ABET, a group that accredits engineering programs, on Thursday issued a revised version of proposed changes in its standards, and outlined a timeline for discussion. Several critics of the last version of the revisions said they continue to have concerns. Generally, ABET says, the changes reflect the many demands on engineers today, but critics say the shift will result in a narrower version of engineering education, with less general education, to the detriment of future engineers.
At a town hall campaign stop in South Carolina, Jeb Bush recently singled out an interesting group for attack: psychology, philosophy and liberal arts majors. He said:
“When a student shows up, they [their college or university] ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that's great, it's important to have liberal arts … but realize, you're going to be working a Chick-fil-A.’”
In the week since, Bush has drawn some well-deserved ire for his remarks. But those of us in the humanities would be deluding ourselves if we didn’t admit that we have a serious image problem. Policy makers like Bush have completely bought into the notion that a STEM degree is the only way to get a good job. If the humanities are going to reclaim the narrative, we have to work together and fight to promote our worth to the public.
We have a lot of catching up to do. For the past 20 years, American education policy has singularly promoted the science, technology, engineering and math fields, which has had a devastating impact on the arts and humanities. As a result, we have seen declining investments in non-STEM fields -- always paltry by contrast -- and shrinking student enrollments. Some universities have shuttered entire programs in the arts and humanities.
We in non-STEM fields have been slow to assert ourselves. Not enough of us have argued aggressively for the utility of our discipline, and those who have, such as the History Relevance Campaign and the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences (who drafted the excellent “The Heart of the Matter” report), have been fighting largely alone rather than as part of a coordinated, organized movement.
If we are to save our disciplines from irrelevance -- from the realm of the dilettante or hobbyist -- the answer is not to show our complementary utility to STEM fields (as advocates of “STEAM” have). Instead, we must rethink the common threads that our disciplines have to offer and how we present ourselves and our subjects. We should take a page from the STEM advocates’ playbook and argue the case for our disciplines vigorously, both in the public arena and to policy makers at the local, state and national levels.
The focus on science has its roots in a Cold War mentality. In 1957, as the United States rose to the challenge that Sputnik presented, science education leaped to the forefront of the national consciousness. Being “competitive” internationally wasn’t just about economics anymore, it meant defeating the Soviets. This represented an existential crisis that rests at the bottom of our current conversations about STEM.
In the late 1990s, the National Science Foundation rebranded their fields as “STEM.” Since then, proponents of STEM education have presented it as the key to attaining a high-paying job and fixing the economy, and they have found a receptive audience. In 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science (now called the Committee on Science, Space and Technology) asked the National Academies to “conduct an assessment of America’s ability to compete and prosper in the 21st century.” Their solution, which they published in the apocalyptically named “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” was an aggressive program of funding for STEM education as a way to ensure “quality jobs” for Americans. President George W. Bush then announced his American Competitiveness Initiative, aimed at promoting a STEM education agenda, which was superseded in 2007 bythe America COMPETES Act.
For students, the appeal of STEM education is understandable. College costs have ballooned, and job prospects have shrunk. Shouldering five- and six-figure student debts, they view college pragmatically and are attracted to the myth of a straight path into a lucrative career.
The problem for the arts and humanities is clear. As the American Academy of Sciences wrote in their 2014 funding report, even at its highest (in 2012), “spending for humanities research equaled 0.55% of the amount dedicated to science and engineering RD.” Congressional appropriations for the National Endowment for the Humanities dropped in the 1990s and have stayed flat or decreased since then. Enrollment in arts and humanities majors at leading universities has plummeted. And, heaping on even more financial injury, in 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed “differentiated tuition,” where those studying in STEM fields would pay less than those in disciplines that were not “strategic.”
How to Argue Our Worth Better
The response from scholars in the humanities has been fragmented. Some bristle at conceiving of their disciplines in terms of careers prepared for or skills taught. For them, the value of the arts and humanities is inherent: it leads people to live fuller, better-informed and more satisfying lives.
However, in the face of the fears of our students, their parents and public-policy makers who determine funding priorities -- and the easy answers that STEM proponents provide -- such a position is no longer sufficient. We must have better unifying principles and communicate them simply and forcefully in the public square. We must be better at showing the real, practical applications of what we do and argue not just for the inherent value of our disciplines but also their utility on the job market.
