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Friday Short: The Fine Art of Following Instructions

First published at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/friday-short-the-fine-art_b_5049631.html

I love this time of year at Webber International University. The smell of orange blossoms permeates the air. Students spend their relaxing hours enjoying the lakeshore: playing beach volleyball, hanging out by the pool (that’s what we do in Florida in March, you see), kayaking across the lake. And, there are the job interviews. The campus is abuzz with young men and women in their interview clothes… getting a résumé checked here, getting inside information about an industry there. Which brings us to this week’s Friday Short: The Fine Art of Following Instructions.

I get at least 100 applications for each job I post… on rare occasions, it’s more than a thousand. And, I have to assume that since getting a job is the single most important thing to many people, there is no assignment I can ever give you which will be more important to you. My thought is your résumé is the very best work you can do. And I am super busy. So, the first screen is pretty tough. A lot of candidates — possibly good candidates — get tossed into the “no thanks” pile (from which there is no appeal) by simply not following instructions. Here are some tips for avoiding their most common mistakes.

1) Send the file in the format the person doing the hiring wants it. Many companies use automated screening tools. Sure, plain text is boring, but if the software can’t read your résumé, the chances aren’t good that you’re going to get the interview. I specifically ask for résumés in .PDF format only, because Adobe Reader, to the best of my knowledge, cannot run an embedded virus or macro. The folks who choose to send me Word documents instead of what I asked for never, ever have them read because, since I don’t know them and am not familiar with their data security processes, I’m not opening a Word document from them.

2) If the ad says “no phone calls”, don’t call. It is not a “courtesy” to me to interrupt my work with a “courtesy call” about your résumé. It shows, at a time when one is trying really hard to make a great impression, a willingness to disregard instructions. And, it says to me that the applicant thinks his or her time is more valuable than mine. He or she is entitled to his or her opinion, but that’s simply not the sort of person I want to spend most of my waking life with.

3) If the ad asks for salary expectations or history, send it. For every job I have, I also have a budget. It’s not in my best interest to pay people poorly… not only does it lead to bad morale which leads to bad customer service, but it’s not like I get to keep whatever I don’t spend. But what I’ve got to pay for a particular job is all I’ve got, and I couldn’t come up with anymore if my life depended upon it. My time is valuable. Applicants’ time is valuable. Why waste time talking if we’re not even in the same ballpark and therefore just cannot possibly make it work? And since I’ve got at least 100 applications to get through before I can go home for the day, I’m just not spending a lot of time dealing with folks who won’t follow instructions.

4) If they ask for extras, send them. As just one example, we’ve got a lot of jobs that don’t require an electrician’s license; but for the ones which do, it’s a non-negotiable. And, we’ve had enough folks trying to negotiate it that if you don’t send your license with your resume, we’re not calling you.

5) Bonus Tip: Robots are even more demanding than humans! Here’s a really cool graphic that shows just how prevalent robotic screening is. Simple fact: If the algorithm is looking for particular words and you have not parroted them back from the ad, you’re joining the 75 percent who don’t make the cut!

It’s still a tough job market out there. And, many of those who do have jobs are doing more work than ever. Many of the folks doing the initial screening of résumés are very nice people, with lots of other stuff they have to do. So making it easy on them — by following instructions — seems like an easy way to improve one’s odds!

Friday Short: Sometimes You Have To Prove Yourself First

First published at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/friday-short-lessons-from_b_4917997.html

Even though it’s still technically winter (and so chilly here at our Central Florida campus that just last week our beach volleyball team had to put shorts on over their bathing suits!) spring is definitely in the air. And, at Webber International University, that means it’s all about the job… first real job, summer job, or an internship. And, there’s just something about those of us drawn to higher education… we cannot help sharing advice, solicited or not. So, here’s this week’s Friday short: sometimes you have to prove yourself first.

We had the Secret Service on campus recruiting this week. Pretty sweet gig if law enforcement is your chosen career. But, along with detailing the fabulous career paths available for those who perform, the recruiter was careful to tell students that their first assignment would most assuredly not be the White House, but would rather be somewhere nobody with any seniority wanted to work. “Yup,” I thought, “that’s how it worked at my first job. First you get in, then you show them what you’re made of.”

