Why Implementing a Richer, More Robust Academic Experience Is So Hard

Higher Ed Gamma

In my Higher Ed Beta postings, I urge colleges and universities to embrace six principles that I believe should underlie a college education:

Principle 1. An education that is more holistic, developmental, and transformational – that seeks to promote growth across multiple dimensions: cognitive, of course, but also ethical, social-emotional, and interpersonal.

Principle 2. An education that is skills and outcomes focused – that does much more to ensure that students become better communicators and are apply to apply critical thinking, close reading, and numerical skills in real-world contexts.

Principle 3. An education that is less discipline-specific but that embraces the broader concerns of the humanities and social sciences, that addresses big and enduring questions, and that teaches students how to think like an anthropologist, historian, literary critic, political scientist, psychologist, and sociologist.

Principle 4. An education that involves much more experiential and active learning, with expanded opportunities for mentored research, internships, study abroad, and field-, community-, and project-based learning experiences.

Principle 5. An education that offers more synergistic, integrated, coherent paths to a career and that supplements in-class learning with workshops and certificate to augment students’ job-aligned skills.

Principle 6. An education that provides more mentoring, more proactive academic and non-academic advising and support, and that embeds students in a learning community or cohort to promote a sense of belonging and connection.

None of these ideas is original. Indeed, many are already being piloted at various institutions across the country.

Yet I think it’s fair to say that however inspiring such a vision might be, the overwhelming majority of institutions have adopted a different approach.  Rather than extending a rich educational experience to all students, these campuses have adopted an “add-on” strategy.

  • To promote teaching innovation, institutions establish a teaching center and an instructional design and educational technology center.
  • To raise retention rates and help diversify access to high demand fields, campuses expand existing learning support centers, including writing, math, and science learning centers, summer bridge programs, and supplemental instruction in fields experiencing high attrition rates.
  • To reduce attrition and raise completion rates, colleges implement technology- and data-driven advising practices to identify curricular bottlenecks and prompt timely interventions when students are off-track.
  • To better prepare undergraduates for the job market, universities invest in the campus’ career services, expand internship opportunities, open a maker space, an entrepreneurship center, and an innovation hub, promote undergraduate-alumni networking, and increase the number of job-aligned certificate programs.

There’s nothing wrong with such investments.  They’re necessary and indeed essential.  But the fact is that an add-on approach fails to address the root problem, the quality of the educational experience itself.

We all know why, and a lack of financial resources is only a part of the problem.

  • Campuses find it extremely difficult to achieve a consensus about essential undergraduate learning outcomes or how to agree about how to measure whether students actually achieve these objectives.
    It is far less controversial to institute a wide range of graduation requirements that can be fulfilled simply by passing a designated course.
  • Most faculty prefer to teach courses squarely within their discipline and preferably in their area of specialization.
    This discipline- and faculty-centric approach discourages the kind of collaboration across departmental lines that is needed to create more synergistic, coherent, or integrated degree pathways.
  • There are few incentives for instructors to devote their time on such matters as active learning, writing instruction, substantive feedback, or mentoring, except, perhaps, for doctoral students.
    While some individual instructors certainly innovate in pedagogy, provide students with extensive feedback, and embrace the role of advisor and mentor, most do not.

So what can be done?  Here are some possible solutions.

  1. Rely more on staff expertise and other kinds of expertise (for example, from alumni) to teach non-discipline-based skills, from writing to innovation to career preparation to social justice and to serve as mentors.
    By making use of existing staff and alumni, an institution need not add to administrative bloat.
  2. Institute more thematically-oriented and career-aligned cohort and research programs.
    The goal should be to get as many undergraduates in an interest group to promote a sense of belonging.  These cohort programs, too, can be directed by staff who can provide dedicated advising and mentoring.
  3. Figure out how to scale faculty pedagogical training and support.
    Some institutions, like the University of Central Florida, mandated training for everyone who teaches online. A supplemental or alternative strategy is to give instructors access to an instructional designer or to a graduate student or advanced undergraduate well-versed in instructional technology.  I have myself, at various times in my academic career, had access to such “techies,” and many of my most significant pedagogical innovations grew out of those collaborations.