The unifying principle within STEM subjects is that they are, at their cores, focused on objects and objectivity. Though many STEM fields require significant creativity and intuition, they are fundamentally built on an objective approach to problems and solutions derived from data. Technology and engineering are, at their core, about designing and building things -- whether they be bridges or computer systems -- that are intended to perform a function and can be evaluated accordingly.
There is a different unifying principle for most non-STEM disciplines -- among them English, history, politics and civics, languages and literatures, education, the arts, philosophy, psychology and sociology -- which I call the human disciplines. All of the subjects within human disciplines are fundamentally interested in people and with subjectivity. Our disciplines not only illustrate esoteric questions of the meaning and purpose of life but are also uniquely well suited to explore questions of how to live and work with other people. In practical terms, if the job requires being able to work with and understand people -- particularly those different from yourself -- these degrees can, and should, make you better suited for it. They promote empathy, and require students to regard problems, and people, with complexity and the understanding that no single answer is right.
These kinds of jobs exist in all walks of life and include CEOs, kindergarten teachers, judges, advertisers, curators, coaches, social workers and many others. They form the linchpin of our society. They not only drive our economy but also make our country a better place to live by having good, well-trained people doing these jobs.
And these jobs are not just lucrative; they offer meaningful work. Understanding how to work with and inspire people makes you better suited to organize those around you toward a common goal, to write, speak and think with power and clarity, and to improve the lives of others. And, in practical terms, these are the jobs that are the least likely to be automated away.
So the onus is on us, within the human disciplines, to organize, to step up in the public arena, to work together -- beyond the ivory towers of our colleges and universities -- to fight for our continued existence. The skills we have to offer are tangible. The jobs we prepare our students for are plentiful and meaningful. We have at least 20 years of catching up to do in making our case to the public, but our disciplines have well prepared us for the task.
Paul B. Sturtevant is a research associate in the Office of Policy and Analysis at the Smithsonian Institution. He received his Ph.D. in Medieval Studies. He regularly writes atThe Public Medievalistand tweets at @publicmedieval.
Submitted by Anonymous on November 5, 2015 - 3:00am
My first adjunct job interview was at a local technical college. When the dean told me that he and his assistant would evaluate my interview and teaching demo, I found it unusual, since neither had a background that qualified them to assess my ability to teach in my subject area. I was surprised to learn that the dean’s assistant is a current student at the technical college, but a student perspective can be valuable. And although I had chaired and served on hiring committees as a tenured associate professor at my previous university, I hadn’t been on the job market in more than a decade. Maybe this is the way they do things at technical colleges, I thought, and I tentatively set my reservations aside.
I was offered the job shortly after I left campus. I didn’t receive an orientation or a resource packet, and though I’d asked about learning outcomes and whether or not there was a standard syllabus and course text, I was told I could do whatever I wanted. This, too, struck me as irregular, since learning outcomes and outcomes assessment are crucial issues on most college campuses today.
In the week after I was hired, which was the week before classes started, I tried repeatedly to obtain exam copies of the texts I was considering for my course. But the publisher refused to give me access -- perhaps because I’m now an adjunct or perhaps because I have no history with the technical college where I’m teaching.
In either case, my course prep became even more time-consuming. I could read the table of contents of the texts. I could, in some cases, even download a sample chapter. But I couldn’t carefully assess a text’s fitness for the students I’d be teaching. And I knew -- because I had studied the demographic data of the technical college -- that my students needed a very, very good text. I also needed to find one they could reasonably afford.
I emailed the dean and his assistant for help with procuring exam copies, thinking surely they would contact the publisher and assist with access to digital copies of the books. Nothing. I asked the publisher to contact the dean or his assistant directly. Still nothing. I phoned the publisher’s customer service specialist. Nothing. I was running out of time.
Finally, after looking up, one by one, many of the articles listed in the tables of contents of the texts I was considering, and after checking the student costs at sources such as Amazon and eBay, I selected a text. I purchased it myself and had it shipped to my home via express mail.
On the third day of class I received an email from the dean. “Oops” was one of the words in the subject line. That I could not use that text was the gist of the message. Apparently, they didn’t have the text on campus. Apparently, some students were eligible for free access. Apparently, I was the last to be informed. And apparently, I should just use the text they did have on campus.
