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“I knew where I was going” #augustanacollege #liberalarts #highered

“I knew where I was going”

Yesterday I attended a reception for admitted students and their parents in Arlington Heights, Illinois. These events include a panel discussion with young alumni, which is always informative and interesting. The alumni who volunteer their time and stories always do an amazing job and leave me (and the prospective students and their parents) very impressed. Their experience since college often leave me awestruck.


But, yesterday I was struck by an answer to a question a parent posed. The question was, “What was your favorite memory of Augustana College?”

There were many of the predictable answers from the panelists about friendships developed, study away from campus, involvement in extra-curricular activities, etc. Their answers were excellent and “on brand.”

But a 2008 graduate caught my attention when she started her answer with “that Sunday in May when I walked across stage, got my diploma and shook President Bahls’ hand….” I thought to myself, “Oh no, where does this go from here?” I wondered if this was going to be a moment when the speaker would say, “I couldn’t wait to be done” or “thank God it’s over.” What was next???

The alumna continued with words I have been thinking about ever since: “When I walked across that stage, I knew where I was going.” The speaker went on to talk about the job market in 2008 and how difficult it was at the time, but how well prepared she was and how clear she was about her path forward because of her Augustana experience. 

She secured a position working on pharmaceutical patents because of her scientific background and her ability to communicate, and has been involved in pharmaceutical patents since she graduated from Augustana.

This alumna’s comment, “I knew where I was going,” confirms what we know about an Augustana education. It is reinforced by data from our annual Senior Survey, which consistently shows 8 out of 10 graduating students answer that they “strongly agree” or “agree” with the statement, “I am certain that my post-graduate plans are a good fit for who I am right now and where I want my life to go.”

In a world and job market filled with uncertainty and the unfamiliar, I am not sure there is any better confirmation for what we do at Augustana than to have graduates march across the stage at Commencement with the confidence that they know where they are going.

New blog post: Should traditional #liberalarts #colleges experiment with the learning model? #humanities #highered

For the past several weeks I’ve been gathering materials for a forthcoming retreat of Augustana College’s Board of Trustees. It’s been my job to identify and review background readings that are appropriate for our Board and other campus stakeholders to discuss as we think about our future.

My list of “interesting articles” has grown to monumental proportions!

Some articles inspired and some depressed.

Two particular articles caught my attention because they seemed to suggest very different strategies for colleges. This article from Wilson Quarterly seems to suggest colleges need to be aware of what’s happening, but should hold on to what has historically worked well (and benefited society). The other article The End of the University as we Know It, from The American Interest, paints a very scary picture for traditional colleges–going so far as to suggest the doors will close if there are not significant changes.

Honestly, I don’t yet know how to react.

What is it?

Stick to what you’ve done and just try to do it better?

Scrap what we’ve done (and know works) to adopt something entirely new (and scary)?

I wonder if there is another way? Is there something in between?

I wonder if there are ways those in the humanities at traditional liberal arts can lead the way. Can the humanities and liberal arts take greater control of their future by paying heed to both of these articles?

In my view, there may be some benefit to all programs, but especially those in the liberal art and humanities to think about some experimenting.

While I will always be an advocate for “seat time” for learning because of the many benefits of such an experience beyond the simple accumulation of knowledge, I acknowledge the world is changing and think we need to examine ways of doing what we do at traditional residential liberal arts college in new ways. I think it is prudent to experiment and try to find new modes for instruction and learning.  New methods must be consistent with our values, expectation for students and rigor and they need leverage the many new ways students gather information and learn. We need to experiment with various models to find ways that new modes of learning can reflect our values, expectations for students and maintain the rigor we expect. It would be a shame for us to conclude that this is an impossible challenge. Yet, it will take some time for us to get it right.

Because I believe the “currency” of higher education is the major or minor (we would not have them if they were not important), I think experimentation should focus on solidifying or expanding the “currency” of a department and it’s major or minor.

If I were advising a smaller department about its future, during this time of disruption in higher education, I would recommend a department begin experimenting immediately with online and limited seat time learning with the intent of expanding (or perhaps maintaining) currency and its footprint.

