Higher ed needs to redesign gen ed for the real world (opinion)

It was the kind of setting you see in a movie, the sort of college campus that made you feel smarter just being there: long tree-lined walks, noble brick buildings, an ornate fountain in the distance. Everything but “Pomp and Circumstance” playing over the loudspeaker. Visiting for a day, I felt like I was part of something important: conversations about the meaning of life, experiments unlocking the mysteries of cancer, explorations that would make learning purposeful and impactful. It felt good, standing there on the quad. Like I was part of something that mattered.

I later mentioned this feeling to the university’s provost, complimenting him on the beauty of the campus, the thought they’d put into creating a setting that causes students to stand, backs a little straighter, seriousness in their eyes. He smiled and thanked me, but then frowned. “But then students walk into our gen ed, all those basic courses and 101s. How do they feel then?”

A great question. One answer comes in the form of a tweet a student shared with me a while back. It’s posted by “$yd,” (yes, with a dollar sign) and says:

Unpopular opinion: general education courses in college are a complete scam for your money to keep you paying for 4+ yrs. If gen ed courses weren’t a requirement, major really only require 2 yrs of classes. All of highschool (sic) was gen ed- it’s simply unnecessary.

This tweet, from 2018, has 209,000 likes and more than 72,000 retweets. That’s a lot of attention for social media discussing education. “Unpopular”? Hardly.

Here’s the thing: architects and designers will tell you that when creating a space, they’re thinking very deliberately about how that space constructs its occupants. Step into the Google offices in Dublin, and you enter a colorful, energetic atmosphere full of raw energy. You feel invigorated and irreverent. There are no rules, this space says. Play. Create.

Step into St. Paul’s in London, and you feel simultaneously humbled and transcendent. Cathedrals are grand for a reason: you’re meant to feel small, insignificant, even. But beneath that there’s also this sense of being drawn upward, of a greater purpose, something larger than the daily grind, something transcendent that’s inviting you to join. Not unlike the college campus I mentioned.

Too often, though, our general education curricula don’t match our architectural rhetoric, particularly when those curricula are structured around a distributional model where students take two of this, two of that and two of the next thing. Rather than inviting students to feel capable, energized and part of something meaningful, we hand them a checklist that all but says, “You’re stupid. You need the basics. Again.”

To be clear here, I’m not arguing that our students always enter the university with adequate academic preparation. Many of them don’t. The reasons for this are many and varied and not really the point of this essay, but they include an overdependence on standardized testing that places an emphasis on content memorization over meaningful application of that content in complex contexts.

My point, though, is that even if our students come in needing “some additional help,” we don’t do them -- or ourselves -- any favors by packaging their learning and development in a way that constructs them as uninterested, unintellectual and incapable. And at many institutions -- even many very good institutions -- it’s hard to argue against $yd’s logic: this curriculum, these courses -- they feel like high school.

Consequently, why are we surprised when students who enter our classrooms seem put-off, slightly offended? They spent all that time in high school writing papers, taking tests, trying to get good grades. They studied for the SAT, visited colleges, wrote application essays, asked their teachers for letters of recommendation. They spent months checking their email, nervous every time they got online. Sure, they’re young and they probably spend too much time on weekends doing things their parents would prefer they didn’t. But deep down, there’s a part of every student that wants to be challenged, that wants to go home and brag about this one professor or this one class or this one project that kicked their butt, that was so hard -- but that somehow they got through it.

Put another way, most students want, in the language of the cathedral, to transcend. But what they get, too often, are classes that construct them as receptacles for content distributed in mass-produced textbooks, as incapable of taking on the messy intellectual and practical problems that dominate our world. They’re told these are classes to “get out of the way,” to “get through,” to “just survive.” As Eric Amsel, a professor of psychology at Weber State University and former Utah Professor of the Year, once told me, when students take a “checked-box” approach to general education, we’re the ones who put them there. That’s the room we built for them. Why then, are we so surprised when they respond accordingly?

Here's an experiment: google “gen ed requirements state university” and click “image.” What you’ll see is table after table and list after list of course after course that can be taken to “fulfill” a “requirement.” Often, a particular curricular expectation can be met via a dozen different options. One requirement for philosophical thinking I encountered offered 12 different topics appropriate for meeting the requirement goals, including human nature, scientific reasoning, theories of cognition, social obligations and constraints, and applied ethics. Just to be clear: that list of 12 doesn’t cover the courses that count for this requirement, only the topics. Assuming there are at least a dozen courses that address each of those broad topics, we’re talking about an explosive list of options -- most science classes, for instance, include scientific reasoning, and I’ve yet to teach a literature course that doesn’t address social obligation, human nature and ethics.

I like philosophical thinking. I think we need more of it in our educational systems. But what does it mean when even the philosophy requirement says more about what fulfills the requirement than about why? What does that tell students about how we view them? About how these requirements relate (or don’t) to their lives? And what does it tell them about us? Because as much as this curricular rhetoric is constructing them, it’s also constructing faculty members and administrators. What does it say about who we are, about what we believe, about what we value, about what drives us?

Sure, sometimes it simply says, "These topics matter": you need to understand how science works. There’s a logic to mathematics that, if you can capture it, won’t ever abandon you. The abstract thinking skills you learn exploring art and philosophy is going to be valuable no matter what you do after you graduate.

