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Engaging Group Work



Faculty-student collaborations at IHE extend opportunities and enrich experiences.

THE PREPARATION of both scholars and practitioners to produce the highest quality, policy-relevant research in higher education is  a  core  mission of the Institute of Higher Education. Its students often are experienced professionals seeking deeper knowledge and broader exposure to the rigors and methodologies of academic discourse. Beyond classroom instruction, doctoral students often engage in collaborative projects with the faculty. Even among part-time students, the Institute’s faculty strive to offer robust opportunities to produce relevant research that informs and contributes to the higher education discourse. These collaborations are a hallmark of the Institute’s approach and a key to engaging and enhancing the reputations of its outstanding students and faculty.

Below are several, non-exhaustive examples of the kinds of research and writing collaborations occurring between faculty and students over the past academic year at the Institute.


The Institute assembles a multidisciplinary faculty of scholars with specialties in economics, sociology, history, management, psychology, and public policy. These experienced researchers, embodying the theories and methods of their disciplines while appreciating the work of others, contribute to a rich and cooperative research environment. Second-year Ph.D. student Adrianna Gonzalez affirms that the faculty’s respect for each other is noticed by students. The interdisciplinary nature of the Institute was part of what attracted her to IHE. Once here, she found faculty to be “receptive and supportive,” particularly of a student with a less research-intensive educational background.

Gonzalez undertook an archival research project as a class assignment for Timothy Cain. Her investigation into a demonstration for women’s rights at the University of Georgia sparked an on-going collaboration with Cain on broader student activism at the University. “We recognized there were ties between our research interests that could support a larger study,” she says.

For Gonzalez, learning the rigors of the historian’s craft through her consultations with Cain has given her greater confidence in the validity of her questions and her ability to contribute. “He appreciated that my background was different and found ways to make it better without trying to change my voice. He tailored our work together in recognition of where I am and where I am going.”

Philip Adams agrees that the faculty is very conscientious about making meaningful connections with students that respect their interests and abilities. He describes his initial invitation to perform document review and to code data for an established research team led by Erik Ness and Jim Hearn as “a good growth assignment” for a composition and rhetoric major. According to Ness, the William T. Grant Foundation funded project has had a real impact on three generations of students as a “valuable cycle” of inquiries leading to new investigations. “At first, students assist with the basic infrastructure and coding of the dataset to support the work of others, and then, as they develop more expertise, they begin developing their own theoretical and methods work to answer their research questions.”

These projects give practical experience and often help students see the connections between theory and the research design. —Karen Webber

Moving from coding large datasets to sifting through archival boxes, Adams started another collaboration with Cain. He is grateful to all the professors for enabling him to participate in conversations about the rigors and strategies of each type of work. Adams enjoys the luxury of immersing himself more deeply in reading and exploring broader issues while developing a discipline for knowing both when to quit digging and start writing and, alternatively, when to stop completely and move on to a new question.

Jennifer May-Trifiletti credits the personalized mentoring she received from Robert Toutkoushian and Hearn with greatly accelerating her progress at the Institute. She came to IHE with a strong background in institutional research, but the testing-and-refining iterative nature of academic research forced her to grapple with decisions about when anomalies indicate a critical design flaw in the method and when they suggest a complementary avenue of research. “[Toutkoushian and Hearn’s] close mentoring enabled me to do more. I was able to watch two strong, successful researchers and to observe how they managed the processes of research. It was very beneficial.”

Another group, comprised of Karen Webber, Rebecca Perdomo, and Andrew Crain, are using the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) High School Longitudinal Survey dataset in two studies related to STEM major choice. Crain had taken several methods classes and finds that his collaboration with Webber cemented his knowledge of statistical methodology. He compares the process to learning a foreign language. A person can develop one level proficiency in the classroom, but it’s only through practice and conversation with a native speaker that a learner achieves real fluency and comfort. According to Crain, participating directly in research with Webber has provided a “meaningful extended conversation” on how to design a solid study and engage in rigorous quantitative research.