My rationale for suggesting that smaller programs, in particular, explore online and limited seat time learning is focused on the following:

1. Flexibility has its advantages: The flexibility offered by an online or limited seat time course could expand the footprint and potentially expose students to the department/program/major/minor. For example, given the busyness of our students today, convenience matters and perhaps those departments that offer greater flexibility—particularly within a traditional learning environment—might have an advantage attracting students. At some level, this is about selling your program and everyone should be seeking some advantage. Perhaps online or limited seat time course will be your advantage (with the added plus that you get to expose students to a subject you care about and have committed your life to).

2. Use your smallness to surprise everyone: Small departments/programs/majors/minor are probably the last areas that people would think would do something like this. This may be even more so when considering interdisciplinary programs/majors/minors or those that have three or fewer faculty members. Many are likely to think, “They are too small—and overworked to do something like that.” Small, in this case, may mean nimble and provide an advantage over larger, more complex and bureaucratic programs.

3. Make completing a minor or second major more convenient: Offering online or limited seat time courses might make completing a minor or second major more convenient for some students, which in itself is a great outcome. The lure of online or limited seat time courses may be especially attractive for students who have a primary major is more credit or lab intensive program.

4. Expand your footprint–maybe even to another like-minded college: Smaller departments at traditional liberal arts colleges that consider experimenting with online or limited seat time classes may also be able to expand their footprint beyond their own campus. If the experimental offering is attractive enough, perhaps colleges with similar values will seek to partner? I think this could be especially beneficial for small departments that because of a sabbatical, administrative duties or load limitation face the challenges of ensuring regular offering of key courses.

5. Make an economic and student engagement case: For some departments online or limited seat time courses that are regularly offered could also assure the availability of courses that reflect an institution’s rigor and values during study abroad and summer study (this is especially true at a place like Augustana College, where I work). This is a potentially proactive way to keep students engaged in the life and rigor of a campus even when they are not there. For some college, especially those which self-sponsor international programs and send full-time faculty with students for study away, a cadre of online or limited seat time courses may reduce the added expense of study away because there is no longer a need to send as many full-time faculty with students. The CFO might really like this rationale for online or limited seat time courses.

It would not surprise me to have these ideas dismissed as crazy or blasphemous.  I might receive a litany about why this is impossible and how naïve I am about rigor, expectation and pedagogy (all criticism might be accurate, too).


But, I continue to believe that some experimentation in this area is useful and desirable as we prepare for an uncertain future.

What do you think? Should traditional colleges hunker down? Should traditional colleges throw it all out and start anew?

I fear if we don’t experiment, we will be left behind. I fear the experience we value most will be marginalized. And, I fear  we will not preparing our students with the broad-based education they need.

Don’t you think we should begin experimenting and create something that reflects our values, meets our expectation and maintains our rigor?  Don’t you think we need to begin trying to shape this conversation, rather than being shaped by it. Don’t you think we can shape this conversation? I think we can and I think we can be creative enough to develop an experience that is reflective of our values, maintains expectations and is rigorous.

Let’s try. Let’s see if we can, rather than simply conclude we can’t.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

What makes a college experience and experiences in college valuable? #admission #highered #.edu

What makes a college experience and experiences in college valuable?

The idea of communicating value is often elusive, especially in higher education. I’ve done my best to discuss value and valuable experiences in a previous blog post, which you can read here and here. And, I’ve heard myself say, “We need to sell value” to various stakeholders here at Augustana College. Typically, blank faces stare back with no idea how to take the next step. I understand this and quite frankly have never been absolutely certain what tools to provide to those who need to deliver the message.

Thanks to some very fine work in Augustana’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, I believe we are closer than ever to being equipped with the answers to two important questions:

What makes a college experience valuable?

What experiences in college are most valuable?

While I am not sure we’ve captured lightning in a bottle, I think we may be close. Recently, I was thrilled to be able to sit down with my colleague Dr. Mark Salisbury (who also writes this great blog, which you should check out) and go over the recent results of our Senior Survey, which was redesigned to ask more relevant questions that help us understand what works and what doesn’t.

In future blog posts, I will unpack this information more fully, but for now I want to provide an overview of what we discovered may be the foundation for a valuable college experience, and the experiences that contribute to that value.

A valuable college experience

The Senior Survey as Augustana identified three outcomes (listed below) that seem to suggest what constitutes a valuable college experience.