But other times? Well, Cathy N. Davidson points out that our siloed structuring of the university into divisions and departments is essentially a remnant of industrial-era models for efficient factories. The distributional approach, where every division, every department, has requirements, is essentially a consequence of that history. After college, graduates will take jobs that blur sociology, literary studies, physics and business psychology on a daily basis. But in the academy? We’re still structured around SOCI, LITS, PHYS and BUAD.

Implicit within all of this is a dynamic we’d generally prefer to avoid acknowledging: in many ways, the distributional model continues because it provides job security. As long as students are required to take courses in all three divisions (social sciences, STEM, arts and humanities), all three divisions will remain viable.

Protecting our Turf

This is not, for what it’s worth, an argument about the value or lack of value of one division or another. As I’ve already pointed out, every field has value, particularly for students who are only beginning their journey into the world and never know where they’re going to find themselves. No, my point is that too often all of us in the academy let our concern for protecting our turf get in the way of smart thinking about how we construct general education -- and, consequently, how we construct our students. I’ve worked with dozens of campuses engaged in curricular revision. I can’t tell you the number of times the drive in from the airport has included conversations along the lines of “The X department is worried that if we change the curriculum, they’ll lose students.”

What’s startling about this kind of thinking is how simplistic the math is: the only way to get people into my classroom is to require my courses? The only place in the curriculum for the kinds of thinking that occur in my field are courses in the major? First, this logic undermines the relevance of our work. If the ways of thinking taught in my field are only relevant in my field (and I don’t think it is, but bear with me here) then, logically, requiring that those ways of thinking be taught to everyone doesn’t make sense. Second, this kind of turf math makes us blind to curricular models that both broadcast the relevance of our fields and construct our students in ways that allow them to understand their greatest capabilities.

Consider, for instance, the gen ed requirements at Worcester Polytechnic: the first-year experience involves a team-taught course focusing on complex problems like sustainability, epidemics, food and energy. Students also participate in an “interactive qualifying project,” a real-world problem (some from overseas) that those from different fields work in small cohorts to solve, supervised by a professor. Senior year, students participate in “major qualifying projects,” also focusing on real-world problems, also overseen by a faculty member, also working in small groups -- though generally drawing from just a single field. Besides some initial requirements in the humanities (arguably necessary at an engineering school), there is no distributional component to the curricula; the various divisions, their methods, contents and values, are woven into the larger projects, many of which are based on high-impact practices. Distribution exists, yes, but it doesn’t drive the model.

Instead, from the moment students walk into their first-year dorms, they step into a curriculum that constructs them as capable of solving grand problems, real problems, complex problems, problems where the answers aren’t at the back of the book. By their sophomore year, students are actually solving some of those problems, drawing from a variety of fields, sometimes in foreign settings. By their senior year, the kind of complex, collaborative, interdisciplinary thinking necessary to make the world a better place is almost old hat.

And the faculty of the university put the students there, constructing them as trustworthy, responsible, serious and capable of great leadership.

Or consider Wagner College, where students are required to participate in three learning communities -- one during the first year, one during the last year and one somewhere in between. Each learning community has an experiential component, essentially using New York City as a real-time lab. Students still take courses from a variety of fields, but importantly, those courses are embedded in larger, more meaningful conversations. And so are the students.

In contrast to distribution models, which often allow a department a single contact point in the curriculum (take math to fulfill the math requirement; take politics to fulfill the social science requirement), these models allow multiple contacts: a student might encounter, say, psychology, as part of a first-year learning community, a sophomore community-based course or a senior capstone project. Further, they encounter psychology at a moment when its value becomes self-evident: you’re not learning this content because it’s a box you need to check; you’re learning it because it’s necessary to this broader, meaningful discussion.

All of which is difficult for faculty members to see when we’re blinded by turf concerns. Fair enough. No one wants to feel dismissed in curricular debates. But perhaps it’s time to move beyond first-glance reactions and explore curricular reform as a serious intellectual question that deserves the same attention we afford our scholarly research.

The world’s a pretty messed-up place. Fixing that -- or even just slowing the damage -- is going to take more than students who’ve been drilled on the basics over and over again, in both high school and college. The basics matter. Content matters. But how this content is presented, and what students are enabled to do with this information and skills, also matters. Students need to step into the world having experienced more than siloed data regurgitation. Remediation by any other name still smells like limitation.

We need to create spaces for students to enter, spaces where they can encounter their best selves. Spaces that respect them by challenging them. Spaces that provide them with the tools that they need, and with the opportunity to invent new tools that we -- the assumedly wise professionals charged with their education -- can’t even anticipate. Spaces that acknowledge the messiness of the world and acknowledge, as well, that we see our students’ capacity to take on that mess with complex and transcendent wisdom.

Paul Hanstedt is professor of education studies and director of the Center for Academic Resources and Pedagogical Excellence at Washington and Lee University.

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CUNY partners with industry to build STEM courses

With guidance from industry, faculty members at the City University of New York system are designing new curricula in data science and cybersecurity.

Colleges aren't adequately teaching students about weapons of mass destruction (opinion)

Millions of high school graduates recently packed their bags and headed off to their first year on college campuses across the country. To mark the occasion, everyone, from The New York Times to world-weary upperclassmen, offered tips for making the most out of the next four years. Their suggestions revealed less for their insights than for what they tell us about each person’s own undergraduate experience. It’s clear that, for many, college was the place where they found their passion and that this discovery enabled them to make a difference in the world once they left.

