This interview in the Scholarship to Practice Series originally aired on October 7, 2020 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The transcript of this podcast episode is intended to serve as a guide to the entire conversation, and we encourage you to listen to this podcast episode. You can also access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.
Deflection; deflection is what comes up immediately as we talk about this culture and business model within higher education. I think deflection is what has allowed higher education to survive and thrive, so what do I mean by deflection?
Let’s take an institution. If they can get you to focus on how, you know, exclusive they are, maybe you’re not thinking about, whoa, this is really elitist or this is really harming, you know nonwhite communities. There is something wrong here, but as long as you’re focusing on this exclusivity you’re not really paying attention to, you know, some deep-seated issues.
Welcome to innovating together; podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders to help you improve student success. I'm your host Bridget Burns.
Welcome. Today we’re having an episode of Scholarship to Practice, and as an administrator, I don’t know about you, but for me I’ve been part of far too many conversations where I hear things like, if only we knew or I wonder if, and later on I find out that most of those topics there is actually relevant research that we could have been drawing upon that already existed.
Too often, limited time, capacity or even academic writing can get in the way. At the UIA, we know that we need to bridge that gap between scholarship and practice if we’re going to stand a chance to improve student success. We all need to be working together leveraging research in the field and identifying where we need more research to support greater innovation in higher ed.
So this show is designed to help bridge that gap by elevating relevant research we all could be using in our daily lives in a short and conversational format. Welcome to Scholarship to Practice.
I'm Doctor Derrick Tillman-Kelly with the University Innovation Alliance, and I'm delighted to co-host this episode of Scholarship to Practice. And today we’re joined by Doctor Constance Iloh, a professor and anthropologist who explores the landscape of access and exclusion from across the P12 – or P20 education pipeline. We’re going to primarily focus on her model of college-going, decisions, and trajectories. Hi, Constance, welcome to the show and thanks for being our first guest.
Thank you. I'm excited.
We’re excited, especially like there’s been so much talk right now about admissions, and there’s all of this focus, and we’re bringing someone who has actually done the research about the work that we need to be talking about in this moment; super important, and we’re so excited that you took the time.
Yeah, so thank you again, and let’s just jump right in. How would you describe your work to a family member or someone you’ve met casually?
OK. I would describe my work and the research that I do as an exploration of the culture and business of higher education, and what these aspects mean, and what consequences they present for under-supported, underrepresented, and marginalized communities, specifically low income communities, Black and Latinx communities, so students of color, and also really just the everyday American. The single mother, the student that’s over the age of 22 that often isn’t really represented in the education landscape. And so looking at the culture and the business of higher education it’s really important, because I think that those aspects really have a lot to say and really shape the who, the what, the where of college access and opportunity.
That’s super helpful. You talked about the culture and the business of higher ed, but is there a key aspect or feature in the current culture or business model that really stands out to you, and can you share a little bit about why?
Sure, so you know – hopefully this doesn’t come across any type of way, but I mean this very seriously, Derrick and Bridget. Deflection. Deflection; deflection is what comes up immediately as we talk about this culture and business model within higher education. I think deflection is what has allowed higher education to survive and thrive, so what do I mean by deflection?
Let’s take an institution. If they can get you to focus on how, you know, exclusive they are, maybe you’re not thinking about, whoa, this is really elitist or this is really harming, you know, non-white communities. There is something wrong here, but as long as you’re focusing on this exclusivity you’re not really paying attention to, you know, some deep-seated issues.
I think about issues of fit as it relates to, let’s say students and faculty of color. Well, what if we can get you to focus on the fact that, ugh, you know, they’re not really a fit or, you know something is wrong or, you know, the pipeline. We’re not really focusing on racism embedded in recruitment and retention of students and faculty or the fact that, you know, peoples’ work and study trajectories are, you know, ongoing horror movies.