Those items are:

  1. The likelihood of choosing Augustana College again. (8 of 10 graduates agreed or strongly agreed with this statement)
  2. The certainty that one’s immediate post-graduate plan is a good fit. (8 of 10 graduates agreed with this statement)
  3. A full-time job or graduate school before graduation. (4 out of 10 answered yes, which is not too bad given that this survey was done prior to graduation)

I think these three items could represent the most concrete and succinct statements I’ve seen on what makes college valuable.

These three things represent both value and valuable.

The idea that one would choose this college experience all over again is a very strong statement of value and represents an internal satisfaction worth noting. The idea of certainty about immediate post-graduate plans represents an intrinsic value that proves we’ve reinforced value. And, finally, the idea of having a full-time job or graduate school acceptance in place creates security about a new graduate’s future and reinforces the value of the Augustana experience to external stakeholders. (It is also worth noting that we also conduct a survey of graduates nine months after graduation that reveals our many more of graduates secure employment or enter graduate school by that time marker).

How do these things items measure up in your view of what makes for a valuable college experience?

Experiences that make a college valuable

What is really nifty, though, about Augustana’s Senior Survey is that we also know which experiences are most likely to influence overall college value in the areas listed above. Not only is this really powerful information, it’s reinforcement about what we do and what we do well.

Below is a list of experiences that heavily influence each of the value measures described above:

For the 8 out of 10 Augustana graduates who indicated the likelihood of choosing Augustana again, it was the experiences in the areas listed below that positively impacted their experience:

Residential life:

  • Helped first-year transition to college
  • Helped develop useful ways to handle and resolve conflict
  • Transitional Living Areas (apartments) helped develop the skills to live independently

Co-curricular Experiences:

  • Helped connect classroom learning with real world events
  • Helped build a network of healthy, lasting friendships

Curricular Experiences outside the major:

  • Helped appreciate the way that different disciplines make sense of the world
  • Courses were available in the order one needed to take them

Overall Curricular Experiences:

  • One-on-one interaction with faculty influenced intellectual growth and interest in ideas

Experiences in the major:

  • Faculty knew how to help one prepare to achieve post-graduate plans
  • Major offered courses that match with specific interests

Library Interactions:

  • Helped build confidence in one’s ability to research a future topic

Campus Environment:

  • Strong sense of belonging
  • Concerned about the individual

For the 8 out of 10 Augustana graduates who were certain that immediate post-graduate plans were a good fit, it was the experiences in the areas below that positively impacted their experience:

Campus participation:

  • Internship
  • Service learning


  • Asked to connect curricular, co-curricular, and post-graduate plans

Co-curricular Experiences:

Helped develop an understanding of oneself

Curricular Experiences outside the major:

Asked to include different perspectives in discussions or writing assignments

Courses were available in the order one needed to take them

Overall Curricular Experiences:

One-on-one interaction with faculty influenced intellectual growth and interest in ideas

Experiences in the major:

  • Faculty knew how to help one prepare to achieve post-graduate plans

Campus Environment:

  • Strong sense of belonging

For the 4 out of 10 Augustana graduates who had already accepted a job or enjoyed a graduate school placement before graduating, it was the experiences in the areas listed below that positively impacted their experience:

Campus participation:

  • Honor society membership
  • Undergraduate research

Experiences in the major:

  • Faculty knew how to help one prepare to achieve post-graduate plans

Interactions with the Community Engagement Center:

  • Began actively creating a résumé or grad school profile during freshman or sophomore year

Really, this is amazing stuff. This is longer than most blog posts I do and I will be back with more, but for now I think I can say that a valuable college experience is one that a student would choose again, gives a student confidence about his or her choices and provides a graduate with a secure future.

If that’s what makes a valuable college experience, Augustana is of great value to, and a great value for, its students! I like what Augustana does for students.

What are you doing to prove the value of the experience your institution offers? What are the questions you are asking of your graduates?

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

Liberal arts education is skills-based education. #highered #edu

Last week I had the chance to listen to four very thoughtful commentaries on the future of the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges.  Each speaker did an excellent job of making the case for the liberal arts and for colleges like my alma mater and my employer, Augustana College. I was impressed with the depth of analysis and thought each put into their comments.

I do think it’s worth nothing, though, that the speakers again affirmed that it’s very difficult to easily describe the liberal arts and the outcomes of a liberal arts education. This is not to say that it is impossible to describe the outcomes; in fact, I thought each speaker explained the outcomes and benefits quite well. My observation is that it’s not easy and it takes a lot of time to get the explanation right.

