Friday, May 28, 2010

A libertarian/community organizing approach to student engagement

Libertarianism and community organizing are generally though of on opposite ends of some spectrum.  But in key ways they are linked--particularly since both value (1)  putting power in the hands of people to make the decisions that effect them most and (2) having those people be responsible for the results of those decisions.  Together they might help higher ed with a constant problem: student engagement.

It is end of the year report time at Westminster, and when that time rolls around we always end up in discussions about resource allocation, resource use, and student engagement.

The issue is this: most co-curricular programs have at least some responsibility for student engagement and retention.  So we always wonder whether the institution gets its money's worth from these co-curricular activities. One problem is that we do not have good metrics for this question.  How would we know if we got our money's worth?  Would it simply be measured by student retention?  By the numbers of students who participate?  By student testimonials?  By the alignment of co-curricular activities with institutional mission?  By student learning?

There is some effort in the field to respond to this question by focusing on the cost-benefit of first-year programs as they relate to student retention. By focusing solely on cost-benefit and retention, though, the Delta Cost Project's initiative overlooks some of the key goals of first-year programs--improving student learning, for example, or faculty development, or making meaning out of a messy curriculum, or a dozen other sorts of things that first-year (and by extension many other co-curricular) programs use.

We have other ways of trying to make sense of the value of co-curricular programs.  Some mission-driven institutions mandate that all students participate in some co-curricular activities.  Pepperdine University,  like many other faith-affiliated colleges and universities, requires that students attend chapel every week.  BYU-Idaho requires all students to have a student leadership opportunity. Cal State Monterey Bay requires all students to complete a community service project and take service-learning courses.  We might call this a traditional or authoritarian model of student engagement, one that uses the power of the institution to shape engagement.

The default mode in higher ed, though, is a small "l" liberal approach.  In it, institutions set up many engagement activities and each activity is responsible for persuading students that participating in its programs is a good thing.  This approach places the onus for engagement on particular programs and their staffs.  It tends to work fine with prosperous campuses ( so that questions about the amount of engagement caused by a particular program do not lead to questions about eradicating a particular programs) and with students who would naturally be engaged anyway, who take advantage of far more engagement opportunities than would naturally fall to them, all things being equal. 

I am teaching a course on community organizing and social change right now.  One of the tenets of most organizers is that responsibility for organizing and change lies not on the organizers themselves but on the community members.  Our class talked about Myles Horton last night who made this a practice at Highlander Folk School.  But the same approach runs through Saul Alinsky's work and that of many other efforts to support communities as they become engaged on their own terms.

This approach has potential in higher education as well, especially since we often proclaim that higher ed works with students to help them define and make sense of their lives as individuals and in community.  Yet we rarely put the onus for engagement on students, preferring to have locate it either in the institution or in its programs.

But imagine, for example, that you gave every student a voucher (the libertarian part of the equation) each semester worth, say $5000 of engagement time--roughly their proportion of the overall spending on engagement activities.  The student could use it to buy the outside of class time of faculty members, or to participate in programming run by a particular center, or to start her own initiative.  Students who spent more than $5000 or less than, say $4000 would be penalized the following semester with a reduction in their engagement budgets.

What might be the results?
  1. Instead of a few students using a disproportionate amount of the engagement resources of the institution,the amount of  participation in engagement activities would be roughly equal across all students.
  2. The institution could get a better sense of how students value particular engagement activities  and thus do a better job of aligning resources with demand.
  3. Students, being responsible for their own engagement and with power over that engagement would develop both greater creativity and greater responsibility for their use of resources.
  4. Groups of students would organize themselves, bringing a much needed student perspective on the overall focus of institutions.
  5. Learning gets better, because engagement grows out of the students' passions as well as the institution's resources.
Vouchers for community organizing in higher ed, anyone?

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