The Augsburg Podcast

The Augsburg Podcast

Katie Bishop: The Many Meanings of Success

March 01, 2019


Katie Bishop: Every person at Augsburg is carrying something. Our students are carrying heavy burdens, some of them, many of them. And they have to share some of those burdens in order to be here in this space. That requires a lot of empathy and that costs something. There is a cost associated with that for people when a burden is shared, and we have to carry that.

Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. I'm Paul Pribbenow, the President of Augsburg University. It's my great privilege to present The Augsburg Podcast. One way you can get to know some of the faculty and staff I'm honored to work with every day.

Catherine Day: I'm Catherine Reid Day, host of The Augsburg Podcast. Today I'm speaking with Katie Bishop, chief student success officer for Augsburg. Welcome, Katie.

Katie Bishop: Thank you very much.

Catherine Day: I'd love to start with how you found your way to where you are, because it wasn't a direct path. And it's probably useful to start off by simply saying it wasn't even a job that existed, as recently as three years ago. In fact, I'm wondering, how many other people in the United States have that position that you're aware of, in private colleges?

Katie Bishop: The role at Augsburg is relatively new, a little less then three years old. Across the nation, it's becoming increasingly common to see a role like that. It isn't always titled exactly like that. But there is an increasing, an urgent focus on student success, particularly related to making sure that students graduate from college, unpacking issues around retention, and on student progress to degree.

Three years ago, when the role started to be talked about, it was not very common at all. As I travel and research, the role is becoming actually quite common.

Catherine Day: That's such an important idea, because of a number of pressures. Anything beyond four years to completion, the costs grow higher and higher if they don't complete. They still might have the burden of their debt or responsibilities. But no, nothing to show for it and so forth. But are those some of the reasons behind?

Katie Bishop: Yeah, absolutely. I think the higher education model in the United States is really designed, was designed, particularly in the '50s and '60s, around this assumption that students attending higher ed would be middle class or upper middle class. And primarily, white students.

They would be aged 18, they would take four years, they would come in with social capital, and assumptions already built in around what it means to be in college, what it means to get a job after college, how you navigate the college system.

There were assumptions built into the model around family socioeconomic status, and affordability, and how you paid for college. Increasingly, as the United States has grown to understand, rightly so, that higher ed needs to serve all of our population, and all academically ready students.

The entire higher ed system has seen growth in diversity of students, whether that's diversity around race and ethnicity, diversity in socioeconomic status, diversity in first-generation students, and other marginalized identities that the assumptions that the model of higher education, those assumptions don't fit students who are currently entering the system. And the data shows us that, as students are not being retained and not graduating on time.

And you're right, the timely graduation is critical because for example, the financial aid model is built on an assumption around how long college takes. And that is not reflective of the experience that our current students are having.

Catherine Day: I had the privilege of hearing you give what they called your ED Talk to the faculty, a 15-minute sort of informal prepared presentation. What I really appreciated about that was the way in which you gently invited your peers, your colleagues, to really think about the students and the faculty's expectations of them, and where those gaps might be.

I know you're not giving your talk here; that's not my intention. But maybe if you could hit a couple of the points that you made in that. I thought that it really opened people's eyes to things.

Katie Bishop: Socioeconomic status is interwoven throughout our understanding of higher education. It's the language we use, it's how we approach the classroom, it's how we build our service models. The data is pretty stark for institutions like Augsburg and nationally.

Generally, we have about 20% of our students who are missing a required text for the classroom. Recent national surveys show that anywhere from 20 to 50% of students are experiencing food instability at some point during their college time, and/or housing instability. Meaning that they won't know where they're going to sleep tonight.

Those are measurable data points around whether a student has access to food and housing and things like textbooks. It doesn't really get at the lived experience of how those things play out then in your daily life. I think a lot of the work at Augsburg is both, "What is our response to those primary data points?" If we know that a student doesn't know where they're going to sleep tonight, but we have empty dorm rooms, then what is our institutional response to that? We have started some programming around that.

