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Basic Training for Higher Ed

What colleges could learn from the military about serving low-income students

By Karin Fischer October 23, 2016 

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Was Daniel M. Piston college material?

A decade ago, as a high-school student in Syracuse, N.Y., Mr. Piston didn’t think so. He lacked focus. His grades were so-so. And it wasn’t like he was surrounded by college graduates; of his family, only his mother had earned an associate degree.

“The truth is,” Mr. Piston says, “I didn’t think I was smart enough for college.”

After finishing high school, he signed up for an automotive-technology program at nearby Onondaga Community College — a similar course his senior year was the first thing he had been any good at, he says — but, still unmoored, he dropped out after two semesters. He found himself on the doorstep of the local Navy recruiter. The Navy promised excitement, and it offered something else: a life path.

Mr. Piston became a helicopter crew chief, serving missions to support ships in the Persian Gulf and provide humanitarian assistance to earthquake-devastated Haiti. His six years in the Navy instilled discipline, perseverance, and a belief in himself, and, at the urging of his military mentors, he began to think about returning to school. He ended up back in Syracuse, at Syracuse University. In May, the guy who didn’t think he was college-worthy graduated with honors. He plans to go on and get a master’s, maybe even a Ph.D.

Mr. Piston, now 29, is smart and hard-working, but even so, the odds were against him. First-generation college students like him, kids from low-income families, and racial or ethnic minorities — even those who are plenty bright, with diligence to spare — are less likely than their peers to go to college and even less likely to graduate.

In the military, however, the class divide breaks the other way. Analysis of recruitment data has found that young people from lower- and middle-income backgrounds are overrepresented in the armed forces. The less your family makes, the more likely you are to serve.

College’s socioeconomic fault line is hardly a revelation, but it shouldn’t be an enduring reality. That’s what David A. Longanecker, who just stepped down after 17 years as executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, said on a recent visit to The Chronicle: that he didn’t believe we ought to accept such inequities. After all, he said, there’s another institution out there that takes in 18- to 24-year-olds and prepares them to get jobs and contribute to society. With populations that colleges struggle to reach and serve, the military seems to have more success.

Of course there are real distinctions between the two institutions. Enlisting promises an immediate paycheck, while in higher education, the costs are upfront and the benefits longer term. Though some colleges are open access, and some recruits wash out of the military, in general the latter has lower barriers to entry. Young people apply to college with the hope of being selected; to join the service, they simply sign up.

It’s also worth recalling that the military hasn’t always come by its diversity easily. Integration was by order. Post-Vietnam unpopularity and the move to an all-volunteer force compelled military leaders to recruit far more aggressively — and, some would argue, to focus those efforts on poor and minority populations.

Still, the two institutions have enough in common that the proposition seems worth exploring. Each confers individual benefits, providing personal and professional development, while meeting a public good. For lessons in better attracting and retaining underrepresented students, should higher education look to the experience of service members? The country’s future — and therefore colleges’ — is poorer and less white. Could Uncle Sam hold the answers, at least some of them, for best reaching that population?


Heather Ainsworth for The Chronicle

At the encouragement of his mentors in the military, Mr. Piston, now 29, enrolled in college. He graduated with honors from Syracuse U. in May with a degree in health and exercise science.

They air during the X Games and March Madness, are sandwiched between trailers for the latest blockbuster at the movie theater, pop up in Facebook feeds.

They are ads for the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. They feature the quick cuts of a video game, heart-pounding action, and stirring scenes of burly soldiers protectively cradling crying children.

Combined, those four branches of the military plan to spend about $575 million in the next year on advertising, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Such vast resources to influence public perception and bring in new recruits dwarf the marketing budgets of college-admissions offices. Yet the real contrast isn’t about money, observers say, but approach.

Colleges’ marketing efforts have grown in sophistication since the days of simply mailing viewbooks to high-school juniors who made a good showing on the PSAT. Even so, few traditional nonprofit colleges have unleashed the kind of full-throated publicity blitz that the armed forces regularly do. While a university might erect a billboard touting its part-time M.B.A. program or sign on to sponsor a local sports team, typically only for-profit institutions mount mass advertising campaigns.

“There’s a sense in traditional higher ed,” Mr. Longanecker says, “that advertising yourself is déclassé.”

He isn’t suggesting that colleges buy up all the available airtime on their local television stations. Public institutions, in particular, might face pushback from lawmakers over such a use of taxpayer money. Rather, the military’s investment in advertising, Mr. Longanecker and others suggest, is part of a broader philosophy of proactive engagement. It’s not just about swaying a largely self-selecting group that has already shown some interest, as colleges tend to do, but about reaching out to those who might not have seriously considered their next step.

