Friday, May 11, 2012

White Privilege and NASPA 2012

As I mentioned in my previous post about supporting undocumented students, I wanted to write about my experience attending NASPA in Arizona. Back in 2010, Arizona passed SB 1070, also known as the "papers, please" law, which allows local law enforcement to detain anyone for whom they have "reasonable suspicion" the person may be an undocumented immigrant. In a nation whose public debate over immigration is highly racialized, it's not difficult to imagine the impact of using "reasonable suspicion" in determining who may be undocumented and who most likely is not. This article at the Huffington Post and this video posted on the ACLU's website are great discussions of the racial profiling impact of SB 1070.

Originally I think I heard about the push for NASPA to reconsider Phoenix as its 2012 meeting location via ACPA's Commission for Social Justice Educators email listserv. At the time, I was working at a community college and had actually let my NASPA membership lapse--my memberships were not covered through the college, and the college was not an institutional member of either organization, meaning I was paying the full professional price. I was also very fired up about the issue as I was in a professional position where I worked with undocumented students. Our Latino/a Student Union organized an excursion to the University of Washington that summer (2010) to attend a forum on the DREAM Act, and that Fall I invited Dr. Roberto Gonzales, at that time faculty with UW's School of Social Work, to speak on campus about his research into the experiences of undocumented college students. I wanted NASPA to reconsider Phoenix as its conference location.

I was disappointed when the NASPA Board announced it had chosen to keep the conference in Phoenix. I can appreciate how difficult the decision had to have been, but I felt NASPA, with the influence and power it has within the student affairs field, could have done better. For instance, AERA (American Educational Research Association, the largest professional association for education researchers) had planned its 2013 for Atlanta, GA, but moved that meeting to San Francisco after the Georgia legislature passed their own version of SB 1070. I often want to believe that our profession will get political when necessary and make statements like boycotting Arizona facilities until SB 1070 is repealed, but I know this will not always be the reality.

And then things changed for me. In the fall of 2010, I decided it was time to move on from my professional position. I decided to apply for PhD programs, as my ultimate goal is to become a higher education researcher and academic, and at the beginning of 2011, I was hearing back from schools about admission into various programs. All of a sudden I realized I was going to be back in school again, and that for the first time since 2008, I would be able to attend national conferences.

I was invited by my dear friend Lisa Endersby to present with her at NASPA 2012 on a topic we had been discussing for several months at that point, and I did not want to turn this opportunity down. I started thinking again about my feelings on NASPA in Phoenix and, I guess, began to rationalize them away in favor of attending the conference: "My decision to attend NASPA will have little to no impact on the state's decision to repeal SB 1070; I'm not even sure moving NASPA elsewhere will have an impact on the state's decision to repeal SB 1070!" "My grandparents and my aunt and uncle live in Phoenix, it would be really nice to see them." "I'll just get involved at the conference with any discussions happening around immigration and NASPA's position on the DREAM Act. That will be more impactful."

I wanted to go to the conference and reconnect with people I hadn't seen in a long time, I wanted to see my family, and I wanted to present with Lisa. I was going to be a graduate student again so it would be accessible. I was coming face-to-face with my own White privilege (and fairly aware of it too) but feeling extremely unsure as to what to do about it at the time. And I began to wonder (defensively?) why we aren't asking our professional associations to consider other unjust laws, like states which do not protect LGBTQ people against discrimination, in making decisions about conference locations (ahem, Kentucky). I think I was rationalizing, but in retrospect, I learned much from this experience as well.

At the conference, I made sure to attend different sessions exploring immigration, how the debate is framed in public and how the debate is framed within higher education. A friend of mine talked me into attending the NASPA Public Policy Town Hall as well, which ended up being the most rewarding of these sessions in terms of NASPA's position on supporting undocumented students. Most of NASPA's Latino/a Knowledge Community attended the session as a way to voice their anger and concern over the decision to keep the conference in Arizona. Again, "undocumented immigrant" does not equal "Mexican," but in public discourse, it often does, and anger about immigration is often directed at Latina/os in this nation as a result. Members spoke about how many Latina/o NASPA members had either chosen not to attend, or to bring several forms of ID, out of concern for their own safety simply out on the streets of Phoenix. And not simply safety in the face of public attitudes about immigration--safety in terms of defending oneself should one be racially profiled by local law enforcement.