And then there's this deeper, more interwoven question around, "How do we use language and assumption and expectation to communicate our understanding around class-based values?" If we say that a text, for example, is only $70, the use of that language communicates to a student whether or not they belong and fit in that classroom.

Whether that faculty person, and I've been guilty of using language like this too. Whether there's a place for that student for whom only $70 is actually a key decision point, that says whether or not you can be successful, whether or not you can eat tonight, whether or not you have family obligations, you need to put gas in the car, whatever those things are that your experience of money is intentioned with this faculty person, or staff person, or an administrator saying, "But it's only $70."

There's a lack of alignment there that communicates to a student whether or not you belong on the campus, and communicates a sense of not belonging.

Catherine Day: Our experience with financial aid you can maybe even present the idea. You have a full ride, let's say the language you would use. "Oh, they got a full ride." But that full ride is not necessarily going to include some really key things.

It may also be based on the idea that their, or the assumption and expectation of a certain amount of work, which will simply help with the expectations of what their financial responsibilities are, strictly related to higher education. Not necessarily family obligations and so on. Maybe you can talk a little bit about some of those kinds of nuances of how that's showing up here.

Katie Bishop: These are the things that are harder to measure, because they're not a survey that you can fill out to say, "Well, how many students were missing a book?" That's a kind of yes or no question. The experience of socioeconomic status, or cultural status, or cultural understanding, or family understanding, family background, plays out in multiple ways.

We hear anecdotes from students quite regularly around "We're a one-car family, and somebody else needed the car today. So I didn't come to class." Or, "I have to be at home to take care of siblings or take care of family, or meet a family obligation in some way.

"And that obligation overlaps with class, and I have to make a daily choice about class attendance versus family obligation. Whichever choice I make, one of those two stakeholders is going to be disappointed with me or mad at me or there's a consequence to that."

And when a student is first generation, students don't come in with language to help bridge that divide with their families around, "But my professors need me to be in class, or say that I will be in trouble if I'm not in class." We don't do a very good job of helping to build that with students, in helping them to go home and then help understand how they could or should make choices.

I think our model also is, this model that assumes that students can devote all of their time to being in class, and to being on campus. We need to start moving more quickly around developing models where information, the class is important, and we can't get away from that. But information should also be accessible in other ways. So that if a student can't be in class that day, they're not cut off from receiving the benefit of the classroom information.

Catherine Day: That's causing the university to make some choices, and some decisions. Like you said, housing is one option. The texts being accessible and free is one? Is that not exactly?

Katie Bishop: I wish. We're not quite there yet. We're working hard to develop a variety of models that faculty can pick from to try to accommodate the affordability conversation.

Part of the challenge there is that textbook publishers, the cost of textbooks have gone up well over 100% in the last decade. The growth in textbook cost has been quite large. And as this narrative has grown in higher ed around affordability and understanding cost, publishers have tried to find different business models.

Each business model is built on a profitability for textbook publishers. And so they do things like online access codes. So you don't have to buy the hardcover book now. You can go online and have access to online materials that are quite attractive in terms of providing additional content, or additional course material or other things.

But then also, they are expensive. You have to have access to a mobile device, and access to the internet to get to those things. They're one-time use only, so you can't sell the book back and recoup any of those costs. You buy the code and then once you've used the code, it's essentially broken, and it's only good for you.

For me, at least, the work at Augsburg is not to constantly be chasing what's the cheapest option? It's actually to break out of that model entirely, and say, "We are not interested in, to as much as we can, to contribute to that textbook profit model.

"We're actually interested in new models that recognize the burden that textbooks are for our students, and that we have technology, we have information available to us in new ways. That we're going to explore those new ways, and find new ways to engage with students in the classroom that are not predicated on this profit model."

Now, that sounds lovely. We're one baby step down the path of perhaps realizing that.

Catherine Day: Tell us a little bit about your growing up experience, your early passions, and what's been motivating you for a while.

Katie Bishop: I'm the oldest of three children. We grew up in Minnesota in a first-ring suburb of St. Paul. I started playing the cello when I was 10 years old, and immediately fell madly in love with it. And felt like I had this moment of vocation, even at that young age, that that was going to be the thing that I did.

