Creating the Learner and Learning-Centered University

Introducing a much-needed alternative to today’s customer-centered neoliberal campus.

November 1, 2022

Today’s customer-centered colleges and universities are not the learner and learning-centered universities we need.

In the neoliberal universe of contemporary Americans higher education, it’s no secret that many students think of themselves, first and foremost, as consumers who are purchasing a bundle of services and experiences and expect a measurable return on their investment.

A customer-centric college or university prioritizes its brand. But unlike a business’s brand, which seeks to distinguish its products or services, the overwhelming majority of public and private nonprofits do everything in their power to emulate the sector’s leaders. Their physical landscape, architecture, departmental structure, institutional calendar, faculty hierarchy, curricular and extracurricular offerings, and even their mission statements scream college.

Sociologists use the term “isomorphism” to describe these similarities, which are a product of shared norms, professional socialization, accreditation and regulatory pressures, and parental and student expectations.

A learner and learning-focused campus, in contrast, would place student needs, aspirations and anxieties, and learning center stage.

What would it mean to be truly learner and learning centered?

First, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, it involves embracing the students an institution has, rather than the ones its faculty might prefer. For most broad-access institutions, these are nontraditional students, who attend part-time, commute, work 25 hours a week or more and have various family responsibilities.

Second, it requires a campus to recognize these students’ life challenges and goals and respond accordingly. Many of these students are among the first in their family to attend college and therefore need more advising and mentoring than those who are already familiar with college terminology, offices, practices and procedures, requirements and expectations. Also, many received an uneven high school education and therefore require Academics 101 training and learning supports. In addition, many need help with basic needs for food, housing, health care, childcare and transportation and handling the unpredictable disruptions that all too frequently interrupt their education.

Third, it seeks to address the students’ primary goal, which is a glide path to a rewarding career. That means that these institutions must:

  • Offer a clearly delineated road map to a degree.
  • Seek to bring the top 100 percent of students to proficiency.
  • Provide wraparound academic and nonacademic supports, including intensive, personalized academic, financial and career advising and ready access to supplemental instruction.
  • Eliminate obstacles to timely completion, including outdated or irrelevant graduation requirements and barriers to transfer.

Such institutions would strive to maximize return on investment and prepare students not just for their fifth job, but their first. Their faculty must align their personal and professional interests with their students’ welfare. These campuses need to create educational experiences that are intentionally designed to engage and motivate students, tie in with their postcollege aspirations, offer a sufficient amount of flexibility and options, and help students persist.

The $64,000 question, of course, is how to do these things in a context of budgetary constraints.

The answer not only involves curricular, pedagogical and organizational change, but a shift in institutional messaging.

1. Clarify your campus’s goals.

A generic mission statement won’t cut it. Be explicit. If your institution’s primary objective is to prepare students for good careers, say so without equivocation. If another goal is equity, then the campus needs to describe how that applies to recruitment, admissions, curriculum, pedagogy, the student experience and outcomes.

2. Align campus practices with these institutional goals.

If career development is a core objective, then career identification; assessments of talents, interests and strengths; and charting a realistic path forward must infuse the undergraduate experience. That doesn’t mean that classes need to be narrowly vocational. But it does mean that professional identity development, relevant skills development, windows into careers, technical and soft skills training, and job-like experiences need to be integrated into curricular pathways.

3. Adopt structured schedules.

Divide the school day into time blocks that will allow students to concentrate their on-campus attendance. Combine in-person and asynchronous online learning to enhance flexibility.

4. Embrace data-driven advising.

Respond proactively to certain evidence-based triggers. These include poor first-semester performance, a marked decline in academic momentum, a shift in majors after the fourth semester, failure to regularly log in to a class website and deviations from the student degree plan.

5. Rethink general education.

George Mehaffy, the former vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, likens gen ed requirements to George H. W. Bush’s reaction to broccoli: something that’s supposed to be good for you but might as well be castor oil. There’s no inherent reason why gen ed courses can’t be better aligned with degree pathways, with tracks tailored to the most popular majors.

One area where gen ed could be strengthened is by doing more to improve students’ quantitative literacy. Data, statistics and quantitative analysis have never been more widely used, and without minimal competency in quantitative methods, students will be closed out of the most advanced, cutting-edge fields. Even humanities departments would do well foster computational thinking and statistical understanding by exposing students to data mining, data visualization, geospatial analysis and network analysis.

Another area ripe for innovation involves writing proficiency. Currently, most undergraduates receive little formal training in writing outside one or two first-year rhetoric and composition classes. I wholeheartedly agree with one of Ryan Craig’s suggestions: ask students to write in formats that are relevant to their future. Have them draft a memo, a marketing plan, a product road map, a feasibility study, a competitive landscape analysis, a press release, a job description, a job application or offer letter, a policy brief, or a letter to the editor.

6. Foster a sense of belonging.

The scholarly research couldn’t be clearer: a sense of belonging is critical for student success. There are many ways to cultivate a sense of connection: with a first-year learning community, a meta-major, career-related cohorts and other high-impact, educationally purposeful activities, including mentored research and even student-faculty lunches.

7. Enhance the educational experience.

One way is to integrate active learning into classes. Support faculty in making their courses more participatory, interactive and inclusive. Encourage development of classes that involve inquiry, problem solving, peer and team-based learning, and project creation. Consider using gamification strategies and authentic, real-world projects to maximize student engagement. In STEM classes, devote more time developing and testing hypotheses and making use of simulations and virtual labs.

Another strategy is to expand the kinds of classes students take beyond traditional lectures and discussions. Expand students’ opportunities to take part in practicums, studio courses, clinicals and field and community-based, experiential and service learning.

Then, too, encourage development of for-credit courses that tackle big questions or that create solver communities or that focus on personal and emotional development.

8. Redesign gateway courses with a goal of 100 percent proficiency.

Currently, all too many difficult and demanding gateway courses in math and the physical and life sciences serve as weedout classes, with a disproportionate impact on women and other historically underrepresented groups of students. However, with proper support, many of these students have the ability to succeed in these challenging courses. By imbuing these classes with more active learning and problem-solving opportunities; using interactives, simulations and various annotation, statistical and visualization tools; and incorporating supplemental instruction such as organized study groups and tutoring, student success can be enhanced.

9. Supplement traditional majors with structured pathways into high-demand fields.

As students increasingly gravitate toward career-aligned majors in accounting, finance, management, marketing and sales, biotech, data analytics, design, health care, information technology, and sustainability, it would make sense to design degree verticals that are more coherent, synergistic and integrated, in which all courses, including gen ed classes, reinforce one another. While reducing choice and serendipity, such an approach can contribute to professional identity formation and underscore the relevance of courses in the social sciences and humanities.

10. Make it easier for students to acquire digital skills that are in high demand in the job market.

As Ryan Craig has pointed out, every sector of the economy has embraced software and technology tools that give job applicants a leg up. Among the examples he cites are: Marketo, HubSpot and Pardot in marketing, NetSuite in finance, Salesforce in customer communication, and Workday in human resources. Create workshops and courses where students can develop proficiency with these widely used platforms.

11. Help students create a track record of demonstrated career-aligned skills.

In addition to expanding access to paid internships and job shadowing, integrate career-related, work-based projects into existing classes. Provide students with opportunities to work as a team on an authentic problem or challenge or project that a firm, a nonprofit or a government agency has identified.

12. Expand co- and extracurricular activities that promote student development.

Many of the skills that employers prize, involving leadership, teamwork, interpersonal communication and project management, are acquired outside the classroom. Many companies and organizations also want employees with the kinds of cultural literacies that come from visiting museums, attending concerts and theatrical performances and learning about different cultures. A learner- and learning-centered campus shouldn’t consider these co- and extracurricular activities as peripheral to its core mission. Rather, these play a pivotal role in cultivating a well-rounded college graduate.

Radical innovators would no doubt scoff at these proposals as wholly inadequate if we are to successfully address the pressing challenges of affordability and employability. Those innovators have advanced a very different vision of the future of postsecondary education, one that involves unbundling the college experience to reduce cost; shifting undergraduate education and most job training fully online; replacing full-time tenured faculty with course mentors, coaches and dedicated graders; substituting stackable credentials and certifications for degrees; and swapping apprenticeships and job shadowing for formal college education.

We do need faster, cheaper, alternative pathways into the job market for the many Americans who need to retool and upskill. But the overwhelming majority of high school graduates wants something like a traditional college education. They understand, as we all should recognize from hard-won experience, that fully online education and training works poorly for those who’d benefit most from an employer-recognized credential.

The innovations I’ve suggested would go a long way toward ensuring that a college education delivers much more equitably on its upward mobility promise. Colleges must innovate if they are to adapt to shifting demographic and economic realities and evolving student needs. The key question is whether our campuses will change or be left behind. So let’s replace the neoliberal customer-centered campus with the institution we need: one that is learner and learning centric.

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

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