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As a definition of the purposes of higher education, we can always quibble, but this will do pretty well:

“The goal of universities should be to develop students into mature adults who are knowledgeable, able to function in complex society and prepared for the next phase of their studies or career.”

This is according to Arthur (Tim) Garson Jr. and Robert C. Pianta, writing recently at IHE about the need to “Trash Unsupported Course Requirements.” 

The target of the essay is the “wasted” time and money of putting students in large lectures in order to fulfill “arbitrarily chosen” general education requirements.

Their solution: “A group of successful people from across the country, from all walks of life, led by evidence-based educators, could be convened to develop a list of core course requirements that all universities would utilize. They would carefully determine what sort of basic knowledge -- such as algebra, foreign languages, basic science, and so forth -- is really necessary for anybody to be considered ‘educated.’ But they shouldn’t stop there. After making their choices, universities should do what they do best -- experimentation -- to evaluate how different core courses impact outcomes for students. Deciding appropriate outcomes and when to measure them should be part of the process.”

So, one curriculum to serve them all; Common Core for college if you will. But the vision doesn’t stop here. We won’t just have one curriculum, but a common set of courses: “Second, whatever is decided, universities should shift these core courses to online instruction. Students’ on-campus time is better spent on other endeavors, and it’s inefficient for every university in the country to design and teach the same core courses. Basic Chemistry is the same, whether it’s taught by a professor in Alaska or Arkansas.”

It’s not clear why students would have any on-campus time if their gen eds are taught entirely online and are “the same” regardless of what school one attends. Wouldn’t they save the expense of a residential campus if the class experience is going to be identical regardless of where they go? Also, why would they go to a specific institution for the first two years of college if the curriculum and course is to be “universal?”

Some of you are blanching, I can tell. I am among you. You’re thinking we already tried this on a small scale with the Udacity/San Jose MOOC “debacle” through which we discovered that contact with teachers may indeed help students learn and local conditions may have significant impact on how to best engage the education process.

Garson Jr. and Pianta don’t disagree. In fact, the whole purpose of their initiative is to free-up resources for “small group courses” inside the major. “The instructors who lead these courses need to be teachers who excel in this type of environment. In many cases, the most impressive professors -- those who’ve been published frequently or have conducted groundbreaking research -- won’t thrive in it. Universities should embrace the value of true teachers for this purpose.”

You won’t find me defending the impersonal, static large lecture, but I’m having a hard time understanding how moving all of that online is an improvement. Cheaper, yes, but better educationally? Why can't this ideal of "true teachers" and small classes be a goal for all undergraduate courses?

(Oh, right...)

And what are the consequences when students shift from the online gen eds to those on-campus small classes? Do we imagine that this transition will be somehow seamless?

If we go back to the authors’ original definition of the purposes of higher education, I must believe that they see general education requirements as, at best incidental, and more accurately irrelevant to that goal.

It’s like advocating for cutting off your arms so you can run faster because you’ll have less weight to carry, forgetting of course that your arms play a significant role in locomotion.

The proposal is so internally incoherent, it’s almost hard to take seriously, and yet I think it’s emblematic of an unfortunately pervasive view towards general education among some classes of senior administrator, that the courses are fungible, and nothing much of consequence happens other than learning some “basic facts.” 

Their argument elides that fact that not all gen eds are large lectures. First-year writing, for example, is almost always taught in relatively small sections. And the degree of coherence and coordination of the general education requirements varies greatly depending on the institution. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t do better with general education, but even with all the happy talk about experimental innovation, their plan will almost certainly make things worse.

Do we need to observe that such a program will only be visited upon the unfortunates who find themselves consigned to public institutions, and likely the non-elite public institutions at that?

Here we see Tressie McMillian Cottom’s framework of Lower Ed expanding beyond the for-profit institutions she focuses on in her book, as access to education and the opportunities it brings is increasingly divided by one’s access to funding necessary to secure the kind of education that brings a truly meaningful credential.

Coincidentally (or not), on the same day, IHE featured a story of Arizona State’s Barrett Honors College, whose growth has been “fueled” by a $1500 per semester fee on top of regular tuition. 

As the article notes, differential tuition isn’t new. Students in majors that demand more resources have been paying higher tuition for years.

But in ASU’s case, the honors college appears to offer a markedly different educational experience from the “regular” ASU students, “The honors college has its own dedicated faculty and staff so that students can take many courses in small classes instead of lecture halls filled with hundreds of students. It boasts of master teachers who dedicate all of their time to students.”

The promise seems to be that for an additional fee, you can get out of those big lectures and so-so teachers. It gives you access to the really good stuff. They give me the same pitch at the car wash. I fall for it every time because how can I expect the "basic" to make my car feel shiny and new?

At 7200 students, Barrett is gigantic by honors college standards, but is still less than 10% of ASU’s total enrollment of more than 80,000.

And yet, based on the college’s self-reported data, the SAT/ACT averages for the honors college students are somewhere in the top 30th to 40th percentiles for all admitted students. (Eighty-three percent of all applicants are admitted to ASU.) 

The honors college requires recommendations and essays and makes holistic admission decisions, but at least academically they are not strictly the crème de la crème. Were enrollment in the honors college not dependent on paying the fee, this would be a good thing, but we would be fools to believe the $1500 cost of entry does not have some impact on who is able to take advantage of these superior educational resources, even as ASU says that 17% of their fees are set aside for financial aid.

ASU champions their program as a model to follow for other universities that are similarly hamstrung by state legislatures that no longer provide sufficient funding.

It is that. But what happens in a world where a meaningful education is open only to those who can already afford it?

What if we’re already there?

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