Everything that I did, really, from age 10 through graduating college, was focused on essentially becoming a professional musician. Which I'm obviously not, at this point. I didn't really do other extracurricular activities throughout my childhood that were not focused on that. I was really intensely focused on music, and those kinds of activities.

Catherine Day: Did you tour or anything like that with ... ?

Katie Bishop: Yeah, invited to be in variety of different kinds of orchestras and different kinds of experiences. Did a lot of chamber music playing, did some master class playing, taught lessons myself at a certain point. Went to college, I went to Macalester, I was a music major, and Macalester, the practice is to take a major and a minor. I was a minor in women and gender studies. Really enjoyed the connection between those two things.

When I graduated from college, about two weeks before graduation, just had this moment of, "Oh my goodness, I'm really tired out from music. And also I'm not going to be quite good enough to get the kind of job that I want in a top-tier orchestra." Others probably could have said, "Yeah, duh, we knew that in your freshman year."

So, graduated and had a little bit of a vacuum in my life, because everything had been so focused and prioritized around this. I don't want to say dream, but just what I felt like I was going to be doing. And then had a bit of a vacuum, when all of a sudden I realized that was not what I was going to be doing.

Actually, got a job at Starbucks, because I was a college graduate and needed employment. I worked at Starbucks for a good period of time. And it was actually was really important because it, understanding customer service, understanding how businesses operate ... I was a manager for a period of time ... and so developing some of those skills around how you navigate the business environment, were good for me.

In some ways, I needed that grounding, and that time away from ... I would say some of the privilege and the expectations of an institution like Macalester, where Kofi Annan's nephew was one of my roommates on my floor the first year in college. There's a privilege and an expectation that everybody at Macalester is going to go off to do these momentous international kinds of things. And it was actually really good grounding for me to spend some time doing some customer service.

Sometimes I think more people should have that experience because it teaches you a sense of gratitude and a sense of understanding the connection with others that I, at least, was missing at that moment in my life, immediately post graduation.

After a few years, I realized I needed to make a bigger contribution, and so a little bit on a whim, decided I was going to go to law school. I applied, relatively late, and got into law school. Went to law school, firmly with the intention of becoming a public defender. Had decided that was going to be my contribution, that sort of work.

I think for non-lawyers, there's sometimes a lack of, a misunderstanding, maybe, of what that work is. I think for lawyers doing public defense is really about being the last place where you actually push against the state power and state bureaucracy. You're sort of the guide or coach for people who are navigating the system. The way law school is set up, you get to spend actually a lot of time in practice in doing that. And so I was functionally a public defender for almost three years.

Then I graduated from law school. As I was in law school, the economy crashed, and there were no law jobs at all, including public defender jobs. So I again found myself having graduated with no job prospects in the skills that I had built. So, needed a job, and was lucky enough to get hired at Augsburg as a project manager in the dean's office at that time. The law skills have translated really beautifully, actually, to a lot of the strategic work that I do now, although the path was a little bit circuitous.

Spent a period of time doing project manager work in the dean's office. That was beautiful, because it was like a two-year crash course in how higher ed operates, because it was cross divisional and focused on a wide variety of topics. HR topics, payroll topics, student success and graduation topics. It both introduced me really quickly to a wide variety of people on campus, and also I had to learn how systems operate, and connect really quickly to do that work.

I feel really grateful for that, because it was really like a fast kind of internship in how colleges operate.

Catherine Day: I'm kind of struck as we're talking about this that the relationship to some extent between the public defender work and your affinity perhaps for people who are coming into higher education from a different path. Do you see any connection to that? Or was that too far a stretch?

Katie Bishop: No, no. I think that's a good connection. In doing the public defender work, it became obvious to me really quickly that one of the challenges in that work is you're seeing people who are in the same situation over and over and over again. That the situations are caused by either systemic poverty and/or systemic racism.

