Skip navigation
All Places > The College Success Community > Blog > 2016 > September > 30

The College Success Community

September 30, 2016 Previous day Next day

Summer is normally a time when my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I convert our mountaintop home in the western Blue Ridge Mountains into summer camp for visiting grandchildren.


But this year we did something different. We took two of our grandchildren on trips for college admissions visits. It was a real eye opener. Let me get right to the point of this posting: if you haven’t been on the Admissions tour of your own campus, do it. But “mystery shop” it if you can pass incognito. You need to know what your prospective students are being told to expect. The process of creating expectations for your incoming students is tremendously important for influencing the outcomes you want for their college experience. This is when you can begin to spell out what is the history and traditions of the place, its market niche, its core values, its promised experiences to come.


I want to report on one visit we made to a national, competitive, selective, research, university (not my own).


My 17 year-old granddaughter especially wanted to visit this institution. She is an outstanding student, academically and athletically. She had heard in her peer group that—let’s call it University X or UX, was “awesome” and that students there had a great deal of “fun.” We also had a fourteen year old grandchild along who aspires to be an engineer. He is also a high performing kid.


When you arrive at UX for the Admissions tour you enter a “Vistor’s Center.” The lobby and waiting areas feature many posters and symbolic messages largely revolving around X’s athletic programs. There is one prominent display in a case under glass reporting X being named as the “#1 tailgate” in the region. That point was driven home verbally at least three times on the subsequent tour. In my way of thinking “tailgate” is code for excessive consumption of alcohol before, during, and after football games. I am sure some others on the tour made the same connection, particularly the prospective students. However,  the tour guide made it clear that tailgating was not just for students. She reported that everything associated with football was also for the “family.” We were told repeatedly that coming to X is like belonging to a family.


When you go to a big place you might as well start out being processed in large groups because that is going to be the way the place works. On this summer Saturday morning, the “tour” consisted of approximately 130 prospective students and their families. This cohort was definitely drawn from a national population base.


The formal introduction began in an auditorium style configuration. We were asked how we were that morning and when we did not reply in a sufficiently loud and enthusiastic manner, we were instructed to repeat our answers to that question, several times. The expectation was clear: the X leaders wanted us to show some enthusiasm.


X did not have any professional staff from Admissions or elsewhere. This group of 130 had four undergraduate student leaders. I reasonably assumed that they had been carefully selected, trained and scripted.


As we waited for opening remarks, a slide show rotated on one screen. There was print material on some of the slides, but no accompanying music or voice over. The font for much of the print was too small for me to read and I was sitting in about the fourth row back, in the center.


The student master of ceremonies rattled off some basic information about admissions procedures and then asked if anyone had any questions. It was my interpretation that the sub text from the group leader was that this was not really the time or place for questions and the student leader answered them brusquely and impatiently, obviously wanting to get on with the tour.


Thankfully, not all 130 were going to tour together. We were split into four groups. As each prospective student’s name was called out to effect this division, the students were instructed that when their name was called they were to respond as loudly as possible “GO —(Enter name of X’s mascot)! That set the tone. We were going to hear a great deal about athletics on this tour.


The first stop on the tour was a large open grassy area. Here we were told about what would happen during the opening week of the term during an extended welcome orientation, and in particular, how a “student activities fair” would take place in this very area, under a large tent, where students could choose from over 400 clubs and organizations to get involved with. The objective of all of this we were told was to have “fun” and to get “involved.” We were told that in a national survey X ranked very high because over 90% of its students reported that they were “happy” at X. I was pleased to know that the taxpayers of this state were making such an investment to produce “happy” students.


Throughout the two-hour tour the only references made to the purposes of the institution were to: having fun, being happy, and eventually getting a good job. Considering this was a place I thought was especially noted for its STEM work, I found this scripted presentation of the purposes of the University to be particularly puzzling. To reinforce my cognitive dissonance, our tour guide repeated on multiple occasions that she had changed her major (to Communications) in her first year because of her challenges with Chemistry. As she put it “I don’t do anything with numbers.” She apparently was in the right place to go through college that way, even though I found that hard to understand.