Crain also noted the value of being part of the conversation at conferences and how partnering with Institute scholars can expand a student’s professional opportunities. “The IHE advantage is that everyone knows the field of higher education and is immersed in it completely.” Crain summed it up, “You can get good advising and mentorship elsewhere, but here you also get a good professional network, and those relationships continue after you graduate.”

In addition to being multidisciplinary, IHE provides a true interdisciplinary environment. We do not stay in silos, and we value each other’s work. —Erik Ness


HE NUMBER OF PAPERS presented at major professional conferences by IHE students and faculty consistently outstrips representation of many peer programs of larger size. These presentations give the collaborators practice defending their methods and findings while honing their conclusions in front of an audience of other professionals.

A recent ASHE presentation was a collaboration between students Lindsey Hammond and Philip Adams with Ness and recent graduate Paul Rubin (Ph.D. 2017). Even though this endeavor was not Adams’ first collaboration or conference presentation, he found it helpful to work closely with professors who are so familiar with the field’s conferences and journals.

Also at ASHE, Toutkoushian, May-Trifiletti, and former IHE postdoctoral associate Ashley Clayton presented a paper discussing how the operational definition of “first generation” affects research findings of college completion rates among first generation students. May-Trifiletti remembers her first meeting with Toutkoushian in August of 2016. He had clearly taken the time to become familiar with her work and interests when he invited her to join the study. Her involvement and responsibility in their collaborations grew over the year, from handling the literature reviews and theory to taking an active role in analysis. “He is a great teacher who knows how to assign tasks that are meaningful without being overwhelming.”

Likewise, during Philip Wilkinson’s first week as a graduate assistant, Cain asked if he would be interested in contributing to his study of faculty unionization. Wilkinson was, and that meeting started what has become a conference presentation and an article. Prior to coming to the Institute, Wilkinson had experience giving conference presentations and had been published in peer-reviewed journals, but he claims to owe Cain a “large debt for informing [him] of the rigorous style of writing and preparation required in history.” The preparation for a presentation before an audience of historians is different from the sessions he had done before in more pedagogical-based settings. Wilkinson remembers practicing in front of Cain, and he believes those rehearsals and the professor’s feedback were instrumental in giving him the confidence to converse successfully in a new discipline.

Rachel Burns (Ph.D. 2018) and Webber started a collaboration during Burns’ second semester at the Institute in 2014. Burns made a cold-call to Webber’s office to offer her services, and she recalls that Webber enthusiastically laid out what she was working on. Then, she turned to Burns and asked which inquiries, if any, interested her. Four years later the collaboration, which began as an unpaid and unofficial association, has yielded two major conference presentations (at AERA and ASHE) in 2017 on graduate student debt and financial aid.

Burns recalls that the thought of presenting with Webber was initially more stressful than working independently because the team’s performance would reflect on the faculty member, and she holds her IHE professors in high regard. But she says that Webber has a good process of exchanging drafts and encouraging a lot of honesty and mentoring by all members that gives her confidence.


IN ADDITION to presentation experience, Institute students have graduated from the program with impressive co-authored publications in their curricula vitae. Beyond the bylines, the students receive a very practical form of mentorship, and later partnership, which can continue well after graduation. Recently, these faculty-student projects have produced articles in scholarly journals, commissioned reports for higher education associations, and book chapters.


The article, “Talking ‘Bout My Generation: Defining ‘First-generation College Students’ in Higher Education Research,” which appeared in Teachers College Record this year, is an example of how collaborations can provide opportunity for multiple students at different stages of the program. In 2015, Toutkoushian and Robert Stollberg began presenting their National Science Foundation (NSF) and Association for Institutional Research (AIR) grant-funded investigation of the impact of how researchers define “first generation” on their findings of educational outcomes.

When Kelly Slaton joined the team in 2016, Stollberg already had completed his coursework and moved to another state. The three were rarely in Meigs Hall together, so progress on the article relied on each member’s ability to communicate constructively as well as work independently. After this experience, Slaton reports, “I’m already primed for future collaborations. I have a precedent for what it looks like and how it can work.”

Not only do these collaborations help students learn how to conduct research and build their academic record, it also helps the faculty by expanding our understanding of the topic at hand. —Rob Toutkoushian

Slaton continues, “I am so grateful for the opportunity he gave me, especially as a part-time student. This collaboration bridged the kind of research I do day-to-day as a staff member at UGA with the academic work done in the higher education field.”