As someone who works as a nonproliferation researcher, I have some specific hopes for how this might play out for the Class of 2023. I spend my days looking for ways to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction and devising recommendations for how we can do this more effectively. It’s certainly one of the most difficult moments for this work in recent memory. Between the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations, the unraveling of arms control and the growing potential for nuclear conflict around the world, most of us have been working overtime to keep up. And there’s no end in sight.

In fact, so much work must be done, and the stakes for failure are so high, that it simply won’t be possible to do it all alone. We need more creative ideas, more questioning minds and more outspoken voices to help prevent a global catastrophe. Instead, my field is facing a personnel crisis that is making us less effective at grappling with these and other international security challenges.

By 2023, for example, nearly 40 percent of the employees at the National Nuclear Security Administration will be eligible to retire. In 2029, the same will be true for 80 percent of the U.S. State Department’s senior civil servants. The number of people taking the foreign service exam is at its lowest point in years.

Against this backdrop, we should be concerned that most current college students will graduate without any formal introduction to weapons of mass destruction and their means of control.

That was the central takeaway from a recent study I authored on how nonproliferation and disarmament of weapons of mass destruction are taught to undergraduates in the United States. To understand this landscape, I combed through hundreds of course catalogs and surveyed faculty members from 75 of the top-ranked public, private and military institutions in the country. I looked for classes that were offered sometime between 2016 and 2018 and that touched upon nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. After countless hours of searching, I found only 524 courses that met these criteria.

That number may sound like a lot to some people. What it means, however, is that each of those 75 institutions offered an average of just seven such courses during the two-year period in question. For comparison, the nation’s three leading public, private and liberal arts institutions each offered as many as 19 to 30 courses that covered climate change during just the 2017-18 academic year alone. Given that climate change and weapons of mass destruction both threaten humanity’s survivability, why are they taught at such discrepant levels to the generation whose responsibility they will become?

Much more can be done to empower students to address the challenges posed by weapons of mass destruction, and a first step should be ensuring that they have access to courses that focus on these topics -- regardless of institution they attend. Colleges and universities have significant room for improvement, considering that public universities offered fewer WMD-related courses than private ones during the period of my study. Because first-generation college students and students of color disproportionately attend public institutions, they had even fewer opportunities to discover these topics than their counterparts at private institutions.

This disparity is problematic, considering that our field already has very little diversity. What’s more, since we know that homogeneous groups generate worse outcomes than those with more diverse members, this imbalance also makes us less effective in our jobs. From this vantage, ensuring that a broader population of students has the chance to pursue careers in the field is not only fair but also, quite literally, a matter of international security.

Fortunately, American colleges and universities are well positioned to be agents of change in this process. With buy-in from both faculty members and administrators, institutions could take a number of steps to substantially improve the situation. Those include offering interdisciplinary first-year seminars that encourage incoming students to explore issues related to weapons of mass destruction from different perspectives. They could also entail inviting nonproliferation experts to address faculty members and students at campuses that convene regular common hours or convocations. Another option would be to develop cross-disciplinary nonproliferation-focused courses that bring in expertise from the hard sciences, humanities and social science. Such efforts, while certainly not without cost, would go a long way toward helping all students engage substantively with these critical issues in ways that they can’t today.

Individual faculty members can also take small steps that could have an immediate impact without requiring broader institutional support. The most obvious would be to introduce units on weapons of mass destruction into undergraduate classes that already exist. In a course on Stalinist history, that might mean a week on the Soviet atomic bomb program. In an introductory biology class, it could mean a debate over the possible proliferation implications of gene-editing technologies. For students who are learning skills that fall under the digital humanities, this may entail looking at satellite imagery for evidence of a failed missile launch. These small encounters won’t be enough to enact major change, but they may be the only chance such students have to engage with such issues during their four-year college career.

Think tanks, research institutions and nongovernmental organizations can do more to support these efforts, too. Compiling a database of diverse experts who are available to guest lecture in undergraduate classrooms could be especially useful in this endeavor. Another would be offering development workshops for faculty members who want to introduce specific nonproliferation topics into their courses. A third could be providing reading lists, class materials and handouts for faculty members to use in developing a nonproliferation-related syllabus. Those activities would help to ensure that any college or university can introduce their students to these topics, even if they don’t have the in-house expertise to do it all themselves.

These recommendations on their own won’t be enough to create greater sustainability in my field or to solve the big problems that are keeping me and my colleagues up at night. They will, however, lead to more discussions about these issues within higher education -- and that could pave the way for more substantial and far-reaching efforts to get students thinking about careers in this domain.

I hope at least some of the members of the Class of 2023 discover that WMD nonproliferation, disarmament and arms control are their passions. These are areas where we’re still going to need a lot of their help four years from now.

Sarah Bidgood is the director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. She also directs the center’s Young Women in Nonproliferation Initiative.

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Colleges shouldn't sell out to online program managers and should instead focus on the quality of students' educational journeys (opinion)

Back when I was working in my university’s graduate school, I went to a lot of recruiting fairs. Sending me, a tenured academic administrator, was an unusual approach to recruiting -- most of my fellow recruiters at other institutions were staff members. Often they were relatively young and ambitious. For many of them, moving up in the staff hierarchy meant getting an advanced degree of some sort. So I often found myself trying to sell other recruiters on our graduate programs.

