The COVID-19 pandemic has given us opportunities to re-evaluate “business as usual” and adapt to our brave new world. But it’s the tried-and-true principles that bring me to this piece. Since the shockwave of uncertainty at the start of a global crisis in March 2020, I have found myself often returning to the basics of why I chose a path in education, and why I am so deeply committed to education.
While education has afforded this son of immigrants (who has humble and deep roots in Denver’s northeast neighborhood of Swansea) a worldwide platform of meaningful opportunities, it is the compassion, empathy, and dedication of our educators that initially hooked me into investing myself in such a worthwhile career. Yet, while education indeed is the catalyst to transformation and upward social mobility, our education infrastructure continues to be strained. The basics, like our ABCs, are imperative to re-establishing education as the great societal benefit that it is. The “ABCs of Education” is that conceptually transferrable framework for elementary, middle, high school, and K-20. Let’s consider them through the lens of higher education.
The ‘A’ is access and affordability: These two go like hand in glove — if one fails, so will the other. Services such as academic and financial advising, peer mentoring, and career guidance significantly reduce the barriers to access, especially for first-generation, first-in-family, or low- income students.
Concurrent to the university admissions process — a topic well-deserving of a future discussion — the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is often a problematic bottleneck for students and families. In an era with soaring costs of attendance, the FAFSA aids access through affordability. Schools use the completed FAFSA to determine a student’s eligibility to aid, but the application is so complex that many students never overcome that hurdle. Annually, FAFSA non-completers leave billions of federal dollars on the table due to its length and complexity. We must critically assess our sometimes-well-intended processes and eliminate the barriers we have erected that hinder access and affordability.
The ‘B’ is blended learning (including project-based learning, and experiential learning): Observe how today’s younger-aged learners engage with course material and one quickly sees stark differences to older generations. Most — if not all — carry computers in their pockets with real-time access to a plethora of information that they seamlessly process and consume. This reality should trigger a shift from “sage on the stage,” to “guide on the side.” These learners seek guidance and training to critically engage with material in multi-disciplinary ways that are grounded in theory, to actively address practical real-world challenges. All the while we must prepare learners to be kind humans in an exponentially accelerating world. As they say, it takes two to tango, and effective modes to blended learning requires me, the instructor, to be a willing participant.
The ‘C’ is completion: If the As and Bs are in unison, as they should be, learners will be on their way to completion, within reasonable time and cost. The U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS reports that about 60% of all undergraduate postsecondary learners in the country complete their credential within six years, a standard measure. Increasing this unacceptable rate of completion makes sense for a host of reasons especially when considering the social mobility effects of a postsecondary education.
According to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, lifetime earnings of a bachelor’s credential are about 35% more than a two-year degree, and about 75% more than a high school diploma. Moreover, completion and degree attainment improve outcomes across an array of measures such as health, poverty, civic participation, among others. Hispanic, Black, and rural students already enroll at rates below their white, Asian, and non-rural peers. Driving completion of all our students, especially those from underserved backgrounds, carries lasting benefit.
Finally, the National Student Clearinghouse places the pool of some college, no degree, or those who started and never finished, at 36 million with an average debt of around $7,000 and nothing to show for it.
I admit that as a senior executive with an engineering background I can easily tackle complex arithmetic and digest dense financial models. But beauty lies in simplicity. While the concept of the ABCs of Education is straightforward, it presents an imperative for educators, learners, administrators, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and frankly, everyone, to de-blur a complex system into the fundamentals for whom we are here to serve—our learners.
My hope is for the ABCs of Education to be an inspiration to get back to the basics in serving our students, their families, help architect their stories, and partner with them as they shape their legacies.
Abel A. Chávez, Ph.D., is the Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success at Western Colorado University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.