Maybe some administrators at this institution were overworked and didn’t get the support they need. Maybe some were incompetent. It doesn’t matter. That kind of mistake doesn’t just make teaching more difficult; it compromises students.
I was not a welcome messenger on the third day of class when I told students that if they had already ordered the text listed on my syllabus -- the syllabus we’d discussed in detail the day before -- they’d have to return it. I was so mortified that I offered personally to refund students’ costs if they were unable to return their texts. On my adjunct salary, that would have been a much harder offer to make if my partner didn’t have a job that paid a living wage.
But it wasn’t just that. It was messy and unprofessional. I learned from my students that similar mistakes happen all the time, and I was humbled by how bad they felt for me.
I confess that when I received the email about the book, I momentarily considered quitting. A good administrator would have purchased the books and had them delivered ASAP. A better administrator would never have put a teacher or students in that situation. But I felt a tug of guilt about quitting. For lots of reasons, especially when I thought about the students in my class, it seemed to be the wrong thing to do.
So I began to draw on my experience with copyright and creative commons to assemble course materials that I could provide my students for free. I love doing it. Among the most important decisions an educator can make is choosing materials that meet the needs of his or her students. It’s just really, really time-consuming to start from scratch on the third day of class, not to mention that I’ll never be able to account to the environment for the number of paper copies this requires.
My adjunct contract pays me for the five hours of instructional time that I’m in the classroom each week and for one hour of course prep each week. Before I even walked into the classroom on the third day of class, I’d already dedicated more than 15 hours to course prep. I’m teaching a developmental-level course with 20 students. I knew when I accepted the position that I’d never be paid for all the time the course would require. It embarrasses me to admit that I treated teaching for such low pay as a privilege that, thanks to my partner’s job, I could afford. As long I had the opportunity to teach well, I wasn’t concerned about how much time I’d need to spend. I just hadn’t anticipated how rapidly the hours would accumulate.
A quiet series of thoughts began to grow louder: This is not sustainable. The college is compromising the students it exists to serve.
After my sixth day in the classroom, I was hopeful I’d have access to the college’s online course management system. After inquiring at the dean’s office about the CMS during the week before classes started, and again during the first week of classes, and after repeatedly getting no answer, I contacted the technology office that manages it. When I didn’t get a response via email, I searched the college website for the contact information of anyone who might be able to help. For the past 10 years, I’d relied on a CMS to manage grades and to make links, course resources and other supplementary materials available to students. For me, it was an accessible class list as well as a tool for communicating with students.
I realized how much I had taken that tool for granted when I contemplated how to develop an alternate system for recording grades and for calculating each grade’s weight as it figured into the overall course grade. My course still isn’t on the CMS, and I just gave a quiz. It will take more time, but I will be developing a spreadsheet of grades soon, and I can use my personal web space or a free wiki to publish course materials. But students are paying for the CMS, and I can’t answer why our class does not have access to it.
I’m not required to hold office hours. For anyone who has been in a tenured or tenure-line position, this might even sound great. But I don’t think it occurred to me before what it meant to be entirely inaccessible to students outside of class. I don’t have an office. I don’t have a campus phone number. And I am not paid to meet with students or to support their learning outside of class. What this suggests to me is that the possibility that students may have questions or concerns outside of class isn’t a consideration when hiring adjuncts here.
It’s fortunate that I have my own laptop and my own adapter. Although the room I’m teaching in does not have a computer station, it does have a projector, and sometimes the Wi-Fi even works. I’d love to say that I can teach without technology. That sounds incredibly romantic. I even feel a little wistful for those bygone days that existed long before I entered higher ed. But I’m preparing students to live and work in the 21st century. I can cover a lot without a screen. I could use exclusively print materials. But at what cost to my students’ education? I’m still trying to find someone who will reply to my request to teach my class in a computer lab from time to time. A lot of my students don’t have computers at home.
Yesterday, I printed an article published in Newsweek on Campus in the late 1980s. It was written by a college student attending a prestigious West Coast school. He came from an impoverished background and felt as if he were “Living in Two Worlds.” I included a large copyright notice at the bottom as required for fair use, and my students and I read the article in class together. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen students read with such intensity and deep understanding. They recognized the unemployment, poverty and struggle of the author’s hometown. “Just look out the window,” one student commented. “I saw three homeless people on my way to class today.”