“The military approach is kind of a push approach,” says Sidney Ellington, executive director of the Warrior-Scholar Project, an organization that runs academic boot camps to prepare veterans to apply to top universities. “The college approach is more of a pull. It’s ‘Oh, you go to our website and it’s all there. You can figure it out.’”

Go to the Air Force’s recruitment site, and you’re immediately prompted to enter your ZIP code. Up pops the address and contact information for the closest recruiter, along with directions to get there.

When Mr. Piston, the Navy veteran turned college grad, was considering enlisting, he got in his car and drove the couple of miles to a local recruitment center. There he was able to sit down with a recruiter who explained the enlistment process and helped him figure out the career options he might have in the military. Over several visits, the man answered all the questions that Mr. Piston and his parents had. “It was definitely a positive experience,” he says.

Contrast that with one young woman’s full eight-hour day going from office to office to try to register for classes at a local community college. For first-generation and nontraditional students unfamiliar with the workings of a campus bureaucracy, such situations can be next to impossible to navigate. If that woman hadn’t been accompanied by her brother, already a student at the college, she might have given up, says Tanya Ang, director of veterans’ programs at the American Council on Education, who shared the story. “We have to make certain that there are no wrong doors,” says Ms. Ang, a former college registrar, “that we’re not turning students away.”

For the military, bricks-and-mortar recruiting offices serve as a front door, with the recruiter a greeter and guide to help steer prospective service members through the enlistment process. In practice and by necessity, college recruiters often “parachute in,” says Brian T. Prescott, of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, showing up in the community once or twice a year for a fair or information session.

Perhaps it is unrealistic for institutions, whether with a regional or national footprint, to have a day-to-day presence, to set up storefronts in places with low college-going rates. The lesson that colleges should take away, says Daniel J. Kaufman, a retired brigadier general and a former president of Georgia Gwinnett College, is one of outreach.

“We can’t just assume they will always come to us,” he says. “We need to say, ‘We’ll go to you.’”

General Kaufman spent five years as provost at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, his alma mater, before signing on as the Georgia public college’s first president in 2005. Leading a start-up college with an access mission, he quickly realized that early engagement was key.

So Georgia Gwinnett started reaching out to students as young as fifth grade, dropping in on their classes, busing them in for visits, and hosting summer camps focused on math and technology. The college also sought to build relationships with their parents, most of whom had not attended college themselves. The focus wasn’t on one-time contacts, but sustained connections.

Being a consistent presence helped establish trust, says General Kaufman, who stepped down in 2013. From an inaugural class of 100, Georgia Gwinnett today enrolls more than 11,000 students. Of the 8,000 full-time students, 57 percent receive Pell Grants, the federal aid for low-income students, a share about 20 percentage points higher than the national average.

By getting out in the community, colleges plant the seed that a degree — from their institution or another — is both attainable and worthwhile. But for teenagers without friends or family members who have taken that path, it can be difficult to cultivate the sense that, yes, they belong in college.

For some, enlisting may be the more instinctive option because they know so many more people who have done it, says James E. Wright, president emeritus of Dartmouth College and a former Marine who advocates to get more veterans to attend elite colleges. “There’s kind of a legacy at work.”

Or if not, the recruiter serves as a bridge. Oftentimes recruiters come from communities very much like the ones they work in, allowing them to seem at once relatable and aspirational.

Although college-admissions staffs have become increasingly diverse, they don’t always look like the students they hope to recruit. “There’s a cultural and social divide,” says Mike Haynie, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation at Syracuse.

That can cut in both directions. A recent study found that admissions officers’ own backgrounds may influence their decisions — and potentially penalize less-affluent applicants. In the study, white admissions officers were less likely than their minority counterparts to look favorably on applicants from low-income backgrounds.

But beyond who recruits is what they say to the young men and women they want to encourage to apply or enlist.

Consider some of the slogans, past and present, touted by the military: “Aim high.” “Accelerate your life.” “Be all you can be.”

Today’s Army hopes recruits will choose #TeamArmy. “One day they may be asked what they did to make a difference in this world,” an ad intones. “And they can respond, I became a soldier.” As the screen goes to black, words flash: “Join the team that makes a difference.”

The message is inclusive rather than exclusive, playing on the appeal of being part of something larger than yourself. It also encourages the prospective recruit by underscoring what the individual can contribute, says Mr. Longanecker, the former Wiche executive director. “It says, ‘We want you, we need you.’”

Many colleges, too, now have campaigns to promote their institutions. But marketing experts frequently criticize the taglines as generic and ineffectual. “Real Tradition, Real Success.” “From Here You Can Go Anywhere.”