We’re not really focusing on those sorts of things. We’re focusing on the fact that, ugh, you know it’s not really a fit. And you know, even most recently like this conversation about white fragility; if we can get the focus on, you know white fragility. You know, no one really means any harm. No one is, you know, upset or out to be racist. We’re not really talking about the fact that there are deep-seated harms and violences that are happening in the realm of post-secondary education that really need answers and need to be addressed.
So again – you know, this issue of deflection being important, and it’s really important to think about what type of product is higher education. So again, it’s not a cheeseburger that you eat and throw away; it is an experience [good], probably one of the most strong examples of an experience good. I mean some people are in higher education for months, for years. Some of the participants I’ve been privileged to interview have been in the ecosystem for decades, so you know, we’re talking about space where there are so many different narratives happening at one time, and really what I think higher education often does is they pick the optimal one, the one that shows it in its best light in order to negate and not pay attention to what else is happening.
And so a metaphor to sort of bring this altogether – you guys are going to be able to tell I'm hungry just by this analogy – but your girl has really been trying to eat healthy; I’ve been really trying to take better care of myself. One cannot survive on gummy bears alone, so I’ve been going to salads. You know I’ve been turning to salads. They have been important. So let’s just say, you know, you’re like, “I really want a salad” but the base of the salad, the spinach, the kale, the lettuce, you know it’s wilted, it’s bad. It’s just bad. It’s not going to be OK. It’s not going to be good. Let’s say for whatever crazy reason you decide, well, I'm just going to throw some tomatoes on that, like some fresh cheese, some homemade salad dressing, is the base of the salad still not bad? Yes.
Is it going to taste horrible? Absolutely. Are you probably going to get sick? Yes. I say all that to say I think with this deflection we sort of see higher education like just throwing, you know, these toppings, like these sort of fresh things that really detract from the fact that the base is not good. It is not well, folks, and we really need to address that no matter how you eat it, when you eat it it’s not going to be OK.
And maybe you can’t see that the lettuce is bad at the bottom with all these fresh tomatoes; oh, but it’s still bad. It still is. So you know I asked myself with these – you know, sort of these race colloquium series or like these targeted hires or maybe one initiative, you know, one year to get a few more nontraditional students and our students of color. A lot of them are still not satisfactory in addressing the fact that there is a lot wrong.
Let it be a year; elitism is going to pop right back up, racism is going to rear its ugly head in a month, in a week, maybe after the meeting, so let’s just be serious about the fact that we cannot keep treating higher education as a sort of salad that we can sort of remake. That’s still bad, and to me that is what that deflection in the culture and the sort of model of higher education represents. You know this sort of attempt to do all the things, and some of the core things are deeply flawed and problematic, and we’re still not addressing them.
Your comments are already resonating with our live viewers. We’re already getting some comments from loving the deflection, just getting some general love in general, so appreciate folks who are back at home and appreciating the analogy that we’re hearing.
Yeah, and so Constance, in some ways your analogy seems like the reckoning that is the year 2020, right, and so I'm wondering, if all of that is true, why do you think other frameworks or perspectives on college choice don’t seem to care about or capture these [unintelligible 00:09:46]?
Yeah, yeah, that’s a great question. In a lot of ways, I think people mean well. I want to make that clear, but I also think our focus is concerning in some respects. I think about a few different things that really distort and make it difficult to really understand, you know, what’s happening in this sort of like ecosystem of college-going. Really just first saying that choice is happening at all; you know, choices are a very strong framing of what I see happening in post-secondary education. Actually, I don’t think it really captures much of what’s happening for the sort of very heterogeneous student population or prospective student population. It sort of presupposes that people have all these options.
So we’re not talking about higher education as this grocery store experience. We’re, oh well, do you want the name brand college, it’s on the top shelf or, you know, you want the Target or Wal-Mart brand college. You know, you can get that if that’s what you can afford. You know, for some people in that grocery store, there is maybe one option. There is maybe one institution that even made them feel like we actually want you or you should be here, or they actually had to seek out something because nothing was coming to them or presenting itself, so really just this framing around choice.