One such encounter has stuck with me. On that occasion, a recruiter asked me if my institution offered any online doctoral programs. He wanted to advance at his university but felt he needed a doctoral degree to do so. We had spent several hours in adjoining booths, and he seemed smart and earnest.

At the time, we did not offer an online doctorate in anything, and none of our doctoral programs were in his intended field, so I switched from a recruiting mode to that of an adviser/mentor. I tried to convince him of the virtues of a face-to-face program by telling him that much of what one gains from a doctoral program comes from the experience of being there -- the interactions with other students and the opportunities to hear guest lectures, to be a grad assistant and immerse oneself in the culture of a discipline and department. I told him that -- fairly or unfairly -- people don’t take online degrees as seriously as traditional degrees, and that if he was really committed to doctoral-level grad work, he would have to leave his job and go to grad school.

Our conversation soured immediately. He told me, a bit huffily, that he needed the degree but didn’t have time to go to graduate school. He had an online Ed.D. program in mind and was going to pursue it.

I experienced many variations of that discussion in my recruiting days. They all boiled down to this: someone wanted a college degree but did not want to go to college.

A whole industry of online program mangers, or OPMs, has grown up to help colleges tap in to this market. They often focus on master’s degrees in fields where graduate degrees have become commodities. Education is a good example. Graduate degrees qualify teachers for pay raises, for specific types of teaching jobs or for the chance to move into administration. As long as the degree is from an accredited college, the school systems typically don’t care about the reputation of the college or program the degree came from. That has created intense competition among colleges to offer those degrees as cheaply and conveniently as possible -- which means they often end up delivering online courses with as little rigor as you can get away with without falling afoul of the accreditors.

A college degree once required that you be physically present. For most people, that meant leaving their home and family to move to another city or town, giving up employment and other obligations, and joining a new community of fellow scholars. In many respects, going to college was like going on a pilgrimage. You left home, joined a group of like-minded pilgrims and went on a journey together. When the journey was over, you returned home to family and work, transformed by your experience.

For many students, especially those who attend elite institutions, that is still what college is like. (Anyone tempted to object that college life is more bacchanal than pilgrimage should give The Canterbury Tales a quick reread. Medieval pilgrimage was not entirely pious contemplation.) But many potential students, like the recruiter I met, feel they have no choice but to skip the journey and choose to just knock out the degree online. Modern life, we are told, is simply too busy and complex to expect people to make time to go to college.

Colleges that cater to this market do so without apparent shame. Rather they tout these products using words like "innovation," "disruption," "accessibility" and "equity."

They do so at their peril.

Selling Indulgences

Five hundred years ago, a similar “innovation” caused the Roman Catholic Church a world of trouble. Just as the modern university has a monopoly on the vitally important credentials that allow access to middle-class jobs, and thus salvation from the precarity and low status of the degreeless, the church alone had the power to grant penitents absolution of their sins. Traditionally, an act of penance was required to gain that absolution. That might be something as small as saying a few Hail Marys and a couple of days of fasting or something as big as a pilgrimage.

But the late medieval period was a busy time. Between boxing the apprentices’ ears, keeping an eye on the serfs and staying abreast of the rat race in the counting house, what sinner really had time to drop everything and spend a year or two slogging around the pilgrimage routes?

So change agents in the church (the “pardoners,” who were the church’s sales force) disrupted the salvation paradigm and devised an innovative new solution that delivered absolution in a way that fit the constraints of the busy medieval lifestyle.

They started selling indulgences that effectively allowed penitents to skip all the tiresome fasting and trudging to the tombs of saints and just pay for their absolution.

The church used this income in ways that will sound familiar to the modern academic. Above all, it built buildings. One of the towers at the Reims cathedral is known as the “butter tower” because it was paid for by the sale of indulgences allowing people to eat butter during the Lenten fast. The income from indulgences also helped to keep bishops, the princes of the church, living in luxury.

The most famous of those pardoners was Johann (or Johannes) Tetzel, who was charged with raising money for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, which was the pope’s home church. Tetzel was an aggressive salesman who is said to have produced the jingle “as soon as the coin within the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

While some people no doubt welcomed the opportunity to buy their way out of sackcloth and ashes, it also made many people cynical about the church and created doubts about its priorities. Martin Luther gave voice to those doubts in his 95 Theses, the 27th and 28th of which directly and scornfully referenced Tetzel’s sales pitch. Luther and his supporters were unhappy about many aspects of the church, but the sale of indulgences ranks high among the causes of the Reformation.

The modern university has its origins in the medieval church. Most American universities are no longer closely affiliated with churches, but the public still sees us as separate from mainstream society. Thus, we have terms like “ivory tower.” Sometimes that term is used pejoratively, but it also reflects the notion that the university, like the church, is supposed to have a higher purpose. That creates expectations, one of which is that we won’t behave in crassly commercial ways or exploit the power that we have to grant degrees that are every bit as important in our time as indulgences were in theirs.

The public is growing ever more cynical about higher education. We feed that cynicism when we hire Tetzel-like OPMs to peddle our new quick and easy, no-muss/no-fuss online degrees. This aggressive and unseemly salesmanship is already generating negative press. We feed that cynicism when we use that income to spend more and more on our bishop-like administrators and their beloved buildings, while adjunct faculty -- the parish priests of the university -- languish in poverty.