And any marketing is on the institutional level. Higher education as a whole doesn’t have its own brand identity; there’s no “Got Milk?” for college. That means prospective students could be subject to messages from more than 4,000 colleges, compared with the military’s five branches. The surfeit of slogans could be confusing or cancel one another out.

When there is a clear message, it often stresses rankings, highlighting the share of applicants with top test scores or grades. Selectivity is baked into the system: A college’s reputation is largely measured by how many students it turns away.

Taken as a whole, Mr. Longanecker says, that signals to people, “We’re a special place, so show us that you’d fit.”

There’s another narrative that swings in the military’s favor: Rightly or wrongly, military service comes off as more of an adventure.

It’s no accident that many military recruiting videos resemble adrenaline-charged video games. The military is selling excitement, plus a paycheck. Higher education? Two or four (or maybe six) more years of schoolwork. Debt. Delayed gratification. Even with climbing walls and lazy rivers, higher education has a hard time matching those thrills.

And that’s just recruitment. If first-generation and low-income students make it to college, they’re still less likely to get through and earn a degree.

Seven years after her active duty in the Army, Martha Kinney decided to go to graduate school. Ms. Kinney, who goes by Murph, had stayed on in the Reserves, where she served as a battalion training officer, spearheading both basic training and continuing education for the soldiers in her command.

While doing doctoral coursework in European history, she was asked to be a teaching assistant for several large introductory courses. What she saw ran counter to what she’d learned in the Army about how best to learn.

Students would come to her completely lost. They didn’t understand what they were being asked to do on a particular assignment or how they were being evaluated. They couldn’t tell an “A” paper from an “F.” Sometimes they hadn’t learned the basic skills needed for a project.

“We had these world-class intellectuals teaching the classes,” says Ms. Kinney, now an associate professor of history at Suffolk County Community College, in New York, “but the students didn’t understand a thing.”

In Army parlance, they were being asked to run before they could walk.

The military prepares its forces differently, Ms. Kinney and others say. From the beginning, new recruits and their commanders map out a clear career path. It’s both highly structured and studded with short-term goals: a certificate here, a credential there. Check-ins are frequent; mentors evaluate progress and, if necessary, help service members recalibrate.

Though education is necessarily distinct from vocational training, aspects of the military’s approach seem readily adaptable to campuses, particularly to the community colleges and less-selective institutions that enroll the largest share of low-income and first-generation students.

When Ms. Kinney started teaching 15 years ago, she relied more on her Army experience than on anything she had learned about teaching in grad school. The idea of scaffolding skills was key, building up from the easiest concept to the most complex. In the military, new recruits don’t immediately jump to doing live-fire exercises. They break down the component skills and run through simulations.

Likewise, before Ms. Kinney handed out her first big writing assignment, she would talk in class about what makes a good paper and review a similar essay that earned a top grade. Students would practice things like citations. Only then would she send them off — with a checklist of what she expected — to complete their papers. After they were done, she asked them for feedback, to shape how she handled the assignment the next time around.

In pedagogical circles, Ms. Kinney’s strategy is known as transparent teaching, the idea that instructors should be explicit with students about what they’re being asked to do, why, and how the assignment will be evaluated. All students can be successful, the thinking goes, if they understand the unwritten rules of college.

“In the military, you just cannot say, ‘That soldier can’t learn.’ You figure out how to inculcate skills,” Ms. Kinney says. “It doesn’t seem right to say that a student can’t learn.”

Ms. Kinney isn’t the only veteran to apply her armed-forces experience to her academic career. General Kaufman at Georgia Gwinnett asked professors to take attendance and to call students who missed more than a few classes. In the military, sleeping in and skipping a morning of boot camp isn’t an option.

Steven Oluic, dean of arts and sciences at Lakeland Community College in Ohio, encourages a similar attendance policy because, he says, students who are academically ill-prepared can least afford to miss class. But he also wants to send another message: Your professor cares that you show up.

Mr. Oluic, who traveled the world and earned a Ph.D. during a 27-year Army career, says he occasionally gets resistance from faculty members who argue that students are adults who should take responsibility for their own behavior.

“Yes, they’re adults,” says Mr. Oluic, “but they’re adults who need guidance.”

The military doesn’t have the luxury of allowing its recruits to fail — after all, their safety, and that of their unit, rests on their performance.

Be All You Can Be … on Campus

Colleges struggle to reach low-income and minority populations, but the military seems to have more success. What strategies might colleges try?

Aspirational advertising: Not just swaying a self-selecting group that has already shown interest, but appealing to people who may not have considered their next steps.