Commissioned Reports

Another avenue of publication is the commissioned report. Hearn has had success securing assignments from several organizations, including the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and the TIAA Institute. Hearn, May-Trifiletti, and Welch Suggs (Ph.D. 2009) are writing a report under contract with CIC that explores the impact of collegiate athletics at independent colleges. Hearn approached May-Trifiletti at the end of her first year, and she was happy to contribute. “[The work he wanted to do] was in my wheelhouse.”

Karley Riffe (Ph.D. 2018) affirms her project with Rachel Burns (Ph.D. 2018) and Hearn was a “true collaboration.” They conducted a study, funded by the TIAA Institute, on the effect of the growing reliance on contingent faculty members in higher education on institutional outcomes. The report appears in December 2017. This project provided practical experience to Riffe on how to work with other researchers. She adds, “We all used our individual expertise to contribute to the final product.”

Engaging ChartBurns describes her Master’s as a practitioner’s degree that gave her experience with grant and technical writing but not with the sort of scholarly writing that the TIAA report required. Thanks in part to Hearn’s positive direction and guidance through the report’s many drafts, Burns feels her “biggest growth [at IHE] was in academic writing.” Hearn recognized her existing strength in methodology and gave her the opportunity to develop her writing. In this diverse institute, she appreciates that the faculty readily recognize strengths in each other and in the students and seek to leverage them while developing additional skills.

Book Chapters

In addition to academic journals, students collaborated with faculty to produce book chapters. Paul Rubin (Ph.D. 2017) co-authored a book chapter with Hearn and Ness on intermediary organizations in The State Higher Education Executive Officer and the Public Good, (Teachers College Press, 2018). Doctoral student Noble Jones is lead author on another book chapter written with Hearn. Their piece on liberal arts in state universities appears in Controversies on Campus (Praeger, 2018), edited by Joy Blanchard (Ph.D. 2008). Jason Lee (Ph.D. 2017) already had completed his coursework and had moved to Washington, D.C. when Toutkoushian reached out to him to collaborate on a project in 2016. Lee recalls that the initial data review and feedback he offered led to a paper presentation at ASHE in November 2017 (the same month as Lee’s dissertation defense).

Lee, a former high school English teacher, was accustomed to writing and delivering material in front of an audience, but he learned a lot about writing for a higher education audience. Lee notes that he came to appreciate how much hard work goes into the finished product by working closely with a respected and prolific researcher and writer. It might get easier with experience and practice, but it never gets easy.

“Rob always has mentorship in mind. He’s pushing you just a little bit further and giving you a lot of freedom to grow.” Lee appreciates the glimpse through Toutkoushian’s theoretical lenses and learning his approach to the research enterprise from start to finish. Their book chapter on economies of scale in higher education finance appears in Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Researchvolume XXXIII (Springer, 2018).

Our ability to work with students both individually and in small groups, not only creates a better environment, it creates a better final product. —Tim Cain

Grant Writing

The professors at IHE also seek to provide students with practical experience in grant writing and grant administration. Over the past year, two students have participated in six new grant proposals. Part-time Ph.D. student David Tanner is drafting an NSF grant proposal with Karen Webber and Amy Stich. If the proposal is successful, Tanner will serve as a co-Principle Investigator on the grant. Last year Tanner successfully collaborated with Webber and colleagues around the university to receive funding through the President’s Interdisciplinary Seed Grant Program at the University of Georgia.

Even when the student has considerable experience writing grants for private foundations and proposals for contractual arrangements, like Tanner has, the groundwork and level of evidence needed to be successful in securing a major federal grant are on another plane. “It’s very much an iterative process with a lot of intermediate evaluation and continual refinement.” He credits Webber with establishing a good relationship with NSF and seeking regular feedback on their proposal from people who have been successful or are familiar with the NSF rubrics.

