Growing up my family was neither considered wealthy nor poor. We represented the quintessential middle-class family paying for college tuition via student loans – not financially dire enough to qualify for financial aid but not rich enough to pay out of pocket for tuition each semester.
In college, I was trapped in the endless loop of the part-time job hustle, rushing hurriedly between my job as a bank teller and an afterschool teacher for elementary school students and campus where I had a full academic course load. I often worked more than 20 hours per week (not including commute time) and I spent far more time in the car or at work than attending classes or in the library studying. Although I took my college education seriously (after all, I was taking out loans to pay for an essential degree that could determine the trajectory of my career and financial future), for me, fewer hours spent in the classroom/library translated to less than stellar grades.
To my surprise, it turns out that my working college student experience is actually today’s norm. A 2018 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows that 8 in 10 students work while in college and more than half of students who work 15 hours or more had an average of C or lower. Considering those statistics, I am thankful I was able to beat the odds and even go on to graduate school. I’m not one to dwell in the past, but I can’t help to think that things could’ve been much different for me if I had been given a completely different set of course options.
Fast forward to present day. I have been a college professor for a decade now but I haven’t forgotten my experiences as a working college student and all of this lingered in the back of my mind as I designed my first Hyflex course. In the Hyflex model, I gave my students two options for every single class meeting – come to class in person if you can or do asynchronous work online if you cannot attend class in person. No penalties for choosing one option over the other. No questions asked. Was it a lot more work for me, as the professor, to design a course that offered two different tracks for students for any given class meeting? Yes. Without a doubt. But was it a valuable use of my time and energy? Absolutely, and here’s why.
Hyflex courses provide something for students that so many other classes sorely lack – equity and access. This was true when I was in college and unfortunately, it still rings true today. If Hyflex courses were available to me back then, I wouldn’t have suffered myriad point penalties for every absence due to my work responsibilities. Hyflex courses would have allowed me to complete assignments in a timeframe that was compatible with my schedule – without fear, shame, and/or penalties that would lower my course grades and eventually my overall GPA. Put simply, courses designed with punitive in-person attendance policies tip the scales in favor of students who have fewer non-academic life challenges/responsibilities to deal with throughout any given semester.
Furthermore, many universities make blanket exceptions for athletes who cannot attend class due to traveling/games and/or for students who have medical emergencies that prevent them from attending class in person (usually excused by a doctor’s note). But what about the majority of students in between? Where are the blanket exceptions for the students who have to work to pay their tuition, housing, food, and all the other necessities that more privileged students do not have to worry about? Are point penalties for in person absences and lowered GPAs an additional “tax” that working students must pay for having more life responsibilities stemming from their socioeconomic backgrounds or individual life circumstances that their less burdened counterparts do not have to pay?
In the words of one of our own Vanguard students who represents one of the 80% of college students in our nation, “Before taking Hyflex courses, I was working 15 hours a week and I found myself struggling with the workload of school and attending courses in person, being at work, attending to personal family needs and as a result, my grades suffered. After taking Hyflex courses my junior and senior year of college, I saw a significant increase in my grades, decreased stress, and a better overall well-being. Hyflex courses allowed me to attend to the pressing needs outside of the classroom while achieving a high level of academic excellence.”
I won’t deny the fact that Hyflex is more laborious for professors building a course. Without a doubt, it is more work. But for universities and faculty members who are genuinely committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in their classrooms, implementing Hyflex course design is an immediate remedy to the inequities produced by the rigid expectations of traditionally structured classes.
I believe Hyflex courses have the potential to address the needs of our diverse student body, increase equity by helping to close the achievement gap, and give full access to learning so that no student is excluded due to their varied individual circumstances. The pandemic triggered an unexpected wave of Hyflex teaching in universities across the nation but will professors embrace it for the long haul? I would be willing to bet that eighty percent of college students hope they do.
Professors may not possess any comic book level superpowers but they do have the power to help level the playing field, one Hyflex course build at a time. And in my book, in a world full of inequities, eliminating barriers to excellence in student achievement is the only superpower any professor will ever need.