Worse, the response to public concerns about higher education often is to try to become more convenient, more customer focused and more accessible. That is the wrong response. People want and need real rites of passage. Our strong suit is the pilgrimage, the journey, and we ought not forget it.

And we should not be surprised if the real challenge comes from reformers that are more Luther than Tetzel. It may already be happening. A recent Molly Worthen article in The New York Times described what she calls “anti-colleges” that cater to people who want an education that is more pilgrimage than product.

If a movement comes along that poses a serious threat to the status quo in higher education, it may come from someone offering an education that seems like a step backward to a more traditional college experience rather than something that is more convenient and technology driven than what we now offer -- something more Lutheran or Franciscan and less Tetzel.

That will be a good thing. Higher education is ripe for a Reformation.

Erik Gilbert is professor of history at Arkansas State University. He blogs at

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Career and technology education is an effective pathway to earning money


Report finds career and technology education courses have a higher wage return for those with no college degree than academic ones.

Advice for successfully implementing a pathways program (opinion)

The national pathways movement represents the new normal for transforming the student experience and improving college graduation rates. Pathways is a comprehensive and systemic redesign of the student experience -- from the student’s initial connection to the college all the way to completion and graduation. Based on our experience with a pathways program at our institution, Tallahassee Community College, we’d like to share five key coordinates that may help other administrators foster an environment receptive to such transformational change.

One of the primary reasons why the pathways movement has become so revolutionary to how colleges do business is because it focuses on the common-sense premise put forth in the Community College Research Center’s “What We Know About Guided Pathways”: “College students are more likely to complete a degree in a timely fashion if they choose a program and develop an academic plan early on, have a clear road map of the courses they need to take to complete a credential, and receive guidance and support to help them stay on plan.”

Sounds simple, right? Just build a road map that is easy to follow, and they will succeed. What you learn through this work, however, is that once you start diving into institutional policies, procedures and sacred cows, what looks simple is actually complex and requires mutual understanding and collaboration between academic and student affairs leaders.

The crucial lesson learned as we have navigated from an overgrown walkway to a more landscaped pathway for students (pun intended) is the importance of leading and managing through change. In our efforts toward that end, we have identified five key coordinates that moved us forward in transforming students’ experiences.

Coordinate No. 1: Culture. Organizational culture and a willingness to adapt to change are key factors that determine whether pathways work truly transforms the student experience or just tweaks a few processes. Transformational change takes time, years even, so you should tackle small goals that eventually lead to where you want to be. (“Start with the end in mind” is a key phrase in pathways work and applies here, too).

It is essential to build your case on your campus for why students need, and expect, new ways of onboarding and progressing through degree or certificate programs that lead to their career objective or university of choice. You will need people throughout the institutional community to buy in to the success of this effort, as well as develop a core leadership team from all areas of the campus who can help create a student-centered culture that’s more receptive to embracing the change.

Several strategies we’ve implemented have included:

  • The restructuring and realignment of departments and divisions tied to the completion by design phases of connection, entry, progress and completion -- or in other words, what fits together best to monitor a student along the pathway. We’ve also adopted a service philosophy, because we recognize that organizational structure does matter;
  • Reinstating “Ask Me” tents throughout the campus, staffed by employees, during the first two days of the term to help welcome and direct students to classes and resources;
  • Creating a “Pathways Council” with representatives from multiple areas on campus and co-chaired by the provost and the vice president for student affairs;
  • Hosting campus summits focused on professional development, data and research, and strategies that align with the pathways movement, such as an annual professional development day, a summit focused on student performance in gateway courses and appreciative advising; and
  • Launching the Growth Mind-Set Assessment and activities in our first-year college-success course, as well as developing plans for campuswide engagement.

Coordinate No. 2: Communication. Leaders should never underestimate the value of communication. A proverb reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” In higher education a better translation might be, “Where there is no vision, the people make up their own version, and your initiative shall perish.”

The provost and head of student affairs must have a shared vision of the intended outcomes and the why of transformative change. They should consider what campuswide strategies they have to keep people informed of the work and the progress being made toward the goals and ensure there are opportunities for intentional, planned, cross-departmental meetings.

Thus, at Tallahassee Community College, we set aside time each month to meet and discuss projects, results and areas of confusion that must be resolved in order for people to move forward. Managers in both our divisions jointly identify any barriers for students, assess the effectiveness of various strategies, share data and plan for future tasks. A wide range of committees and councils are also engaged in project-based tasks aligned with our pathways programs, which allows more people across the campus to become informed and engaged.

Coordinate No. 3: Community. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and pathways projects also require a village to bring about change at the breadth and depth needed to improve student performance, retention and completion. Two of the basic premises of pathways programs are (1) to remove barriers and obstacles for students so that they can be successful and (2) to ensure that the students’ education ultimately prepares them for jobs that produce family-sustaining wages or the chance to transfer to a university to obtain a baccalaureate degree. Therefore, key partnerships both on and off the campus become more important for ensuring alignment among educational partners and with the business community.

To that end, our strategies include offering precollegiate grants in our service district to help prepare middle and high school students for college, a summer bridge program, and high school visits and on-campus preview days to describe the benefits of college to high school students. We’ve also established better articulation agreements with our university partners to help improve transfer student outcomes (including reverse transfer), data sharing and joint support services. Finally, our associate degree programs in science use business community advisory councils, job shadowing and internships to ensure our graduates can fulfill the needs of our local businesses.

