Leading by Example: Excellence, Innovation, and Relevance

Richard Ekman headshotBy Richard Ekman

This issue of the Independent is filled with examples of CIC member colleges and universities as leaders in educational innovation and of how their leadership is creating superb experiences for students and faculty members. Too many stories in the media emphasize only the vulnerabilities and tribulations of smaller private colleges and universities. This issue of the newsletter should instill pride and confidence in our colleges’ many strengths and achievements. The narrative this issue threads is of pioneering educational ideas that flourish at CIC colleges; member institutions are laboratories for educational practices that are often emulated by larger, less nimble institutions.

CIC member institutions lead in student outcomes. The new report prepared by NORC at the University of Chicago on the STEM pipeline at CIC member institutions shows that students in STEM fields have a greater chance of completing a STEM major at smaller private colleges—especially if the students are women. In fact, almost eight out of ten women who obtain bachelor’s degrees in STEM majors from private colleges graduate within four years. That exceeds women’s time- to-graduation rates in STEM at all other types of institutions. STEM education remains a national priority, and evidence shows that small colleges are highly effective when it comes to producing graduates in STEM fields. That’s leadership.

STEM is just one example of the outsized performance of smaller private colleges. CIC member institutions also achieve high graduation rates, give generous institutional financial aid, create robust student engagement, and have a track record of seeing students secure well-paying jobs upon graduation. In this issue, CIC announces Talking about Private Colleges: Busting the Myths, a new series of workshops which, we believe, will equip participating colleagues with compelling data and communications strategies to emphasize the benefits of a private college education. Participants will practice addressing the misperceptions commonly encountered in informal conversations about higher education with friends, neighbors, and local business and community leaders. Every member institution should act soon to register a team for one of the workshops; space is limited to allow for high levels of participation and engagement.
Two stories illustrate how CIC member institutions lead in digital innovation. A just-published study of online learning in the humanities describes two CIC consortia supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Evaluation by Ithaka S+R shows that students in courses delivered online through this project achieved the same high levels of learning and academic performance as those taking the courses in conventional classroom settings. Further, the findings suggest that in an online environment students who may be less likely to speak up in a classroom are more engaged with the material. The president of one participating college observed that the technology “enabled the ten-second thinkers in the class to be able to get into the conversation on a threaded discussion where previously they had been silenced by the two-second thinkers who dominated a face-to-face class.” The work of these consortia shows that online instruction, when delivered with careful attention to content and pedagogy, can provide a valuable supplement to traditional classrooms.

Another story about digital innovation highlights CIC’s new Online Course Sharing Consortium (OCSC), which was launched in November 2018 and just surpassed 100 members. Participation in OCSC allows institutions to supplement their own curriculum by sharing faculty-approved online courses with other OCSC participants. This arrangement enables students to take a course needed for graduation when it is unavailable on the home campus, and it allows colleges to fill in for a faculty member who is on sabbatical or to flesh out a major or minor program with expertise the home department lacks. Both stories show that smaller private colleges are not, as the media narrative has it, succumbing to the threat posed by online “education providers.” Instead, they are crafting digital teaching resources to advance their distinctive, student-centered pedagogy.

CIC member institutions also lead by addressing the pressing issues of the day. At a time when it is often said that free speech and political diversity are absent from campuses, CIC convened teams of educators from across the country to explore the intersection of diversity, the liberal arts, and civility. The report on this year’s Diversity, Civility, and the Liberal Arts Institute makes clear that in fact smaller private colleges and universities are deeply committed to ensuring that every student is able to learn unhindered by disrespect, exclusion, or stereotyping and that every idea—however challenging or controversial—can be debated in an intellectually responsible way.

Other stories show that CIC programming nurtures some of the most timely and relevant movements within higher education today. An intriguing observation reported at CIC’s recent Intergenerational Connections conference was that the changing demography of America, with more senior Americans than young people, demands new approaches to education, social services, and health care. Experts from Encore, AARP Foundation, and Generations United praised the forward-thinking role of those CIC colleges that are collaborating with community institutions to serve low-income older neighbors through a CIC initiative funded by the AARP Foundation.

Yet another example of the timeliness of CIC initiatives is the U.S.-Mexico Higher Education Summit. At a moment when tension at the southern border of the United States is much in the news, CIC brought together U.S. college presidents with their Mexican peers to discuss shared concerns and educational collaboration. The second U.S.-Mexico summit continued an established discussion about education for international understanding, a discussion that will be continued at CIC’s 2020 Presidents Institute.

These examples underscore a broad and essential point: CIC member colleges lead in educational effectiveness, innovation, and relevance. The stories in this issue, taken together, illustrate how our sector shapes higher education and therefore society, serving as a laboratory for educational excellence in a rapidly changing world.