Totally missing from the tour were any references to any other possible purposes of higher education, such as preparing for a life of leadership, civic responsibility, service to society, support of the arts, you name it. In fact, with reference to public performances in the arts space, the closest we heard was reference to great rock concerts that were brought to campus.

And next came a residence hall. We heard a great deal about on campus living options and food choices. The virtues of food options were extolled as was “free laundry” meaning no charge to students for use of the laundry machines. That was described as a big hit. It was explained to us that the one area of campus life that had not been rated high historically was the food service and thus, how that had been a focus for special attention for improvement in the past two years. Universities have all sorts of distinctions and I would assume on such tours would tout what they are proudest of. In this case, X is now proud of the food it provides its students.


We also heard about another student concern: parking, and how much more available and less expensive it would be than at many competitors.


We moved on to the Student Activities Center where it was explained to us in more detail what were the opportunities for students to engage in organized group activities. This building was separate from the student union building which we were not shown.


We were also not taken to any classroom or research laboratory facilities. I found that strange given that this is a world-class research university. There was no information offered on any types of research being conducted at this university or what the purposes of a research university are. The only references to academic requirements were to final exams, but in the context that the University food service provided what in the military I came to know as “midnight chow” served up late at night before finals the next day.


We were not taken to any facility where artistic performances of any type would be presented other than the movie theater in the student activities center.


We also did not see the football stadium although we heard many references to it and how we should all look forward to game Saturdays.


Nor did we tour the physical recreational activities building, although that was pointed out to us. In so doing the guide exclaimed that X was really a place for “jocks.” I did not ask her if she understood the male related aspects of that language which she was using generically.


Very late in the tour we got to the Library. We were only shown the foyer. But we were told that the library housed a student success center “upstairs” where students could receive free tutoring.


At another point there was reference to a health center, but none to the availability of counseling, or the fact that the college experience might lead some students to seek counseling.


While there were multiple acknowledgements that students were coming to university to get jobs, strangely, we were never shown the career center. I am sure both students and families would have liked more attention to that, actually, any attention to that.


At some point on the tour, I had this recollection of an experience I hadn’t thought about in years, a pitch for a timeshare. It was probably about 30 years ago and I was over at the blue collar Riviera of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, literally on the beach. And I don’t know what possessed me, but I agreed to attend a pitch for a timeshare—probably for ten beach dollars or something. As I recalled this otherwise forgettable experience I realized the similarities to this college admissions visit and tour. I was really being pitched a vacation experience, fun, recreation, generous and good food, plenty of entertainment, all in a safe environment, even free laundry thrown in. And not inexpensively—all for about what I could purchase a timeshare. Not only was what was being sold similar to the timeshare, so were the strategies being used in the pitch. This was truly déjà vu.


Of course, I know that those responsible at X for enrollment management are not trying to sell a timeshare. But assuming that what is said on these tours is not left to serendipity, and hence is carefully scripted, I had to wonder what was the rationale for what was covered/not covered. And without asking those responsible, all I could conclude was that this was the outcome of an exercise using Maslow’s needs hierarchy into an operational process. So what we got was information on very basic shelter and security needs but nothing much higher up on the aspirational ladder towards self actualization—-unless we accept the proposition that these prospective students had no loftier aspirations than to spend four or five years in a resort as a way station before true adulthood. No, I don’t think so. These students are high performing high school students. I believe they came in not knowing quite what to expect, but still expecting more than they got. I don’t believe they are really aspiring to an extended resort stay.


So how does your place stack up in comparison? What is the pitch being given prospective students? What is/is not on the campus tour? Who writes the tour guides’ script? Who trains and supervises them? What are the criteria for their selection? What is the story being told about your institution? Who is in charge of the front door to your institution? You need to know.


I must admit that for the three decades I was at the University of South Carolina I never went on the tour. I never heard the pitch. But I have now done so and am pleased to report it bears little similarity to X. I should have done this while I was employed full-time and had responsibility for first-year students. I knew very well what we were telling the students during Orientation but knew anything about the messaging that had preceded that. Shame on me.


Originally published at on 7/7/15.

