain!" Furthermore, this does not mean that a student is not ultimately responsible for their own success. But I think there needs to be better coordinated efforts between all institutional employees, to develop S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time Limited) outcomes and corresponding educational interventions and programs for our students.

2. How to be more transparent about the perils of higher education.

IHEs must be more transparent and forthcoming about the challenges that a college education can bring. While admissions personnel are hard-working warriors for their team's cause, I have witnessed admissions staffers veritably telling parents and students what they want to hear so that they attend that particular institution. But in the 18 years that I've been in the higher education environment, I've never heard an administrator talk to a visitation group about the statistics related to post-secondary education, including low graduation and large attrition rates, the staggering amount of debt a student can face after college, and the possibility that their student will not find gainful employment in their field of study (or any employment at all!) Also, the pitfalls related to alcohol and other drug use are rarely discussed either.

While making students and their parents aware of the perils and pitfalls related to the college experience, administrators can balance this discussion by also providing strategies for how students can be more successful, including the possibility of advising NOT to go to college, attend at a later time, OR attend another institution more suited for a student's particular goals.

3. How to promote reasonable expectations.

It should be the duty of IHEs to establish a set of rights and responsibilities as well as fully explain what students and parents can expect from their institution. The online shoe company Zappos is known for offering trainees $2,000 to NOT work for the company. They do this to ensure that all employees are there because they truly believe in the vision of the company, and will truly contribute to the company's culture and core values. Likewise, I think it is crucial to be honest and up-front about what is expected of a student at that particular institution AND what the student can expect from their school. This conversation should be revisited throughout a student's college career. Miller, Bender, Schuh and Associates offer more insight on how IHEs can align student and institutional views of the college experience.

4. How to make the experience prestigious and sacrosanct again.

It was not all that entirely too long ago that college and university students would all go to class in business casual wear. Going to the cafeteria was almost a formal occasion in which students would dress up and be on their absolute best behavior. And I'm not simply referring to the elite Ivy League-type schools. This also included public institutions all around the country. Now students go to class un-showered, adorned in pajamas and flip-flops. Granted, you don't have to be clad in a suit and tie to learn the liberal arts, but I think there is something to be said about the perception that colleges and universities once conveyed. Aside from a smattering of "old school" institutional culture across the country, that sense of prestige and formality is all but gone.

Anyone that can fill out an admission application and pay a fee has the ability to attend numerous institutions without any question. Does it dilute the product if anyone can attend (especially when statistics illustrate that many high school graduates are not all that ready or prepared for the experience)? Does this become a more salient issue when more tax-paying dollars are being spent on individuals that are not taking the experience all that seriously (potentially depriving more worthy students, who may have a greater financial need)?

5. How to capitalize upon educational psychology and student development theory.

Theory should inform practice. However, there are scores of administrators and faculty members alike that do not have a grasp of the literature that illustrate how students best learn, develop, and benefit from the college environment. With an ever-growing, diverse student body attending our nation's colleges and universities, it is crucial for all higher education employees to have a working knowledge of student success research.

Does a mechanic need to know how to drive an automobile in order to know how to repair an automobile? Not necessarily. But knowing how to drive an automobile will offer other insights that can indeed lead the mechanic to troubleshoot and potentially repair the automobile more quickly and soundly. In regard to knowing student development and learning theory, I would say the same would hold true for physics professors, admissions and financial aid counselors, theatre arts professors, and every other employee at the university.

Some may balk at this assertion, but in actuality every interaction at the institution is a potential learning opportunity, and shaping the institutional environment will ultimately affect what a student takes away from their college career. This is not to say that every higher education employee needs to have a doctorate in ed. psych or college student development; but again, there needs to be a coordinated effort of institutions in having EVERYONE participate in the student outcomes discussion.