Student disengagement takes many forms and is particularly apparent in academic contexts, when many students avoid rigorous study, when professors and students mutually agree to a “if you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you” compact, and when students and their families define education in terms of degree attainment -- the cheaper and faster the better. Other patterns of disengagement are perhaps most visible in student behavior and student culture. A variety of national surveys now indicate that over 40 percent of "millennial age" students self report episodes of depression sufficient to interrupt their academic work, yet students report only occasional faculty awareness of the crises the students see among fellow students or the pain they themselves endure. Over 35 percent of current students engage in binging with alcohol or other drugs with the intent of passing out -- emotionally and physically disengaging. And for some observers, students’ civic disengagement is so alarming as to question what and who will be preserving key democratic values in the future.
What all this reveals is higher education’s failure to attend to the most fundamental of our responsibilities: the development of the whole person -- intellectual, emotive/behavioral, and civic. All college students should reach deepened levels of learning and understanding, as well as develop a strong sense of self-direction, and self-realization or well-being, and a greater sense of civic identity and responsibility. These are three separable, equally important categories of outcomes, related to the core purposes of liberal education. The integration, the reassertion, and the achievement of these all-important aims and outcomes can and must become the priority of our colleges and universities. And if we are to seek reliable indices of quality and achievement at our institutions, we can and must develop reliable means that get at each of these outcomes and their interrelatedness.
At the source of the expressions of disengagement lies the problem of the disintegration of the purpose and core outcomes of college. All too many institutions of higher education -- and even proponents of liberal education -- are off-course, addressing only narrowly academic means and strategies rather than the integrated goals and ends that matter to our students and to our democracy. As a result, many of our institutions risk becoming complicit in the troubling patterns of student disengagement.
Most institutions, in official handbooks and documents, still attest with eloquence and conviction to the importance of students’ personal and civic development. Regrettably, helping students actually achieve the full range of essential outcomes is much less evident, and only rarely are the institution’s resources, including its faculty and professionals, prepared and aligned to accomplish these ends. What is even more regrettable is that the current national debate about accountability has entirely ignored both the personal and the civic aims of a strong liberal education. As educators, as parents, as a society at large, we simply do not hold ourselves, or hold our institutions, responsible for achieving them or demand and expect such achievement. In fact, few institutions would have in place, or individuals have clearly in mind, what could be examined to determine if the core outcomes of higher education had been, even partially, achieved.
An incomplete step in the direction advocated here is the institutional use of the National Survey of Student Engagement. NSSE studies begin to look at some forms of student engagement. While promising, use of NSSE does not allow the institution to examine outcomes of student well-being (including depression and forms of abusive behaviors). And its use to assess civic outcomes is modest; for example, the affects of volunteerism and other service experiences are not distinguished from experiences involving community-based learning pedagogies.
The failure to acknowledge the practical aspects of disengagement suggests a mix of anxiety over liability (or marketing) concerns by the institution, campus peer pressures by the students, a concern of being too busy or “it’s not my job” by faculty, and a lingering sense among most that we, as individuals and as institutions ought to be, but are not, dealing openly with these problems. What is apparent is that the efforts and resources currently in place on campuses are offering, in large part, partial treatments of symptoms, rather than dealing with causes.
Even a partial solution to the patterns of disengagement by students, and by institutions, will surely come as a result of at least noticing the linkages among the forms of disengagement and, ideally, some sense of how each of the forms of disengagement could be affected through specific contexts (including mentoring and learning communities) and educational practices (pedagogies and curricula) on campus and beyond. Signature practices that reverse student patterns of disengagement include service learning, residence-based learning communities, joint student and faculty research, and institutional initiatives that model and value active and reciprocal engagement with the community -- near and beyond.
The practices that work to deepen student engagement often take students beyond the classroom to applied contexts, reveal to those who study, and to those who teach, their own presumptions and privileges, and link knowledge with action -- helping all involved appreciate that there are multiple consequences to full engagement in learning. Not only are there learning outcomes from such experiences, there are also documentable outcomes, effects and affects, that influence the well-being and the civic development of those who participate. Different types of institutions have modeled these achievements. For example, Georgetown University’s “curricular infusion” project links faculty from philosophy, mathematics, and theater with the Center for Social Justice, the health and counseling Centers, the nursing program, and the Office of Learning Assessment. As integrated teams, they have developed and now offer as established parts of the undergraduate curriculum, courses using forms of engaged pedagogy, each emphasizing the infusion of topics and methods getting at the related forms of student development: intellectual, emotional, and civic.
St. Lawrence University has established a Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership, under which community-based learning pedagogies are developed and then spread. With presidential and provost support, faculty participation is highly valued by the institution, including with faculty rewards. Departments of philosophy, psychology, biology, history, economics, and communications have integrated these offerings for majors and non-majors. Some require them for their major and the institution is moving to establish this coming year a civic engagement minor, which will be linked to multiple major curricula.
Collectively, these and related engaged learning practices can comprise a solution to the most troubling aspects of student disengagement. But these practices will work educationally only when colleges and universities themselves both expect and reward greater student and faculty involvement -- and when faculty who sponsor engaged learning are valued and rewarded within the institution and within the profession.
What gives us confidence that engaged learning practices will work for today’s students? Over the past four years, the Bringing Theory to Practice Project (BTtoP), supported by the Charles Engelhard Foundation and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, invited campus involvement in testing the hypothesis that engaged practices like these might mitigate patterns of disengagement and begin to address the problem of fractured or dis-integrated purposes and outcomes. In many respects, the rigor in evaluating their programs and initiatives was more extensive and thorough than any examination of learning assessments they had tried previously. To date, over 60 institutions have received grant support from the BTtoP Project in order to initiate or to sustain programs that have been defined to fit their institutional particularities, as they examine the linkages among the several core purposes and outcomes.
In addition to the contributions of the research documenting the relationships among outcomes, the process used in addressing patterns of disengagement makes its own contribution. We have seen that using the opportunities that already exist (from faculty meetings to parent weekends, from board discussions to town hall meetings), the institution that wants successfully to tackle the complexity of the problem of disengagement will involve its multiple constituencies (faculty and students, administrators and boards, researchers and parents, those within the campus, and those in the community beyond the campus) in considering openly and candidly the realities of disengagement on their own campus and their shared, among all of these constituencies, responsibility in both causing and solving them.
Through Bringing Theory to Practice, and through related “engaged learning initiatives” sponsored by AAC&U and other concerned organizations, faculty, administrators and students at many colleges and universities now agree that we must identify and address the patterns of disengagement in higher education and the fractured condition of its attention to core purposes and outcomes, and participate in exploration of the solutions. The beginning of a solution is to be found in recommitting our institutional actions and resources, robustly and creatively, to engaging students -- creating the contexts in which students can claim the full range of outcomes that liberal education promises -- and expecting that, in fact insisting that, such engagement occur.
Donald W. Harward is director of the Bringing Theory to Practice Project, president emeritus at Bates College, and senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.