I’ll admit it… I didn’t go to college to raise heck or find myself. I went because the lifestyle I wanted to live required a salary that generally wasn’t obtainable without a college degree. Just a couple of weeks out of college, I left home and reported for duty at my first real job.

And it actually was a fabulous and wonderful job. I went to work for Zoo Atlanta just after the city of Atlanta realized that private industry is better at running a zoo than is a city and gave the zoo to a private, not-for-profit company. We had nowhere to go but up, and we were determined to get there as quickly as possible! Every day was an adventure, and numerous zoo director careers were launched.

But life is a series of tradeoffs. At the time (those fabulous 80s), the zoo had almost no money (quite literally), so the pay was horrific and the staffing was short. I worked 93 consecutive days — Saturdays, Sundays, holidays — before I got my first day off. And, most of these days, I was at work before the sun rose and there after it set. Once I paid my rent, utilities, gas, taxes and more taxes, etc., I didn’t have money to eat. I very quickly learned that every afternoon at around 5pm, down at the Okefonokee Café, they tossed the unsold food from the serving line into the trash can. And every afternoon about 5pm, I intercepted my dinner just before it hit the aforementioned trash can… on good days it was fried chicken or catfish; some days it was hot dogs; a few days, it just nacho chips. But, it got me through the next few hours of work before I went on home for the day. I worked for wonderful, wonderful people… they weren’t exploitive or evil; they were good folks who, much as they cared about wages and benefits, lacked the ability to conjure money out of thin air and therefore had the money they had, and my job paid what it paid (which was exactly what they said it paid when I took it).

There are those who would have felt exploited. But, I agreed to take a salary and they paid it to me every other week, just like clockwork, so they kept their end of the deal. And, there are those who would have whined that the director (who had a PhD and decades of experience) made so much more than did I, while getting much less sweaty. I took a different path: I went to work early, stayed late, worked weekends and holidays, and busted my butt. Concentrated on doing the job I actually had really well, as opposed to spending my time trying to get the job I actually wanted. I learned a lot, did my job the best I could, said “sir” and “ma’am” to everyone — including my subordinates — and generally proved my worth.

And choosing that path made all the difference. “Are you throwing that cheeseburger away?” didn’t remain the default way of ordering my dinner for too long. When the opportunities to impact pay did become available — someone left, some unexpected money came in, it was a new budget year — I wasn’t just someone who needed more money. I was someone who had proven his worth and dedication, someone who — based on their own observation at their own organization — deserved and had earned more money. And, substitute “responsibility” for “money” in the last paragraph, and it reads just as true. And the really neat thing is that I didn’t have to ask (heck, didn’t have time to ask).

It’s an old fashioned idea, of course. You go in as an unknown… maybe you add value, maybe you don’t. But, little demonstrates one’s value to an employer better than actually performing. And that, for me, is one of the many lessons from my very first job ever: sometimes, before you’re lavished with praise and rewards, you actually have to prove yourself first.

4 Wonderful Things I Learned from the Job I Hated Most

First posted 2/28/2014 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/things-i-learned-from-the-job-i-hated-most_b_4875652.html

It’s that time of year around Webber — the sun is shining, spring is in the air, and seniors are in their interview clothes. And, it’s that time of year when those of us with more experience in the work world just cannot help but try to share what we’ve learned.

I’ve had several wonderful jobs. And, while every job has it’s “I-hate-this-job” moments, I’ve had a couple of jobs I hated most of the time. But I learned an awful lot at the one I hated most. Once upon a time, I was a Business Analyst at Dun & Bradstreet (so were U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, though we never met). D&B is a great company — lots of opportunities, good work environment, good pay, does good and meaningful work that helps keep commerce humming and, consequently, people working. But, it was most assuredly not the right job for me. And, according to my friends who still work there, things have changed a lot in the last few decades, so my experience on the job wasn’t the same as someone would experience today. But, my oh my, was it an experience!

