Economics students in 19 countries have issued a joint call -- published in The Guardian -- to change the way economics is taught. The students' analysis (similar to that of some professors in the United States and elsewhere) is that economics has become too uniform in its approaches and too removed from real life. "[I]t's time to reconsider the way economics is taught. We are dissatisfied with the dramatic narrowing of the curriculum that has taken place over the past couple of decades," the letter says. "This lack of intellectual diversity does not only restrain education and research. It limits our ability to contend with the multidimensional challenges of the 21st century – from financial stability to food security and climate change. The real world should be brought back into the classroom, as well as debate and a pluralism of theories and methods. This will help renew the discipline and ultimately create a space in which solutions to society's problems can be generated."
The University of California at Los Angeles -- with strong support from Chancellor Gene Block -- is again considering a requirement in its largest undergraduate college that students take at least one course about diversity, The Los Angeles Times reported. Faculty in the College of Letters and Science have rejected such a requirement three times previously. Supporters say that diversity is so crucial to today's society that all students should have at least one course in the subject. Critics question whether such courses improve race relations, and note that many UCLA students are pressed to meet existing requirements.
Americans don’t like cheaters. When it comes to how we learn and what we’re able to do with our acquired knowledge, a game has been going on. And many will find themselves systematically locked out of opportunity.
This is not about students cheating on tests or principals downplaying ineffective teaching strategies. Nor is it about the latest argument concerning higher education — that college is too expensive and there’s no guarantee of gainful employment. It a national reckoning of how much we’re willing to tolerate regarding class, status and the suppression of economic mobility. This issue demands that we take responsibility for the way that our educational decisions play out in our lives and throughout our communities. Until we take ownership of these things, we will continue to play a fool’s game of winners and losers.
For the vast majority of Americans — myself included — a college education remains the key to an engaging, financially viable life. Nothing should be done to disrupt this trusted vehicle by zeroing in on the undergraduate degree solely as preparation for a first job whose “of-the-moment” skills and knowledge are likely be eclipsed in short order in a rapidly changing economy.
I am a first-generation college student. My father, while I was growing up ,was an assembly line worker making wooden boxes and a cook at a hospital. My mother did not work outside the home.
It was their conviction that I would receive an education that those who traditionally succeeded -- generation after generation -- in America already enjoyed.
And that was a liberal arts education. My parents didn’t really understand what a liberal arts education was, but they knew they wanted it for me. I was not about to be cheated out of an education that would not carry me through a lifetime of self-inquiry, engagement and changing job opportunities.
But today’s stormy economy, and with it, constant rhetoric from self-appointed critics dubbing the liberal arts “useless” as opposed to training for a first job, cause people to have doubts. The liberal arts — even as a complement to vocational education as in Germany where the technical economy is thriving — are glibly declared without value.
Is it not suspicious, however, that at the very time more and more aspiring students from challenging, non-middle-class backgrounds seek higher education, those who have already achieved, often on the basis of a liberal education, want to redefine the rules?
This is the game. It’s as close as America gets to hereditary power. And it is won in two relatively simple steps: redefine the very notion of student success on the basis of landing that first job; and keep those without privilege away from the liberal arts — a historical source of power and mobility in the middle-class culture that defines higher education. There is no doubt that those who are trying to tear down the traditional undergraduate degree would not permit their own children to be limited to a strictly vocational education.
So, while we are encouraged to fret over college costs, the marketability and uselessness of the philosophy major, or something else similarly distracting, we’re letting the great equalizer of the college degree and a trusted path to leadership get away from us.
Some institutions are not waiting for everyday Americans to catch on. At the University of Baltimore, for example, a state institution committed to open-access admissions at the undergraduate level, a rigorous examination of the challenges faced by and resources available to its students for success has been taking place for the past year. The goal is to provide students the academic and non-academic interventions that help them complete a career-oriented college-level course of study at a reasonably low cost and in a reasonable amount of time. These students didn’t grow up believing that they have all the time in the world to mature. They were not told every day that they are “great.” Many are first generation college students and come from nontraditional pathways to the university. There is a mix of ages. Urgency defines these students’ ambition. The university has no intercollegiate athletics and its residence facilities are minimal. The city often serves both its students’ residential and social life.
But in its effort to increase student success, the university is not forgoing its historic commitment to the applied liberal arts. It offers relatively modest number of majors that are preparatory to a range of careers — business, criminal justice, human sciences and management, digital communications, simulation and digital entertainment, psychology, jurisprudence, and integrated arts. All of these are taught within a liberal arts context. At its curricular core, the university has always been about a productive, at once imaginative, intersection of theory and practice defined by applied liberal arts in the service of employment.
For example, all publication design majors are required to complete Visual/Verbal Rhetoric and all digital communication majors are required to take Rhetoric of Digital Communications. Both courses are based in rhetorical theory from Aristotle and Burke to McLuhan, Toulmin and Barthes. Students analyze and apply aesthetic and rhetorical theory to visual products -- advertisements and other graphic-design materials, television shows and movies, public relations and marketing. The infusion of the liberal arts into the fundamentals of applied courses of study began with the introduction of programs often decades ago. The deliberate infusion of practical courses with the liberal arts is further strengthened by locating them within the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences. Here is a university where open-access students are not about to be intellectually shortchanged even when facing the imperative to transition from study to work.
When our nation’s founding fathers made their original commitment to higher education, they envisioned a useful liberal arts education that would permit citizens to participate productively over a lifetime in the social, political and economic arenas of democracy. There was no dichotomy between the liberal arts and employment in the distinctively American college education.
Today, we risk this potential for a meritocracy. Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted centuries ago in his essay, "Self Reliance," that a distinction of the American people — a key to their inventiveness and advancement — is the ability to entertain two seemingly contradictory notions at once. Those who would drive a wedge between the liberal arts and jobs are destroying that distinction and limiting human potential. A culture of inherited privilege is still doggedly hanging on to supplant the individual’s talent and ambition. The walls are still up and being defended under the seductive guise of a narrow education for the first job. And a lot of folks are being cheated as college success is redefined. For when college success is redefined, so is life success.
William G. Durden is president emeritus of Dickinson College and a newly appointed research professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Education and operating partner at Sterling Partners. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave at the University of Baltimore.
Over the years, we wanted to learn more about why young people who start college don’t earn degrees in greater numbers. We had reams of data on the issue, but we wanted to hear from college leaders — presidents, chancellors, and deans. From their campus-level perspective, what were the biggest barriers preventing students from completing their postsecondary educations?
Time and again higher education leaders answered that question by lamenting the poor academic preparation students received in high school. This complaint was most prevalent at community colleges, where nearly 9 out of 10 leaders said students arrived unprepared for college-level work, but poor high school preparation was also cited by more than a third of four-year college leaders.
So, is this view an attack on high school educators? Not at all. We see this as a reason for K-12 and higher education leaders to work together on behalf of students. It’s exactly why higher education leaders must engage with the Common Core State Standards — the biggest and boldest effort in a generation to ensure every student is prepared to succeed in college and the work force.
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For too long we have taught students to standards that don’t match the knowledge and skills they needed to succeed after high school. The Common Core State Standards were designed to address that by providing rigorous learning goals in English language arts/literacy and mathematics for all students, no matter where they live, or what they plan to do after high school. The standards were adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia, with districts and schools now using them. In too many places, though, districts and states are doing this without the help, guidance or political muscle of higher education leaders.
The new standards move far beyond memorizing facts and figures. They challenge our students to develop a deeper understanding of subject matter, to think critically, and to apply what they are learning to the real world. The goal is to ensure that any student meeting these standards will be prepared to meet the challenges of first-year college courses. This will be a welcome change for higher education leaders, because it will free colleges to focus on, well, college.