The issue was not NASPA making a statement and boycotting Phoenix in protest--the issue was NASPA not comprehending just how hostile an environment it was bringing its conference into. A candlelight vigil is not enough to make up for this concern for personal safety. And the icing on the cake? Just a week before the conference a lesbian couple experienced anti-gay discrimination at one of the conference hotels (the Sheraton). Like I said, I know moving a conference is an extremely difficult and costly decision, but with a little creativity the association could have done better. Perhaps a fundraising campaign built around the concern for social justice and safety may have been able to energize members and sponsors to help make up the cost?

Needless to say, I was surprised by what I learned from this experience. In retrospect, I'm not sure I disagree with my decision to attend. If the conference was staying put, I think it was responsible to engage the issue, though that decision looks different for different people. For me, in hindsight, it felt impactful to engage the issue in Arizona in Phoenix at NASPA. For others, it may have been more responsible and impactful to choose not to attend. The association did announce in the Town Hall that it backs passage of the DREAM Act and is exploring how it can become more involved in getting that legislation passed in Congress. But most of all, I hope this serves as a lesson to our professional associations (or, perhaps in the future, association in the singular) when considering locations for meetings and conferences. On the one hand, it's not like student affairs and higher education do not exist in states like Arizona, and we need to bring our professional development opportunities to their spaces too, but on the other, we need to be inclusive of and sensitive to the needs and concerns of all our membership.

Follow me on Twitter: @BryceEHughes

Friday, April 13, 2012

Safe Spaces for DREAMers

A criticism of Safe Space (or Safe Zone) programs that has always gotten on my nerves is the question, "But why just the LGBTQ community? Don't we want our campus to be safe for all people?" Don't get me wrong, I don't disagree with the sentiment of the person asking me the question, though it does make me question how the speaker feels about programs explicitly focusing on the needs of LGBTQ students (or any other social identity group, for that matter). Yet it has also given me pause as to why I feel so strongly that Safe Space programs remain structured as they are and not be watered down.

The main purpose Safe Space and similar programs serve on a college campus is identifying faculty and staff--institutional representatives--to whom a student can disclose her, his, or zir sexual orientation and/or gender identity without concern about potential negative repercussions. While college campuses today seem to be pretty safe places for students to come out, they weren't always this way--and for some students, depending where they are in terms of understanding this identity, they still are not. This is a need that is particularly salient for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning) community. Identity disclosure carries much risk, and a Safe Space type program provides a way to alleviate as much of this risk as possible.

Tuesday's #MSAchat discussed the topic of supporting undocumented students on campus, which, for me, recalled my previous professional position working in a multicultural affairs office at a community college. I worked at a college in Washington State, a state where undocumented students are not only allowed to attend public institutions of higher education, but can also do so at the same rate as their in-state resident peers. The state has determined these students should be considered state residents as well. About a dozen states around the nation have similar laws, including three which also provide access to state financial aid (CA, TX, and NM).

I was also our campus liaison with the College Success Foundation, one of the largest scholarship providers for low-income students in Washington State, who intentionally decided not to make US citizenship a requirement to access their scholarships. In fact, many scholarship providers in states which consider undocumented students to be state residents use "state residency" as a requirement rather than "US citizenship." As a result, our office supported quite a few undocumented students, and I in turn learned much about what life without "papers" can be like.

After attending a forum on the DREAM Act (legislation pending in Congress to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youth who had no choice in immigrating to the US but face few choices upon finishing school) at the University of Washington, one of the groups at the forum gave us placards to place on office doors and windows which were meant to indicate that the person in this office supports DREAMers (undocumented students). It was in that moment, in seeing the parallel between this action and the placards provided graduates of Safe Space training programs, I then realized that I was working with another population for whom identity disclosure carried much risk--and immediately placed the placard in my office.

After that, I started to think about how we make it known to DREAMers that we are safe people on whom they can rely as they pursue their educational goals. I began wondering what it might take to start a Safe Space like program for undocumented students, and was able to find one example after a brief Google Search (California State University, Long Beach). I mentioned this in the #MSAchat, and am hoping to keep this conversation going through this blog post.

