Friday, March 2, 2012

Scholarship program woes: a complete overhaul

     At Thursday’s meeting of the Irvine Valley College Academic Senate (Rep Council), senators and visitors (including Richard Morley, recently-hired Foundation Director, and Darryl Cox, long-time Director of Financial Aid) discussed IVC’s troubled Scholarship Program, which has been the object of much criticism recently—and, indeed, for years.
     The scholarship program has grown quickly over the last dozen or so years, so much so that it became necessary to purchase a computer program called STARS (Stars Online?). Unfortunately, employing STARS has been a case of fitting a “square peg into a round hole.” One difficulty evidently concerns entry of faculty letters of recommendation into the system.
     That was bad enough. Then, very recently, it came to light that IVC’s scholarship system is possibly out of compliance with state and federal standards—specifically with regard to awarding scholarships to “protected classes.” The college received an 18-page legal opinion that lays out the issues. That was in early February (the district had received the opinion in December). The letter’s arrival sparked a mad scramble to tweak the computer program, yielding some recent snafus.
     Nevertheless, we seem to have cobbled together a fix that allows us to move forward for now.
Richard Morley
     As things now stand, scholarships can be earmarked to specific groups, but because we are a public college, we may not disperse by class; hence, we will work with donors to adjust the language in reference to protected categories. The scholarship pool is chosen with donor criteria and scores on students’ written essay. These essays, Morley explained, are scored on the basis of content only, read by a “highly trained,” monitored, broad-based committee of faculty, staff and community. Applicant can submit letters of recommendation. Donor criteria and essay score determine applicant pool ranking for each scholarship. Donors are then involved in an advisory role. The scholarship committee recommends final awards to the foundation board of governors.
     During yesterday’s Senate discussion, I questioned the purported “objectivity” of the process’s approach to the student essay, given that there is no mechanism for determining the accuracy of its “content.” (I also questioned whether essays can be read without regard to “style.”) My colleague, Melanie, also questioned the “content, not style” provision, noting that some students’ poor writing skills prevent them from adequately conveying their points. Others noted the difficulty of writing letters of recommendation without reference to the student’s sex (and other protected categories). Biologists at the meeting noted that they have received very few requests for letters from students this year.
Darryl Cox
     It appears that the current system relies heavily on assessment of the student essay—a rather dubious document—and much less so on (more reliable) faculty letters of recommendation, which are not even required.
     Recognizing legal constraints, I nevertheless questioned the adequacy of such an approach. Some, during discussion, noted that faculty letters can compensate for inadequacies in student essays—e.g., stating relevant facts that students might fail to recognize as important.
     In the end, a member of the cabinet motioned to assemble a task force (housed under the Academic Affairs committee) to overhaul the entire process. The senate supported the motion unanimously.
     That, I think, is a good outcome.
     Naturally, the product of that overhaul will come too late to apply to this year’s process. (I wish to thank Melanie H, whose notes formed the basis of some of the above.)

3 comments:

  1. Last year people were given minimal training and insufficient time to select winners. The idea that the student essay will be the primary measure is troubling for all sorts of reasons.

    Instead of asking faculty to write letters that remove references to gender, why not ask the committee to disregard those references? That seems more workable.

    By the way, I have received ONE request for such a letter, an unusually small number.

    I don't think students understand much of the process.

    I would the new committee to ask for the numbers of applicants this year and compare it to other years' figures. I would also like to know the figures for faculty letters submitted - and see if there is a correlation to awards given and letters written.

    Thank you.

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  2. Who vets these computer programs before we invest in them?

    What do other colleges do?

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  3. OMG not another task force! I can't take it anymore.

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