George Lucas Educational Foundation

Alverno College: Making Higher Ed Accessible to Nontraditional Students

Professional growth is personal.
By Denise Kersten Wills
Related Tags: Project-Based Learning
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Courtesy of Alverno College

Alverno College, a small women's college in Wisconsin, has generated remarkable interest on the national stage.

Alverno essentially has open enrollment, and part of the school's mission is to make higher education accessible to women who need extra support. Many students are single mothers or the first in their families to attend college. Professors go out of their way to provide help; many give students their home phone numbers. And more than one-third of the students are minorities -- the highest percentage of such students on any campus in the state.

Despite the challenges of working with nontraditional students, Alverno's education department has an impressive record. Five years after graduation, approximately 85 percent of education alumnae are still teaching, many for schools nearby in Milwaukee. Graduates say they seem better prepared to teach in comparison with their counterparts from other colleges.

Much of that success stems from Alverno's unique curriculum, which focuses on the development of eight abilities considered critical for real-world success -- skills ranging from being an effective communicator to having a global perspective.

The course offerings sound similar to those at other institutions -- perspectives in literature or philosophy of education, for example -- but in each class, students are expected to demonstrate progress in relevant abilities. This focus on achieving key outcomes encourages both students and professors to think of education in terms of individual development. It also emphasizes what students can do, not just what they know. Rather than a written exam on literacy assessments, for example, students might be asked to evaluate a real child's reading abilities.

"They don't ask students to memorize things, or question them on facts," says Kathi Glick, a teacher in the Whitnall School District who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees at Alverno and taught a literacy course there. "Students process the information. Teachers put you out in the real world to problem solve."

One of Alverno's most innovative practices is its use of performance-based assessments. Instead of letter grades, students receive continual feedback from peers, instructors, and outside professionals. Professors typically give students a full page or more of feedback on each project. Students also watch themselves on video and conduct self-assessments.

Each course has clear objectives. "Students know the criteria before they've even stepped into the classroom," says Nancy Jelen, dean of the education program. Students compile a Diagnostic Digital Portfolio of key projects and feedback, which provides a matrix of their progress.

Field placements are another one of Alverno's strengths. During their second and third years, undergraduates have four twenty-five-hour field experiences (at least two in multicultural settings), plus a practicum in which they work with special-needs students. The placements have clear objectives and are closely tied to coursework. The second placement, for example, focuses on reading and occurs while students take a literacy course. That way, they can apply in life what they're learning in academia.

"They're very confident," says Glick, "because they learn a lot."

Denise Kersten Wills is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an alum, and former employee with numerous friends still attending the school, I will say that Alverno College is talking a better game than they are playing as the individualized feedback and personal connections with faculty are overpowered by the demand for increased enrollment numbers. The Financial Aid Office has become notorious for erroneous billing and mistakes on refunds for loans and billing for tuition already paid for. Faculty rarely give more than a few lines of feedback anymore and dissatisfaction is running rampant among the general student body. So while this all sounds good, and I'll agree that they do an excellent job of teacher preparation they are slipping in the areas of support for these women, the very thing they built their reputation on in the first place. It is sad to those of us who experienced the most positive of experiences, several years ago, before Sr. Joel Read stepped down as President.

Nancy-Milwaukee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a new undergraduate student I can say that my experiences at Alverno so far have been great. To be honest, in the begining I was afraid of all the new terminology-assesments, feedback, DDP and no grade system. Now I find it so helpful. The feedback received has helped me to improve my papers and the way I read and analyze a reading assignment. Some papers receive an extensive amount of feedback while other papers not so much. I attended a community college before Alverno so I can greatly appreciate seeing a paper with feedback compared to one with only a percentage or curve on it. As to problems with the financial aid office that should not reflect the teachers and values we are tought at Alverno.

Nancy W.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a nontraditional student--50, divorced, raised my kids instead of having a career. I tried Alverno, and LOVED the education. But at my age, the thought of graduating with $30,000-40,000 in educational debt was too much and I stopped after 3 fulltime semesters. I got almost no financial aid (except for what I would have to pay back), and couldn't get comfortable with that kind of debt at my age. I'd like to continue, but I'm too poor to afford it, and too well off to qualify for help. Sad that being married, and having and raising my kids before taking care of myself, left me out in the cold! Maybe single motherhood would have been a better choice?...

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