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Who Students Trust

We’ve thought a lot about the growing disconnect between higher education and society — and the public’s disillusionment, in fact, is a key reason we started Open Campus in the first place.

That waning trust among society is part of what prompted two education researchers to probe what was happening with trust among a more specific group: the college students directly experiencing higher ed.

Trust matters because it affects a person’s sense of belonging and sense of well-being, Shannon Calderone, one of the researchers, told me this week. It helps a person be vulnerable and open to diverse experiences. It pushes against the tendency to be socially guarded.

The research that Calderone, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Washington State University, and Kevin Fosnacht, an associate research scientist at Indiana University, did was recently released by the National Survey of Student Engagement. It’s based on a study of more than 8,300 undergraduates enrolled at 29 U.S. colleges.

Some key findings:

  • Black students report substantially less trust in their college than white students. Among first-year students in the study, at least 80 percent of the non-Black respondents trust — either somewhat or completely — the five types of campus staff they were asked about. Across all categories, first-year Black students trust campus personnel less by about 10 percentage points.
  • Campus leaders are the least-trusted. And, regardless of race, the campus personnel students most trust are faculty and academic advisors.
  • Trust seems to erode with time. The first-year students in the study reported more trust in campus personnel, on the whole, than the seniors.

The researchers said they were especially struck by the extent of the gulf in trust reported by Black students and by their peers. “The magnitude of the observed trust gaps are not trivial or small,” they wrote, “but of sizes rarely seen in education research.”

Fosnacht says they plan to do more research to nail down exactly what trust impacts in terms of student outcomes. But the gaps in the study correspond with many long-term problems facing higher education.

“Decades of research have shown that students of color perceive a less supportive campus environment and suffer lower college completion rates,” he and Calderone wrote. “If you do not trust the people around you or do not believe your institution well serves your interests, you are undoubtedly less likely to have a positive experience that will sustain you to graduation.”

What can colleges do to build trust — with their students and with the public? Here’s some of what the researchers suggest:

  • Be consistent about including student voices in decisions.
  • Be intentional about improving diversity and inclusion, among students, faculty, and leaders.
  • Be more transparent about important decisions, especially those related to things like admissions and financial aid that can seem like black boxes.
  • Do more to help students as they are leaving college to improve outcomes and to shape positive long-term relationships.

“Attention to and elimination of these trust gaps,’” Calderone and Fosnacht wrote, “may be a pathway to improving some of the most challenging and intractable problems facing higher education today.”

— Sara Hebel

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Parenting in College

More than a decade ago, Michaela Martin dropped out of high school in Oregon. Then she traveled for a couple of years, worked some odd jobs (fish factory, Santa’s helper), even panhandled for a bit. Her sign: “I bet you can’t hit me with a quarter.”

Tired of that life, at 23, she enrolled in community college — and shortly after found out she was pregnant. She soon learned there was a two-year wait for on-campus child care, meaning she would have finished her associate’s degree by the time she got to the front of the line.

Martin is featured in a new podcast focused on the 22 percent of college students who are also parents. Called 1 in 5, the narrative series from Ascend at Aspen Institute tries to get behind that statistic.

She tells the story of an exchange she had with a professor after enrolling at Oregon State University. When Martin mentioned having a tough time with child care, the professor “told me that it didn’t matter.”

“Well, I said, what do you mean?”

“And she told me to my face that you chose to have a child and you chose to come to school… Part of the reason why student parents remain invisible too is that there really is a different kind of stigma about parenthood.”

Martin would go on to push for legislation that would require public colleges in Oregon to report on enrollment and graduation rates of student parents. She testified in a 2019 legislative hearing about the importance of gathering this data:

And it’s kind of astonishing that as a low-income single mother, I can tell you how likely that my child will graduate from college, how likely it is that he’ll do drugs, how likely it is that he’ll run away, but I can’t tell you how likely it is for I or other student parents to be able to get an education, and so I just kind of like to say that I would like to be another statistic.

Martin graduated from Oregon State in 2018 and is now a law student at the University of La Verne in California.

First-Generation Graduates

Zipporah Osei started a newsletter last year — before the pandemic, before she graduated from Northeastern University — focused on the experience of first-generation college students.

After a hiatus, she’s restarting First Gen this spring. In advance, she wants to hear from fellow first-gen graduates.

I’m also a first-gen member of the class of 2020 and know first-hand how the past year has colored the post-grad lives of first-generation college students. I want to reach other recent graduates and hear about their experiences — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Fill out this form to get in touch.


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