Following the speakers there was a brief Q & A during which the following question was asked: How do you market the liberal arts to prospective students?

I braced myself for the “killer answer”…and waited.

Each panelist did a fine job answering this tough question. But, I found myself thinking to myself that there has to be a better way to easily answer this question.

Should begin thinking about liberal arts education as a skills- and experience-based education?

Could describing what we do this will help us reframe the idea that liberal arts is education is about art and liberal political views? Or, that liberal arts = expensive and small (i.e. if you are expensive and small you are a liberal arts college)

Typically, it is thought that skills-based training is reserved for professional, technical, or vocational training. Virginia Postrel’s article in Bloomberg “How art history majors power the U.S. economy” helped begin to think a little clear about this. However, I feel like her reference to “Learning to learn” is the sort of thing that continue to confuse or confound people. So, I’ve taken my own stab at answering the question.

When I think about liberal arts education, I am compelled to think about skill acquisition and intentional experiences being at the center of what we do. Admittedly, the skills we develop and foster as more sophisticated (I’d argue more important) than traditional trade skill development, like teaching someone how to place widgets.

At the center of an effective general education program is skill development, right?

Perhaps it is time for us to seize the term skills-based as our own and do a more effective job describing why and how the skills a liberal arts education develops are so critical for employers and our nation.

Think about the skills we develop.

Do we not strive to develop the following skills: critical thinking, problem solving, creative thinking, communicating and analysis? Are these not critically important skills for employers? Isn’t this what we are trying to do? Isn’t this what we are great at doing? Don’t we do this more effectively than others? Should we be proud to say that we emphasize skill-development in these areas?

Furthermore, isn’t it though the types of experiences we offer that these skills are more fully developed? For example, an emphasis on writing, debate and dialog in class help to develop these skills, as does a commitment to strong advising, a residential environment and engaged co-curricular programming.

I don’t think we need to be fancy and long-winded about our explanation of what it is we do.

In my opinion…

  • Liberal arts education is a skills- and experience-based education.
  • Liberal arts education focuses on the right skills and the right experiences to make our graduates the leaders of tomorrow.
  • The skills and experiences provided by liberal arts college result in someone being better in their chosen career, rather than just being trained for their career.

Let’s enthusiastically embrace our brand of skills-based education. And, let’s tell the world that we provide our graduates with the skills they need and the world wants.

How do you react to the thought of describing to liberal arts education as skills-based?

How do you react to my contention that the skills we develop are more important over the long run than pre-professional skills?


W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission

What I would do if I were teaching in the humanities. #highered #admissions #.edu

As previously written, I believe in the value of the humanities and the liberal arts; they are at the core of preparing an individual for life-long learning. I hope my children study history, English, religion, foreign languages and maybe even the Classics, which might be one of the most valuable and sustaining liberal arts programs there is!

However, I do think it’s important for those who teach in these important programs to think in different ways about how they describe and relate their relevance and importance to an increasingly proof-driven audience.

This is not just the hope of a guy who is focused on recruiting student. On the contrary, I am simply pointing out the the reality of a public that needs more convincing than ever before about the value of higher education and the humanities/liberal arts.

With this in mind, I had an exchange with a faculty member in the humanities recently and offered the following suggestion about designing curriculum. Below is a portion of the exchange (with some minor editing so as not to disclose the major because I remain hopeful the advice might resonate and create something really cool).

I suggested the following:

More formally align each course offered within the major with the outcomes that employers/graduate schools seek. A department/major could successful specifically highlight the results from the 2012 Job Outlook survey of employers who cite the following as the top 5 skills they seek (see page 28) and demonstrate how the major is better preparation for these skills:

1. Ability to work in a team;
2. Verbal communication;
3. Ability to make decisions and solve problems;
4. Ability to obtain and process information; and
5. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work.

What if you promoted your department and the curriculum you offered as contributing more effectively than any other area/major in preparing your graduates for these things?

Explaining how you do this better than another major and connecting the outcome to your course work might be tricky, but not impossible. Be bold enough to show and tell that a XXXXXX major and the faculty in XXXXXXX (do) does all of these things better than anyone else.

Can you imagine the power of the major in the humanities that takes information about what employers want and connects it directly to what is accomplished in each class?

Please let me know your thoughts.

Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission