Shaun Harper's students are solving real problems for campus leaders

Archive Notice: The following article was published before Jan 2015.

A team from Shaun Harper’s Higher Education Case Studies class is filmed during a leaderless group discussion, one of the innovative aspects of the course.

December 16, 2014 — Kelly Wilcox came to Penn GSE after a year working in Cornell’s student affairs office with a plan.

She would earn her master’s degree in Higher Education to prepare herself for a career in student affairs. But once she spent this semester in Shaun Harper’s Case Studies in Higher Education class — where students consult with executives at colleges and universities to address problems  — Wilcox’s plans changed.

“I was just very happy working with students,” Wilcox said. “After a few weeks looking at problems with my team and coming up with real-world solutions, I knew I could push myself more and I’m looking for more in my career.”

She’s now considering a doctorate, and how she could be a campus leader. Having tested themselves through the sometimes grueling work, a number of Wilcox’s classmates are adjusting their aspirations as well. 

In most case studies courses, students are given either hypotheticals or examples of how colleges have handled difficult situations in the past.

In Harper’s class, students were split into four teams and given actual problems that executive administrators at institutions — including Dillard University, The College of William & Mary, and the University of Florida — are trying to solve. Acting as professional consultants, the teams had to propose initiatives that would improve campus issues including enrollment, athletics, race, faculty engagement, and student life. The class also developed certification proposals for NASPA, a leading organization for student affairs professionals.

While Harper and a team of coaches, doctoral students assisting Harper with the course, reviewed and graded the team proposals, senior executives at these colleges and universities are ultimately gave teams feedback.

For one case, the class was tasked with developing a five-year growth plan for McPherson College. The small, private, liberal arts college in Kansas is looking to expand enrollment beyond athletics, which has historically made up a significant part of the student body, while increasing connections between student-athletes and non-athletes.

After reviewing the team submissions, McPherson President Michael Schneider called into class to offer students feedback. Some ideas were good, he said, but might not succeed at a small school like McPherson. He suggested how other concepts could be further developed to maximize impact. Overall, he was impressed.

Before announcing the winner for that week, Schneider told the class: “If we don’t use some of these ideas, we’re crazy.” 

That kind feedback made the class, Harper said.

“I feel like the students learned more from the executive feedback alone than they would from any book about how colleges work,” Harper said.

Before joining the Higher Education program, Alex Catalan spent four years working in Beloit College’s admissions office. Researching a school and its situation, devising a strategy, and then presenting a solution every week was more intense than anything he faced in the working world. But, he said, the intense atmosphere made the stakes real.

“It really felt like we were working for a client,” Catalan said.

The dynamic also changed the way team members related to one another, according to student Dashawn Ealey.

“I feel like they’re my co-workers,” Ealey said.

That commitment showed in the work, said Sam Jones, a doctoral student who coached one of the four teams. The students quickly learned how much research was involved in proving their idea wasn’t a hunch, but rather an innovation based on approaches that have been successful elsewhere.

 “The research they’re doing here is really like what someone in a Ph.D. program does for a literature review,” Jones said. 

Twice during the semester, the teams were filmed during leaderless group discussions. The tapes were professionally analyzed, and each student was given feedback on how he or she could better contribute to the conversation.

In keeping with its non-traditional format, the class also included a semester-long competition between the four teams, with each week’s executive picking the winner. The overall winning team earns a trip to Miami, where they will work through another case on an actual campus with university leaders.