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Administratively Adrift: Overcoming Institutional Barriers for College Student Success

New book by Provost Emeritus and SPA Professor Scott Bass recommends organizational reform for higher education institutions.

For over a century, higher education has been celebrated as the key to economic mobility and the surest path to the American Dream. However, even before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the realities of teaching and learning, the organizational structure of higher education institutions struggled to serve the needs and expectations of the current generation of students.

In Administratively Adrift: Overcoming Institutional Barriers for College Student Success, AU Provost Emeritus, SPA Professor of Public Administration and Policy, and Executive Director of the Center for University Excellence Scott A. Bass explores these vulnerabilities in U.S. colleges and universities and suggests strategies for reform. The book, published in the summer of 2022 by Cambridge University Press, grounds this reform in an educational philosophy that centers on the “whole-student experience,” or comprehensive, integrated student administrative and support services as an integral part of an enriched liberal arts education.

“The center of university life is the academic experience,” said Bass. “Nevertheless, from the student's point of view, every interaction shapes the overall college experience. Problems with financial aid, a roommate, housing conditions, a meal plan, a counselor, or a coach, for example, all, at some point, intersect with learning and academic success.” Bass argues that the current decentralized organizational structure of student support and administrative services is mismatched to the needs and expectations of the current generation of students – and makes specific recommendations to improve it.

Bass traced these administrative inefficiencies to the early 20th century development of departments in higher education, built on the decentralized Weberian bureaucratic model and replicated as specialists were hired to manage the expanding administrative and student support functions, further segmenting the organizational structure. This fragmentation among university administrative and student services contrasts sharply with students’ real-world expectations of connectedness and end-user support.

“Our students have grown up in a world where information and commerce are nearly instantaneous, where there's integration and a level of connectedness that they, as end-users, now expect,” said Bass.

Administratively Adrift lists many examples of “pinch points” where students encounter multiple and at times cumulative frustrations in dealing with routine administrative operations and segmented semi-autonomous offices. It could be finding that they were closed out of a course they need, being sent from office A to office B to correct an error and then informed that the office B does not have the authority to correct that error and instead they should return to office A, or find out that a critical document they sent is missing in the Financial Aid Office resulting in a hold on their ability to register for courses -- any of which can further exacerbate their level of anxiety. Of those who have reached a level of demoralization from their campus encounters, some will endure and persist, while others may give up and eventually drop out. In addition, and adding to the burden modern students carry, they have faced unprecedented trauma, thanks to the pandemic, racism and its reckoning, school shootings, doxxing, opioid abuse, environmental catastrophes, war, and political polarization. When these students attempt to balance these encounters with school-related stresses and the challenges of early adulthood, the convenience, alignment, and clarity of school support matters.

“If you holistically nurture these young people, many more have the potential to flourish,” said Bass. “In the short term, the development of a holistic support system may cost more, but its benefits well exceed the cost.”

Administratively Adrift proposes a long-term plan to revolutionize the student experience. The book, focused on nonprofit residential colleges and universities, suggests changes across three broad themes: transforming the undergraduate experience through comprehensive guidance and support resources; creating a holistic approach to student success through assessment, integration, and case management; and enhancing university climate and culture through faculty training and institutional messaging.

The book identifies best practices tested within higher education and reaches beyond to consider replicable strategies from sectors outside the industry, for example, in health care. A nationally acclaimed effort at the Cleveland Clinic is examined that centers on enhancing the overall patient experience and builds teams and technical systems to support that focus. One key feature of Bass’s many recommendations involves the introduction of case managers to colleges and universities with access to issues reported at any node of the campus, and the ability to respond immediately.

Critically, successful reform will depend on buy-in from the entire campus community, the board, the leadership, the faculty, staff, and key stakeholders at each stage. A real-time, fully integrated management system, designed specifically for the world of higher education, would also help faculty and staff, by removing barriers that complicate their efforts to help students.

Bass hopes that Administratively Adrift initiates a national conversation on organizational reform in supporting today’s undergraduate students.

“I look forward to meeting with college and university presidents and members of the national professional associations in the student service arena,” he said. “There are lots of solutions. Nearly a hundred years ago Weber had what he believed to be the best bureaucratic model possible, but in the modern day of advanced and integrated systems, it's not the best model for us.”

To order your copy of Administratively Adrift, visit the Cambridge University Press website or your favorite bookseller.