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    Peter Smith's take on opportunity and access in higher education, the unmet challenges that remain, and the future that lies ahead for those willing to tackle it.

It's more than an attitude -- it's displayed in our practices and services.

September 23, 2020
 

I have had to alter my understanding of respect. Previously, I considered respect to be an attitude. And that attitude, as sung by Aretha Franklin so many years ago, included acceptance and understanding. To be sure, the respect we need to support just practices includes those characteristics. But it also needs to go a lot further. In the New Oxford American Dictionary, respect is defined, among other things, as “due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.”

I believe that our dominant academic tradition has demanded respect and accommodation from the learner while offering little of the same in return for those who needed it. As a result, students who came from the traditions which supported those practices or who were able to adapt and accommodate them, succeeded. And those who needed reciprocal respect for their cultural identity, life stories and educational goals in order to survive and flourish were significantly less successful.

Just practices must be based on respect for “the feelings, wishes, rights, and traditions” of the learner. As you will read in future blog posts, this does not involve lowering standards or coddling learners and then calling completion a success. It does mean creating a true partnership with the learner, which includes these elements.

  • Being need-responsive. This is not an abstraction referring to the learner’s goals. It involves understanding her life circumstances and valuing the learning she brings with her as well as helping her identify where she wants to go, why she needs to learn more and the value that represents. This attitude says, “We’re ready when you are, we’ll start where you are and we’ll go where you want to go.”
  • Being learner-friendly. Some people call this the “friction-free environment.” Being friction-free, while including the technology interface with learners, must extend to all the interactions they have with the institution. In a just-practice organization, all aspects are learner-/user-friendly and are considered part of the learning experience. That includes services such as English as a second language as a gen-ed course, assistance with financial aid analysis and completion, early advising to support the onboarding process, degree planning, and, when necessary, a personal crisis hotline. As a case in point, I am reminded of the community college that discovered that many students who had qualified to graduate were not doing so for other reasons. It increased its graduation rates significantly by eliminating obstacles, like forgiving an unpaid $15 parking ticket, which were blocking graduation.
  • Providing “concierge service” throughout the learning process. This service is not to be confused with academic advising. This person is the learner’s partner and associate throughout her career, assuring that the institution is meeting her needs. If she develops a problem with career information and advising, the concierge will advocate, represent and resolve the issue. If she needs to take some time off because her child is sick, the concierge will make sure that financial aid complications are handled, that the institution’s records show she is stopping out, not dropping out. And the concierge will come back and check to assure that she re-enrolls.
  • Helping the learner choose her best participation pattern. There are many ways that a person can access a postsecondary education. They include, among other options, campus-based, online, blended, low-residency, individualized, full-time and part-time. The just-practices institution will offer pacing and participation options that allow learners to engage in the way(s) that support their learning as one important element in a complicated and busy life. It will not be dictated by others as a condition of enrolment.

Could this be overdone? Of course. But having an organizational culture in which respect is reflected in the practices and services offered as well as in the attitudes of the employees will go a long way toward making a learner who was formerly excluded feel welcome and part of a supportive community. And that, in turn, will increase her chances of success.

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