Specifically, the full and faithful implementation of the Common Core could all but eliminate the need for colleges to provide academic remediation to students enrolling in college immediately after graduating from high school. Also called “developmental education,” this remediation costs taxpayers $7 billion every year. It’s estimated that only 17 percent of students who take a developmental reading course go on to earn a four-year degree.
In Kentucky, after the state became the first to adopt the Common Core State Standards in 2011, the percent of Kentucky high school graduates ready for college and career increased from 38 percent to 47 percent in a single year, and a year later it hit 54 percent.
Instead of spending the first semester or two in college in developmental education classes, and paying for those non-credit bearing courses, students should be able to immediately start earning credits toward a degree. This is no small thing, as the typical student at a four-year college needs nearly five years to graduate and then leaves with an average of $29,000 in student loan debt.
Reducing the time it takes students to earn a college degree benefits everyone. It saves students money. It makes it more likely that they will graduate. It ensures a better investment for taxpayers, with a higher return on their investment of public funds. It means colleges can reduce the amount of money they spend on students who are now taking five or more years to graduate, and can focus those resources on improving the learning environment and ultimately the completion rates for all students.
Another significant benefit of the new standards is that they present a long-overdue and purposeful link between K-12 and higher education. The standards provide both systems with an opportunity for serious, ongoing collaboration. Right now, that collaboration isn’t happening nearly often enough. Last fall, Hart Research Associates and edBridge Partners surveyed 205 district superintendents and college university system leaders. Only one-third of those surveyed said they collaborate “extremely or very effectively” with each other.
This is a real missed opportunity. Through the work of our grantees and partners, we have seen how close collaboration can yield amazing results. According to Complete College America, the California State University (CSU) system helped add a series of college readiness questions to the state’s 11th-grade exam. After students take the test, they are told whether they are on track for college-level classes in the CSU system. CSU has also designed transitional readiness courses and professional development opportunities that help high school teachers work with unprepared students to get them ready for college. In addition, 10 states and the District of Columbia have aligned their high school graduation requirements with their state university admission requirements.
Higher education leaders and faculty in several institutions are working to align college eligibility and admissions practices and many states are also working to align first-year college courses with the new high school course expectations. But there is a great and urgent need for higher education to do more because the standards are under attack from some quarters.
In many states, some groups are working to purposefully undermine them with misinformation that isn’t about quality. Of great importance to higher education, in particular, is the standards have been designed to ensure young people master the essential skills and knowledge they need in higher education and the workplace. The higher education community is in a unique position to reinforce what matters most, affirming the quality of the Common Core State Standards and attesting that the standards are aligned to better prepare students for credit-bearing courses.
On a more general level, some critics continue to claim that the Common Core State Standards are an improper federal intervention in education; that educators were not sufficiently involved in their development; and that the standards dictate curriculum. Here, too, the members of the higher education community can help to combat misinformation by citing their firsthand evidence to the contrary, or by helping to direct attention to the extensive public evidence and information about the standards’ actual origin, development and content. By engaging actively in the debate around the Common Core, higher education leaders can inform it with their expertise, participate in and ensure the full, faithful and effective implementation of the Common Core, and help supporters of improved education and educational pipelines stay the course.
The Common Core State Standards should be a watershed moment in our nation’s efforts to improve the lives of young people. The new standards will be critical in determining how well our students succeed in K-12, and whether they are ready to succeed in college, the work force, and beyond.
We must ensure this essential work is not derailed. To be successful, we need higher education leaders to engage directly, to learn about the Common Core State Standards, and join the debate. Why? Because they are in the best position to help Americans understand that rigorous standards like these are needed for our students so they succeed in high school, through college, and into their careers.
Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Vicki Phillips is director of education at the foundation.
The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has picked 14 institutions to participate in a "jumpstart" program for competency-based education. With funding the Lumina Foundation, the council will help the 14 colleges and universities develop degree programs that are based on competencies rather than the credit hour standard. The group includes community colleges and both public and private four-year universities.