Again, I think it lends itself to a very privileged way of sort of coming to higher education and sort of navigating it because it means that, you know, hey, you had options. And for a lot of people, based on their life’s circumstance, their race, the income, background that they have, we know that to be a farce, like that’s just not the reality that’s happening. So you know, one, this framing of choice – which is why, like in the model I created, I just didn’t deal with it at all; you know, it just was that deeply flawed to me. No shame to anybody else. It’s all love; all love over here.
Also, just this reality that when I was, you know, doing different studies and I was using popular conceptions that in a lot of ways were very linear and sequential and in fashion, and you know that’s a very specific way to think about, you know, how someone comes to college or comes to decide on a college. You know, this sort of, oh, I started here. I thought about it. I searched and I ended up somewhere. That’s not a lot of the students that – you know, or prospective students – that I have the blessing to be able to engage. They started at a college. They’re at two other ones. They’re thinking about going back to the one they first started. I mean, we’re talking about multiple institutions or multiple attempts starting and stopping out all across the way.
So when we have something like that’s happening, any sort of like lens that looks at college-going, oh, you made a decision, and that’s where the buck stops because arguably you’re going to finish there. It’s scary because, again, someone might be making a decision a year later when they realize, man, that college wasn’t it, or I don’t know what’s going on, or this isn’t going to work out. So just this reality that a lot of these narratives and pathways are convoluted is serious; like we have to take that seriously, which means like we’ve got to wrestle with why we’re talking about anything as linear and sequential.
And third, I would just say – again, you know, I think people have meant well, but just this sort of reality that a lot of students aren’t even captured in our conception of the 21st-century college student. A lot of sectors aren’t even captured in our conception of where people are going to higher education, whether those are community colleges or even proprietary colleges. I find that those are the institutions that are often grossly left out of these conversations.
But we’re talking about students that aren’t just starting college or thinking about it at age 18; maybe they’re thinking about it at age 40. We’re talking about people who aren’t dependent on someone; they have dependents. You know, what did that mean? We’re talking about people who higher education maybe failed them a few decades ago and they really want to take a stab at it again.
So anytime, you know, we’re serious about all these kinds of like circumstances, trying to be in the pursuit of post-secondary education, I think it’s really important to think about, well, where did these lenses come from, you know? What does the canon say about these groups? Those are sort of three reasons why I feel like a lot of lenses and perspectives sort of really distort and make it harder for us to realize like what is happening with this sort of college-going conundrum.
Yeah, and I hear you in that thing where some sort of idealized approach that sort of comes from the campus lens versus where a student might actually be something, so thank you for that.
So part of the reason I reached out to you initially to be on the show is not just the leadership role and the presence that you – I think you play a really vital role in the academic setting. You’re showing us all what’s possible, to be a public scholar and I love that, and I think it’s awesome. I think I first connected with you after I watched you do an Instagram live conversation, and I just was like, yes, we’re going to bring her.
That was [unintelligible 00:15:32].
As someone who started at a community college and did not have any choice in that process, it was entirely like how far could my car go, and I knew it could make it just like five hours; and so five hours away was where that could happen. I was also drawn to you because of your model, and I think that for practitioners who are home what’s really valuable is – Doctor Iloh, I’d love for you to talk a bit about your model for college-going decision and trajectories, but for folks at home, I want you to actually have now the language to use. To reference a model that questions some of the fundamental assumptions in the meetings that you’re going to be in on campus, so could you talk about the model of college-going trajectories, or decision and trajectories for folks and how they might use it?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely, and you know for those interested in reading more on my website, I actually have my latest sort of text on this framework, but I'm happy to speak about it here as well. So given the things that I just said about, you know, some of these limitations and challenges and how we sort of think about college-going, I wanted to think about what would it mean to consider decisions and trajectories in a sort of like more holistic, contextually based fashion?
So I wanted to think of something that, again, you know, didn’t frame or center choice, and thought about, well, what components are present as we think about a decision of trajectory? So I wanted to build something that was ecologically based because I think the sort of space physically, the ecosystems around someone, their actual ecologies before, during a decision are extremely important. So with this framework, it’s really a meeting of these three different components that come together and sort of shed light on any individual’s decision or trajectory. So those three components are information, time, and opportunity. So again, these are separate components; they mean their own things, but it’s when they sort of come together like that part in the middle we then see, oh, OK, I can see how, you know, this individual arrived at this decision or has had this trajectory where they started here and they’re now here, or you know, maybe what was options before has greatly been limited because, you know, they’re consistently making decisions with information.
Information really looks at the quality of, the types of, the quantity of information anyone has in sort of thinking about the prospect of college. And also, like, it really dives deep into – the information asymmetries that are really apparent when we’re thinking about why someone has sort of ended up there and what that means. The time component is also part of the framework and that really sort of situates the time in someone’s life, what’s happened in their life, but also what moment we’re in in society. So it looks at, you know, what has happened in this 40-year-old’s life that’s led them to think about college, but it also situates this moment that we’re in.
College-going right now is qualitatively different than it was 12 months ago. We’re not even having the same conversation because of coronavirus, you know; it’s real, so everything has changed, so many things are remote. So with this time component, we’re really able to talk more extensively about, well, what moment are we in in society that makes college-going what it is? Maybe some legislation has passed and there is free college in a state. That’s going to make, you know, higher education possible in ways that maybe it wasn’t before that legislation was passed. So it looks at things like that, but it also looks at what time in that life of that person we’re really sort of thinking about. Whether it’s just, you know, fresh out of high school or you know – I’ve been through some spaces, so with that we also have this last component which is opportunity, and that sort of situates these sort of like real and perceived thinking that people have about like what is possible for them.
So the reality of, but maybe like the perception of, so with that I sort of think about – for a particular college one individual might say, “Oh, yeah, I could go there. Everything sort of works; I see myself there.” Another person might say, “That place is hell or racist,” or “Oh my God, they don’t do anything for single parents. This is crazy.” So again, real, perceived – those things are something that we need to take seriously when we think about why someone has made a decision or they’ve had the trajectory that they’ve had. Oh my gosh, I'm thinking of “Captain’s Planet,” like with our powers combined; like all these three components combined, like we have insight into a decision and trajectory, so these things are really important.
I chose those elements because, in and of themselves, they sort of exhaust all the other questions and inquiries one might have about why would a decision, a trajectory be made. I'm really excited about like the possibilities of it, not just with different studies but just in practice, which is what this is about, so I appreciate the opportunity to discuss it more extensively.
I love it, and I think about folks who are sitting around a table where they’re thinking about fall term. I know people who are worried about enrollment, and they’re thinking about how we could possibly market ourselves, and thinking about that being the issue. When really it’s about, well, in the community that we’re in, who needs serving and information asymmetry, like looking at those variables you’ve identified as a means by which institutions should therefore make decisions and drive change. It should be based on [unintelligible 00:22:02].
Yeah, for sure.
And I saw the comment, Bridget, that you highlighted from Malik on Facebook. He mentioned that it was very accurately capturing nontraditional college experiences, but hearing you speak, Constance, I feel like you would say the institution should be thinking about that for every student, and you might need to highlight [unintelligible 00:22:23].
Yeah, so the model – again, because of the kind of students and prospective students I was privileged to engage as I was doing different studies, especially on the community college and for-profit college sector, you know, I met all kinds of prospective students. The model is created to be extensive for all kinds of students, but yes, it is intentional in that I’d really thought about groups that have been excluded in the ways that we think about college-going, absolutely.
