Academic administration

Colleges start new academic programs

Research universities partner to increase low-income student graduation

An alliance of 11 public research universities shows that sharing data, ideas and practices can help more low-income students graduate.

How to improve the quality of higher education (essay)

Increasing graduation rates and levels of educational attainment will accomplish little if students do not learn something of lasting value. Yet federal efforts over the last several years have focused much more on increasing the number of Americans who go to college than on improving the education they receive once they get there.

By concentrating so heavily on graduation rates and attainment levels, policy makers are ignoring danger signs that the amount that students learn in college may have declined over the past few decades and could well continue to do so in the years to come. The reasons for concern include:

  • College students today seem to be spending much less time on their course work than their predecessors did 50 years ago, and evidence of their abilities suggests that they are probably learning less than students once did and quite possibly less than their counterparts in many other advanced industrial countries.
  • Employers complain that many graduates they hire are deficient in basic skills such as writing, problem solving and critical thinking that college leaders and their faculties consistently rank among the most important goals of an undergraduate education.
  • Most of the millions of additional students needed to increase educational attainment levels will come to campus poorly prepared for college work, creating a danger that higher graduation rates will be achievable only by lowering academic standards.
  • More than two-thirds of college instructors today are not on the tenure track but are lecturers serving on year-to-year contracts. Many of them are hired without undergoing the vetting commonly used in appointing tenure-track professors. Studies indicate that extensive use of such instructors may contribute to higher dropout rates and to grade inflation.
  • States have made substantial cuts in support per student over the past 30 years for public colleges and community colleges. Research suggests that failing to increase appropriations to keep pace with enrollment growth tends to reduce learning and even lower graduation rates.

While some college leaders are making serious efforts to improve the quality of teaching, many others seem content with their existing programs. Although they recognize the existence of problems affecting higher education as a whole, such as grade inflation or a decline in the rigor of academic standards, few seem to believe that these difficulties exist on their own campus, or they tend to attribute most of the difficulty to the poor preparation of students before they enroll.

Some Immediate Improvements

Many colleges provide a formidable array of courses, majors and extracurricular opportunities, but firsthand accounts indicate that many undergraduates do not feel that the material conveyed in their readings and lectures has much relevance to their lives. Such sentiments suggest either that the courses do not in fact contribute much to the ultimate goals that colleges claim to value or that instructors are not taking sufficient care to explain the larger aims of their courses and why they should matter.

Other studies suggest that many instructors do not teach their courses in ways best calculated to achieve the ends that faculties themselves consider important. For example, one investigator studied samples of the examinations given at elite liberal arts colleges and research universities. Although 99 percent of professors consider critical thinking an “essential” or “very important” goal of a college education, fewer than 20 percent of the exam questions actually tested for this skill.

Now that most faculties have defined the learning objectives of their college and its various departments and programs, it should be possible to review recent examinations to determine whether individual professors, programs and departments are actually designing their courses to achieve those goals. College administrators could also modify their student evaluation forms to ask students whether they believe the stated goals were emphasized in the courses they took.

In addition, the average time students devote to studying varies widely among different colleges, and many campuses could require more of their students. Those lacking evidence about the study habits of their undergraduates could inform themselves through confidential surveys that faculties could review and consider steps to encourage greater student effort and improve learning.

The vast difference between how well seniors think they can perform and their actual proficiencies (according to tests of basic skills and employer evaluations) suggests that many colleges are failing to give students an adequate account of their progress. Grade inflation may also contribute to excessive confidence, suggesting a need to work to restore appropriate standards, although that alone is unlikely to solve the problem. Better feedback on student papers and exams will be even more important in order to give undergraduates a more accurate sense of how much progress they’ve made and what more they need to accomplish before they graduate.

More Substantial Reforms

More fundamental changes will take longer to achieve but could eventually yield even greater gains in the quality of undergraduate education. They include:

Improving graduate education. Colleges and universities need to reconfigure graduate programs to better prepare aspiring professors for teaching. As late as two or three generations ago, majorities of new Ph.D.s, at least in the better graduate programs, found positions where research was primary, either in major universities, industry or government. Today, however, many Ph.D.s find employment in colleges that are chiefly devoted to teaching or work as adjunct instructors and are not expected to do research.

