The Key to Bridging Higher Ed's Hidden Curriculum Gap

The Key to Bridging Higher Ed's Hidden Curriculum Gap

According to The Center for First-generation Student Success®, 56% of learners enrolled in college today are first-generation; a demographic that has been steadily increasing across higher education. In terms of access, this is a statistic we should be celebrating. But access without positive outcomes is simply a recipe for mediocrity. With an increasing number of students leaving school before they earn their degree, there is evidence that the promise of higher education is simply not being delivered. There are more than 40.4 million students with some college and no degree—an increase of 1.4 million over the previous year. This is an alarming number of students exiting college each year. We need to do better.

Sadly, a significant number of these 40.4 million students with some college and no degree are first-generation. Learners with the greatest opportunity to better their lives and increase their earning potential with the help of a college credential. When looking at households where students may have access to a guide who has previously navigated higher education, 70% of students from a household where one parent holds a bachelor's degree complete at least a bachelor's degree, as compared to 26% of adults who come from a home where neither parent has a degree.

So, why is this happening?

In 2010, the President challenged the nation's colleges and universities to increase the percentage of adults holding post-secondary degrees or credentials from 40% to 60% over the next ten years. Between 2010-2020 there were investments in many programs that focused on academic barriers to completion. Schools looked to 15 to finish programs, remediation, and dual enrollment programs. Unfortunately, we barely moved the needle, and many states have now developed 60 X 30 goals.

Why such poor outcomes?

What if we were trying to solve the wrong problems? Looking at this situation through a different lens may enable us to make a more significant impact. I have worked with 1,000s of college students navigating their college journey. A few things stand out: Sometimes, students are so overwhelmed and confused that they do not know what questions to ask. Sometimes they are afraid to ask questions they fear could get them labeled as ignorant. What leads students to this place? The hidden curriculum — the unwritten rules, norms, language, and expectations that students need to learn and follow to succeed in college. The hidden curriculum creates friction for students in the education process, especially those who come from first-generation and historically marginalized groups, resulting in them opting out of school.

We can break this hidden curriculum into many subcategories. Right now, we will focus on the language element of this hidden curriculum. One of the most talked about barriers to education is cost. Over and over again, we see data that shows financial friction is the number one barrier to enrollment and completion of a degree. However, that fails to tell the whole story. It is more about students' distinct friction points in the funding journey.

Here's an example: A recent survey found that nearly one-third of students had never visited with a professor. One student reported that, "she did not want to visit with her political science professor during office hours because that's when [the professor] is busy." The data alone did not tell us why this student did not attend office hours, but her comment sheds light on the fact that she did not understand the purpose or definition of office hours. If she had understood that office hours are set aside specifically by professors to meet with students and discuss the materials being presented in class, she may have been more likely to attend. This is a simple but perfect example of students missing opportunities to succeed because of the hidden curriculum.

A second example of barriers created by language would be the financial aid offer letters sent out every year to millions of students, an essential communication tool on the cost and funding options students have when paying for college. A few years ago, we asked students, parents, and financial aid administrators what elements of their letters confused them most. In short, we found that:

  • Students didn't know the definition or context of many terms that were considered "standard" by financial aid professionals. Terms like direct and indirect cost were especially confusing to students. First-generation students were more likely to report that they did not know why a number was important or how it was calculated on an aid offer.
  • Most importantly, we saw a drastic difference between what aid professionals thought was going to confuse students and what actually ended up vexing learners.

The solution to higher education's language problem is a relatively simple one: Let’s move to simplified, proactive, and personalized student engagements.

Consider these strategies as you assess your current engagement practices:

  1. Proactive assessment of the language you are using and find ways to simplify it.
    Consider establishing this goal: write all communications at an eighth-grade reading level. That starts by removing jargon and edu-babble from your lexicon. Speaking to students in a language they understand. When it is necessary to use unfamiliar language, ensure that you proactively educate students about that verbiage. (Pro-tip: Using hover text to define new terms or additional explainer videos helps students understand language and processes without taking them away from your website.)
  2. Ask more questions.
    Asking good questions will help you understand the current state and learn how to chart a better path forward. These three questions allow for a retrospective approach to incremental improvements:

    1. What can you start doing to reduce the risk of the hidden curriculum?
    2. What do you need to stop doing to reduce the risk of the hidden curriculum?
    3. What things should you continue doing to reduce the risk of the hidden curriculum?

    You may be surprised by the answers you get.

  3. Talk to students and test new options.
    The findings of our research on financial aid offer letters showed a clear disconnect between what financial aid professionals thought would be confusing and what actually confused students. Fixing this issue means bringing student voices and prospects into our assessment processes. It’s time for higher education to lean into the feedback we get to improve engagement. If you are getting the same question repeatedly, it is probably because the communication is unclear. Use the questions that come into your office every single day as an evolving guide to identify where hidden curriculum is impacting students most.

So, with that, let's return to our "office hours" scenario. What if we shifted from the term "office hours" to "visiting hours" or "drop-in hours"? Both names are potentially easier for students — particularly first-generation students — to understand and benefit from.

Higher education's traditional approaches to improving outcomes have focused on academic barriers. But what if the real problem is woven into the unwritten rules and expectations students must navigate? The language we use plays a crucial role in this problem, where it creates friction and confusion for learners. By simplifying terminology, adopting proactive student engagement strategies, asking the right questions, and seeking input from students, institutions can begin to address hidden curriculum and boost outcomes. Small changes make a significant impact in helping students understand (and leverage) available resources. By prioritizing student-centric approaches and addressing the language barrier, we are creating a more inclusive and supportive higher education environment for every student striving for success.

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