John Gardner

Write Our Own Future

Posted by John Gardner Sep 30, 2016

It is important to be able to point to current, real world events, to create teachable moments for our students.

Several weeks ago, President Obama, in what for me was one of the most memorable lines of his State of the Union speech, told the country it was time “to write our own future.” I say memorable because that was really what has stayed with me from that speech. Yes, there was much attention paid to what some commentators called the President’s defiant tone. I realize that affect (perceived as “tone”) is important. But what matters more to me is the substance of what he said.

And I think this idea of “write your own future” is a great way to characterize for students what the college experience is all about.


It is about a very personal process, personal to each student. We carry this to great extremes in US higher education because we allow our students so many different choices—I believe too many, but that’s another matter. But the end result is the students’ individual “pathways” (a current buzz word for those who would improve higher education) are vastly different and hence personal.


I even take this language literally. Students should be asked to first think and reflect about their future, but then to “write” about it, literally. Students aren’t doing nearly enough conventional writing. They think they know themselves best. What a perfect subject to be writing about. In fact, I am working on a project now to integrate so-called “college success” content into the teaching of writing. Write about themselves and their futures especially during the first year but then in successive periods too. Write about it in first-year seminar courses, English composition courses, any course where personal reflection and application is relevant. Write about it in journals, papers, customized, personal research. Write about it in the creation of text for electronic portfolios.


Writing something is a creative process. The writer is the creator. So the student, as the writer of her/his own future, is the creator. The student needs to own this creation. It is not that of their parents/friends, even the society. Not that we don’t influence the writing. We do. We should. But ultimately we need to get students to do the creating in an intentional process from which they own the outcomes. They hold themselves responsible.


Write your own future, is about personal planning—academic planning, life planning, family planning, business planning—and more. We have to teach our students more about how to go about this. Hence, one more argument for paying more attention to the beginning college experience.


The first year is the foundational period for: “write your own future.”


If we really believed in the importance of college as a process to “write our own future” we would be paying a lot more attention to the importance of academic advising. I do see some signals out there in the academy that “advising” is having a renaissance in terms of attention. Certainly big public universities are spending a fortune on data analytics to provide advisors with more information to better guide student decision making (writing their own future). The jury is out on whether the use of analytics will really result in substantially improved student progress, much as we all want that.


My point here is that we need to encourage students to make good use of the freedom we give them, their locus of control. And I think this notion of “write our own future” is a captivating metaphor to do so. Students remember more than we give them credit for.


One of the few things in life that I am really sure of is that college enabled me to write my own future.


Originally published at on 3/16/15.

I have very few original ideas.  One was “the first-year experience.” Another was “the senior year experience.” The list is short. Most of my ideas I get from other people. And I get these ideas usually by two means: I listen to them in conversation or presentations; and/or I read them.


So this piece is inspired by the fact that the other night I was at a conference related dinner in Arlington, Virginia, engaged in a conversation with one of my colleagues at the University of South Carolina, whom I respect greatly, the University’s chief undergraduate education officer, Dr. Helen Doerpinghaus. After we finished our conversation I noted to myself that she had mentioned to me not once, not twice, but three times, the importance to her as a faculty member and academic administrator most responsible for the welfare of our undergraduates, of “meaningful work.” I didn’t tell her at that time that I had been doing a word count, but I did later. She really nailed it.


When I think of what I am most thankful for, “meaningful work” is right up there at the top of the list.


I am a seeker of truth, my truth. I learned how to do this in college when I had a political scientist in a political philosophy course teach me the Socratic method. It is that method that I use most often to seek my truth(s). I was taught, by having to read Plato’s Republic, that Socrates went about speaking in the interrogative mode with others, drawing from them presentations of what others believed to be the truth—their truths. And I saw Socrates adding up these truths of others to create his own synthesis of truth, and thus inspiring me to do the same.


And that is what I was naturally doing in conversation with my USC colleague who was talking to me about the importance of academics like us doing “meaningful work.”


When I was 18 years old and came home from my first year of college, my father was not happy with the new ideas, views, attitudes, I had come home from college with. He told me I needed to have a real world experience, implying to me what so many business types believe, that college is not “the real world.” So he arranged such an experience for me: I became a steel worker in a plant that made beer cans. This was sheer torture for a college kid. Millions and millions of beer cans but not a drop to drink.