And that, as a public defender, you have no capacity whatsoever to impact those large systems and to make any kind of change. And that your role is really just to help people navigate the kind of bureaucratic system that is set up to perpetuate the reasons why they ended up there in the first place.

Very little public defender work is focused on murders or other sorts of big crimes. They're just the crimes that happen when people are entrenched in systemic poverty, often because of issues of institutional racism.

I actually got really frustrated doing that work, and I don't think, even if there had been jobs available, I don't think I would have lasted very long in that work, because the persistent inability to really affect change, both in an individual's life and in the system that's causing the problem, I found very frustrating.

Catherine Day: As you've been on this learning curve and the role, what are some key takeaways, if you had the ability to really remember back to the end of year one, the end of year two, and now, what would those look like? What moved the ball in the first year? Maybe what surprised you in that, too?

Katie Bishop: I think that coming from outside of higher ed, although at this point, I think I can't claim that anymore. I think I'm firmly in higher ed. The pace of change seems very very slow, compared to any non higher ed industry. And yet, the pace of change at Augsburg is so much faster than at most other institutions, despite the fact that it feels slow.

One of the things that I value about Augsburg so, so tremendously is that we, everybody says that we're mission driven. I think how that plays out at Augsburg is that we actually cut through the noise and the beautiful language and all the rest of the theoretical underpinnings that can be distractions in higher ed, and we actually say, "What is the problem? Let's zero in on that and let's really talk about what will fix that problem."

There's a practicality that sometimes is in big ideas, and sometimes in little ideas, that is very focused on what is the problem and how are we actually going to fix it. There's like a realness there that I think is what people identify when they say, "We're mission driven."

There's an authenticity around, we're actually going to grapple with this really challenging thing, as opposed to just writing a statement about it or writing a report. We do those things, sometimes, because they're part of procedures or process. But then there's a realness to making change.

Catherine Day: You haven't done this alone. What kinds of teams have been involved, or how do you, what kinds of consultation, how do you do the research, what's the access points to understand where to push those levers?

Katie Bishop: I feel like I'm the person who gets invited to do this podcast. And that is great, and I feel incredibly fortunate about that. But really, a lot of my work is actually representing the work of the 30 people who at least in the Gage Center, who are part of the Student Success Division.

In a lot of ways, I'm the spokesperson for the amazing work that all of those, everybody else on campus does. Because you're right, when the position was created, and they said, "Well, she's chief student success officer," and immediately, people were like, "Well, what is that? I mean, isn't that everything on the campus?"

And I thought to myself, "Well yeah, it is, and I feel really scared because I don't know everything there is on campus. But that's not possible, and so what is it really?"

There's different components to the work, obviously. Some of those components are strategic components around what are the systemic change issues that we have to address? And who is leading each of those? But a lot of the work is actually really just representing and pulling together the work of everybody else. Both on the Student Success team and across campus, because every person on campus is really focused on this.

The Division of Student Success is the Gage Center, which is academic advising, it's disability resources, it's a TRIO program, academic skill support. Also included in that is career services, which is housed somewhere else, but is part of Student Success.

Those represent not even half, but a large group of people on campus who are doing the day-to-day engagement with students and both implementing ideas, implementing changes, and then collecting information and bringing that back to say, "This did work, it didn't work, here are the trends, here's what we observed, here are the things that the institution should actually be thinking about and talking about in terms of change making."

Catherine Day: One of the things that came up with another conversation that I had was the need for both empathy and sympathy. And I'm wondering what extent you've needed ... you collectively, not just you Katie ... have had to work on that emotional muscle to develop another way of seeing things?

I'm going to give an example of someone, things that have come up in previous conversations I've had included, "Do I let that student come late, when I find out they didn't get to the bus, or they were working all night? And never got any sleep? Or, how high should my expectations be? Am I really going to have to adjust my expectations? Am I failing then, because ..." Anyway, those are a few things I've heard. So I'm just wondering, what's that process like.

Katie Bishop: I think that question is to a large extent the tension and the issue and the problem that we have to wrestle with on a daily basis at Augsburg. It makes me laugh because there's a narrative in higher ed literature around grit. "Oh my goodness, if we could just find the students with grit," whatever that magical term is, "and let those students in, then somehow students would persist and graduate on time."