I was just a kid at the time. It was my second job ever. I beat out 400 other applicants, got good training and excelled at it. I was usually the best reporter in the region and occasionally in the nation. And, while it didn’t take me that long to figure out it wasn’t the right job for me, I learned some very valuable things.
•Lesson 1: Nothing substitutes for integrity. Okay, I knew this before I got there. But when I got called into the office because a business owner I quoted said he never spoke to me, things got real very quickly (fortunately, he didn’t remember talking to my manager who was checking up on me either). Integrity was paramount. “It’s true” was the ultimate defense to anything. There were no second chances for “made it up.”

•Lesson 2: Nothing substitutes for results. I had to write 50 cases a week. Felt like it? 50. Didn’t feel like it? 50. Car broke down? 50. Hung over? 50. Lots of folks not at work due to snow on the roads? 50. And a huge chunk of my pay was depending upon adding value to those cases… X pieces of data coming in, X + Y percent of data coming out = bonus. Good reasons for not being able to do it? Explanations for lack of performance? Excuses? Generally got you a “Wow, if I had your numbers, I’d be on the phone calling instead of here telling me why I couldn’t do my job.” One performed or one did not perform, and no amount of babbling defected attention away from whether you were one of the ones adding value or one of the ones consuming resources without producing. One didn’t last long in the latter camp.

•Lesson 3: Pressure builds competencies; results build confidence. Where you stood was always up there on the “big board” in dry erase marker. To say that one got a bit of ribbing if he or she were near the bottom of the heap is to put it charitably; fortunately — you’ll remember I beat out 400 other folks for my job — if one stayed at the bottom of the heap, he or she didn’t have to put up with it long! It’s amazing what that kind of pressure cooker — together with being 23 and not knowing any better — will do. I called and got through to the chairman of Boeing. I called the president of Supercuts at home and we had a great conversation. Bankers and CEO’s returning your call — and big, old stacks of cash when you did meet your goals — did a whole lot to boost confidence.

•Lesson 4: It’s all about filling needs. It seems like an impossible job really: call up business owners, get them to tell you all the details of their business for a report you’re going to sell to folks they may or may not want having it. And you couldn’t even sell the credit rating, really, since some got horrific ratings or none at all. So it really took a good deal of seeing it from the other perspective to make it. Those who made it learned how to explain to business owners what was in it for them (largely credibility and verifiability).

That’s the neat thing about life. You learn something new every day. And, some of those lessons last a lifetime.

Five Important Things to Look At in Off-Campus Housing

First published 08/07/2013 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/five-important-things-to-_b_3719386.html

I run a university which provides student housing.  Whatever your budget or taste, we’ve got something — from a basic shared room with the bathroom down the hall, to a private apartment style room complete with private entrance and private bath.  And an extraordinarily important part of college life — one that 20 years later folks who experienced still talk about and those who did not experience still lament forgoing — is living on campus.  College is about more than the classroom, and lots of things happen quickly and without a lot of advanced notice.  When it comes to being an engaged part of the college community, being there is half the battle! And, when all the costs are factored in, for many students, living on campus is their least expensive option.  But, I’ve got more folks who want one of these rooms than I do rooms.  So, we end up with students living in private residences off campus.  Some have great experiences.  Some, not so great.  Much of this has to do, frankly, with doing one’s homework.