Coordinate No. 4: Collaboration. The definition of collaboration in the Google dictionary is “the action of working with someone to produce or create something,” but the word is often misused in organizations. Discussing or sharing information is not necessarily collaboration. The art of collaboration is fully realized when people come together to produce or create something different from what was originally designed.

Collaboration can occur without direct authority when leaders empower people by sharing a vision, assigning tasks and allowing them to collaborate to produce strategies that will generate wins for collective work. Instead of reinforcing siloed departmental approaches, colleges should periodically review committee structures and objectives and intentionally promote opportunities for diverse people to work together.

That is probably where we’ve had our greatest successes. We’ve expanded our committee and council structures that allow for broader-based participation, assigning specific topics and projects to work groups. In addition, our departments have worked collaboratively to design a first-year experience program that is more than just a course and includes a new student convocation, Welcome Week, college success courses and activities throughout the year to engage and connect our new students to programs and support that will help them be more academically successful.

In our revamped early alert system, our faculty members serve as “first responders” and, when appropriate, make referrals to interventionists from multiple departments of the institution. Gone are the days of an adviser reaching out to an at-risk student about all issues. Learning support staff handle academic performance issues, mental health and behavioral concerns are referred to student services, the financial aid staff manages students’ financial concerns, and the list goes on. The design has been intentional to tailor the level of support to each student’s behavior and needs.

Finally, as a part of our pathways work, faculty subject matter experts and advisers have collaborated to produce academic program maps that clarify the students’ paths and ensure they know what requirements they need to complete their certificates or degrees. And they also offer semester-by-semester recommendations for out-of-class engagement.

Coordinate No. 5: Celebration. Finding time and ways to celebrate successes with your campus community helps sustain the level of commitment and work for pathways programs that’s needed over the long haul. It’s important to acknowledge the people who work day in and day out to support your students. At our college, for example, faculty members and administrators can be nominated each year for Eagles RISE (Respect, Integrity, Success, Engagement) awards, which highlight how those individuals contribute to the culture we want to be known for.

On a personal note, we received awards last year from our college’s Student Government Association for our support of students. Those awards speak volumes about the work that’s been done to move the institution toward a culture where every decision is made in light of how it will impact the most valued members of our campus community: students.

We’d like to offer these final thoughts to help others embark upon their own pathways endeavor:

  • Pathways is about the entire student experience. It’s long-term comprehensive reform, not a short-term initiative or fad.
  • The key to working with students is providing them the guidance they need and want to help them be successful.
  • Campuswide engagement is fundamental to success.
  • Technology is a key component of being able to develop your pathways program to its fullest potential. In times of limited resources, using technology to track and monitor when students are falling off the path, to send students “just in time” notifications, and to connect them to supports will allow better use of human capital to serve those who need it the most.
  • Colleges must evaluate their programs and certificates to ensure they lead to family-sustaining wages.
  • We must help more students gain real-world experience within their chosen career paths by offering more opportunities for internships, job shadowing and project-based learning.

Last, but definitely not least, you should know that the work is hard but meaningful and productive. In fact, it can become an exciting adventure on your campus as you embark upon evaluating everything anew through the lens of your students and their needs.

Feleccia Moore-Davis is provost and vice president for academic affairs and Sheri Rowland is vice president for student affairs at Tallahassee Community College.

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Colleges can bridge divides on campus through intellectual pursuits (opinion)

Not long ago, I met Katy, a rising junior who is Latinx, over lunch at Amherst College. The meal was for the inaugural Amherst cohort of fellows for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, a long-standing program sponsored by the Mellon Foundation to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to attend graduate school and enter academe. Katy spoke excitedly about her research work, a project on literary censorship imposed on nuns in colonial Mexico. Without prompting, however, she also talked about how she and her cohort have built an intellectual community that supports each fellow.

Later in the conversation, Katy mentioned that she had been on a spring break trip for her class on the Puerto Rican diaspora. Class participants interviewed members of the Puerto Rican community in nearby Holyoke, Mass., and then met up with the interviewees’ relatives on the island. As a final project, the students made a documentary about the diaspora experience. Katy noted that she hadn’t known any of her fellow students well before taking the class. Now, however, she counts them among her close friends.

Finally, Katy spoke about a tutorial class, A Social History of the Spanish Language, which included just four students. She explained how the class hadn’t felt like her other classes; instead it was a weekly intellectual journey deeply shared among students and their professor.

To me, Katy is living proof of the promise of a residential liberal arts college. She is having a rich intellectual experience, fostered by face-to-face learning with faculty members and fellow students who come from a remarkable range of backgrounds. Meaningful and intensive group work and the social connectedness that comes from it are crucial to Katy’s academic career. Her experiences illustrate the power of how small, intensive learning communities can help overcome social and other divides on college campuses today.

At Amherst and other select liberal arts colleges, we face the challenge of creating a sense of campus belonging and community among a remarkably diverse student body. Some 45 percent of our students identify as domestic students of color, and another 9 percent are international. In addition, among our first-year class members who will become sophomores in the fall, 29 percent of students are Pell eligible. These and other students benefit from Amherst’s generous need-blind financial aid policies: we are the only liberal arts college that is need blind for all students, including international students, and that agrees to meet full demonstrated need.

But bringing such an amazing range of talented students to our campus isn’t enough. A growing body of evidence suggests that students must feel that they belong to the campus community in order to fully participate in educational opportunities. Embracing the goal of student belonging, however, can work against building a cohesive campus community. As Beverly Tatum reminds us in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? college students are often at a stage of development in which they need to affirm their identities; they need their own cafeteria tables or other dedicated space to bond among themselves.

At the same time -- and Tatum would agree with this notion -- campuses must prepare students to build connections beyond their affinity groups, campus organizations or athletic teams. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam challenged our nation to make a similar move: from social capital bonding (often characterized by exclusion) to social capital bridging. Only by working across social differences, he argued, will we able to address our great national and international challenges.

Learning communities, of course, are not new to college campuses, but they have long been recognized as an effective way to engage students and foster student retention. At Amherst, however, we are now leveraging intensive learning communities to bridge the campus divides that emerged as we diversified our student body. We’ve found that if students who share academic interests spend considerable time together, they will often forge strong personal connections.

For that reason, we have funded faculty-led trips to Costa Rica, England and Turkey, among other destinations. We have also developed or strengthened intensive group learning opportunities closer to home. We have a tutorial program in the humanities and humanistic social sciences in which students and their professor work together over the summer on a collaborative research project. Students have studied America’s death penalty and the history of British first aid during World War I, among other topics, and several co-authored books and articles have emerged from this program.

Our science laboratories offer the longest-standing example of professor-student research collaboration; each summer, dozens of students work full-time on faculty-led research teams. We also provide a wealth of cohort-based learning opportunities via our co-curriculum. Students can work together at our Book & Plow Farm, intern together at campus museums, research together at the Folger Shakespeare Library (owned by the college), participate together in design-thinking challenges, curate together digital exhibitions related to our upcoming bicentennial and explore career opportunities together on “treks” to major cities and regions known for particular industries.

Student testimonials about such opportunities are nothing short of extraordinary. I am particularly struck by how often students reserve special praise for the social connections forged through shared intellectual experiences. At a time when students nationwide express feelings of loneliness and isolation, our students are finding connection in academic endeavors. Students in our summer science research program, for example, note the intellectual and social benefits brought on by shared research work. As one student wrote, “A brief glimpse into the world of research has meant the world to me. It’s inspired me to jump on a graduate school track and has given me a chance to really get to know a professor and a small cadre of students that much better. I feel so much more confident in where I’m going. And I feel so much more comfortable at an institution that had been rather isolating up until this point.”

Faculty-led trips elicit some of the most effusive student comments. A student on the Istanbul trip, for example, reflected, “The opportunity to bond with my classmates and professors is also unlike anything else -- we are here, sharing in our collective awe at the experiences we’ve been having.” Another student on the same trip noted, “It was a rare and beautiful experience to have classmates that were not just invested in the material but also in the other classmates.” Similarly, a student who went to Costa Rica as part of a tropical biology course wrote, “The trip helped me find community among students studying biology and environmental studies. This class created an intimate setting through the two weeks we spent living together and having a small weekly class afterwards. I consider myself close friends with all of the people in the course, and have learned from their interests and experiences in a way that other related courses have not provided the opportunity to do.”

Fittingly for a course devoted to Wordsworth, students on a class trip to the poet’s home in Grasmere, England, came to feel the power of love as a lens on the world. As one student eloquently wrote, “This week ended up showing me how both purposes of the trip fit together. The manuscripts reflected the Wordsworths’ love of nature and other people, and I felt the impact of that love while looking at manuscripts and while trekking around the lakes. It got to me through a long chain of intermediaries: the love contained with the Wordsworths’ poetry was originally reflected in their writing, and then was preserved by later historians’ and curators’ labors of love, and finally appreciated by awestruck admirers such as myself. The chain of love, for others and the natural world, stretches from William, John and Dorothy through to Ernest de Selincourt, John Finch and Jeff Cowton -- and all the way to us.”

In the ideal residential liberal arts environment, students belong to a community given over to these inspiring kinds of love. At the risk of sounding idealistic, what could be more powerful than bridging campus divides through love?

Today, critics often question the efficacy of diversity initiatives that are divorced from students’ primary reasons for being in college. As we help students develop their intellectual lives -- that is, as we teach them how to think, not what to think -- we need strategies beyond “diversity training” to draw our campus community together. We cannot leave diversity work divorced from our primary academic endeavors; we should not separate it from our central academic mission. When we forge a sense of belonging and community through intellectual pursuits, we rely on the most fundamental task of the university: intellectual inquiry. We make use of what professors naturally do: teach and research. And we can do so in any academic discipline, from the humanities to the natural sciences.

In our experience at Amherst, intentionally exploiting the core strength of a college -- intellectual inquiry -- is one of the most effective strategies in fostering student belonging. What’s more, a dense network of such opportunities can help campuses bridge their larger divides. And perhaps most important, by empowering students to bridge differences and connect, we are empowering them with the skills to address the enormous social, political and environmental challenges facing the world into which they will graduate.

Catherine Epstein is dean of the faculty and Winkley Professor of History at Amherst College.

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Universities should re-evaluate the time it takes to gain a Ph.D. (opinion)

Universities must re-evaluate the time-to-degree requirements for many humanities Ph.D. programs, argues Michael Zimm.

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Why colleges should involve more students in high-impact practices (opinion)

Research on student learning and success in college has produced compelling evidence that high-impact teaching practices benefit students greatly. Exposure to such practices has been linked to greater gains in learning and retention compared to what occurs with traditional instruction, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement and other studies.

High-impact practices can help students develop skills that are essential in the workplace and that transfer to a wide range of settings -- such as communication, problem solving and critical thinking. In addition, they can give an institution a distinctive and competitive edge at a time when many colleges and universities are struggling to maintain enrollments.

How, then, can we ensure that more students experience well-implemented high-impact practices? What can we do to help more institutions make certain that every student will have those experiences?

High-impact practices -- which include project-based learning, community-based learning and undergraduate research -- have several features in common. They promote active engagement, requiring students to spend considerable time on task. They involve collaboration, both in and out of classroom settings. Students are asked to take responsibility for their learning, while faculty members assume coaching and mentoring roles.

Fundamentally, these practices can push faculty members and students out of their comfort zones, and they may not succeed without thoughtful implementation and institutional support. Project-based learning, for example, builds on the idea that students should not just know things but also be able to do things with that knowledge. That’s a new paradigm for some students and faculty members. Often, it involves applying knowledge to an open-ended problem with no single correct solution.

The benefits of having students tackle authentic problems are powerful. Problems that communities or organizations face are almost always interdisciplinary and require consideration of a range of stakeholders’ perspectives. Students need to understand those problems, set goals, collect and analyze information, and develop solutions through an iterative process that involves revision and synthesis of new knowledge.

I have spent my career at an institution that requires authentic, “messy” projects across the curriculum. In a recent study, alumni attributed an array of professional and personal benefits -- better interpersonal skills, leadership abilities, a stronger personal character, the development of a sense of mission -- to their project experiences. Based on this and other evidence, a few years ago, we launched a program for other colleges and universities interested in advancing project-based learning in their curricula.

To date, we’ve worked with more than 120 institutions of all types -- not just similarly STEM-focused institutions, but also community colleges, public and private comprehensive institutions, liberal arts colleges, and research universities. While some are looking to develop more effective and engaging pedagogy for specific courses or disciplines, many are trying to rethink general education in distinctive ways and even to transform their institutional identity. As we work with these institutions, we see patterns of resistance to adopting high-impact practices, including the following.

  • Faculty members may feel obligated to cover a large body of information, even in the face of evidence that such coverage does not necessarily result in learning. As a result, some believe they have no choice but to rely on lectures to convey content. In addition, they may fear a loss of control if they use active learning strategies in the classroom.
  • Students who are used to a passive learning role may resist high-impact practices, as well. Active learning requires that students take more responsibility, and that can be uncomfortable, too.
  • Faculty members may have never experienced high-impact practices themselves and can be unsure how to provide structure that will support active student learning.
  • Both faculty members and students may have had bad experiences with teamwork. Effective student teamwork doesn’t just happen; it requires intentional support and structure, including attention to how students are evaluated in team settings.

Across a wide range of institutional types, we’ve also seen common strategies for successful curricular change emerge. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned.

  • Investment in faculty development and support is essential. Rethinking the teaching strategy for some or all of a course requires time, effort and a little courage. Institutional support helps. For example, the Teaching and Learning Collaborative at Wake Forest University regularly offers faculty development programming to promote high-impact practices, and the university makes course redevelopment grants available to interested faculty.
  • Faculty members benefit from examples of high-impact practices, preferably in their disciplines, and also from seeing evidence of their effectiveness. I was recently at an inspiring showcase event at York College of Pennsylvania where faculty and students from across campus presented examples of project-based learning assignments in different disciplines to colleagues and administrators.
  • Students and faculty members benefit from tools and models to promote effective teamwork, including equitable participation and evaluation. Examples include processes for team formation, templates for team contracts, protocols for self- and peer evaluation, and rubrics for evaluating effective teamwork.
  • Informal or formal communities of practice that consist of educators who can encourage and learn from each other’s successes and challenges can help sustain change. Nebraska Wesleyan University has an informal community of practice, a group of about 30 faculty members from a wide range of disciplines sharing ideas to integrate project-based learning across the curriculum.
  • Curricular innovations warrant an assessment plan, so the resulting evidence can be used to monitor student success and drive program improvement. Bellevue College in Washington has brought multiple high-impact practices together in its RISE Learning Institute in an effort to spread these practices across its campus. As part of that work, they are in the process of developing a robust, faculty-driven assessment plan with tools that can be used in multiple disciplines.
  • Sustainable change requires more than policies and practices; it involves a shift in focus away from what faculty members do and say to what students do and learn. That type of culture change can’t be rushed or imposed from above; it has to emerge from a coalition of the willing.

It’s increasingly difficult to predict the opportunities and challenges that today’s students will face in the coming years. At a time when the value of higher education is increasingly questioned, it’s essential for colleges and universities to prepare students for successful and satisfying lives. The abilities gained from project-based learning and other high-impact practices -- especially transferrable skills related to collaboration, communication and creative problem solving -- can position students for a solid, certain future and provide a blueprint for higher education institutions to make their value to society more evident.

Richard F. Vaz is professor of interdisciplinary and global studies and director of the Center for Project-Based Learning at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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Project-based learning at York College of Pennsylvania
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