At a minimum, institutions must do more to encourage faculty to integrate the science of learning and interactive, collaborative, and active learning technologies into their courses and to make their classes more outcomes-focused,

  1. Showcase faculty who bridge disciplines and address big questions.
    At my institution, the late Steven Weinberg was not only a Nobel laureate and among the leading theoretical physicists of our time, but an incredible communicator who could make the frontiers of science accessible to an educated readership.  Many more students should have been exposed to his thinking.

There was only one Steven Weinberg, but every institution has faculty members who grapple provocatively with the key issues of our time and who can speak eloquently to a broad audience.

  1. Encourage and incentivize cross-departmental collaboration and the development of more coherent and synergistic pathways in high demand fields.
    In my administrative roles, I discovered that it was not excessively expensive to get faculty members from a variety of departments to work together to create or revise courses that contributed to more coherent degree pathways, including courses in physics, chemistry, the humanities, and the social sciences that contributed directly to a bio-medical sciences, pre-health professions curriculum.

Institutional leadership need to support initiatives that are evidence-based, that can be scaled in an affordable, effective way, that promote equity, and that improve essential learning outcomes.  As Stephen C. Ehrmann put it in an email to me: “It’s this constellation that causes the improvements in quality, access, and affordability, not any one of its innovations. “

Senior leadership’s role is essential:  As Ehrmann explains in his important book Pursuing Quality, Access, and Affordability: A Field Guide to Improving Higher Education, presidents or provosts must define a vision, articulate the institution’s needs, and push for cross-silo collaboration.

But perhaps the single most valuable contribution that senor leadership can make is to identify, showcase, recognize, and reward campus innovators, and devise strategies to take their innovations to scale.

I’m as opinionated as the next person, and I have a number of worries about what’s occurring in higher education right now.  I fret, first of all, about a post-pandemic drift back to business as usual: a reversion to lecture-based courses lacking well-defined learning objectives or extensive active learning and rigorously assessed learning outcomes.

I’m also anxious about the trend, in the name of access and affordability, toward awarding a bachelor’s degree for what I, for one, don’t consider the equivalent of a college education.  Examples include counting high school courses, taken without a content-area specialist or college-level expectations, toward a college degree, or treating self-paced, self-directed courses without regular, substantive interaction with a subject-matter expert, as equal to a series of college classes.

I may be old fashioned, but what I consider essential to a liberal arts education is the interaction with a scholar and with classmates.

Then, too, I’m concerned about a widening divide between the kind of education that honors students and those in the most advanced, demanding programs (like computer science, data science, and neuroscience) receive, and what the overwhelming majority of students (who typically major in biology, business, communication, and psychology), get and who, in all too many instances, are not set up for post-graduation success.

Even as academics speak of higher education as a system, we all know, in our heart of hearts, that it’s anything but.  Rather, it’s an amalgam of disparate, highly unequal institutions.  Some undergraduates get an education like mine was, characterized by intense interactions with faculty and peers, hands-on research opportunities, and off campus study (including, for me, at Fisk University and the Library of Congress). Others get access to Greek life, intercollegiate athletics, and a host of extracurriculars, usually coupled with lecture classes. Many, and perhaps most students, get less than that: a commuter or online experience with minimal interaction with a teacher-scholar and classmates.

We need a call to arms or an appeal to the better angels of our nature: a demand that all students, not just the most privileged, get the kind of higher education that truly engages students, embeds them in a community of learning and provides genuine mentoring, gives them the chance to engage in research and grapple with the biggest issues of our time and of all time, and better prepares them for adulthood.

If we embrace a shared vision of what college can and ought to be, then we can begin the tough work of transforming that dream into a reality.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Steven Mintz
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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Monday, August 29, 2022
Diversity Newsletter publication date:
Monday, August 29, 2022