Degrees of Separation

With COVID-19 restrictions meaning a less-rounded experience for many students, and the economic fallout of the pandemic on employment opportunities, a growing number of people have questioned the value of a traditional college degree.

For Marty (formally Earl F.) Martin, there’s no doubt. The president of nationally ranked Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, says all the evidence still points to a—growing—disparity between the earnings of a high school graduate and a college graduate.

“We are in and moving even more robustly towards the knowledge economy,” he says. “You have got to have a certain skill set, a certain knowledge base, to thrive in this economy.” But that doesn’t always mean a four-year degree, he acknowledges.

By way of example, look at Drake’s own new John Dee Bright College, offering a two-year associates degree from this fall. Named after a star member of the private liberal arts school’s 1950s football team, it is due to open with around 40 students.

Central to the new college will be a cohort approach, taking students through their time there with an emphasis on their shared experience. It’s a recognition of the importance of community in effective education.

Drake’s research shows that student retention rates go up when they feel a part of something, especially at the end of their first year. “It’s a challenging time; you are becoming adaptive and you’re trying to find your place,” Martin notes. “We see very, very clearly in our data that if you find community in that first year, you come back for your second, whether that’s through Greek life or through whatever student organization, or student government, or other programs that we have built—you become connected within those programs.”

Maintaining values
That need for connection presented a challenge when in-person classes and campus activities were halted during the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted Drake to relax its residency requirement for first- and second-year students.

“They still need that community, even if that community is viral and they’re sitting in their bedroom,” Martin says of online classes. “So how do we support that, and how do we build and support community outside the classroom, even in the virtual space?”

COVID-19 forced Drake to be nimble. Among its responses: replacing campus visits by prospective students with online events, leasing space off-campus for students to reduce capacity on-site, providing thousands of free virus tests, and determining not to just wholesale close its residential halls “because we felt that was consistent with our values.”

Drake decided “that’s not who we are,” Martin explains. “This is their home and we need to be sure they’ve got a place to stay, a place to eat, etcetera.”

All the work that COVID-19 response took seems to have paid off. Fall 2020 enrollment dipped by only 6% of target, while other schools saw huge drops. This year the school is on course to do even better than last.

“That tells me three things,” Martin says. “The value proposition of Drake remains strong.” Second, the school is getting better in the virtual space. “And most importantly, students are more accepting of virtual recruitment now.”

Despite expanding its virtual options for students, Drake remains committed to being a residential institution because of the benefits of that personal connection. “And we’re confident that there’s still going to be a lot of demand for that in the way that we do it.”

One of those Drake distinctives, he says, is the faculty’s “intense commitment” to building relationships with students—evidenced by the high number of students earning multiple credentials. “It really takes a commitment on behalf of your faculty for your students to be able to do that.”

Martin speaks affirmatively to that as both president and a parent; a second son is due to graduate from Drake this year and both he and his predecessor have multiple credentials.

“I always tell prospective students, ‘If you are looking for a university where you can sit in the back of the classroom and just be quiet and just take it in, this is not the place to be.’

Defending truth

For all the focus on academics, a Drake education isn’t just about preparing people for the workplace, says Martin. It’s about preparing them for the rest of life too. In addition to preparing good job candidates, Drake aims to shape good citizens.

Martin calls it formation. “There’s the social and emotional progression and development that you experience when you’re on our campus, as you move from that 18-year-old who moves into the dorm to that 22-year-old who walks across the graduation stage,” he says. “There’s a whole lot more that happens here beyond simply what happens in the classroom.”

Impactful education is “the solution to so many of our problems,” Martin says, referencing the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The events of the day left him wondering whether what he was doing was enough, because “there’s clearly this dire need to roll up your sleeves and make a difference.”

But the former active-duty U.S. Air Force staff judge advocate officer who started out in education as a law professor and became President of Drake in 2015 came to the conclusion that, yes, he was in the right place because of the power of truth and the need for us to stay grounded in truth.

“And that’s certainly a core mission of any university, any institution of higher education—you start from truth. So when we’re in this world where truth is being challenged, to be part of an institution that’s devoted to that is a good place to be.”

Part of Drake’s broader mission, Martin believes, is to prepare students “to be effective advocates for their cause out in the world.” And that means learning some basic citizenship skills, which are part of the new Bulldog Foundations course required for all first-year students, addressing issues like equity and inclusion, stress management and mindfulness.

Going on a Twitter rant about something, for example, “is not effective advocacy,” he observes. Today’s students have grown up in a world of social media “which too often invites us to be our worst selves…” They have been done a disservice, he feels, dumped with media apps and left to “Make of this what you will.”

Marty Martin: My Waymaker

I can’t recall her name, but I had a professor in my junior year of college, in an English class. She’d had an accident early in her life that left her kind of challenged to move around, but that didn’t dampen her spirit at all. She really held me to account in my writing—so much so that I actually tried to drop the class, but I was too late. And so I had to recommit to it, and she got me to the finish line in good fashion. She really dug in and kind of led me there. I’ve thought about her often as I became a teacher myself.