I always think, "Well, then you people haven't talked to Augsburg students, because they have demonstrated grit over and above what most experience in order to even be here."

For me, I think as I think about the strategic work of Student Success, it's both how are we engaging with the student in front of us, in a way that acknowledges and allows a student to bring their whole selves in, so that we know what it is that they're carrying, and we can support that to the best of our ability.

But then, there's also a systems piece to that, around if we thought about making information accessible, like if we videotaped classrooms and then posted that online. Then, we wouldn't necessarily be so worried about whether a student came late. Right? I say "we" broadly. There's some fear about that. Well, then, why would a student ever come back to class?

Well, because class is actually really good, and students want to engage, and they like to engage. But if they felt less stress about, "I have to leave my job early so I can get to class on this particular day." because we knew that information was posted in a way that they could access, then maybe we'd solve some of that.

We're not going to solve all of it. But I think for me at least, a tension around, "We have to recognize the student in front of us, and make sure that we are competent at inviting that whole student in, so that we know who they are. And they know who we are. And that we've co-created a community around that."

But then we also have to acknowledge, like a student can't just set aside their family expectations or their work obligations. And we've created a system that allows them to participate and have full access with those other things.

Catherine Day: Where do you get the largest pushback?

Katie Bishop: I think there are three main buckets of systemic change that I focus on. One is financial. Even as Augsburg is affordable, that affordability is defined within a set of assumptions, that many of our low-income students simply can't meet. It's scary to think about what is a new business model, or what would it look like to change financial aid, or to distribute money in different ways.

But for me, we have to have those more profound conversations. It isn't just, "What is $1,000 going to cover for this student?" Actually, we are thinking differently about how we distribute money, so that we are more equitable for students.

There's pushback from administrators about that. And some of these things are meant a little bit rhetorically to push us to think harder and differently about what we do.

The second maybe strategic piece is a curricular piece around some of this idea of how are we structuring classrooms. That's ideas around pedagogy, that's ideas around class and language and how we understand how we're using language to either invite or exclude students.

And then these pieces around, why does attendance matter? I'm not saying that it doesn't. But I'm putting the question out there as a rhetorical piece for us to respond to around if we shared information with students in multiple modalities, would attendance be quite so important? And would that actually support our students differently?

Catherine Day: Right.

Katie Bishop: The third strategic piece is how do our systems integrate in a way that there's a term in higher ed called hidden curriculum. Which is really all the things that students come in without the social capital, that just automatically know, and how are we unpacking that hidden curriculum, and actually making it transparent, so students don't have to wonder if they've asked the right question. We know and they know that they've gotten the right information.

We have limited ability to influence what happens to students before they get to us, and we work hard to build relationships with our local recruiting partners. The high schools and public districts, where we get the bulk of our students from. But, we really can't influence what's happening in those systems or in those classrooms.

It starts from the recruiting path and goes to the point of graduation. And trying to understand where are moments where hidden curriculum access barriers to students? What is the terminology that students don't know? But what are the concepts that they need to know?

Rather than just rewriting terminology, rather than renaming the bursar, I think it's important to think through, what do we actually need a student to accomplish when they go to that person, and then how do we communicate that?

So it isn't we're renaming the bursar to the financial aid person, but what we actually need a student to do, and a student and their family, or their community, or their support system, to understand in that moment, and then how are we communicating those things to them.

Catherine Day: I was struck the other day, I was just on one of those crossroads at the campus coming in. I often bump into people who are standing at the bottom of those steps. It's the steps from Memorial Hall and Christensen.

And these two young men are just so animated, having such a great conversation. What I overhear is, "Man, I haven't seen you, you haven't been ..." And he said, "Well, I don't actually come to campus unless I absolutely have to."

What he was really building up to was how much he's working, how much, and he's just basically saying, "I'm not coming in unless I absolutely have to."

