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Yes, Virginia, We Can Deliver Transformational Education at Scale

How to make an undergraduate education more transformative and developmental.

June 10, 2021
 
 

In a recent interview, New America’s Kevin Carey made an observation that I think bears repeating: within higher education today, there is only one true model of institutional success. That’s the R-1, with its “beautiful buildings and sports teams and grassy lawns and football games on Saturdays and social prestige …”

Sure, one can think of exceptions, beginning with the best-funded, most selective liberal arts colleges and the technology powerhouses like MIT and Caltech. The list of exceptions certainly includes the most prestigious HBCUs like Howard, Morehouse and Spelman.

But the R-1 model certainly now represents the exemplar that other institutions hope to emulate.

The top-tier R-1s offer many advantages to faculty and students alike in terms of course and curricular options, facilities, libraries and museums, and campus amenities.

But all too often, R-1s are faculty-centered, not student-focused, institutions. Despite the expansion of student affairs and support services, all the 1960s-era complaints about a research-preoccupied professoriate and an impersonal multiversity that is, first and foremost, a knowledge factory still ring true.

Too often, at R-1s, faculty obligations to undergraduates begin and end when the class bells chime.

Such institutions may be diverse cosmetically but do little to leverage the diversity of their students intellectually or socially.

Insofar as these universities remain mission-driven institutions, that mission centers on contract and applied research, an active Greek life, and nationally visible sports teams to engage alumni and generate attention and prestige.

Which is not to say that these institutions fail to offer a lot to undergrads. They do: an alluring coming-of-age experience, membership in a high-value social network, plenty of opportunities to socialize and be entertained, as well as a prestigious degree.

But outside their honors programs, relatively few of their students receive what I’d consider a genuine college education. To me, a real college education is:

Transformative

It makes undergraduates part of the “great conversation”: the 2,500-year-long debate over the meaning of life, morality, justice and the problem of evil. It produces graduates who are culturally literate and who are able to think critically and analytically and communicate and argue fluently, logically and persuasively. More than that, it’s an education that leads learners to reconsider established values and practices and critically reflect upon the conventional wisdom.

Developmental

In addition to promoting students’ cognitive development, it also stimulates growth across other dimensions: emotional, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Its goal is not simply to prepare graduates for a job, but for life.

Skills- and Outcomes-Oriented

This is an education that goes beyond knowledge acquisition and exposure to information, concepts, interpretations and methodologies, to emphasize active inquiry, disciplinary practice, skills mastery and knowledge application. It treats students as creators of knowledge and partners in the educational enterprise.

Coherent

Rather than treating an undergraduate education as a sequence of disconnected, stand-alone courses, it conceives of a higher education as a more cohesive, integrated and synergistic academic journey that goes beyond the box checking of various requirements.

Experiential

Such an education also has an experiential dimension, whether this takes the form of study abroad, supervised research, mentored internships and field- or community-based or service learning opportunities.

That’s my ideal, and scholars like George Kuh have devoted a lot of thought to how such a vision can be delivered efficiently and cost-effectively at scale. The high-impact practices that he describes, such as first-year seminars, learning communities, undergraduate research and capstone projects, offer ways to make the undergraduate experience more powerful and meaningful.

Kuh’s list of educationally purposeful practices is certainly a step in the right direction -- and offers several advantages in its favor: it’s not especially difficult to implement and is readily adaptable to a variety of student interests.

But, I fear, such innovations in programming can’t substitute for a more robust conception of the purpose of an undergraduate education or what delivering such an experience entails for students and faculty members.

A genuine education places substantial time demands on students and faculty -- demands too often unmet. Students need to be actively engaged in their own learning, and faculty need to devote significant energy to providing timely, substantive feedback and mentoring.

What we offer instead is a fractured, fragmented curriculum with requirements substituting for well-crafted, intentionally designed educational journeys and sensibly sequenced skills development. And while our institutions offer a rich array of workshops, panels, lectures, performances, clubs and extracurricular activities, usually only a small minority of students participate due to other demands, usually jobs.

What, then, would I do differently?

1. I’d rethink the way we deal with general education and graduation requirements.

Our current approach consists of a complicated menu of options and requirements that students must fulfill. An alternative would be to require instructors, as part of the course approval process, to demonstrate that the proposed class will meet certain essential requirements, whether these involve proficiency in writing; mathematical and statistical reasoning; scientific inquiry; textual, artistic or media analysis; social and cultural analysis; or some other essential literacy.

2. I’d do much more to embed personal and professional development into the undergraduate experience.

Many, perhaps most, institutions refuse to grant credit for a wide range of skills-development classes on the grounds that they are not truly academic. As a result, many students who would benefit substantially from study skills and test-taking or oral presentation or professional development or spreadsheet and database workshops do not do so.

3. I’d increase expectations for mentoring and feedback -- and place greater pressure on administrators to make such a commitment manageable.

When I’m responsible for teaching 40, 400 or 1,500 students in a single class, there are limits to how much mentoring and feedback I can provide, no matter how committed I am to the students’ development. But we must ensure that students do receive much more of the close attention that can make a difference in their academic trajectory.

Many institutions somehow find ways to offer freshman composition and foreign language instruction in relatively small sections. We need to do something similar across the curriculum if we want to place a greater emphasis on writing and active and project-based learning -- even if that requires a limited number of mega-classes to free up more faculty to teach seminar-size courses.

It’s no doubt unrealistic to imagine an R-1 instilling the institutionwide sense of community and the emphasis on personal and professional development that one finds at Paul Quinn or Morehouse or Spelman. But we do have many examples of cohort programs that might serve as models to emulate.

Let me draw here on the cohort, research and opportunity programs at CUNY’s Hunter College, which demonstrate that it is indeed possible to create subcommunities at scale.

These include the Athena Scholars, which offers students in the humanities and social sciences special seminars and enrichment activities; the Daedalus Scholars, offering a supportive community in computer science; and the Muse Scholars, in the visual and performing arts; the Nursing Scholars; the Roosevelt Scholars in public affairs; and the Yalow Scholars in scientific research -- each with a faculty mentor, designated advising and a wealth of creative, community outreach and professional development activities.

Then there were somewhat similar programs serving other segments of the undergraduate population: the Percy Ellis Sutton SEEK opportunity program to help economically disadvantaged students realize their academic potential; or Mellon Arts, Mellon Mays and Mellon Public Humanities, offering unrepresented students career preparation in the arts and arts management and mentored research and internship opportunities.

Other cohorts include the Bluhm Scholars (in classics); the McNulty Scholars (for leadership in science and mathematics); the Tukman Scholars, pre-professional programs in business, health care and law -- all of which provide faculty mentorship; professional skills training; assistance with graduate and professional school applications, including preparation of personal statements; and a host of enriching cultural experiences, including lectures, concerts, performances, museum exhibits and book chats.

We have it within our power, even at very large institutions, to make an undergraduate education more transformative, developmental, skills- and outcomes-focused, experiential, and coherent. One proven strategy is to place as many students as possible into faculty-led cohorts. Then we can reward those faculty directors for their service and mentoring activities.

None of this is a mission impossible. Impressive examples abound. All you need to do is steal from the best.

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

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