But it’s also meant for us to even think comparatively about, oh, you know, student A and student B, and how like these different decisions and trajectories come to bear. So it’s really a means to look at all kinds of people, all kinds of prospective students and all kinds of ways that people find themselves in this crazy place called higher ed, yeah.
Thank you for that thought. And so you mentioned – we mentioned that you made your framework available on your website –
– and folks can connect with you there. Where else can folks show their support?
Oh my gosh, I mean, wow, that sort of – you know, I mean, the website. The website is a huge space to connect with me. I'm also on different social media platforms, so I'm on Twitter. I love Twitter. Twitter is awesome, but I'm also on Instagram, and I do live from time to time. I have a Facebook page, but really just – I really try to make things accessible through the website. People can reach me or contact me directly through that platform as well, but there’s a number of places I can be found though, so it’s really just up to the individual how [unintelligible 00:24:18] girl. But the website is a great place to start, for sure.
And also site wherever possible [overtalking] and we’re getting more – you’re super accessible to your students and other scholars. Yes, you’re getting a lot of love. [Online] people are very excited having you here, so thank you again for making the time.
The last question we have, and I think I have it – I can guess based on what I’ve seen online what your answer might be – in the spirit of encouraging others to take better care of themselves, you know [unintelligible 00:24:51] Zoomed out, and I'm just wondering about what’s helping you right now, and what does self-care look like for you right now that might look [overtalking]?
Yeah, you sounded kind of stressed when you asked that question, Bridget, right? It’s wow, it’s been a time for a lot of us. I love that question, and I’ll just start off by saying, you know, I’ve seen some crazy things. You know, I mentioned deflection earlier, so I feel like sometimes like we get – you know I’ve seen a lot of rhetoric where people are kind of talking about, oh, self-care, and do all of these things, and man, you know, there are not enough bubble baths and incense that can be lit to move out of oppression, like that is just not going to happen. So my goodness, again, my hope is that people take seriously the institutional violences and harms that still exist and are going to exist, no matter how much self-care one does, and really taking seriously those imperatives.
That being said, I feel like there is just no way I could even frame or answer that question without even mentioning God, you know in the pandemic, outside of the pandemic, like God is just a constant. And just thinking about even those that work in the higher education industry, whether you’re on the practitioner side, staff, student, faculty, administration, I think that there is so much ease in conflating like who you are with what you do. And so when I think about like God, I think about a hope that’s not attached to like who I am or what I do or how people see me, but really just like how awesome and great God is.
Also just to be, you know, even more candid – you know, I’ve seen people who have like all the things, all the awards, all the things one could get, even things I’ve aspired to, and they have no peace; like zero peace is had for them, and I'm just like, “Oh, that’s not it. That’s really not it.” And I think about, like, just being grateful that peace can be found in God. I mean, I’ve even seen scholars who are more than twice my age, you know, bullying people, you know, out of the academy and I'm like that’s not the move when I'm 70; like that’s not going to be the move. Like, if the Lord blesses me with that many years, that’s not it, you know? But you can tell like they don’t have peace, you know? And again, with all the stuff, with all the things, so just any kind of question about taking care of myself, like my day, my life has to like center on God.
But in terms of things that I do, oh man; skating is vay; skating is vay. I have to be honest. You know, I'm learning. I’ve learned how to – you know, I can skate backwards for longer than 30 seconds. Your girl is coming up. In a year I think I will be – you know, my skating will be TikTok worthy. Not right now, not in six months but in a year, but I feel that anyone who sort of wants to challenge me in skating, they need to do it now because in a year it’s over for everyone. It’s over, like, it’s a wrap.
I love it.
I’ll be better, and I’ll say too gardening has been lit also. It normalizes failure, which is serious. I just had a plant die on me. I don’t know what happened. I watered it. I thought I was a good steward, and it was a mess. You know, it’s allowed me to be connected with, you know, students I care about, like people I care about. It’s a workout. I feel closer to God, but man, I'm not that great at that either, but I’m learning. I'm learning and I'm outside and I'm getting – it’s closer to the sun, so it’s all awesome. I would say those things, for sure, have been [overtalking]; just God overall.
