Wednesday, October 28, 2015


The new 2015-2020 STCC Student Success Plan found, not surprisingly, that the college's communication could and should be improved.

“The most frequently cited concern was a lack of effective communication among departments and with our students. Faculty, staff, and students stated that not having access to critical information at key times led to confusion, frustration and missed opportunities. This issue is pervasive and at the heart of many issues presented in the Student Success Plan.” (STCC Student Success Plan, page 3)

At many public institutions of higher education, the majority of students work full or part time and have families to support. For these individuals, time is precious as they try to balance the competing demands of work, family and their studies. They want information from the college “just in time”, that is to receive the information when it is needed and useful. And they want college communication to be succinct, simple and consistent.

In thinking about communication with students, it is useful to divide the role of college employees into two categories, recognizing that there may be overlap.  In the first group are all college staff who help students get to class prepared to learn.  Those include maintainers, counselors, advisors, financial aid staff, the registrar, campus security, student accounts,  - all staff and administrators who are not classroom teachers.  In the second group are the faculty, those who are responsible for teaching and learning. The first group has to inform students about a variety of items, for example parking, required immunizations, admission criteria, scholarship applications, tuition and fees and a myriad of other matters that a student has to resolve before going to class. The faculty’s role, on the other hand, is to concentrate on instructing, mentoring and evaluating student work. In simple terms, the first group’s mission is to enable students to go to class ready to learn while the mission of the faculty, the second group, is to guide instruction.

In our discussions on campus we began to ponder the plethora of ways that we can communicate with students: face to face, via telephone, regular mail, email, text messages, and the various social media that include among others Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest and Google Plus. We are in the state that the British novelist J. B. Priestly warned us about decades ago, “The more we elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.”

How do we choose among these options?  The first step is to rank these methods of communication by effectiveness in giving students information at a time that they will find it useful. Clearly, the best way of communicating with students, with anyone, is face to face. In fact, all of our communication is based on our experiences with direct in person communication.  This is the way we learned to talk and understand language. In fact, many studies have demonstrated that social interaction and coaching by care-givers is a prerequisite for language acquisition. If one accepts these premises, we should make face to face communication with students, especially new students our primary means of communication about orienting themselves to college.  This means that secondary means, especially electronic means, should play a distinctly minor role.

The implications of this simple analysis for education is, however, profound.  If face to face communication is primary, we should structure the college experience around this necessity.  This means that staff should, as much as possible, spend their time talking directly with students instead of doing repetitive and routine clerical and bookkeeping tasks. It is this arena that electronic media and devices can be helpful by freeing staff from such drudgery. We should invest in electronic record systems to reduce the work of staff enabling them to spend more time with students.

A corollary of the need for direct communication with students both in and out of the classroom is that education is expensive and is not subject to yields of greater productivity from capital investment.  Education requires human interaction.  The number and quality of teachers and staff determines how well students are motivated and coached and how likely they will succeed in completing their education.  

Monday, October 26, 2015


In the monogram on non-profits – a companion study of Good to Great, author Jim Collins distinguishes between executive and legislative leadership. The CEO of hierarchical military and for-profit organizations exercises executive power by being able to command subordinates. Heads of other organizations, e.g colleges and hospitals, do not have such authority and must seek to persuade employees to follow her/his leadership.  Those organizations behave much like legislatures that require a majority of members to agree before an action is taken. Much more work is required to move such an organization although the end result may be better if there is agreement among employees.

Strategic planning in these two types of organizations differ substantially. In a hierarchical organization a plan devised by a small group can succeed if it has the support of top officials.  In a non-hierarchical organization, that approach would spell disaster.  Creating a plan in the latter requires considerable input, conversation and review to have a chance to be implemented.

With this as background, my college embarked last year to create a five year plan focused on our core academic mission.  Because of this orientation we named it the 2015-2020 STCC Student Success Plan to highlight that it was not a master plan or overall college strategic plan.  In particular, the Student Success Plan did not address facility or financial issues. 

The plan was based on a series of surveys of students, faculty, staff and trustees.  Out of those surveys 17 key issues were identified. An implementation plan for the first year of the plan, academic year 2015-2016 narrowed that list to five:

1. A lack of effective communication with students diminishes their ability to succeed.
2. There is a race/ethnicity inequity in our 3-year graduation rates.
3. New and prospective students often do not understand “how college works.”
4. Very few students with developmental placements graduate from STCC.
5. Not enough students meet their academic standards to complete their courses successfully.

Addressing these issues is our work for this and next year.