This experience didn’t illuminate for me what I wanted to do when I grew up, but it helped clarify what I didn’t want to do. I saw how bereft of meaning was the work that most of my fellow factory workers were doing. And at the end of the summer, all I knew was that I was still very much in search of “meaningful work.” I didn’t call it that yet. And actually, I was in the process of finding it in college, where I truly regarded my work as “meaningful”—because it led to so much understanding, insight, and intellectual and personal empowerment. It was also in college that I learned from reading Thoreau, writing in the 1840’s, that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”


Of course I was also gradually coming to the awareness that millions of my fellow citizens do not have the good fortune to experience “meaningful work.” Instead, they have jobs. Ultimately, I did not have a “job”; I had a vocation, a “calling” as the Latin derivative of vocation yields.


Now I didn’t discover this calling until after college and a graduate degree and a military experience, when the Air Force ordered me to do some college adjunct teaching as a form of “community service.” It was only then that I discovered my operational definition of “meaningful work”: it was being engaged in remunerative work that had redeeming social value and that involved the four things I loved most to do: 1) talk 2) read 3) write 4) help people. I did not have any career planning in college because it didn’t exist in the early ‘60’s in my kind of college. I am thankful to the Air Force and the University of South Carolina that I discovered “meaningful work.”


I am struck today by how many college students have never experienced “meaningful work.” In fact, my upper SES background students may never have experienced any remunerative work at all! They don’t have paper routes any more. And they don’t mow lawns either. Instead they have after school and during the summer “enrichment” experiences that help them leverage the college admissions game. And for my lower income students, the fortunate ones have had some employment history but I rarely ever hear that it was meaningful (e.g. in the fast food service economy).


I shared with my USC colleague, Dr. Doerpinghaus, that I thought that higher educators could profit from being convened to discuss what is meant by meaningful work, and just what that experience for them in the academy has been. And how those kinds of experiences might relate to efforts to make students more successful. In like manner, I suggested that we try to design some structured processes for undergraduates to learn how to discern what might constitute meaningful work. I am confident USC will figure out a way to do this. Just think, if they left college with any more clear indication of what “meaningful work” consisted of, how much better their life choices might be.


So what is meaningful work?


What I know best is what I found to be the characteristics of meaningful work through my own meaningful work. Now that doesn’t mean that my students would have to end up doing what I did and do to experience meaningful work. I am not a faculty person who wants to produce student clones. But surely there are some generic take-aways.


OK, for me, meaningful work is characterized by:

  • a discovery of some idea that becomes the basis for new work
  • a high degree of autonomy and freedom in the work setting
  • the intellectual, professional, personal freedom to raise questions about anything and pursue them wherever they lead me
  • having remunerative work that pays me for doing the things I most love to do (reading, writing, talking, helping people)
  • having legal work that harms no one, including myself, and helps many
  • high levels of personal fulfillment and empowerment
  • freedom to determine where I work
  • and when I work
  • and how I work
  • and with whom I work
  • being engaged primarily in activities that I have initiated as opposed to having imposed on me, or as my good friend and mentor at the University of California Irvine put it to me thirty years ago—work that enables John to “stay out of other peoples’ meetings!”
  • forms of work that require me to continue learning
  • outcomes that are win/win for myself and others—it is never about just me
  • and thus work that is inherently collaborative, that would be very difficult to engage in alone
  • and further is work where my skills, knowledge, hopes, dreams are complemented and magnified through integration with those same qualities in others
  • often fun and entertaining
  • always demanding, pushing me further
  • never finished, yet fulfilled


I think there needs to be more talk among academic colleagues and work with our students to help all discover and achieve meaningful work. And this is one more benefit to college in addition to simply “completion” and degree attainment.


Thank you Helen, for getting me to think about this. And I will continue to do so.


Originally published at on 11/24/14.

A few weeks ago I visited my alma mater, Marietta College, on a professional trip in association with a project I am working on with faculty, staff and administrators there. There is no way I can fully describe how much I love that place, that institution and the people I knew there—most of them now gone. If more students felt the way I do in that regard, we would have much less of a retention problem.


Generally, I regard love as an irrational phenomenon. But my alma mater did so much to develop me, support me, nourish me, care for me, focus me, that it almost seems rational that I love the place. If not “rational” well certainly “understandable”, “appropriate.”


By the time I had been to college, graduate school and then in the military, I had come to realize experientially that as a human being, I could be taught to think, feel, and do anything, including hate, kill, and/or love.


Then I came to work for the University of South Carolina. We had this President with this heretical idea that we could teach the students to “love” the University. And if they came to love it they wouldn’t want to trash it and there would be no more student riots like the one that had barricaded him in his office and set his building on fire in May of 1970. So he and a group including myself, started a course, University 101, to teach students to love the University. And 43 years later there have been no more riots. And many of the students really do love the University.


So four decades later, most institutions are doing much more to intentionally teach their incoming students a wide variety of skills, knowledge, attitudes, about making a successful transition into college. A few places I think are actually trying to teach the students to love the institution, its people and opportunities. I know that is still the case at USC. The big question is how might we do this.


Well, for starters, we could identify everything that successful college students do and we could set out to teach students how to do those things.


And we could put all that content and process into a credit bearing course.


And we could introduce new students to faculty, staff, and fellow students who love the institution. And get new students to spend quality and quantity time with such people, each week, as in three contact hours in class at the very least.


And we could get new students engaged in experiences out of class that they would enjoy and which would model enthusiasm for the college experience (attending events, plays, concerts, activities).


And we could make sure that they had professionals to interact with that cared about them, listened to them, encouraged them, and in a few special cases even came to love them.


Yes, I think this is what we need to be doing: teaching new students to love the institution, to love being there, experiencing the transformation that can take place in such a unique environment.


So why do I love my alma mater?


Well, for one thing, it is in a beautiful setting, in the bucolic (I would like to think overlooking some downsides) Appalachian region of southern Ohio. It sits at the confluence of two beautiful rivers: the Ohio and the Muskingum. The small host town of Marietta, has 15,000 or so citizens and is steeped rich in history, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory, created by act of Congress in 1787. Its streets are made from brick pavers. In the fall it is particularly beautiful and evocative of the powerful feelings I had when I first began there, as a lonely, depressed, homesick, undecided, seventeen year old college student.


So why do I love my alma mater?


Because that is where I discovered that I had a set of competencies that would carry me through life.


That is where I learned to work with peers in groups and came to appreciate them and enjoy professional work.


That is where I came to understand how higher education institutions really work, which has been the focus of my life’s work.


That is where I came to understand so much more about how the world works; how I can think like a liberal arts person and integrate many bodies of knowledge.


That is where I developed a number of special relationships, overwhelmingly with men,  that have endured through now almost five decades of adulthood.


That is where I learned to overcome my acquired sexist thinking and experience my opposite gender as full human beings just like myself.


That is where I developed my adult work habits.


That is where I experienced the powerful interconnection of a healthy mind and a healthy body by realizing the benefits of rigorous, disciplined, regular, outdoor, physical exercise.


That is where I overcame many of my prejudices learned at home.


That is where I developed my own aspirations rather than those my parents had for me.


That is where I learned that the questions are often more important than the answers.


That is where I learned my lifetime value systems about politics, religion, social justice and so much more.


That is where I became intellectually liberated.


That is where I first saw that I could have an impact on a human organization through my own unique vision, energy, interpersonal and communication skills.


That is where I learned—or began to learn, about how to go about effecting change in the higher education environment.


That is where I experienced what first-year college students, and seniors, needed for successful transitions.


So especially when I return to this hallowed place I am reminded how much I love this institution and for what it stands. It would be irrational for me not to love this college.


This love is powerful.


It is mystical.


It is magical.


It is beyond complete definition or understanding.


It is to be experienced, felt, lived, and acted upon.


I persisted, was retained, in spite of a terrible first term, because I came to love the place and what it was doing for me, its people, its place, its transformative power.


Your students can experience this love too. But you have to be an agent for that.


Originally published at on 11/19/14.