Inclusive messages: Rather than highlighting selectivity, playing on the idea of being part of something larger than oneself and underscoring what one individual can contribute.

Diverse recruitment teams: Bridging a perceived cultural and social divide between campus staff and the prospective-student population.

Consistent outreach: Building relationships with children and parents to establish a presence in the community.

Smoother sign-ups: Easing the process for prospective students to apply and register for classes.

Structured advising: Mapping out a long-term plan studded with short-term goals.

Steady mentorship: Providing guidance and encouragement, whether from advisers or peers, to keep students on track.

Transparent teaching: Clarifying expectations for assignments and academic success.

“If a soldier can’t load an M-16,” Ms. Kinney says, “you’ve got a problem. If a student can’t write, those are different stakes.”

But it’s becoming apparent that the stakes are high for higher education, too. Colleges, like the military, are refining their strategies to answer ever more sophisticated demands.

At Lakeland, an emphasis on academic counseling is part of the college’s revamped first-year experience, which Mr. Oluic likens to basic training. New students and soldiers alike, he says, “need structure and need discipline.”

As in the military, coaching at the community college begins early. New students now sit down with an adviser during their first weeks on campus to design a plan for the rest of their time there. They set long-term career goals and map out a course of study to help them reach those objectives.

The military also emphasizes peer-to-peer mentoring, assigning more-seasoned members of a unit to work with new recruits, says Charles G. Krulak, a former Marine Corps commandant and retired president of Birmingham-Southern College. The buddy system serves as the “first line of defense” against retention or performance problems, General Krulak says. If your partner is falling down on assignments or struggling with tasks, “you’re on them like ravens on roadkill.”

For Mr. Piston, the Navy veteran, mentorship was about more than encouragement. Advisers helped him identify goals and piece together a long-term plan to achieve them.

It took a year and a half of preparation before he reached his permanent duty, as a helicopter crew chief. He spent four months learning naval aviation and five weeks training as a rescue swimmer. He attended survival school in the Maine woods. Some of the drills were brutally physical, while other times the work, like learning the science of helicopter flight, was punishingly mental, requiring hours of study each night. Even after he got his long-term assignment, he continued his education, qualifying to become an emergency medical technician.

With each new credential, Mr. Piston says, his confidence grew. In fact, he says, his success instilled in him a belief that he might just be able to handle college.

If some of that sounds familiar, it’s because higher education has been adopting similar approaches. Community colleges especially are experimenting with guided or structured pathways, aligning courses to lead to certificates, degrees, and jobs, and providing careful, consistent counseling to keep students on track.

The military’s emphasis on cumulative certifications has its higher-ed corollary in the movement toward stackable credentials, the idea that the components of a degree can be broken into courses that build on one another and have immediate applicability. Students can at once work toward a degree and acquire skills that help them land a job or promotion. Many strategies being embraced by colleges today were long on the periphery of educational practice, and have been brought in from the cold by greater attention to completion.

Kay M. McClenney, a former director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, is leading a national pilot project on pathways. She compares a pathway to a highway marked by clear signs with multiple off-ramps to appealing destinations. By contrast, for too many years, many institutions were “cafeteria colleges,” she says, where students “wandered in, sampled some things, and then were out the door.”

“They accumulated credits and debt,” she says, “without getting a credential.”

Some of the strategies being adopted by colleges today resemble military practices, Ms. McClenney says. Technical colleges in Tennessee have increased completion rates by embracing a less-flexible structure, while the City University of New York provides students in remedial courses with intensive tutoring and advising. Like the armed forces, colleges are becoming more data-driven, undertaking regular assessment and using feedback to improve their performance.

But Ms. McClenney, whose grandson is training to be a member of the Special Forces, cautions that there are limits to the applicability of the military model. “We don’t want to turn into drill sergeants,” she says.

While some students may benefit from greater structure, it wouldn’t be appropriate for colleges to take on the military’s degree of control. Too tightly delineating students’ pathways could tip over into tracking. And no one would celebrate a disproportionate share of low-income or minority students ending up in dead-end or lesser-paying jobs. “That could exacerbate,” Ms. McClenney says, “what we’re trying to fix.”

Surveys asking military personnel why they decided to enlist find time and again that one of the top reasons is that they want an education. They want to go to college, but they join the military. Why?

There are financial reasons, of course, benefits that defray the cost of attendance. What’s at work, though, seems to go beyond money. The military can take someone who has been floundering and give that person focus and self-assurance. It’s as if, to see themselves as students, they have to become soldiers.

For colleges, the challenge may be to get more young people to see themselves that way in the first place.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is karin.fischer@chronicle.com.