Governors State University (GSU) Assistant Professor of Education Dr. Matthew Cooney reveres the institution of higher learning. The professor is passionate about helping students graduate and become responsible leaders.
At GSU, Cooney leads an Equity Grant study to promote successes among traditionally underserved students. He considers Governors State a “living laboratory” for studying effective success strategies. In addition, Cooney teaches three doctorate level leadership classes in the College of Education.
He credits an affiliation with the LGBT community with his dedication to demanding equity for all students.
“If you have marginalizing experiences, you want to work with other people who experience similar things,’’ he said. “I want to train culturally responsive leaders who serve increasingly diverse populations.”
A research position led Cooney to Governors State in 2017 shortly after he completed his Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration at Bowling Green State University. He had been studying successful student transition practices when he was offered a faculty position.
Early on, Cooney established himself as a rising expert voice with four published academic papers in as many years, a book chapter on student leadership development, and a grant to evaluate success strategies in junior year.
In anticipation of questions from college boards and parents, Cooney requires Interdisciplinary Leadership Doctoral Program candidates to analyze criticism of higher ed. He asks them to read work that assesses the cost of a college education, essays that question post-college job opportunities, and entire books devoted to unpacking the U.S. college experience. Through studying the arguments against their work, Cooney strengthens students’ understanding of its value.
“Higher education has been around for almost 1,000 years. We’re not going anywhere. But we do need to respond to these theories. How much of this is false narrative?” asks Cooney, tapping a stack of hardcover books on his desk.
GSU Newsroom: You write about an anti-deficit framework. How does it play out at GSU?
Cooney: In “Utilization of Change Theory to Implement an Appreciative Advising Model” (published in Journal of Research, Assessment and Practice), we look at minoritized students—those put in minority groups. When they are not successful, people typically say, ‘They didn't work hard enough.’ At Governors State, we are flipping that around and looking at an anti-deficit framework. We ask: what are students doing really well?
GSU Newsroom: Do you engage the anti-deficit framework in your GSU Equity Grant?
Cooney: Yes, we are looking at programs and policies the university has in place to support successes of students in their junior year here. It’s part of a GSU Equity Grant in collaboration with the Association of American Colleges and University and the Strada Education Network designed to help close student success gaps and promote retention from junior to senior year. The grant allows us to work with undergrads who are looking at successful African-American women in this critical year. It’s important to learn what students did well so that we can create university structures that replicate it.
GSU Newsroom: Why is this work important for GSU, specifically?
Cooney: This is a great opportunity for the students because undergraduate research has so many connections to job opportunities, personal development, and professional development.
This is also important for the larger community because GSU is a true catalyst for the community.
GSU Newsroom: What inspired you to study higher education?
Cooney: I earned my bachelor’s degree in Spanish from University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and my master’s in higher education at Loyola University. I was working at Florida International University when I discovered college campuses have much bigger problems that we need to understand, so I went to Bowling Green—one of the most well-known programs in higher education. In graduate school, I discovered that the university environment energized me. It was a place where I was able to learn about myself and how I fit into different aspects of society.
GSU Newsroom: Your students are crafting responses to arguments denouncing college
higher education books. Where do you feel the value lies with college today?
Cooney: “College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students” and “Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It” are crisis novels that are calling out the value of higher education in the country. There are many perspectives you can take. The most persuasive is college graduates make $1.6 million dollars more over the lifetime of someone who doesn’t go to college.