We find students have a few reasons for wanting to live off campus.  Some do, in fact, save money.  We are cognizant of the sacrifices students (and often their families) make to go to college, so we’re a not-for-profit which runs lean.  But there are some things we don’t skimp on which add costs “off the books and under the radar” housing providers can avoid (anyone who has ever taken a “gypsy cab” across New York will know exactly what I am talking about here).  We pay security.  We pay resident assistants.  We actually have staff who live on campus. We comply with building codes.   The fire inspector comes and inspects our facilities on a regular basis.  Safety does not come cheap; square foot by square foot, a modest college dorm room can cost more to build than a luxury home.  It’s going to be largely the same with any housing at any reputable college.  “Can you pay me in cash?” rentals can be a different story:  we’ve seen students live as cheaply as $100 a month by sharing a two bedroom, two bath house with five other women.  Not my cup of tea, but it works for some, and, done right, can indeed reduce the cost of living.  Some move off campus because they want to escape the rules and regulations inherent in college living.  To the great disappointment of some freshmen who believe that Animal House was a documentary, very few colleges today allow drunken orgies — or even full on keggers — on campus.  We try not to be overly intrusive in the lives of our students, but we do have a mosaic of rules, resident assistants, and grown up staff in place.  And, some, of course, are taking another step towards adulthood — paying rent, putting deposits down on utilities, negotiating with roommates.

Regardless of the reason for the decision, before you take the plunge and live off campus, you need to do your homework.  Here are five important things to consider and ask about when considering off-campus housing.

1) What fire protection is in place? Little is scarier on a college campus than a fire.  But, fact is, the vast majority of fires tragically claiming the lives of college students happen at off campus housing.   Since 2000, 14 times as many students (86 percent) have died in off campus fires than in either on campus or Greek (i.e., fraternity or sorority) housing fires (6 percent each). That’s a staggering number.  Ask to see the last fire department inspection (don’t be surprised if there wasn’t one — many students live in what authorities believe are single family private homes).  Check the fire extinguisher pressure gauges.  Be sure the secondary exits (often bedroom windows) are actually functioning.  Check smoke detectors.  Heck, why not check the circuit breaker box?  You don’t have to be an electrician to be wary of wires stapled up the wall and over the ceiling!

2) Check the security. When’s the last time they’ve changed the locks?  Is it a difficult to duplicate key?  Do locks on the doors and windows actually work?  How’s crime?  If the neighborhood doesn’t have online crime reports (a couple of neat sites are My Neighborhood Update and Crime Mapping) the local police are usually happy to tell you what they know.  Does law enforcement know college students live there?  A sad fact of life is that there are those who prey on college students.  While many law enforcement agencies make it a point to “drive by when we’re in the neighborhood,” they cannot do this with houses which deliberately “fly under the radar.” 

3) Read the lease. Twice.  This is where many of our students get burned, as often as not because there is no lease. 

4) Find out about maintenance. First thing we do in my office each morning:  follow up on maintenance requests we think are taking too long.  We might not have a spare everything, but we have a couple of spare air conditioners, refrigerators, and toilet flappers on the shelf at any given time.  Who do I call to fix things?  Is it 24/7?  All good questions.

5) Check the roommates, especially if you’re jointly responsible for rent and/or utilities. We’ve had students get stuck with the entire rent on four bedroom houses.  And, lifestyle is important too.  I’ve got dozens of rooms just alike — the folks who check “stay up late” on their questionnaires go in rooms together; the folks who write “in bed by 9″ go in rooms together.  If you really hate your roommate on campus, we’ll let you move.  If you’re stuck with someone for the entire school year, you’d better not hate them!

For many students, that first “my own place” — even if it is shared with others and parents help pay the rent — is a wonderful, magical time.  But, for others, it is a nightmare.  Sure, there’s plenty of homework in college without making your own.  But this is some that is really worth doing:  for those choosing to live off campus, a little bit of due diligence can help make it a good experience.

Aside

A Contrarian View of the Demise of the Unpaid Internship

First published July 17, 2013 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/unpaid-internship_b_3611889.html

I guess I’m the only one in the nation to think this way, but I’m a little sorry to see the unpaid internship becoming endangered, if not extinct. It’s not because I’m an ogre who believes in exploiting the young, but rather because I lament the vaporizing of opportunities which, for so many students over so many years, have been so incredibly valuable. Sure, paid internships are better for students than unpaid internships. And sure, it’s just unfair to call a part time job an internship to avoid paying people. But one cannot get blood out of a turnip. Making it impossible, from a practical standpoint, to offer an unpaid internship takes a lot of opportunities — great experiences where the student gets so much more experience and exposure than he or she could ever hope to buy — off the table. When that happens, the losses are borne mostly by the students. The simple fact of the matter is that students need internships (and I mean real internships, not unpaid jobs masquerading as internships) more than companies need interns.