I thought back to a homeless woman I’d met and fed when I visited campus for the first time for my job interview. On the adjunct pay at this institution, there’s a very good chance that instructors can’t afford decent housing. Like many of the students in my class, they may need to share a room and scrimp for grocery money -- as well as book fees -- just to get by.
But the greatest cost, it seems to me, is borne by the students. The veterans in my class who enlisted for the sole purpose of earning money for college through the GI Bill. The high-school student hoping to get a head start. The gutsy ex-con who is starting over. They’re paying to be here. They have very real goals, and they are working very hard. Why, I wonder, isn’t this college giving them what they deserve?
Submitted by Paul Fain on October 30, 2015 - 3:00am
Several large corporations have partnered with the GED Testing Service to allow their employees to pursue the credential -- which is the equivalent of a high-school diploma -- without having to pay any fees. The new GEDWorks program also includes free student supports, including online study materials, practice tests and access to GED advisers. Participating companies include Walmart, KFC, Taco Bell and Southeastern Grocers.
“Walmart believes that education is key to an associate's personal and professional development,” Michelle Knight, vice president of talent development for Walmart U.S., said in a written statement. “The opportunity to earn a market-valued credential helps our people gain skills to advance their career. Achieving success with the GEDWorks program is a gateway to opportunity.”
The American Council on Education managed the GED until 2011, when it partnered with Pearson to create the GED Testing Service. The test received an overhaul at the time, moving to being computer based and dropping a paper version. It also became more expensive, more difficult and aimed in part at college readiness as well as the workforce. As a result, some competitor tests have grown in popularity since the GED's changes went into effect.
Submitted by Paul Fain on October 29, 2015 - 3:00am
The Aspen Institute and the Siemens Foundation this week announced the first results of a new partnership focused on the projected shortages of skilled workers for high-demand jobs in manufacturing, energy, health care and information technology. Community colleges are key to meeting this demand, the two groups said. So the Siemens Foundation is funding an effort by the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program to identify academic programs at two-year colleges that help students achieve success in "middle-skill" STEM fields.
This week Aspen said it has awarded scholarships of between $3,500 and $10,000 to current students or recent graduates of these programs. All the recipients attend or have attended community colleges Aspen has named as finalists for its prize for community college excellence. On average, 93 percent of graduates in the Aspen-identified STEM programs were placed in jobs within six months of graduation -- jobs that had a starting salary range of $32,760 to $82,144.
Submitted by Paul Fain on October 28, 2015 - 3:00am
Southern New Hampshire University and the Flatiron School, a coding boot camp, today announced a broad collaboration. The university and the New York City-based education provider will seek to expand the use of Flatiron's recently created online learning platform. They also will create a joint academic program, through which Southern New Hampshire's campus-based students will take three years of courses at the university followed by six months of Flatiron's web development curriculum and a paid apprenticeship during the final semester before graduation. Finally, the two partners will create an in-person coding boot camp at Southern New Hampshire's Nashua campus.
“Our mission is focused on the success of our students. By offering this opportunity, we can position our students for career opportunities and future growth and success in their selected fields," said Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire's president, in a written statement.
Southern New Hampshire and Flatiron also announced that they will apply to participate in a recently announced experiment the U.S. Department of Education is hosting. That program will allow a handful of accredited colleges to partner with boot camps to offer academic programs that will be eligible for federal financial aid.
In a recent letter to the Higher Learning Commission, the largest of the regional accreditors, the Office of the Inspector General offered a scathing review of the commission’s approvals for direct-assessment competency-based education programs. The review highlighted the fundamental challenges facing a movement that has been washing like a wave over higher education. The OIG’s more rigid reading of the rules for faculty interaction with students may have a chilling effect on accreditors, who could become more concerned about running afoul of the OIG than of heeding calls to be supportive of much-needed innovation in higher education.
In just two years, we have gone from a handful of CBE programs and almost none offering direct assessment -- the unwieldy name for CBE programs not tied to the credit hour -- to more than 600 institutions working on such offerings. Those institutions include community colleges, independent colleges and universities, and public institutions like the University of Michigan and the University of Texas. In contrast to the rapid expansion of for-profit online education a decade ago, the primary providers today are nonprofit institutions. While most programs are still being designed within traditional credit-hour frameworks and thus Title IV rules of financial aid disbursement, an increasing number seek to be untethered to the credit hour and its trumping of time over actual learning. They have the support of leaders in the Education Department, the White House and both parties of Congress.
