Can a University Care About Research, Undergrads, and Student Success?
In American higher education, it’s rare that an institution focuses on research, teaching, the undergraduate experience, and student success—and does them all well at the same time.
The U.S. system is a “strict hierarchy,” is how Richard Freeland, the former president of Northeastern University, once described it to me. That often forces institutional leaders to pick a lane and develop their strategy around being known for something.
That’s why I found the University of Maryland, Baltimore County so unusual during a visit to campus last November. I was at UMBC, as it’s known, with the co-host of the Future U. podcast, Michael Horn, to record an episode with the retiring president, Freeman A. Hrabowski, III.
One of the many things that struck me on our visit were these framed posters along the hallways of the university’s Academic Success Center, a one-stop shop where students can access tutoring and supplemental instruction, academic advising, and other type of assistance. The posters promoted the center’s services and displayed statistics about how many students made use of them—as if to say, you’re not in this alone.
It’s not that colleges don’t want their students to do well—it’s that they usually leave the onus for success on the students. And it’s not often that you see research universities like UMBC tout their services around student success. Too many research universities seem embarrassed to advertise that their students even need the assistance—like it was a failure of the admissions office to admit these students in the first place.
In his 30 years as president, Hrabowski has built a model where a research university can care about undergraduates and their success—and talk about it all unabashedly.
☕️ Good morning, and thanks for reading Next. Several people have asked me about the lawsuit filed this week against a group of prominent institutions accusing them of violating federal antitrust laws because they share methodology to calculate applicants’ financial need. After reading the complaint, it still seems like a lawsuit in search of a problem as we’ll discuss in a future edition of Next.
The freshman class in the fall of 2021 was 9.2% smaller, some fewer 213,000 students, compared to the fall of 2019.
🗓 Next Thursday, January 20, at Noon ET, Western Governors University president, Scott Pulsipher, joins me for a LinkedIn Live to explain how his institution measures and explains its value and what they have learned in doing so that might apply to the rest of higher ed.
To watch, go to my LinkedIn page or click +FOLLOW on my profile to be notified when we’re live (the conversation will also be archived there).
Thursday, January 27, at 2 p.m. ET, the Next Office Hour. Our topic: how colleges can build more equitable pathways to careers for underrepresented students.
This discussion is based on a new paper that will be released later this month, co-authored by Matt Sigelman, president of the Burning Glass Institute, and Chris Howard, president of Robert Morris University. They’ll join me for the office hour along with Yvette Burton, behavioral scientist and workforce strategist, and Branden Grimmett, associate provost at Loyola Marymount University.
Hrabowski recording Future U.: Colleges need to “look at the undergrad experience. Are we doing as much as we can to inspire students?”
UMBC opened in 1966. It was chartered three years earlier by the Maryland legislature as the first integrated campus in Maryland—at a time when much of American higher education was segregated.
The university has known only one president for half of its life. When Freeman Hrabowski retires at the end of this academic year, he will have led the institution for 30 years.
Why it matters: The average tenure of a college president is getting shorter, declining from 8.5 years in 2006 to 6.5 years in 2016, according to the American Council on Education.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the impact of Covid might shorten presidencies even more.
That’s why Hrabowski’s life as president at one institution is so remarkable. In time that Hrabowski has been president at one place, for instance, West Virginia University’s president Gordon Gee has led five institutions, including Ohio State twice.
—After we mostly seemed to be running to keep up with Hrabowski around campus, he still has the energy at 71-years-old for more. And he’s always an educator. If you listen to the podcast, you’ll hear a moment where a student passes us on a tour and the president stops him. When the student introduces himself to us with his fist name, Hrabowski reminds him quietly: “Always give your full name.”
Background: Hrabowski’s life story—and that of UMBC—is so remarkable that it was impossible to tell much of it in our 22-minute podcast.
As a ninth grader in Birmingham, Alabama, Hrabowski was arrested and jailed for helping lead a civil-rights demonstration. That experience was described in Spike Lee’s documentary, Four Little Girls, about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls, one of whom Hrabowski knew well.
The journal Science once called UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholarship Program a “blueprint” for science education in higher education.
The program covers tuition, room and board for scholarship recipients, who work in teams and get early experience in labs.
By the numbers: In part because of the Meyerhoff program, UMBC graduates more Black students who go on to earn PhDs in the natural sciences and engineering than any other college, according to the National Science Foundation.
When Hrabowski started at UMBC as vice provost in 1987, the university received less than $10 million in research funding. Today, it gets more than $84 million.
The big picture: “The talent is there,” Hrabowski said of the students in the pipeline to college.
The problem isn’t the students; it’s the education system, he said. “We need to look at the undergrad experience,” Hrabowski added. “Are we doing as much as we can to inspire students, to want to become great professors, to be excited about asking the hard questions in science? And I think we can do a better job.”
“We are accustomed to looking at the highest achievers and they, of course, will go on and do well,” he continued. “But there’s so much talent from our middle class and working classes that never will get that opportunity because we’ve not taken the time to think through what does it take to help them to not simply be okay, and to graduate, but making them the very best in the world.”
🏀 Of course, many sports fans know UMBC for being the first No. 16 seed in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament to defeat a No. 1 seed in its win over the University of Virginia in 2018.
The bottom line: While Hrabowski has emphasized research, undergraduate education, and student success broadly, his success as president has come because of his intense focus on a few key priorities, which he has been able to see through because he has stayed so long.
“I’m always saying to people in higher ed don’t go to a place because you want the experience and you want to move on,” Hrabowski told us. “No, you need to stay the course. Believe in that institution, help build that institution. Yes, other opportunities will occur. And so we say to people who have left here, they are still a part of the UMBC family.”
After a year of remote and hybrid learning, colleges and universities must find ways to keep students engaged and connected. Read about the latest trends in enrollment, retention, and transfer rates and how to help students access support services as well as foster an environment of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Read the report now.
An Early Look at Early Decision
Ever since the Great Recession, selective colleges that offer Early Decision have bumped up the percentage of the overall class they take early—from about 25% of the incoming class to closer to 50% (or more, in some cases)
When announcing the results of their Early Decision rounds last month, many colleges mask what percentage of their incoming class they’ve accepted as to not discourage applicants for regular decision in January.
Since most selective colleges keep the size of their incoming class consistent from year to year, you can estimate what percentage they took early by looking at the size of last year’s first-year class.
👇Below are some of these estimates based on press releases or emails from the admissions office (or in few cases, like Barnard and Penn, the colleges announced the percentage of their class filled).
The cost of a postsecondary education is a barrier for many students before they even submit their first college application. The Department of Education released new statistics showing high school juniors who think they can’t afford an education are much less likely to pursue a degree.
Baker College has become the largest private college in Michigan thanks in part to its robust marketing. But what it doesn’t tell prospective students is that less than one-quarter of its students graduate; that 70% of students who took out federal student loans have problems making payments two years after leaving college; and ten years after enrolling fewer than half of its graduates made more than $28,000 a year.
With the trial, parents will be invited to three live sessions with former admissions officers from NYU and Penn who will describe how colleges review applications and ways juniors can research colleges. Also, you’ll see Ethan Sawyer, The College Essay Guy, discuss how juniors can begin to think about their essay topics.
Members also get access to 50 past sessions, including one with me, and the members-only group where experts answer their questions.