I run a university where the requirements are shaped, to a large extent, by what business tell us our students need to know to be employable and promotable. We ask the kinds of companies where our graduates want to work what we need to be doing so that our graduates stand out. When we can, we incorporate this feedback into our curriculum. One the results is that the vast majority of our students being required to do an internship. We think — and our job placement statistics verify this thought — that it helps prepare them for the workplace. Most get paid. For companies which can afford to do it, paying interns seems like good insurance against “no good deed goes unpunished.” As an interesting aside, many of our interns make more than minimum wage. I’m also keenly aware that “kids gotta eat…” during any given semester, I have student or two on a dishwashing, pool skimming, or gutter cleaning scholarship.

But I worked an unpaid internship in college… burned through savings to pay for lunch and gas. And I’ve supervised my fair share of unpaid interns in the past. From both of these perspectives, I think we’re doing our college students a disservice by killing off the unpaid internship.

It might be worth noting that we define “internship” a bit differently than do some others. We’ve pages of pages of explanation, and a fairly lengthy agreement. Making coffee, filing, sweeping the warehouse floor, and answering phones are all legitimate professions and valuable contributions. But they don’t cut it for us as an internship. There needs to be honest to goodness learning about the functioning of a business leading to genuine development of leadership, managerial, administrative, analytical, or other relevant skills for us to approve it as an internship. We’ve got kids working various places who are filing, answering phones, etc., but we call these “part time jobs,” not “internships.” And no reasonable person disputes that folks ought to be paid for part time jobs, irrespective of what they’re called.

There exist, however, a goodly number of firms — small businesses, not-for-profits, others — which can offer an intern all sorts of wonderful things, but not money. And it’s not because they don’t want to; rather, it’s because they cannot. There’s a famous sign from the 1920’s Great Depression which reads “Jobless Men Keep Going. We Can’t Take Care of Our Own.” For a lot of small businesses, this is still the case. What can one learn at the soup kitchen, the mom & pop restaurant, the single person accounting or law firm? All sorts of things that are hard to replicate in the classroom. With small business being a huge component of the global economy and the catalyst of social change (as just one example, one should not, for example, discount the impact of Avon on empowering women throughout the world… money changes everything) and small charities providing services which make huge differences in the life of many, small firms are a big part of life. Offering a wildly different culture than behemoth industries, for many, small is indeed beautiful. Removing from the pool of potential internship sites those employers who just cannot take on another paid employee right now — and this describes an awful lot of small businesses and small civic organizations — does a disservice to students for whom this sort of career path is a good fit.

I worked an unpaid internship. Oh, but that I actually knew at 20 years old what I thought I knew at 20 years old. Did the company get some value for my time? Maybe. They spent a good deal of time running me through an orientation of their company, then tossed me on a couple of projects they wanted done but really didn’t have budget to do. I think I did a decent job on them. But, really, if it had been all that important, they have paid a grown up to do them. For many firms, internships are more about giving something back to the community than they are about getting important work done. They give a college student a taste of work life, a peek at a particular industry, a better understanding of a particular company. They take resources, time, and talent to teach, guide, and mentor someone who admittedly brings to the table little experience and an incomplete education. With the increasing challenges of providing good wages and good benefits to experienced employees who consistently provide value, paying unknown interns, whose primary goal is not adding value for the employer but increasing their own knowledge and worth, can be a tough proposition. And when I went out at 21 looking for a job without a lot of experience, this internship went on my resume and my supervisor went on my references. When I landed that first job, I had the luxury of having already made some of my mistakes on my internship, and learning from them when the stakes were relatively low. At least in my case, I learned a lot; the company I worked for got something done they just didn’t have the budget to do; gas and lunch was a bit of a financial struggle in the face of the lack of wages, but I lived; and we all went away satisfied, feeling like we had gotten a fair deal. We hear similar accounts from our graduates. Removing from the pool of potential internship sites those employers who are willing to invest in our future, but aren’t willing to pay a student to learn about their business or industry, also does a disservice to students.

I have, over the years, supervised an occasional unpaid internship. I’d have liked to have paid the students, really I would have. But it really was a case of “Jobless Men Keep Going. We Can’t Take Care of Our Own.” But what I did do was allow them access to management talent they could have never gotten otherwise. It struck me that my end of the bargain was to teach these young men and young women the things I should have been taught at their age, before I got my first “real job”. It seemed to me like, in return for whatever it was they were doing for me, they should go back to school with an understanding of business they just wouldn’t get from their books. I kept my end of the bargain. Many said thanks. Some years later. Some with specific instances of how their experience had positively impacted their careers.

Doubtless there are areas of abuse which need to be remedied. But, eliminating the unpaid internship hurts one group disproportionately: the students who need these experiences.

The Bright Side of College Athletics

First published: 08/23/2012 11:32 am at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/the-bright-side-of-colleg_b_1811647.html

With all the negative press surrounding college athletics, perhaps it is time to reflect on the fact that sport can not only peacefully coexist with a wholesome college education but can actually help produce better graduates.  There is, in fact, a bright side of college athletics:  used properly, sports build better educated, more responsible graduates.

Few in any debate are unbiased, and I certainly am not.  While I speak only for myself, I am the president of The Sun Conference athletic conference, and a member of the Council of Presidents (essentially the Board of Trustees) of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).  So, you can rightly conclude that we think sports are swell.

I run a small university established in 1896.  Most of our students are also athletes.  With fewer than 2,000 traditional, full-time undergraduates, our schools field softball, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s beach volleyball (FL), men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s tennis (FL), men’s and women’s track (indoor and outdoor), men’s and women’s cross country, men’s wrestling (NC), men’s and women’s lacrosse (NC), men’s and women’s bowling (FL; current national champions), men’s and women’s triathlon (FL), football (FL), men’s wrestling (NC), men’s and women’s swimming (NC), cheerleading, six equestrian teams (NC), and a pipe (NC) and marching (FL) band.  All of our teams are competitive and a few are very good.

But we also think that part of the reason sports have been such a good thing at our schools is that they are a means to an end:  producing quality graduates.  And, that’s an easily replicable proposition.

It starts with accepting reality.  Few who participate in sports in college at any level will go on to become professional athletes.   That’s actually true at any school… no matter how fanciful the yarn a coach spins while recruiting might be, the fact is that a miniscule percentage of college athletes go on to be professional athletes.   Our students know this, we know this, but it doesn’t make the games any less fun or any less intense.   Being honest about the importance of preparing for a career “just in case the pros don’t work out” yields results:  even though for the vast majority it will not be as a professional athlete, most of our students will have a job lined up before they graduate.  Few at any school in the nation will go to a career in professional sport.  Accepting that fact, however, makes a dramatic difference in a student’s prospects on graduation day.

It continues with focus and balance.   We say “student-athlete” for a reason, and it’s not alphabetization!  Our student who did make it to the NFL likes to recount the story of his mother not letting him play in 10th grade because she didn’t like his grades.  We — the schools, the conferences, the NAIA — make every effort to schedule games around classes, and not the other way around.   Webber wins more national championships in Phi Beta Lamdba’s annual head to head competition of business knowledge and skills than we do on the courts or the fields, but we still have our fair share of championship athletics banners hanging in the gym.  Webber also posts team GPA by sport and it’s part of the discussion at coaches’ annual reviews.   And woe be onto the student-athlete who chooses sleeping in over going to class… the conversation in the coach’s office is likely to be less pleasant than the one in the professor’s office.

