Designing higher ed for a healthy democracy

How one institution made the shift to helping underserved students reach their academic goals

Governors State University in Illinois opened in the 1970s as one of a handful of two-year “upper division” schools for students finishing their degrees. It quickly proved unsustainable as far as attracting students and providing a complete education experience.

In Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation (2018, Stylus Publishers), the university’s president, Elaine Maimon, discusses the challenge of turning the school into a four-year, full-service, regional public university.

Maimon co-founded the “Writing Across the Curriculum” movement, which infuses writing into all courses as an essential component of learning, and she has made that part of the university’s DNA.

Her innovations, which include having top-level research faculty teach freshman classes, have made the university a leader in helping underserved populations attain their education goals.

Transformation means change in both substance and form. But it can be achieved only through vision and research-based planning. “A vision without strategy is a fantasy,” Maimon says.

Governors State University places an emphasis on recruiting first-generation students. Why?

In the United States today we have a new majority of college students and potential college students who are not only the first in their families to go to college, but often the first in their extended families, and maybe even their immediate neighborhoods.

This is a important group in terms of our democracy. But it also includes the returning adult student—the tens of thousands of students who started college at some point in their career but who never achieved a degree.

It certainly includes students of color—who have been underserved for a very long time—as well as veterans who have served our country and are now ready to continue their education.

When the public thinks about college, they often imagine upper-middle class high school graduates going to college and football games and so on. That is no longer the majority in this country.

You fill a need for these students.

It is absolutely the mission of the regional public universities to create on-ramps to the middle class.

The regional publics, including Governors State University, are the least supported institutions in higher education. Certainly community colleges need to be better supported too, but the regional publics depend almost entirely on state appropriation and tuition dollars. We don’t have the local tax base monies that the community colleges have.

For the good of our democracy and our whole society, it’s our job to ensure that those who enter into it are going to have the highest-quality, most aspirational education.

Governors State University has, by design, a unique relationship with community colleges, doesn’t it?

Yes. Community colleges are extremely important to achieving the goals of democracy. And, in fact, one of our big claims to fame is the seamless pathway from community college to university graduation. We have partnerships with 17 Chicagoland community colleges on our Dual Degree Program.

This is not dual enrollment—it’s very different from that. Dual enrollment has to do with community colleges working with high schools to give students courses that they can take while still in high school.

The Dual Degree Program is the university saying, “We value the associate degree at the community college. We will encourage students to complete that degree.”

We pay full-time transfer specialists to be at the community colleges four days per week, to work with community college advisors with the group that we have identified as DDP students, so that they will have full, illuminated pathways.

We require that the students be full-time at the community college. They have to finish their associate degrees in no more than five semesters. We provide all kinds of financial incentives if they then decide to transfer to Governor’s State, but if that student is going to do better elsewhere, we’re going to help that student get there.

Can the Dual Degree Program be replicated elsewhere?

Absolutely. Other regions may enact it differently, but the principles are the same: the university encouraging the student to complete the associate degree at the community college. This is a little counter-intuitive, because most people at universities in the past have said, “Get to the university as fast as you can.” I used to be one of them.

But I have the zeal of a recent convert, because I’ve seen the research and it turns out that students who complete the associate degree at the community college are more likely, when they transfer to the university, to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Why is that?

Students who went from high school to a community college with the aspiration of completing a university degree had completion rates, after six years, of something like 10 to 15 percent.

When you hear a university complain about the preparation at the community college level, it’s usually because the students have been going from one community college to another—they take a course here, a course there. They’re swirlers, as we say, and there’s little incentive to stay put.

Let’s figure out how to have a coherent program at the community colleges. This is a pathway that universities should be supporting—and not just among regional publics. Private liberal arts colleges and the flagship publics need to be more open to the community college transfer students.

Governors State University insists on having first-year foundation classes taught by top faculty rather than part-timers or adjuncts. How does that figure in your success?

This, again, is a transformational idea. The first year of college is critical for students. It’s also the year when universities and colleges lose the most students.

Now, why is that? Typically what happens in this crucial first year is that universities and colleges say, “Well, anybody can teach these students, let’s keep our costs down.” Then they put in adjuncts who are the most overworked yet least affiliated part of the university.

To be clear, these are often talented and well-meaning people, but they’re simply not in a position to do what needs to be done for first-year students, because the faculty really needs to be available for these students.

One of the most transformative changes we can make is having the best minds on campus—full-time faculty who are both teachers and researchers—teach the freshmen.  

You write that current remediation models are not working. Why not?

In terms of serving our new majority of students, trauma is probably one of the biggest factors that we deal with, and that is this whole non-cognitive realm.

Now, how does that relate to what we’ve called remediation? As I said, we have the best minds on campus teaching freshmen, because they are doing some outstanding research on these issues. The big problem they see is absences.

What is behind these absences? Some of it is that their families are depending on them for elder care or taking care of a sibling—they may be missing classes for that. This means that we have to deal with some cultural issues to try to educate students and families that 98 percent of success is showing up.

I say we need far more research on remediation. We can’t depend on knee-jerk responses, like “another semester of writing as preliminary to college credit is what’s going to help.” We know that that doesn’t work.

Educator Shaun Harper said remediation should focus on student strengths rather than deficits. That sounds logical, but it’s not often the case.

That’s right. I believe that leading academic change is focusing entirely on logical, simple ideas that are research-based, but that we have to enact. We have so much good research on the strengths model that we don’t have on trauma and remediation.

Our approach is to start with students’ strengths. Every student in our summer bridge program, called Smart Start, has a Gallup strengths model analysis. We even had our 160 faculty and staff take the strengths model themselves and learn to connect it to their work with students.

Now we are looking for ways—with our limited budget—to let every undergraduate have this analysis. We want our entire university to focus on strengths.

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.


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