I challenge student affairs professionals to learn more about the issues facing undocumented students in higher education. (Check out the College Board's advocacy website on the DREAM Act for more info, especially a great publication by Dr. Roberto Gonzales on the experiences of undocumented students.) Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do you know who undocumented students are at your institution? If not, why don't you? (I'm not suggesting we identify and label them--I'm suggesting there are reasons why professionals on our campus will be aware or not aware of their mere presence on campus.)
  • If so, do you know what support services are available to them, specifically focused on their need for discretion?
  • Are undocumented students allowed to attend college in your state?
  • What are your state laws regarding access to public higher education for DREAMers?

On this topic, I think I'll write a follow-up post regarding my choice to attend--and experience attending--NASPA in Phoenix. Many of you are aware that NASPA's decision to continue to hold the 2012 Annual Conference following passage of Arizona's Senate Bill 1070 faced immense controversy in the field, including a decision by many professionals to not attend the conference as a result. I wonder how other professionals have been processing that experience and how it informs the way our professional associations conduct business in the future.

Let's keep this conversation going--how will we move forward with a campaign for safe spaces on campus for DREAMers? How are we, as higher education professionals, advocating for passage of the federal DREAM Act?

Follow me on Twitter: @BryceEHughes

Saturday, April 7, 2012

#SAchat as Scholarship

Joe Ginese recently posted about some of the more troubling aspects of the conference attendance experience. Mainly, much of his concern revolved around questioning just how much professionals attending national conferences (mainly NASPA and ACPA) gain professional development from these experiences. The conference experience is worthwhile, he argued, but how much of it revolves around finding ideas to bring back to our campuses rather than fostering an environment which encourages new ideas to transform our work and our profession?

In that sense, he concluded that attending national conferences does very little in providing these opportunities, and perhaps they should be rethink the way we do them.

I posted a comment that, for the most part, agreed with his points, though I felt an underlying issue was unintentionally omitted which could have even further strengthened his argument. In attending a conference on one's employer's buck, a person has to decide how to balance what she or he plans to get out of the conference personally for professional development with making sure that investment was well spent and ideas for improving the institution are brought back. But I gave this a little further thought, and I have another critique of Joe's post regarding the overall purpose of conferences. I'll get back to this in a moment.

In pondering the point of attending (even organizing) national conferences, I got to thinking about a point made by a former internship supervisor regarding the purpose of conferences for student affairs. She told me that presenting at conferences was a major way student affairs professionals engage in scholarship, a scholarship you might name, the scholarship of practice.

Let's look at the entire conference presentation process considering it as a form of scholarship. The first thing that happens is the presentation proposal. A student affairs professional, usually in collaboration with other peers, pulls together a proposal on a particular topic either within one's functional area, professional interests, or topic expertise. This proposal involves background research, an overview of the presentation content, and how the presentation will be facilitated. Once the proposal is complete, the author(s) submit it for review.

The proposal undergoes a peer review process where other student affairs professionals critique the proposed idea and determine if it merits space in the conference's overall program. The reviewers provide some feedback to the presenters related to whether it was selected for the program and how, if at all, it could be improved before the conference. At that point the presenters build their proposal into a full conference session and book their travel for the conference.

At the conference, the session gets a specific time slot in a particular room, and the presenters bring their materials, eager to engage the proposed topic with a (hopefully) full room of professionals also interested in said topic. Whether this happens in roundtable format, formal Powerpoint presentation, or, one of my favorites, as an "unsession," student affairs professionals with an interest in that particular topic gather to hear how a particular campus is addressing an issue or how people are finding innovative ways for professional development and engage with each other around that topic. The engagement may only be a Q&A session at the end of a formal presentation or throughout the session, depending on its format, but typically by the end of the session conversations about the topic have sprung up and, even more ideally, new connections have been made between participants. The session ends, but the conversation does not.

And this is the main vehicle by which student affairs professionals engage in scholarship. While it may not look like formal scholarship in publications, conference papers, or symposia, conference presentations are still a dialogic process, which is key to the scholarship process. Scholarship is a dialogue. The reason papers and articles include so much background information and previous citations is that each is a scholar's contribution to an on-going dialogue in the field. Scholars make sure to provide an overview of the dialogue as it has occurred within their fields to situate what they propose as a contribution. It has less to do with self-importance (though it probably does to a certain extent) and more to make sure to give credit where credit is due to situate one's work within the larger conversation.