Then, there’s capitalizing on what you’ve got.  The values and lessons of sport are transferrable to the classroom, the boardroom, and life in general.  What do student athletes know?   They understand teamwork.  And, they understand that little comes without hard work… weights which are easy to lift simply don’t build muscle and rare is the painless victory.  They also understand that both the boardroom and polite society have their own equivalents of a facemask foul. They understand the value of asking for and giving help. They know if an opponent is injured the game stops until the more important business is taken care of.  And, they know that winning at all cost isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  It takes leadership and commitment throughout the organization, but a surprising proportion of young men and young women are willing to become not just champions, but champions of character (a tagline — and set of guiding principles — of the NAIA).

And, of course, what about the money?   No discussion about college athletics is ever complete without a discussion about the money.  The reality is that the majority of schools don’t get any money from their athletics association… they don’t get television money, or scholarship money, or licensing money.  There are programs — foundations, associations, affiliations — which benefit student athletes in one way or another.  A few schools get some of their championship travel expenses covered. And, fewer still directly share in revenue.  But, for the majority, the financial relationship is much simpler:  the schools mail their dues check once a year and the accounting is done for another year. The school buys basketballs, and jerseys, and funds scholarships however they can: alumni, specific gifts, or general funds.  And, as often as not, the booster club is out convincing their friends buy tickets, selling doughnuts, and washing cars to help out with expenses.

Relegated to their proper place — what used to be called “extracurricular” for a reason — sport is a powerful part of college.  It builds character, it builds leadership, it builds teamwork, it builds healthy lifestyles, and it build school spirit. In sum, it athletics can be a powerful part of building what our students come to us to build:  a well-educated, highly employable graduate.

Perfect?  Nope. But college athletics can be a very good thing, and are worthy of our support.

What’s This Accreditation Stuff All About Anyway?

First published: 07/17/2012  5:52 pm at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/whats-all-this-accreditat_b_1676941.html

Over the past few weeks, a few colleges and universities lost their accreditation.  Consequently, we have spent a good deal of time lately speaking to students currently attending schools whose accreditation has been removed.  As you might imagine, they’re both panicked and confused (here’s what we’ve been telling them: FAQ).  Little in higher education is more misunderstood or more important than accreditation.  Opinions, misunderstandings, and lies abound.  “So,” a responsible college bound student ought to be asking, “what’s this accreditation stuff all about anyway?”

There are, I think, a couple of challenges in folks understanding accreditation and its value.  First, the internet is the great equalizer … one doesn’t really need to know anything about a subject to loudly and authoritatively express his or her opinion.  Given that most people outside of higher education do not know a great deal about accreditation, it’s easy to sound expert.  I don’t know a lot about chemistry … someone with a score to settle with molybdenum could probably convince me that we don’t really need that particular element.  It’s awfully tough to pronounce and, not knowing what it is, I cannot personally think of one thing it’s good for.  Likewise, there is a faction which says accreditation is worthless, outmoded, or a bar to outsiders.   Much as a chemist might explain to me in layperson’s terms what would happen to the world in the absence of molybdenum, let me say this about regional accreditation:  my dog has a PhD from a non-accredited “university.”  She’s a smart dog, and her diploma is actually more impressive looking than some of mine, but I think it helps my employment prospects that none of the schools I attended admits dogs.

Second, the nomenclature of accreditation is counterintuitive.  In cell phone plans, we don’t want the regional plan … we want the national plan, darn it, or maybe even international.  So, one could honestly, yet mistakenly, interpolate that  national accreditation is somehow better than regional, international better than national, and intergalactic the best still.   Remember how I said it’s counterintuitive?  You don’t have to believe me; try this little exercise for yourself …  list whichever five schools in the nation you think are the best and look up what kind of accreditation they have (CHEA).  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  And, complicating it further still, there are also specialty accreditations for specific disciplines (in addition to, and not instead of, regional accreditation, we have several of these, e.g.: IACBE, NCATE, PATH).

Whenever I’m on one of my campuses, I talk to any prospective students who might be touring.  I’ll ask them why they want to come to our school and what other schools they’re considering.  Usually, in addition to us, they have second, third and sometimes fourth choices.  Then, before I point out what’s different about us I begin with “those are all regionally accredited schools, and, if you go to the worst regionally accredited school there is, you’re going to get the opportunity for a decent education…”  How can I know this?  It’s kind of like how if you had a FICO score of 800 I’d know you paid your bills on time without having to know a lot of other details about you.

