About 17 million undergraduates are in American colleges, and they are more diverse — in age, race, ethnicity, wealth, and family background — than ever before. These students have differing expectations of what college can do for them, and they need to reach their goals using a wider variety of means than colleges have offered in the past. How should we define and deliver a quality education to all of them?
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Those means include online delivery, flipped classrooms, blended learning, accelerated semesters, collaborative learning, competency-based education, and prior learning assessment. Some of those approaches can help hold down the cost of delivering the degree and the price of earning it. If, for instance, we don’t force students to take courses that teach competencies they demonstrably already have, then we can save money for both them and ourselves. We need to use such techniques to hold down expenditures more robustly than we have done, with a hard eye toward the resulting effects on quality.
We should not, however, define quality narrowly. We must seek a definition that best serves the 18-year-old residential freshman who wants to study history and immerse herself in the full undergraduate experience of four-year campus life; the 26-year-old with a high-school diploma looking to earn an associate degree related to a job he wants in the electronic-gaming industry; the 38-year-old single working mother with two kids, a dog, and a mortgage who needs 20 more credits to complete a bachelor’s degree in business administration so she can move up into the supervisory ranks.
How about this definition: A good higher education enables a person to come to grips with the world more deeply, broadly, and richly, and thereby to contribute to what the world has to offer.
I don’t mean to suggest that a student enrolled in a one-semester certificate program in welding will, as a result of that experience, come to grips with the wider world as deeply, broadly, and richly as we hope a student will in a bachelor’s-degree program. But earning that welding certificate will very likely provide him with opportunities to be more independent in his career and his community. And a few years down the road, if he has further ambitions, he can both expand his skill set and enhance his sense of how the wider world works.
More and more, students move through multiple institutions on their way to one or more credentials. It has been reported that more than half of baccalaureate-degree earners have attended more than one institution by the time they graduate. Regardless of that churn, the Association of American Colleges and Universities suggests there is a core set of knowledge and skills that graduates ought to acquire for intelligent citizenship, professional prosperity, and personal satisfaction.
They include the ability to write cogently and speak clearly, to be skillful in working with data, to be comfortable working in diverse teams, to appreciate the international environment and different cultures, and to be able to solve problems — all traits we like to think are honed by a solid liberal-arts-and-sciences education. They are also the traits that corporate executives tell us they want in their employees.
To get today’s wide variety of students to these high-quality outcomes using a range of new and recast teaching methods, faculty members will have to play a more curatorial role in helping students sift through the information they bring along — information pressed on them every day from myriad sources, reliable and unreliable. In this approach, faculty members spend less time imparting information and more time organizing it and interpreting it with students.
In his 1966 book, The Reforming of General Education, Daniel Bell saw secondary school as being mainly about facts, while graduate school was about specialization. He said the college years, then, should be about the broader intellectual capacities of “conceptualization, explanation, and verification of knowledge.” We are learning more and more ways to make that happen, based on research, evidence, and experience. Here are a few:
1. Replace the “à la carte” version of general education with a more thoughtful, directed, sequenced, outcome-based model.
2. Clear students’ pathways from registration to graduation through:
- Precollege assistance in applying for financial aid.
- Remediation that includes credit-bearing content.
- Advising tied to learning analytics.
- Policies that apply transferred credit to degree requirements.
- Earlier and more transparent course scheduling.
- On-campus child care.
3. Make financial-aid payments more strategic, enabling students to take more courses per semester and limit low-wage, off-campus work.
4. Encourage and reward good teaching based on the most current research, as well as more faculty contact with students outside the classroom.
Because of the high stakes of our mission for individual students and for the country as a whole, and because of the raft of new technologies and techniques we can use to achieve it, there has hardly been a more exciting time to be in higher education. It is a time of innovation on campuses when innovation has never been more valuable, more possible, and more necessary.
In a post-factual world flooded with pernicious attempts to mislead, obfuscate, and confuse, ours is a high calling, grounded in our obligation to our fellow citizens and our commitment to a functioning democracy. As Nicholas Murray Butler, a longtime president of Columbia University, said at the start of the 20th century: “The difficulties of democracy are the opportunities of education.”
So let’s get on with those opportunities.
Kevin P. Reilly is president emeritus and a regent professor in the University of Wisconsin system and a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.