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Change Magazine - March-April 2015
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March-April 2015

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To Protect, Guide, and Support

TO PROTECT

I remember asking my Uncle Norman years ago what it was like to have college-aged children. He told me that it was intensely frustrating, because one moment they're thoroughly adult, insisting that you grant them adult privileges, and the next moment they turn back into children again, wanting you to do their laundry for them.

This isn't surprising, since the brains of traditional-aged college students are hovering between adolescence and adulthood. It seems that the maturation of both of the brain and judgment continues well into the 20s (Johnson et al., 2009)—particularly, in my unscientific judgment, for males.

I thought of my uncle's comment when, at a recent TIAA-CREF leadership conference, Terry Hartle—the senior vice president in charge of the American Council on Education's Division of Government and Public Affairs—commented that we are seeing a resurgence of the expectation that colleges and universities will act in loco parentis for their students. Policymakers and the public want us to take better care of their quasi-adult children—to protect them from the dire effects of assault, sports-related concussions, their own tendencies toward risk-taking, drinking, and (legalization coming soon to a campus near you) non-stop pot smoking, among other dangers.

One of the most urgent expressions of the growing worry about safety is the demand that we do something about sexual assault on campus. This public concern is increasing in the context of more reporting about the issue, activism among students, the contentious 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and the US Department of Education's May 2014 list of campuses “under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints,” as well as its guidance on “the responsibilities of colleges, universities and schools receiving federal funds to address sexual violence and other forms of sex discrimination under Title IX” (USDoE, 2014).

Kristen Jozkowski's article on sexual assault and the nature of consent in sexual relations stresses the responsibility of institutional leaders to educate students about sexual assault and to address the problem of the “rape culture” that is found on many campuses. Laura Ackerman's account of the assault she suffered while studying abroad brings home both the personal cost of assault and how the failure of her program or university to warn the students about the dangers they would face while abroad or to support her in her attempts to recover made matters so much worse.

The form such guidance and support should take differs from when I was in college, certainly. Then, at UCLA women students had curfews. But the first dinner of our study-abroad program in France featured several different types of wine (most of us had never had wine before; rowdiness ensued), and for the rest of the year, I was pretty much on my own—assumed to be an adult, as European students typically are.

Now, few women would accept curfews, but the stakes of impulsive behavior are perceived to be higher—not rowdiness but violence. I say “perceived,” because in my day, we were oversensitive to some dangers and oblivious to others. I lived in the first co-ed dorm in the country, when many people thought that such mixing signaled the end of Western civilization. On the other hand, we now know, for example, that men as well as women can be raped. In those circumstances, education and—when things go wrong—support are our collective responsibility and need to be strongly signaled from the top.

TO GUIDE AND SUPPORT

But as Patrick Kelly and Christina Whitfield point out in their Playing the Numbers feature, in order to hit the national and state-level graduation targets, colleges and universities must support adult students too in their quest to get their degrees. We would like to think that such students don't need help—that, as fully mature people, they know what they want and go after it with laser-like focus and intensity.

In fact, though, older students face personal hurdles, as well as the competing priorities of their complicated lives, in their race to the finish line. Many a student's college dreams have been derailed by domestic abuse, I suspect—not to mention by financial troubles, time-management difficulties, and a lack of child care, to mention just a few of the many possible obstacles to success.

So institutions should provide these students too with support, resources dedicated to their needs, and coaching. But the women faculty who do the bulk of that work on many campuses are rarely rewarded for it, Pamela L. Eddy and Kelly Ward remind us, given institutional leaders' focus on rankings based on quite different values (see Jeremy Martin's article in this issue for other reasons to rethink that focus on rankings).

The biggest need of adult students, though, is not to be confused or have their time wasted. As Stan Jones points out, our system of higher education is all too often characterized by poor design of courses and programs, too many unclear choices for students who find themselves traversing a maze that can lead to dead ends, and broken policies for key practices such as credit transfer. The solutions he offers to these problems all entail more structure than colleges and universities have traditionally supplied, as well as industry-wide adoption of certain practices: performance funding, co-requisite remediation, 15-to-finish campaigns, structured schedules, and guided pathways.

A note of warning, though: As Caroline Altman Smith and her co-authors remind us, sometimes institutions are hobbled by their own good intentions. They pursue multiple single-campus initiatives to increase student success, none of which get the resources or persistent support they need to really make a difference. That's where Student Success Centers come in—to organize those initiatives and achieve synergies among them.

This suggests that one of the key features of a system that really supports student success transcends the boundaries of a single campus. The value often attributed to the diversity of American higher education should not blind us to its shortcomings, particularly the fragmentation that characterizes the enterprise.

But some things policymakers and practitioners can surely agree on: that it is our collective responsibility to keep students safe and supported and guided so that they can move forward in their education and lives with all deliberate speed. There are practices that make that possible, and no one is guilty of plagiarism or a lack of distinctiveness in adopting and adapting them.

RESOURCES

Johnson, S.B., Blum, R.W., & Giedd, J. N. (2009, September). Adolescent maturity and the brain: The promise and pitfalls of neuroscience research in adolescent health policy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45(3), 216–221. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892678/

U. S. Department of Education. (2014, May 1). U.S. Department of Education releases list of higher education institutions with Open Title IX sexual violence investigations. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-releases-list-higher-education-institutions-open-title-i

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