So, in layperson’s stuff, here’s what this accreditation stuff is all about.  Through literally tens of thousands of hours of voluntary service from some of the sharpest minds in the nation, there has evolved, and continues to evolve, a collection of expectations about what one will find at a quality school.  They vary from region to region, and while I speak from the experience of a SACS school (SACS) they’re similar.  It’s a pretty comprehensive, and published, body of expectations which covers not just academics, but an array of things as varied as safety and fair consumer practices.

Then, every accredited school has to demonstrate compliance with these standards.  Here’s where the value of accreditation comes into play.  You ought to be concerned, for example, that the first aid kits the resident assistants have are well stocked with current supplies.  But, really, are you going to actually look?  Someone did at our last site review.  And, you probably ought to be concerned about where the paper records and computer backups are stored.  I’m not showing you my vault.  I’m not even telling you what building it’s in.  But, the last on site review committee saw it.  And, even if there weren’t privacy issues involved, do you really want to sit down and review the transcripts of every single faculty member on my faculty?  And, do you want to do that for every school you’re considering?  Again, someone did.  And, as a not for profit our financials are a matter of public record, but fund accounting is funky stuff and not for the faint of heart.  These, and thousands of other things, need to be checked.  And they are.  That’s what “regionally accredited” means.  Somebody — expert in that particular area — has checked the important stuff for you.

Okay, so it needs to be checked.  But why not publish one set of standards for everyone, and why not let the government do the checking, and how can you trust an industry to police itself?  First, higher education is most assuredly not “one size fits all.”  “Let’s make every school have a 80% graduation rate,” one might say.  That’s great, but what about those schools which go out on a limb and take good kids who aren’t quite as well prepared or are at greater risk?  Do we really want to limit college opportunities to only those kids who, at 18, we’re certain will graduate college?  “Let’s make all the faculty all have doctorates,” you might say.  Sounds awesome to me (I have a doctorate … heck, I say let’s make them be bald too).  But what about those fields where master’s degrees are generally the highest degree available and doctorates are very rare (like fine art and law)? The list of goes on and on.  Part of why higher education works so well is because it is not one size fits all.

Forgetting for a moment that no accreditation = no federal financial aid, I’m going to leave most of the “let the government do it” discussion for others.  Each person has his or her own beliefs about how involved the government should be involved in our lives, and we each have our own opinion about how good the government is at doing various things, and it’s hard to move folks from their position.  But here’s what peer review has going for it.  First, it’s relatively inexpensive (important considering that whether it’s taxpayer or student money paying the bill, someone worked hard for it and we need to be good stewards of it).  The regional accreditors have tiny paid staffs, little infrastructure, and an army of very well educated volunteers doing much of the heavy lifting.  Second, peers have a vested interest in quality.  When one school provides a worthless degree, all of higher education gets a reputational ding.  When one school has unfair consumer practices, all of us get more scrutiny.  It’s the whole “one bad apple” thing, and the peers have to live in the same bucket.  Same reason many police departments have officers patrolling their own neighborhoods and neighborhood watches are generally effective.  Finally, collegial subject matter experts add value.  If I’m your peer reviewer and you haven’t met the standard, I’m going to mark you out of compliance.  Simple as that.  But, with that said, I had to meet the exact same standard myself, and I’m more than happy to tell you how we did it.

So, to wrap up, what’s this accreditation stuff?   I tell people to think of the regional accreditors as kind of like Underwriters’ Laboratories’.  There are any number of extension cords bearing the UL label — short ones, long ones, cheap ones, expensive ones. But you can be pretty sure any of them are going to do what they promise and not burn your house down.  And, the specialty accreditors, well, they’re kind of like the GIA, which can’t tell you much about the wide variety of products carrying UL labels but knows way more about diamonds.

Perfect?  Nope.  Awfully reliable indicator of essential quality?  You betcha

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