Enter the OIG, which operates independently within the Education Department, auditing and investigating department programs. The recent letter to the Higher Learning Commission reasserts the use of the “regular and substantive interaction between faculty and students” rule to distinguish between conventional Title IV-eligible programs and correspondence programs, which have greater restrictions on aid eligibility and ruinous stigma attached to them. The OIG, acutely aware of the abuses in correspondence programs in the 2000s, takes a very conservative interpretation of the rule and posits a traditional faculty instructional role.
However, many of the most innovative CBE programs unbundle that role, using faculty members in various ways, such as subject matter experts, reviewers and for learning support, while relying on “coaches” for some of the advising and mentoring roles often associated with faculty. Such programs are also introducing breakthrough technologies that can offer personalized learning and robust support not possible just 10 years ago.
The Education Department’s own guidance to institutions tacitly acknowledged such an unbundling process in its December 2014 dear colleague letter when it talked about interactions between students and "institutional staff," and it offered more explicit guidance this September in its Competency-Based Education Experiment Reference Guide. That detailed and much-awaited guidance reaffirms the need for students to have “access to qualified faculty,” but it allows for the unbundling of faculty roles, for “regular and substantive” interaction to be “broadly interpreted,” and for “periodic” interaction to be “event driven.” It shares the OIG’s basic concern when it asserts that “it is incumbent on the institution to demonstrate that students are not left to educate themselves, a chief characteristic of correspondence programs.” But it also understands that there are now many exciting alternatives to “self-learning” that do not look like traditional classrooms.
A lot of the innovation underway in CBE rests on adaptive learning technologies, powerful analytics and customer relationship management tools, learning science, and improved practices in everything from advising to learning design. But those advances -- all emerging after the correspondence program abuses of 20 years ago -- are unacknowledged in the OIG’s report. And the report’s authors continue to use time as a proxy for learning, as when they use phrases like, “even though the applications described the proposed programs as self-paced ….” Pacing is largely irrelevant in a direct-assessment world where outcomes, not seat time, matter.
The report rightly points out a need for clarity of approval processes and better communications. Institutions have long been frustrated by the opaque nature of both the Education Department’s and at least some of the accreditors’ approval processes, including the Higher Learning Commission’s. Yet, ironically, just as the accreditors and the department have improved their guidance -- witness the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions' guidance in June and the department’s expanded CBE guidance in September -- the OIG report will very likely make things worse again as both parties scramble to respond and alter their processes in whatever ways they feel necessary.
New Regulatory Frameworks
Congress can fix this mess (come on now, hold back that snickering). It can create a demonstration project that allows non-credit-hour CBE -- let’s please drop “direct assessment,” as all CBE programs directly assess student mastery of competencies -- the kind of latitude for providing the functions that faculty have traditionally provided, while not reifying their roles. It can use the occasion to also provide for subscription models of disbursing Title IV, rethinking time-based measures like Satisfactory Academic Progress, tying aid disbursement to mastery of competencies and finally, getting Title IV rules to align with the legislative intent of an alternative to the credit hour.
It can then use that demonstration project and what we learn from it to inform the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Given the bipartisan support for CBE, the demonstration project can be easily created, and it would be a useful mechanism for informing the more complicated process of reauthorization. Republican Congressman John Kline of Minnesota, chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, can immediately address the need by reintroducing last year’s widely supported CBE bill. Former Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa and then chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, would not take up the bill, a missed opportunity. His successor in the Senate, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, should consider a demonstration project as a useful step towards reauthorization, a source of learning to inform better policy making, and act to support the innovation he has rightly called for in HELP Committee hearings.
In the end, the OIG is simply enforcing the law and rules that Congress and the Department of Education have created. While its lawyers, auditors and investigators are by nature and training biased toward a more conservative, even rigid, reading of the rules, it is not their job to make the rules. They will enforce what Congress creates.
So the onus is on policy makers to create new regulatory frameworks with enough latitude to better provide for innovation and the learning still underway, enough quality assurance to discourage shoddily designed programs, and enough regulatory oversight to prevent the abuses that still inform the OIG’s concerns with CBE programs.
Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University. He worked as a senior policy advisor to Under Secretary Ted Mitchell in the U.S. Department of Education from March to June 2015, focusing on CBE programs and innovation.