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Raynard Kington
Raynard Kington

Trained as a physician, I worked in health care and science until six years ago, when I assumed the presidency of Grinnell College. At Grinnell, we aim to prepare undergraduates to be lifelong learners. We expect that their knowledge will expand throughout their lives.

The problem is that we who run the institutions of higher learning — dedicated to study, reflection, and the continued pursuit of greater understanding — don’t spend enough time learning about ourselves: How do we do it and how we can do it better?

In the health care industry, institutional learning is becoming robust and commonplace. But higher education institutions rarely undergo similar internal reflection and improvement. People in medicine are trying to create a holistic culture of self-examination, accountability, and institutional learning; in higher education, on the other hand, we have very little of this industrywide collaborative culture and face many challenges to create it.

Related: The surprising institutions that refuse to drop the liberal arts

Despite these challenges, we at Grinnell have set about creating a “learning liberal arts college.” Just as we focus on preparing our students to learn for the rest of their lives, we are positioning our institution to learn alongside them.

Knowledge constantly expands and changes, and it has implications for how we, as individual institutions, create, transmit, and preserve that knowledge. What this means is that we are investing in the study of what we do.

For example, we are building analytics that will enable us to know far more than just graduation and job placement rates. Motivated by a desire to address potential disparities once students arrive on campus, we are beginning to systematically review student outcomes and pilot a number of new initiatives to address positive and negative trends we see in our data.

Related: Liberal arts and pre-professional education, intertwined

We have noted that a semester-to-semester drop in GPA, even within a very high band, serves as a potential negative flag for persistence and completion at the college independent of other predictors. We are also beginning to track dramatic improvements in academic performance and are becoming more purposeful about understanding and sharing patterns of success.

“How do we do it and how we can do it better?”

We have recognized the value of data related to academic and behavioral issues, and are implementing best practices, where they exist, to incorporate new data into our predictive modeling work and provide it to our academic advisors. We believe that social-psychological factors play a very important role in student success, and so have begun to share selected results from the CIRP Freshman Survey and other assessments of these factors

Finally, we care about connecting with students in ways that will increase their sense of belonging at Grinnell and that we hope will keep them on campus. Much attention has been focused recently on efforts to “weed out” weak students. We want to do the exact opposite—use data to identify students who might benefit from additional help in order to succeed. While we have a high rate of completion, we are constantly seeking opportunities to learn how we might do better.

Related: The difference between being eligible for college and ready for college

We also are looking closely at other important measures of the liberal arts experience, such as study abroad.

We dug into the data and found that students from families in the lowest income quartile at Grinnell study overseas at the same rates as those students from families in the highest income quartile.

With the removal of financial obstacles, thanks to the generous financial assistance policies that incorporate the cost of study abroad, we are eliminating the “have” and “have not” categories for one of our most fundamental and critically important learning experiences.

Related: New supports for first-gen students: Helpful or just ‘a drop in the bucket?’

But for all we do on campus, there is only so much progress that can be made at a single institution.

We have a higher education system that encompasses many different kinds of institutions, pursuing different missions, and serving different kinds of students with different pedagogical models.

Investment in research about higher education’s best practices is concentrated largely in the private sector and a handful of foundations.

Related: While liberal arts decline in U.S., China and other economic rivals add them

There is little federal involvement in this work, even though recent federal efforts to develop a college and university scorecard were directed toward providing incentives for colleges to become more accountable and improve outcomes.

To learn how we can improve ourselves as a collective, we need the input and engagement of our peers. As we continue to build a “learning liberal arts college” on the Iowa prairie, I encourage my colleagues to inquire about their own institutions.

The knowledge we gain will benefit us all. Most important, it will benefit students for decades to come.

Raynard Kington is the president of Grinnell College.

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