Putting Students First: What Does It Look Like in Policy and Practice?

From his time as a college president and a university trustee to his work as U.S. under secretary of education, few have had a more up close and personal view to the work of improving American higher education than Dr. Ted Mitchell. Today, he continues that work as the president of the American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for higher education that represents nearly 1,700 college and university presidents and related associations.

Looking at the profile of today’s students and ahead to the institution of the future, he sees a campus that serves as an “integrator” —  a place where learning and experiences are brought together for students. During a dynamic time for American higher education when college represents the critical path to personal mobility, we sat down to learn more about Dr. Mitchell’s views on putting students first, both in policy and in practice. 

Insights & Outlooks: As you scan today’s landscape, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing institutions as they work to meet the needs of students?

Ted Mitchell: We continue to have challenges around affordability and access, although we’re getting much better on the access side. There’s a declining public trust in higher education and both are related to the challenge of getting people across the finish line. We continue to have a completion crisis in American higher education. Only about half of the students who start a program, whether it is two years or four years, successfully complete that program, and that’s a bad number. It’s a bad number that gets worse when you disaggregate it by race, by income level, or by first generation. That is the seminal challenge for us today.

Insights & Outlooks: As a former college president and administrator yourself, what comes to mind when you think about the idea of putting students first?

Ted Mitchell: It’s a great question and the short answer is, if you’re going to put students first, the first thing to do is to know who they are. You need to understand the context from which they come. A simple way to think about that is: What’s been their secondary school preparation? As a result of that, how should we as an institution think about how we help the curriculum and how we help scaffold people to be successful in college? That context, the academic context, is only one of many.

Taken as a whole, students are a very, very diverse lot. They come with a bunch of characteristics that we don’t often think about. Many are military veterans, many are single parents – 28% of students today in college are parents themselves or caring for dependent parents. Most of them are working, either full or part-time, and more than a third transfer courses. Putting students first really means understanding this tapestry of experiences that they bring and helping the institution bend to those.

Insights & Outlooks: Most of today’s students wear multiple hats, often balancing work, commute, family, military and community service, and other commitments beyond the classroom. How are institutions responding to shifting demographics?

Ted Mitchell: American higher education is tremendously diverse. It’s one of our great strengths that there is no one size that fits all for ‘putting students first.’ There’s not one size that fits all for institutional practice, but you can look at the City University of New York System, at a place like LaGuardia Community College, where they have implemented the CUNY ASAP program. It’s a cluster of activities that runs the gamut from tutoring and advising to providing metro cards to students to enable them to get to campus to take their courses. The ASAP Program is very focused, it’s very data-driven and it’s increased completion rates [at institutions] like LaGuardia Community College by something like 40% over just a couple of years.

You look at Georgia State University in Atlanta where they have used a very deep data system to create predictive analytics to help advisors not just respond to students when they run into a roadblock, but to anticipate those roadblocks, gateway courses to a major. Advisors know that students need to do well in those gateway courses in order to be successful in the major that they’ve chosen. They were able to target advising and tutoring to students to help them overcome those challenges before they become roadblocks. There are a variety of different tools and techniques ranging from high-tech to high-touch to help students manage their multiple hats, as you put it.

Insights & Outlooks: Higher education institutions are engaged in using technology and innovation to help reach and serve students like never before. What are some innovative models worth scaling?

Ted Mitchell: I think that there are three major things that technology now enables us to do, and the development of better tools is really critical to this. We couldn’t have talked about these things 10 years ago. One is to break the tyranny of time and space. This goes back to the previous question about how to meet the new normal student where he or she is. You need to understand that they’re going to need to have an educational experience that isn’t bound by time and space. The technology enables institutions to employ much better delivery modes for not just one-way instruction but two-way communication, collaborative work that’s breaking the tyranny of time and space in really important ways.

Second is the ability to use student-generated data to create these kinds of structured pathways for students, so that they don’t need to make it up on their own but can use analytic tools and departments—deans and advisers can use analytic tools to help students to get from where they are to where they need to go even if that path is not a straight line.

Third, and this is the one that we’re still working on, is that technology tools enable us to evaluate and assess student learning at a much more granular level. Think about the work that’s been done on competency-based learning, for example. There are ways now for us to use technology tools to measure real learning, rather than the proxies for learning, and that has a long tail and a promising future in higher education.

Insights & Outlooks: When we talk about innovation, our minds quickly turn to quality and protecting consumers, as we see the growth of these technology-enabled models, innovative models continuing. What role do you see for consumer protection conversations moving forward?