And in some ways that’s perhaps the best way to close, right? That this work isn’t about perfection. It’s about trying and improving by dedicating the time and the energy, and so on behalf of the University Innovation Alliance and Inside Higher Ed, we just want to say thank you, Doctor Constance Iloh, for being our first guest on Scholarship to Practice.
It’s been awesome. Thank you, guys. It was such a pleasure. I'm honored for sure.
We’re super honored. You’re a superstar. You’ve been a superstar in the field for a long time and I'm – well, I mean, not so long that it’s just an honor to have you on here, and I also just think you’re setting a tone for the kinds of conversations that we want to have, that we think will arm people with the tools they need to have different conversations in their meetings on campus. To be able to make decisions, to better serve students.
Oh, thank you. I'm a baby in the game, but I'm growing so I appreciate that. I appreciate that.
All right, well, Forbes – I mean, Forbes says you’re kind of a big deal, so for folks who want to learn more, constanceiloh.com, but also follow her on Twitter @constanceiloh, and we’ve linked her, and thank you again, Doctor Iloh. If you want to see followup of this episode it’s going to be available on the UIAs You Tube channel. Otherwise, we will see you next time on Scholarship to Practice.
Thank you again, Derrick, for being an excellent co-host, and for those of you at home, we hope this has given you a few nuggets of insight to think differently about your day and how you’re working with students, and perhaps maybe you’ll pick up gardening, so just maybe. Take better care of yourselves, so we’ll talk to you later.
Bios of Guest Luminary and Co-Hosts
Guest Luminary: Constance Iloh, Educational Anthropologist
Dr. Constance Iloh explores the culture and business of postsecondary education and the consequences these infrastructures have on minoritized communities. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Higher Education and School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences at Azusa Pacific University. As an anthropologist, Professor Iloh is attentive to institutional culture, access, and exclusion across the education pipeline and beyond. Dr. Iloh’s work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, Harvard Law Review, Medium, Politico, and National Public Radio, who profiled her as a national expert in naming her their Source of the Week. Her recent article, “Do it for the Culture: The Case for Memes in Qualitative Research” is published in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods. Constance Iloh is also a contributing writer for Diverse Issues in Higher Education, an outlet that has highlighted her as “powerhouse in higher education.” Iloh has been invited to share her expertise with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, the Community College League of California, the Institute of Higher Education, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Telemundo, NBC Universal, and Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Campaign. Iloh has been the recipient of multiple prestigious grants and fellowships, including the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Postdoctoral Fellowship. Dr. Constance Iloh is one of the few academics ever named to the change-agents and break-out stars of the Forbes “30 under 30” list.
Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.
Co-Host: Derrick Tillman-Kelly, Director, University Innovation Alliance Fellows Program and Network Engagement
Dr. Derrick L. Tillman-Kelly serves as the Director of the UIA Fellows Program and Network Engagement for the University Innovation Alliance. He previously served in multiple roles at The Ohio State University, including as the inaugural UIA Fellow and special assistant to the director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise. Dr. Tillman-Kelly earned his Ph.D. in educational policy and leadership with a specialization in higher education and student affairs from Ohio State; a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs from Indiana University; and a bachelor’s degree from Illinois Wesleyan University.
About Scholarship to Practice
Scholarship to Practice is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. We interview higher education scholars, researchers, and academics that distill how a practitioner or administrator could apply learning in real-time to improve student success. At the UIA, we know that we need to bridge that gap between scholarship and practice if we’re going to stand a chance of improving student success. We all need to work together leveraging research in the field and identifying where we need more research to support greater innovation in higher ed. With its short and conversational format, this show is designed to help bridge that gap by elevating the relevant research we all could be using in our daily lives.
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