I often find myself in seemingly unrelated discussions connected by a common theme. This spring, multiple conversations left me reflecting on the concept of student-centeredness, an oldie but a goodie in our line of work. I’ve yet to encounter a single colleague in 20+ years who would argue against placing the student at the center of our work. In fact, I’ll bet that if NASPA held a referendum on student-centeredness, it would be the rare idea that would net a unanimous favorable vote. In our profession, we talk about student-centeredness with reverence. We assume that our student-centered intentions and sincere beliefs translate to student-centered action because how could they not be? I think the time is right for us to renew our conversations about what it means to design student-centered organizations. Believing in it is the first step, but consistently delivering on it is the part that matters to students.
In preparation for a recent conversation with parents of incoming first-year students, I discovered a 2017 Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece called: “Let Parents be Parents”. The author’s core argument is this: Instead of spending time teaching parents how to help their first-generation students navigate the complexity of our campuses, universities should consider ways to make the campus more navigable for students:
First-generation parents don’t need more instruction on the college process. Colleges need to require less of it. My bank’s online-payment system does not include a webinar or an orientation session; it just works. My car is infinitely more complicated than my campus parking pass, but I figured out how to operate the car without paging through the manual. It was designed well… Nobody asks donors to go through a five-part tutorial before they can key in a credit card number.
The author goes on to say:
We ought to apply that same zeal for simplicity to all the functional pieces of campus life. There’s virtue in making coursework a challenge; there is no defense for making class registration a crucible. Drawing a firm distinction between the educational mission and all the administrative hurdles to get there is key to removing barriers for first-generation students and families.
I realize, as do you, that what the author suggests is easier said than done, especially in the large complex systems many of us navigate daily. We don’t control many items that make college campuses difficult for students to navigate. However, there are so many small things that we can change. I believe small changes can collectively make a big difference in a student’s experience, for better or worse.
A few examples:
I worry that we fling too much higher ed speak at students and expect them to muddle through it because they’re in college. Great works of literature typically have a Flesch-Kincaid readability score that would allow a junior high student to comprehend them easily. Conversely, many of our student-facing policies (e.g., codes of student conduct), departmental websites, and communication pieces feature copy written at a level of readability that can easily exceed college-level. (By the way, the readability score of this blog post is 48 which places it at a 12thgrade reading level. If I was writing this for college students, I would need to simplify it to be sure it was understood).
I worry that it can be easier to start an LLC online for many of our students than to register a new student organization. I worry that even for established student organizations, it can be easier for its officers to book flights, hotels, and activities for a spring break trip than it would be to reserve a room on campus with a working projector.
I worry that our student employment policies might be creating unnecessary barriers to on-campus jobs for the very students who could benefit most from an on-campus employment experience (GPA requirements for on-campus jobs don’t stop students from working, but they might prevent them from working on campus, where they have access to people and resources that can help them).
I worry that the structure of sorority recruitment (timing, letters of recommendation, wardrobe suggestions) can be a barrier for first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students for whom the experience could be life-changing.
I could offer many more – and I know there is wide variation from campus to campus, but you get the point.
I’m coming to terms with the fact that it isn’t enough for us to support the idea of student-centeredness. We have to deliver on it in ways that make life a little easier for students. Again, I don’t think we’re talking about big, expensive initiatives. We’re talking about surrounding students with a more accessible environment for them to navigate. Being student-centered will require us to re-think many of the processes, policies, and practices built for a bygone era and retained through the years because they still work for us. It will require us to reconsider many of our basic assumptions about what works – and how we know it works. It will require us to realize that being student-centered might sometimes make things more difficult for us. In short, it will require us to put the student’s experience at the center of our decision-making. The good news is we already know we’re pro-student-centeredness. That’s the first step. The next step is for us to deliver on it more consistently. I think we can.
Jeremiah Shinn serves as the Vice President for Student Affairs at Louisiana State University and A&M College.