I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed. This week I report on what you told me higher-ed philanthropies should be be doing with their money. And my colleague Maura Mahoney summarizes some expert advice from a recent virtual forum on how professors can best support students at this stage of the pandemic.

Here’s what you think philanthropies should be funding right now.

Never underestimate the appeal of a thought experiment about spending other people’s money. Last week I asked you to send me your suggestions about where higher-ed philanthropies’ next priorities should be, and dozens of you responded.

Your answers ranged widely, but I also sensed some very clear themes. Chief among them was a desire for more funding for professional development for faculty members and those entering the profession. Several of you also suggested approaches to elevate the purpose of higher education. And more than a few of you had suggestions related to my call for funders to help develop the role of “educational navigators.” Here’s how that — and the rest — shook out.

Faculty development. Many of these suggestions seemed informed by an awareness that instructors’ responsibilities have evolved: Today’s students are more diverse than they were decades ago, and the expectations for using high-impact teaching practices, such as service learning and research projects, have moved to the mainstream. Professors are also increasingly being called upon to help students better see the connections between what they’re learning in the classroom and their future careers.

So I was especially struck by comments, like those from Shaylin Jyotishi, a senior policy analyst at New America, who noted the importance of helping faculty members “currently navigating innovation, change, and new responsibilities.” Another reader cited the need to help professors become prepared for teaching with tools powered by artificial intelligence. (The writer’s organization has ties to that kind of work, but the self-interest aside, I think that’s a forward-thinking idea).

I was honestly a little surprised that so many folks suggested this topic because it’s been my impression that lots of colleges have been creating their own teaching and learning centers, and several national organizations are also focused on this mission. But readers still seem to think that professors — and graduate students weighing careers in academe — need more formal and ongoing training in how to teach. “In most professions,” wrote James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, “people are required to participate in continuing education/professional development. Not professors. And, even if they want to, there’s little support for it.”

Projects to value higher ed for more than its career and income returns. The ideas in this vein were especially intriguing to me — and not just suggestions like those from Mary B. Marcy, president emerita of Dominican University of California, whose interest in civic engagement I’ve reported on before. “Philanthropy could play a major role in helping to think of higher education beyond the ROI,” Marcy said, “by elevating initiatives and research around what helps students become engaged citizens.”

Robert Sabal, for example, took that idea further by suggesting “alternative data collection” as a means of broadening the conversation around the value of college. “Right now, ROI is all about income after graduation,” wrote Sabal, dean of the School of the Arts at Emerson College. “But there’s clearly more to life than simply one’s income, and there’s more to life after college than paying off student loans.” Sabal didn’t have a firm plan in mind — I guess that’s where those philanthropic dollars could be useful in funding some experiments — but he did note that models might be found in some of the work that arts educators have been undertaking. In his email to me, Sabal included a plea for becoming “a bit more curious” about defining the value of higher education. “And can’t we be more specific than saying, ‘it helps create informed citizens’?” he wrote. “There must be useful data to collect and approaches to develop.”

Educational navigators. I was thrilled that so many readers, in emails and in tweets, endorsed the need for more philanthropy-funded research on developing such guides (in my vision, they’d be institutionally independent) to help steer students and would-be students through their decisions about attending college or finding alternative forms of education.

Several proposed adding a dose of technology. “We should be looking to digital navigators or ‘digital educational companions,’“ wrote Tom Andriola, vice chancellor for information, technology and data, at the University of California at Irvine, citing chatbots and conversational AI as examples of tools that could enhance the services navigators provide. “This technology space,” he said, “is becoming more mature by the month and is already impacting other industries in profound ways.”

In the same vein, Erin Crisp, chief academic officer at an ed-tech company called Campus Inc., suggested equipping navigators with “a universally understood digital language of rich skill descriptions” that could help them map students’ skill profiles to a career goal, or to training programs to fill skill gaps.

I see the value of deploying technology in these situations, but I’m also a bit wary of automation playing too big a part in this navigator role. After all, the kinds of decisions the navigators could be assisting with are far more consequential than the consumer choices many of us are now making with the explicit or implicit guidance of an AI robot. So I’ll also be trying to learn more about the Enterprise Facilitation model, used around the world in community development. The approach is typically used to support local entrepreneurs. Bill Lightfoot, a self-described educator and coach who has advised a number of colleges, and who shared the information with me, said he imagined it could be adapted for use by navigators, too.

Other ideas for funders to consider: There was no shortage of suggestions. Among them:

  • Programs in music and the arts, because they “promote creativity, commitment, community, and more.” Yes, that came from a professor of music history and theory, Sharon Mirchandani, at Rider University, but what a hopeful rationale.
  • “The next Olin College, but with a focus on inclusive STEM” and 10 times the $500 million Olin received 25 years ago, suggested J.B. Holston, dean of the University of Denver’s school of engineering and computer science. A $5-billion endowment today, he said, “could create a national-scale university specifically designed to provide STEM higher education to underrepresented groups.”
  • Student-information systems that would capture a fuller picture of students’ experiences. “Creating a massive data profile (you know, the stuff Meta has been compiling on all of us for years) would probably yield more insights on student behaviors” and on what leads students to D’s, F’s, or withdrawing, wrote Julie Uranis, a vice president at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. “Just imagine how wild it might be,” she wrote, “if we learned that students that receive a parking ticket are X times more likely to leave after only one year.”

A culture of care, in and beyond the classroom.

The faculty’s role in student support has been expanding, but what should it look like this far into the pandemic? How can instructors balance compassion and rigor? What might help them keep from burning out?

These questions animated a recent forum — moderated by Katherine Mangan, a Chronicle senior writer, and Sabrina Sanders, director of the Toro re-engagement program at California State University-Dominguez Hills — in our yearlong series on student success, produced with support from the Ascendium Education Group.

Here are two takeaways:

Build in support, but don’t coddle. Design courses in anticipation of students’ needs. A core class at Georgia State University, for example, was built “from the ground up,” said Michael C. Evans, a senior lecturer, to capture digital data to help students succeed. Incentives can work better than penalties, said Bridgette Hard, director of undergraduate studies in psychology at Duke University, who makes a final exam optional for students who attend a certain percentage of lectures. Laurette Blakey Foster, executive director of the HBCU Faculty Network and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Prairie View A&M University, also emphasizes attendance, but cautioned that “students don’t get a second chance when they’re out in the work force.”

Practice warm referrals. A counseling center can provide language about mental-health services, Evans said, for instructors to add to their syllabi. And faculty members could take that a literal step farther, Foster recommended, by physically walking a student to the appropriate service on campus. “Encourage faculty to know” where students can go for help, she said. At Duke, all that’s needed to “mobilize a broader safety net,” said Hard, is filling out a simple online form. And more-receptive professors can help bring resistant colleagues along, said Gary Moreno, director of the Latino/Latin American Studies Center at Austin Community College. — Maura Mahoney

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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