When George Mehaffy described his “Re-imagining Freshman Year” Project to college educators at Goodwin College April 29th, audience members were impressed that this effort to reform higher education is under way on 44 campuses.  What they didn’t expect was that he would say colleges are not only generally passive about reforms … but “co-conspirators” in maintaining the status quo.

Following more than 20 years of teaching and administrative experience in higher education in Texas, New Mexico and California, Mr. Mehaffy serves as vice president for academic leadership for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).  That organization represents 420 public colleges and universities.

As the keynoter for the Center for Higher Education Retention and Excellence (CHERE) conference April 29th, Mr. Mehaffy brought a compilation of data and insights to an audience of Greater Hartford higher education professionals and college students at Goodwin College.

More and more students are straining to go to college – some 71 percent of 2014 college graduates left with debt, he said, and it averaged $29,000.  While a Georgetown University report has termed the higher education system “more and more complicit as a passive agent in the systematic reproduction of white racial privilege across generations,” Vice President Mehaffy sees it differently.  Higher education staff not engaged in undergraduate education reform are not just witnesses but co-conspirators to failure, he warned.

Whereas the common parlance now concerns whether students are college and career ready, he told local educators, “I have another question for you:  Are colleges student-ready?  And the answer is, not even close.”

Here are just a few of the additional trends and trouble spots that Vice President Mehaffy underscored:

  • Freshman college students are expected to grow into decision-making adults between high school graduation and college enrollment (“We treat first-year students as fourth years,” he observed);
  •  At the same time, one school has shown that more freshman students earn full college credits after simply watching a 45-minute video of college seniors talking about how to succeed (“We know a lot about what works; what we don’t do is do it”);
  • Household income between 2006 and 2011 went down 7 percent while college costs rose by 18 percent; forty-seven states are spending less on higher education than they were before 2008;
  • Low-income Black and Latino students have higher loan balances and are more prone to drop out without receiving a credential;
  • Ed Trust reports that persistent racial gaps in graduation rates will remain for the rest of this century; and
  • In 50 years, if not sooner, one analyst predicts, half of America’s 4,500 colleges and universities will have ceased to exist.

The enormous impact of technology – on journalism, photography, and the music and book publishing/bookstore businesses, as examples – is already influencing higher education and that impact is bound to grow.  Access to information, including videos that support personalized learning, is making location less relevant to the delivery of education.

In the three-year project to re-imagine the first year of college, such success stories as special interventions for at-risk freshmen, extra class hours, mentors, and high expectations will be examined – but a key idea is that innovation must be done at scale – not another pilot, Vice President Mehaffy said.

Indeed, higher education professionals need to commit to standards of care, just as in the medical profession, he emphasized.  “If you don’t, you’re guilty of contributory negligence.”

Here is a description Dr. Mehaffy delivered in February regarding the re-imagining freshman year project; here is his full presentation as delivered at the CHERE conference.

The Bottom Line.  One student attendee at the CHERE conference made a scintillating point about college, comparing her experience to having a bad cable TV plan, having to pay for courses neither appealing nor useful.  Addressing that disconnect – as well as the equity concerns raised by Vice President Mehaffy – will be crucial not just for the futures of students but those of colleges as well.