In that sense conference presentations are contributions to an on-going dialogue within the field of student affairs. Presenting the program you run at your campus is not to just highlight how well you address a particular campus issue, but to engage your peers in a dialogue about that issue through how you address it in your work. Yes, we want to learn from each other new ways of doing our work which will enhance the service we provide, but much of the conference presentation is the continuation of an on-going dialogue on particular topics of importance to the contemporary student affairs field. Which is also why conference presentations need to be peer-reviewed (no matter how rigorous--or not--that process is).

In pondering this, I realized this is another critique I had about Joe's points. While it does make sense to provide space to talk about what's of immediate concern in the field, it's also important to recognize the role of the national (and regional) conference as a crucial vehicle for driving forward scholarship in the student affairs field (and again, not publications in a journal, but building the profession's conversation). This process does take time (unfortunately) but is also crucial in the advancement of student affairs.

After giving this much consideration, I realized a very important way in which this dialogic process happens on an on-going basis, especially between conferences. The #SAchat is an on-going conversation about student affairs. While it does not involve a great deal of situating one's tweets among previous tweets since the start of Twitter (you only get 140 characters!), the chat does flow as an on-going dialogue and is always full of some of the most relevant, important, crucial issues in student affairs today. And it still does involve a great deal of bringing in other voices to contribute content to the ongoing conversation--mainly through links to news articles, blog posts, and academic writing.

So forget the debate whether #SAchat is a network or a community--it's scholarship, and has thus been crucial to the advancement of the student affairs profession, possibly as much as the conferences themselves.

(Though, really, I think #SAchat is all of those--a network, a community, ongoing scholarship, and a whole lot more!)

Follow me on Twitter: @BryceEHughes

Friday, April 6, 2012

Slacktivists Can Change the World

I was thrilled to finally participate in #MSAchat for my first time this past Tuesday. #MSAchat is a specific hour on Twitter where people involved in Multicultural Student Affairs gather on Twitter to discuss a topic currently being faced by this particular functional area within Student Affairs. This past Tuesday we discussed campus reactions to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin which had made the news recently, and following this chat a conversation regarding "slacktivism" has continued, which prompted this post.

I remember as a college student being involved in many causes aimed at raising my peers' awareness to important issues in the world around us. I was an active member of our campus gay-straight alliance (HERO--Helping Educate Regarding Orientation), our Women's Studies Club, and our Young Democrats, as well as having honorary memberships in a number of other clubs, and frequently attended rallies, vigils, and other awareness-building events to educate my peers on what was happening outside the bubble of the campus community.

The term "slacktivism" has emerged as a way to describe the type of activism that has taken predominance in the era of social media. This neologism combines the words "slacker" and "activist" to describe the phenomena of "retweeting" or "liking" status updates and internet posts about important issues in our contemporary world. The term has taken significant precedence recently due to the flurry of activity around #Kony2012 and #TrayvonMartin on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking websites, demonstrating the first time how far social media's reach can go when it comes to "spreading the word" about something catching fire in people's minds. Sarah Kendzior provides a great analysis of just how subjective and problematic slacktivism can be when it comes to raising awareness to important issues.

The main issue I see with slacktivism is how unprepared we are to discuss these issues at a systemic level, in a manner which has the potential to lead to deep, sustainable change in social structures which would produce meaningful change. On the one hand, you have #TrayvonMartin. This is certainly not the first time a Black man has unjustly faced a tragic end as a consequence of a system which considers Black men suspect outside very specific contexts. And this is certainly a tragedy that would usually pass under the media's radar were it not for the tireless efforts of Trayvon's parents and antiracist activists leveraging the power of social media as a tool to raise awareness to this injustice.

On the other, you have #Kony2012. You have a cause which has not escaped critique ("Invisible Children"), critique which has been public long before this particular Twitter hashtag was created, but critique that was fairly unknown until the hashtag caught fire earlier this year. Millions of social media users viewed and reposted (retweeted) this video uncritically before realizing just how complex the situation and how problematic the video's message really were, highlighting some of the dangers to which slackstivism could easily give way.

Yet these examples do not mark slacktivism's emergence in American society. I brought up my earlier example of being involved in awareness-raising efforts on campus because these effort were very much like slacktivism--they were confined to our college campus bubble and they involved little effort on students' part in being present at a particular place and time to demonstrate our passion for a cause. You see, to me, the key to slacktivism is how visible the demonstration is, yet how little it contributes to deeper, structural changes in society.

Take, for example, Gap's (RED) campaign (really, any campaign which involves making purchases for a cause). You purchase merchandise branded with (red) and part of the proceeds go toward fighting HIV and AIDS in the world, generally Africa. In other words, you purchase an item which shows your passion for a cause, yet you never question the decision in terms of, "Would it have been more effective to donate the $10 I put towards this t-shirt to a local AIDS charity in the fight against AIDS?" Typically these type of national AIDS campaigns were directed towards fighting AIDS in Africa rather than AIDS domestically (because the recipient might be gay!) and very little of the purchase actually goes toward the charity (these companies gotta make a profit). The consumerism these decisions uphold might actually be maintaining structures which allow AIDS in both the US and Africa to persist because a) they uphold the capitalism which prevents health care reform which would benefit domestic AIDS patients, b) they ensure insufficient resources for AIDS patients both domestically and abroad (too much is eaten up by company profits), and c) they impede the actor (purchaser) from considering other ways in which they could more effectively help the cause. In other words, more resources are utilized in maintaining the IMAGE of support of the cause rather than actually SUPPORTING the cause itself.

The major issue is how unprepared we are to critically examine causes to ensure that our efforts make a real difference toward causing change in the world. To me, the role of MSA professionals is to foster the critical and ethical examination of one's actions in the world as they inhibit or facilitate deep, sustainable change in the world around us. Social media itself is not an evil, and in fact hold great power to deeply change the world around us. It is our responsibility to develop the critical eye it takes to harness this power most effectively, and then empower our peers and our students to do the same.

How do you think social media will change the world?

Follow me on Twitter: @BryceEHughes

Monday, March 26, 2012

What story would you tell?

What were some of the stories you were told when you were in college? I remember at my alma mater, Gonzaga University, everyone knew of our most famous alumnus (who actually never finished his program). Bing Crosby, who later received an honorary degree from the university, and who donated the money to build a library which was later converted into the student center but still bears his name, had grown up in Spokane, WA, and attended both Gonzaga High School and Gonzaga University. In reality, his passion for acting and music was inversely related to his interest in education and led to his departure, but in the stories we told on campus, his departure was initiated by a number of glamorous reasons, including unsuccessfully trying to hoist a piano through the fifth-floor window of one of the residence halls and dropping said piano to the ground instead. This is one of the many stories alumni of Gonzaga know upon commencement, an example of what I've come learn is called a "saga."

Clark (1972) introduced higher education to the concept of the organizational saga. A saga, as he wrote, refers to how members of an organization, such as a college or university, develop a collective understanding of some unique accomplishment in the organization's history that has significant meaning for the members. This collective understanding develops into a saga as organizational members retell the tale of that particular accomplishment but tend to add affect and embellishment in the retelling. It is through the added feeling organizational members give a particular story that the relative coldness and rationality of the organization melts away, inspiring strong feelings of loyalty to and pride in the organization among established and new members. Gonzaga alumni take some pride in the fact that they share an alma mater with Bing Crosby (though I will disclose there are aspects of the entertainer's life, like his history of abuse, which problematize this legacy).

Clark defined an organizational saga as an expression of a unified set of beliefs about an organization by its members that emerges from the organization's history about some unique accomplishment, characteristic, or circumstance and is held with conviction. Learning the sagas of a particular college or university is a way to understand its culture and values (not simply its history). I focused much of my final for my Organizational Analysis of Higher Education course on organizational saga, and found myself extremely fascinated with the whole idea of institutional "saga."

In doing a little outside research for my final, I came across an excellent example of a higher education organizational saga. President Emeritus of the University of Michigan Dr. James Duderstadt wrote an excellent overview of The Michigan Saga covering the university's history, symbols, and succession of leadership. The whole read was intriguing, but most surprising to me was how Dr. Duderstadt highlighted how the university's trend toward privatization could be linked to aspects of its history. It made me wonder whether the story would have been written in the same way at a different point in Michigan's history.

Sagas also emerge out of the multitude of experiences students and alumni have with their alma maters. Michigan State University started a project called "Spartan Sagas," collecting stories from current students and alumni describing how MSU played a pivotal role in their lives. The collective experiences we have with our alma maters shapes our values and our lives in ways that shape our loyalty to our institutions, the pride we take in having attended, and thus the overall legacy each institution has in our world. Reading through a few of these demonstrated for me much of MSU's legacy.

Think back to your own experience in college. What were some of the "great stories" that were told about your institution? What are some great stories from your time in college that have shaped your values and goals? If you were to write the organizational saga of your college or university, what story would you tell?

**Edit: Forgot to include my reference!
Clark, B.R. (1972). The organizational saga in higher education. Administrative Science Quarterly, 17(2), 178-184.

Follow me on Twitter: @BryceEHughes

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Please indicate your sexual orientation (unless you prefer not to answer)

According to this news story later tweeted by Big Q Ethics, incoming University of California students will be provided the opportunity to indicate sexual orientation in addition to the demographics UC already collects on race/ethnicity, gender, and other characteristics. One significant difference is the UC campuses will collect this data after admission to prevent students from concerns over whether this could impact their admission to one of the 10 UC campuses.

Considering so far only one college (Elmhurst) invites students to indicate sexual orientation on their college applications, this marks a bold step forward toward collecting better data on LGBTQ students in American colleges and universities. The UC system includes over 220,000 students, making it one of the largest systems of higher education in the United States, possibly even the world. If we accept that approximately one in ten Americans identifies as LGBTQ, for the first time ever we could track the progress and retention of around 22,000 students to understand how (if at all) sexual orientation and/or gender identity impact college outcomes. There currently is no systematic way to understand this relationship on such a large scale.

What surprised me was how both the article and Big Q Ethics framed the issue. Both pointed to the fact that yes, making such a change is controversial, but that the greater concern is whether or not collecting such information is an invasion of privacy. Yet the CBS article specifically highlighted how collecting demographic data on sexual orientation and/or gender identity is supported by LGBTQ students and professional staff, and that as long as providing this information is voluntary, most people have no problem with it. So where's the controversy?

To me, there was once a time in American history when asking someone their sexual orientation or their gender identity was invasive and threatening. Of course, then, neither sexual orientation nor gender identity were seen as demographic characteristics--they were (and gender identity still is) considered personality disorders. And colleges were not interested at all in knowing whether their students identified as LGBTQ. Our institutions have changed. And it's about time we started collecting demographic data on sexual orientation and gender identity just as we collect demographic data on several other dimensions of identity.

I am a graduate student representative to UCLA's Committee on LGBT Affairs, and we had a conversation about this very topic in one of our recent meetings. The argument that asking students their sexual orientation is an invasion of privacy is simply a stalling tactic to avoid taking the bold risk of finding out how better we can enhance what we know about our students by expanding our list of demographics. In fact, faculty from UCLA's Williams Institute, the leading research center on LGBTQ affairs in the United States (with the U.S. Census they pioneered studying same-sex couples and families for the first time with the 2010 Census), presented to our committee several ways to ask about sexual orientation and gender identity appropriately. It's tough to be the first, or among the early innovators, but without those willing to step first how do we within the field of higher education move forward?

To me, it comes down to one very important question: What risk are we taking by not collecting adequate information about our students' identities and experiences which could provide more genuine insight into factors impacting their persistence and ways we can better serve them?

Follow me on Twitter: @BryceEHughes

Saturday, March 10, 2012

My College Completion Agenda

What defines the social value of higher education? Is it its ability to turn degrees into economic returns, or does it provide other benefits to society unrelated to money? A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education ("Tuning in to Dropping Out") attempted to address this question.

Economic development is clearly a social benefit of higher education. And with financial conditions like those we see today, this benefit has become a highly valued commodity. But where I disagree with the article is how it not only stops at describing higher education's value to society solely by its ability to drive the economy, but how it also devalues degree programs outside the science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM) fields. Higher education provides value to society in more ways than fiscal returns.

I do agree that the STEM fields have an important place in society. I myself have a Bachelor's degree in engineering, and I currently work with the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA examining factors that contribute to underrepresented minority student success in STEM fields. These fields contribute much by way of technological innovation and economic growth, and far too few students are completing degrees in these fields.

There are other benefits higher education provides to society as well though. A major one is how college enables more effective civic participation. A liberal arts education (literally, education suited for a free person) emphasizes study in philosophy, ethics, morals, and other subjects required by people participating in activities like voting or serving the community. We live in a nation that since its founding has been led by college-educated individuals. This is a social benefit that cannot be measured within our gross domestic product.

Another benefit higher education provides is its role in solving social problems. The social sciences, other sciences, and other disciplines engage in teaching, research, and service directly aimed at understanding and solving social problems. Colleges also strive to equip individuals with the skills, knowledge, and behavior needed to personally contribute to enacting these solutions. Student affairs professionals are very familiar with this outcome as it impacts both students cognitive and affective development. How is this not of value to our nation?

Finally, and most pertinent to the examples (performing and visual arts) provided in the article, are the multitude of contributions colleges and universities make to the nation's arts and culture on an ongoing basis. We not only teach students about humanity's past contributions to culture, but we also create space for them to contribute to the perpetuation and progress of culture into the future. Universities have also provided much of the space for critique of our very understanding of what constitutes "culture" and "art." These contributions will provide unperceivable value as they benefit not only us today but also future generations on into perpetuity.

But does that mean everyone should go to college?

I take umbrage with the umbrella assertion that "college is not for everyone." Issues underlying completion rates are incredibly complex, and such a reduction seems to me to be an easy out. I don't necessarily disagree with the statement that college is not for everyone, and I think the stratification of career options following degree programs as opposed to vocational programs diminishes people's ability to make the right post-secondary decisions for themselves.

But even considering who should and should not attend college can be a dangerous exercise. How do we then determine who goes? Who deserves to attend college? College is more than continued personal and professional development for those who win the game of standardized test scores and high school grade point averages. And besides its intangible individual and social value, a college degree (even in the performing arts) is a privileged credential in society, and college attendance itself is a key to access networks of power and influence. From whom would you withhold this key?

Focusing on a number like "completion rates" also obscures many deeper, systemic issues that higher education leaders should be addressing. For one, how many students interested in STEM fields are diverted away from their intended course of study either due to inadequate preparation in the K-12 system or to experiences of marginalization and discrimination within STEM programs? Research shows that even though students of color express an interest in STEM programs at rates equal to or more often higher than their White peers, students of color complete STEM programs at exceedingly lower rates. Many switch into social sciences or humanities fields where they face far less isolation and marginalization than in the STEM programs they intended to complete. The author actually nails this on the head with, "Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years...and all will be well." The dominant pedagogy in STEM can create a very "chilly" environment for students in these programs, and there are many STEM educators working on innovative pedagogies to retain these students.

A second problem this argument sweeps under the rug is the problem with systemic "tracking" of underrepresented minority and low SES (socioeconomic status) students into vocational programs, despite their true aspirations. The article actually trivializes this pattern by referring to vocational programs as "programs for at-risk students" in and of themselves. Students who attend underresourced high schools get nowhere near the level of college counseling as their more privileged peers, and most often are first generation students who cannot count on receiving crucial information about college choice at home either. These students end up choosing a "default" option, either being advised to consider their "best option" or having known peers and relatives who attended their local college. The article compares our system to that of German and other European systems of higher education, which tend to rely on more formal systems of tracking for placement of students. This tracking begins much earlier in a students' career, and potentially results in students making decisions about their futures very early in life. In this sense, I don't think the comparison is appropriate--although one can argue that our system functions in this way as well, just in more covert and systemic ways.

Overall, the issue is not the completion rate, nor is it deciding which fields of study hold more or less value for society. The issue is empowering students to make the best decisions for themselves--valuing their choices, ensuring access to adequate information, and providing ample support along the way. Our success is measured through their success--we know we've done well when our students reach their goals. This is what a true college completion agenda should be.

What would be on your college completion agenda?

Follow me on Twitter: @BryceEHughes