Lindsey Hammond started her collaborative work at IHE as a graduate assistant, benefiting from the William T. Grant Foundation award won by Ness and Hearn. Hammond says that Ness “very intentionally designed an opportunity for me to take the lead on a qualitative document analysis project, which helped me learn how to guide a project from beginning to end.” Her later work with Hearn complemented this experience by introducing some advanced quantitative methods. She now has solid experience with quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods research.

During the past year, Hammond assisted with the writing of five new grant proposals alongside four different professors. The proposals target several funding agencies including federal sources and a private foundation. Among other lessons, Hammond says her collaborative grant-writing work has taught her “how to thoughtfully and intentionally approach research design so that the final research product has the best shot at being usable and impactful.”


The collegial and multidisciplinary nature of the Institute’s faculty is a great strength. The professors speak supportively and knowledgeably of each other’s projects and recommend broad interactions with all their colleagues. May-Trifiletti summed up her experience with faculty-student collaborations, “I feel so lucky to be here. It’s a special place to have such successful researchers who also have open doors.”

I always find working with students to be rewarding and tremendously beneficial. —Jim Hearn

Regardless of the type of collaboration and whether the effort yielded a research product or secured funding, these extended conversations benefit the students and the faculty members. Students pursuing careers in government, institutional research, and administrative leadership roles are encouraged to extend their investigations beyond the classroom. They gain meaningful, interdisciplinary practice with quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods research through assistantships and less formal arrangements. These projects reinforce and extend classroom knowledge while enabling the faculty to undertake more projects, deepen their investigations, and broaden their perspectives.

Bibliography of Recent Collaborations that Continued Past Student’s Graduation

Belasco, A., Rosinger, K.O., & Hearn, J.C. (2015). The test-optional movement at America’s selective liberal arts colleges: A boon for equity or something else? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 37(2), 206-223. (Reprinted in Measuring Success: Testing, grades, and the future of college admissions, pp. 260-287, by J. Buckley, L. Letukas, and B. Wildavsky, Eds. 2018, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).

Gándara, D. & Hearn, J.C. (forthcoming). College completion, the Texas way: An examination of the development of college completion policy in a distinctive political culture. Teachers College Record.

Gándara, D., Rippner, J.A., & Ness, E.C. (2017). Exploring the ‘How’ in Policy Diffusion: National Intermediary Organizations’ Roles in Facilitating the Spread of Performance-Based Funding Policies in the States. Journal of Higher Education, 88(5), 701-725.

Gándara, D., & Toutkoushian, R. (2017). Updated estimates of the average financial return on master’s degree programs in the United States. Journal of Education Finance, 43, 21-44.

Hearn, J.C. & Belasco, A. (2015). Commitment to the core: A longitudinal analysis of humanities degree production in four-year colleges. Journal of Higher Education, 86(3), 387-416.

Hearn, J.C., McLendon, M.K., & Lacy, T.A. (2013). State-funded “Eminent Scholars” programs: University faculty recruitment as an emerging policy instrument. Journal of Higher Education, 84(5), 601-639.

Hearn, J.C., Lacy, T.A., & Warshaw, J. (2014). State research and development tax credits: The historical emergence of a distinctive economic policy instrument. Economic Development Quarterly, 28(2), 166-181.

Levine, A.D., Lacy, T.A., & Hearn, J.C. (2013). The origins of human embryonic stem cell policies in the U.S. states. Science and Public Policy, 40(4), 544-558.

Rippner, J., & Toutkoushian, R. (2015). The ‘big bang’ in public and private faculty salaries. Journal of Education Finance, 41, 103-123.

Rosinger, K.O., Belasco, A. & Hearn, J.C. (forthcoming). A boost for the middle class: An evaluation of no-loan policies and selective private college enrollment.  Journal of Higher Education.

Rubin, P. & Hearn, J.C. (2018). The policy filtering process: Understanding distinctive state responses to the national college completion agenda in the United States. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 26(60).

Warshaw, J., Toutkoushian, R., & Choi, H. (2017). Does the reputation of a faculty member’s graduate programme and institution matter for labour market outcomes? Journal of Education and Work, 30, 793-812.

Webber, K.L. & Tschepikow, K. (2013). The role of learner-centered assessment in organizational change. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy, and Practice, 20(2), 187-204.

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