Part of me just completely respected what I heard. I thought, I loved this warmth of, "Man, where have you been? I miss you." There was this connection. But I'm guessing that's probably not an uncommon story in your students today. Is that true?

Katie Bishop: That is true. The research literature in higher ed over the last 20 years has statistically shown that students who live on campus, and have that traditional on-campus residential experience, are more likely to graduate.

I think that the challenge of Augsburg is to recognize that students cannot afford that model anymore, whether they live on campus or not. That kind of traditional experience is no longer the experience that students can fit into.

So how do we get to a point where we're able to be successful enough that literature now says, "Students can be successful whether or not they live on campus"? Because living on campus presupposes an employment level, and a family obligation level, and a resource level, and an ability to focus and attend to classroom in a particular way.

And that you culturally racially identify and fit into the classroom setting. I think at Augsburg in 20 years, if we are to become who we say we want to be, our literature will show that students are successful whether or not they live on campus. Because they find success here, regardless of those other assumptions.

Catherine Day: How different does that make Augsburg in the lexicon of Minnesota or the region? The fact that in 20 years, it might look like that? Do you think others will be right there with you? Or do you think, is Augsburg leading in that regard? How do you see it?

Katie Bishop: I think we are at the forefront in Minnesota. I think there are a lot of institutional partners that do a lot of this work already, although we don't always see them. Because of the kind of issues of elitism, so community college partners do this work in particular ways that we don't always acknowledge or see, although they're doing it in some places better than we are.

Some state schools do it as well as we do. Amongst the private institutions, we are very much at the forefront of that. Although the higher ed landscape is really competitive, and so people look to Augsburg and say, "What are you doing, and we want to do that as well."

I don't know in 20 years if we'll be still at the forefront or if everybody will have said, "Yes, that's what we should be doing." And everybody's doing it. We tend to get focused on one narrative or another, and I think our narrative can easily focus on, "Well, what are we doing for low-income students, or for students of color, or for first-generation students?"

This question of empathy in every student and carrying these heavy things with them, and shouldn't we feel this sympathy. We are producing a high proportion of Fulbright scholars, with the same population of students. I think we don't always lift up our successes in the best way.

In five years, how I would measure success is that we have started to move the needle on graduation rate, for example. But we have started to rethink in deep ways, things like how we use financial aid to support students all the way to the point of graduation.

That a student can be here for nine semesters instead of eight, and they can still afford it, and they can still graduate, and we are comfortable with that, because not every student has a straight-line path to graduation. It's a zigzag. That students on surveys start to report that they have access to the course materials that they need to be successful.

Those things to me are all about we, the students have helped us to co-create the environment that they need, in order to have really meaningful access to the educational opportunity at Augsburg. And that we aren't just perpetuating an old-fashioned model of higher education.

Catherine Day: Beyond that five-year vision, do you have a dream that you want to fulfill here?

Katie Bishop: I guess I haven't set a dream for myself. Not every student will graduate in the way that we imagine, because people have lives, and they move in and out of this system.

If I were to say that I have a dream, it is that students find us to be culturally competent, they find us to be inclusive of an intersectional understanding of identity, that they find us affordable, and that they are able to graduate in a timeframe that works for them. And that they find their degree to be a meaningful degree.

Catherine Day: I know you have a two-year-old son, or soon to be two years old.

Katie Bishop: Yes.

Catherine Day: What do you imagine higher education will be like for him?

Katie Bishop: Oh, goodness. I don't know. I try to work hard not to put expectations on him, and so, I don't know if he will encounter a higher ed system that's completely redesigned and blown up from what it looks like today.

Both of his parents work in higher ed, and so it's important to me that he not get to 18 years old and we're like, "Well, you have to go to college now."

I hope that he finds a supportive environment at home, where if college is the right, that's the moment for him, then that works. And if he would be better served in some other space at that time, that we've been supportive enough parents that he can do that as well.

Catherine Day: Thank you so much, Katie Bishop, for joining us today to talk about what it means to be the chief student success officer. And thanks for taking the time today.

Katie Bishop: Thank you so much.

Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to The Augsburg Podcast. I'm President Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit