Published on 2013/11/08
A Gallon of Milk or a Degree?
Adult students have a great deal of pressures on their time and resources, thus postsecondary leaders must take steps to ensure their education is as manageable as possible.

Your job is going well. You are in good health. You are able to handle all of your responsibilities. Your life is stable. Things couldn’t be better.

Wouldn’t it be great if all your students could say the same?

Unfortunately, many, if not most, of our students have many demands on their scarce time and resources. It’s a bit ironic that we in higher education, with our stable jobs and comfortable circumstances, have as our main objective to persuade those in far less comfortable circumstances to take on even more burdens.

Howard McClusky developed the Theory of Margin in 1963 which describes in a simple equation the complex phenomenon of stimulus-response behavior. We each have our own capacity to handle the responsibilities, burdens and expectations placed upon us. Your individual capacity is 100 percent (1.00). The burdens you bear are your load (L). The resources you have to help you bear them are your power (P). McClusky’s equation referred to reality as a ratio of load to power.

So, your capacity (1.00) minus your reality (L/P) results in the margin (M) you have to bear additional burden in your life: 1.00 – (L/P) = M.

We are all familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which indicates that our most basic needs, food, shelter and clothing, are our highest priority and we will take any opportunity to see to those needs. As each level of needs is met satisfactorily, we may move up the pyramid all the way to self-actualization. As educators, we provide a product whose necessity lies somewhere between buying a gallon of milk and buying a ticket to the International Space Station.

Each person must determine his or her own values and quantify them along a scale of 1-10, for example. Load can include financial burdens, health concerns, family issues, work, school etc.. Power can include good health, influence/social standing, wealth, stability etc.. Ideally, in the L/P ratio, power is greater than load. As one of these factors changes, your reality changes and thus your margin in life changes with it.

For example, you perceive your load as a six and your power as an eight. Your equation would be 1.00 – (6/8) = .25. McClusky recommends a margin range of .3 to .7 before accepting more responsibility. With a margin of .25 you should be careful about adding more load unless you can shed some existing load or increase your power.

Sadly, additional load or reduction of power may come our way without our permission. When our L/P ratio approaches or exceeds 1.00, we reach or exceed our margin threshold, and we eventually get to the point that we must either seek help in increasing our power or find ways to decrease our load.

We have less influence over our power, so load is where we typically attempt to make changes. This means that something has to go. In a reversal of Maslow’s hierarchy, we tend to throw off the burden that we perceive is easiest to do without, or that has the least negative impact. It might be to forego entertainment or to postpone a car repair, or something as substantial as dropping out of college. As we intentionally impose greater load upon our students with the expectation that it will eventually increase their power, what can we do to help them bear up that load? We know that higher education lies somewhere between milk and space tourism, but its exact location is going to be different for each student.

Our academic requirements must be rigorous, but they must also be manageable. In the face of demanding high performance, and thus increasing the student’s load, perhaps we can take steps to lighten the load. Appropriate flexibility and accommodation for students who may need it would be a good start. We can also provide resources to help increase the student’s power so that education stands a better chance of making the cut if the student must decide to shed their load.

Power-producing efforts on our part might include advisement for taking the proper courses, assistance with the financial aid process, online office hours for professors and on-demand tutoring via web conferencing. There are many services that can be implemented to help students better manage the load we have placed on them, as well as other kinds of load outside their education.

One form of power is having a positive outlook. The student’s own self-discipline and motivation serve as great sources of power to help get through a difficult course or difficult life circumstance. If we provide resources for success and the hope that education will provide a better future, the student will more likely stay encouraged and persistent. Social networking through peer-to-peer engagement, frequent contact from professors or advisors and early alert/intervention programs can help students stay on track and focus on their academic goals.

We may not be able to specifically identify each student’s load and power factors, but we do need to recognize that those factors come from sources we might not understand or perceive. By having a good understanding of the load we place on our students and how we can help empower them to manage that load, we move the priority of higher education a little closer to the gallon of milk.

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Readers Comments

Rhonda White 2013/11/08 at 12:21 pm

What do you think are the areas that we can really work to decrease student load?

Dr. Heidi Maston 2013/11/08 at 2:13 pm

While I appreciate the intent behind the article, I feel I must speak out for the typical Adjunct Professor who is not enjoying a comfortable and stable existence.

Universities are thriving on the backs of a workforce that is suffering. This is a workforce where the majority of participants have Doctoral degrees and years of experience. A workforce where a high percentage are in as similar dire straits as those you attribute to your students. I know of more than a few Professors who qualify for Medicaid (because as Adjuncts they are not granted insurance), food stamps, and food banks. These are the professors who are teaching the students and are in affinity with their struggles.

We have to ask ourselves why. We have to look ourselves in the mirror and own up to our preconceived notions of us & them and realize that until we remove ourselves from this ego based polarity – AND GET REAL – no one will truly thrive.

Dr. Heidi Maston

Dr. Heidi Maston 2013/11/08 at 2:13 pm

While I appreciate the intent behind the article, I feel I must speak out for the typical Adjunct Professor who is not enjoying a comfortable and stable existence.

Universities are thriving on the backs of a workforce that is suffering. This is a workforce where the majority of participants have Doctoral degrees and years of experience. A workforce where a high percentage are in as similar dire straits as those you attribute to your students. I know of more than a few Professors who qualify for Medicaid (because as Adjuncts they are not granted insurance), food stamps, and food banks. These are the professors who are teaching the students and are in affinity with their struggles.

We have to ask ourselves why. We have to look ourselves in the mirror and own up to our preconceived notions of us & them and realize that until we remove ourselves from this ego based polarity – AND GET REAL – no one will truly thrive.

Dr. Heidi Maston

    Adrian J 2013/11/12 at 11:43 pm

    I’m curious about what sparked this tirade? Whether adjunct or full-time, nothing changes the fact that educators and administrators need to work together to make higher educaiton as non-burdensome as possible for studnets.

    What does that habve to do with the adjunct/fulltime debate?

    Karl Stevens 2013/11/15 at 11:06 am

    I was painting a picture, not making a factual statement. I understand that professors’ personal circumstances might not be as rosy as my introduction suggests, but that is a topic for another article. This article focuses on students, the burden we place on them, and what we might do to help them bear it up.

    Creativity, dedication, compassion, intelligence and integrity are what help our students.

Karl Stevens 2013/11/08 at 4:12 pm

Rhonda:

We certainly need to be careful not to reduce the rigor of our curriculum. This is a disservice to everyone. But perhaps we can make the curriculum more manageable for the student. Paying attention to the calendar and not scheduling assignments or exams on days that would be more difficult, such as Thanksgiving week or other holidays.

Our accreditation standards demand that all modes of delivery be equivalent in quality, so reducing the load may not be the most viable option, but helping to increase power is very doable. We can provide resources that help the student succeed. Mentoring, proctoring, meaningful feedback on assignments/exams, assistance with various procedures, etc., all help the student focus fewer resources on mundane issues and more resources on performance.

If we look back to when we were students, I imagine we can come up with a number of ideas as to what would have been helpful to us, then we can use that as a starting point for helping empower our students.

Anon 2013/11/11 at 8:48 am

By the same token, I think we in higher education must recognize that this is more than just a “nice-to-have” — higher education is critical to one’s future success and I continue to doubt that someone can adequately meet the needs of a degree program without committing themselves full-time to the program.

We constantly allow students to ask more of us, and ask more FROM us. Why are we not permitted to do the same?

Karen Southall Watts 2013/11/11 at 4:29 pm

Not everyone in higher education has a stable job or comfortable circumstances. As more institutions make use of armies of adjuncts, the full-time, full-benefit professor lifestyle becomes a rare exception and not a given or guaranteed result of an advanced degree or desire to teach. The last few years of economic turmoil have meant that instructors, if they are honest, have a lot in common with students who are struggling to meet those bottom of the pyramid needs while keeping an eye to the future.

Our culture must reexamine our collective attitudes about education, and the process is likely to be messy. We cannot see education as a luxury or option but as an integral part of every adult life–tailored of course to ability, interest and aptitude. We must ask each partner (student/instructor) to be fully committed, operate from a position of integrity and to be accountable. Institutions must be flexible and at the same time students must be dedicated. Paying tuition does not entitle anyone to a good grade; that ten year old lesson plan is not good enough for today. It’s going to be hard work all around, and perhaps that’s why education reform is so slow and painful.

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