Ted Mitchell: As the technology evolves, one of the things that we’re seeing is new providers, new entrants, move into the higher education space. The issues of quality are becoming even more important and we need, as an industry, to be sensitive to the potential for taking students for a ride, promising much more than we can deliver, much more than providers can deliver.

The answer to the question is that consumer protection is probably more important now than it has ever been, and that the way for us to provide protection to students and potential students is by focusing on outcomes. It’s one thing to sort of hide nefarious behavior with fancy ads. It’s a lot harder to fool someone simply by promising a lot when a student can look at actual outcomes. Outcome-focused accountability is something that the accreditors are focusing on. It’s something that the federal government is focusing on, and I believe states are focusing on it, as well.

Insights & Outlooks: You played a key role as a top federal policymaker. What are some key policy issues that you are looking to be addressed in the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act?

Ted Mitchell: I’m encouraged that the quality question will remain in the federal government’s focus. I know that the U.S. Department of Education is about to launch a rulemaking that will include, among other things, revisions to accreditation. That gives us the opportunity to focus on outcomes-based accountability in an important way.

In discussions about the Higher Education Act reauthorization, a couple of keys things come to mind. We need to continue to support students through a robust Pell Grant program. We need to simplify student loans so that students are better able to understand what they’re borrowing and the consequences of that borrowing. We need to support innovation by making federal financial aid useful, not only for traditional degree programs but for apprenticeships or short-term programs that come in smaller increments than the traditional academic year.

Insights & Outlooks: A growing share of today’s students are adults with some college, but no degree. Is this an area that interests ACE and your member institutions?

Ted Mitchell: It’s of enormous interest to us at ACE and enormous importance to America. We know that some postsecondary education, whether it’s a full degree or a certificate, is critical in today’s economy and will be even more important in the years and decades ahead. We know that there are 30 million Americans who have some college and no exit ramp—no degree or course certificate. That mismatch is a public policy problem, it’s an economic problem, and it cheapens our commitment to the next generation. From a policy perspective, there are a few key areas that need reform. We need to ensure that federal aid is delivered more flexibly to students over a longer period of time—e need to start thinking of student aid as more of a lifetime learning account.

We need to do a better job of giving credit for prior learning, whether that’s on the job learning or the incredible learning that members of the military get during their service. Prior learning and competency-based learning are ways that we can begin to reward these 30 million people with the work that they have already done and help move them forward towards the completion of a degree or a program.

Insights & Outlooks: Affordability conversations are increasingly moving beyond tuition to look more holistically at college costs like child care, health and wellness, food and housing. What are ways that policymakers and institutions can help students to cover these costs?

Ted Mitchell: On the policy side, the answers come in pieces. Many of our institutions have decided to create childcare centers on their campuses for their students and their staff. Those things can really help make a difference for students of today and tomorrow. While not a policy fix that will solve the underlying problem, more and more institutions are addressing issues such as food insecurity and housing insecurity, and also are looking at student wellness and well-being and thinking about ways in which they can devote resources to that part of a student’s life.

From a strict policy point of view, extending child care credits is important, as is making access to free and low-cost online open education resources or near open education resources more available in order to make textbooks more affordable. Making the path through college more efficient saves a ton of money for students and that’s important.

When you look at why so many students are so stretched, a lot of it has to do with the fact that states have disinvested in higher education since the beginning of the great recession. They have not restored that funding and, as a result, more and more of the tuition cost of education is falling on the backs of students. The money that they might have spent on childcare or on rent is now going to tuition and there’s nothing backfilling that hole. It’s a substantial problem, and students are suffering from it.

Insights & Outlooks: Part of putting students first involves ensuring that we are constantly evolving to put in place supports and services to meet their needs. What does a next generation student-centric campus look like in terms of student support?

Ted Mitchell: I see the campus as primarily an integrator for student learning that occurs in a variety of places and a variety of modalities. A student in today’s world might take three traditional courses over the course of a year, but may then also take an online course, may take a course at a neighboring college, or may have a part-time apprenticeship. The college campus becomes the place where all of these experiences are drawn together, and it becomes a place of making sense of these learning experiences and combining them. In that vision of a college, it can only be student-centric because the student is the unit by which those educational experiences are brought together.

Insights & Outlooks: What is your “must read” book from this last year, either fiction or nonfiction?

Ted Mitchell: Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. I think that in the way he characterizes da Vinci, one understands what the human mind is capable of— and how a real education is by nature, multi-disciplinary and multi-modal.