Aspiring college instructors also need to know much more now in order to teach effectively. A large and increasing body of useful knowledge has accumulated about learning and pedagogy, as well as the design and effectiveness of alternative methods of instruction. Meanwhile, the advent of new technologies has given rise to methods of teaching that require special training. As evidence accumulates about promising ways of engaging students actively, identifying difficulties they are having in learning the material and adjusting teaching methods accordingly, the current gaps in the preparation most graduate students receive become more and more of a handicap.

Universities have already begun to prepare graduate students to teach by giving them opportunities to assist professors in large lecture courses and by creating centers where they can get help to become better instructors. More departments are starting to provide or even require a limited amount of instruction in how to teach. Nevertheless, simply allowing grad students to serve as largely unsupervised teaching assistants, or creating centers where they can receive a brief orientation or a few voluntary sessions on teaching, will not adequately equip them for a career in the classroom.

A more substantial preparation is required and will become ever more necessary as the body of relevant knowledge continues to grow. With all the talk in graduate school circles about preparing doctoral students for jobs outside academe, one has to wonder why departments spend time readying Ph.D. candidates for entirely different careers before they have developed adequate programs for the academic posts that graduate schools are supposed to serve, and that most of their students continue to occupy.

Many departments may fail to provide such instruction because they lack faculty with necessary knowledge, but provosts and deans could enlist competent teachers for such instruction from elsewhere in the university, although they may hesitate to do so, given than graduate education has always been the exclusive domain of the departments. Enterprising donors might consider giving grants to graduate schools or departments willing to make the necessary reforms. If even a few leading universities responded to such an invitation, others would probably follow suit.

Creating a teaching faculty. The seeds of such a change already exist through the proliferation of instructors who are not on the tenure track but are hired on a year-to- year basis or a somewhat longer term to teach basic undergraduate courses. Those adjunct instructors now constitute as much as 70 percent of all college instructors.

The multiplication of such instructors has largely been an ad hoc response to the need to cut costs in order to cope with severe financial pressures resulting from reductions in state support and larger student enrollments. But researchers are discovering that relying on casually hired, part-time teachers can have adverse effects on graduation rates and the quality of instruction. Sooner or later, the present practices seem bound to give way to more satisfactory arrangements.

One plausible outcome would be to create a carefully selected, full-time teaching faculty, the members of which would lack tenure but receive appointments for a significant term of years with enforceable guarantees of academic freedom and adequate notice if their contracts are not renewed. Such instructors would receive opportunities for professional development to become more knowledgeable and proficient as teachers, and they would teach more hours per week than the tenured faculty. In return, they would receive adequate salaries, benefits and facilities and would share in deliberations over educational policy, though not in matters involving research and the appointment and promotion of tenure-track professors.

These faculty members would be better trained in teaching and learning than the current research-oriented faculty, although tenured professors who wish to teach introductory or general education courses would, of course, be welcome to do so. Being chiefly engaged in teaching, they might also be more inclined to experiment with new and better methods of instruction if they were encouraged to do so.

A reform of this sort would undoubtedly cost more than most universities currently pay their non-tenure-track instructors (though less than having tenured faculty teach the lower-level courses). Even so, the shabby treatment of many part-time instructors is hard to justify, and higher costs seem inevitable once adjunct faculties become more organized and use their collective strength to bargain for better terms.

Progress may have to come gradually as finances permit. But instead of today’s legions of casually hired, underpaid and insecure adjunct instructors, a substantial segment of the college faculty would possess the time, training and job security to participate in a continuing effort to develop more effective methods of instruction to engage their students and help them derive more lasting value from their classes.

Rethinking the undergraduate curriculum. The familiar division into fields of concentration, electives and general education leaves too little room for students to pursue all of the objectives that professors themselves deem important for a well-rounded college education. This tripartite structure, with its emphasis on the major and its embrace of distribution requirements and extensive electives, was introduced by research universities and designed more to satisfy the interests of a tenured, research-oriented faculty than to achieve the various aims of a good undergraduate education. The existing structure is unlikely to change so long as decisions about the curriculum remain under the exclusive control of the tenure-track professors who benefit from the status quo.

By now, the standard curriculum has become so firmly rooted that during the periodic reviews conducted in most universities, the faculty rarely pause to examine the tripartite division and its effect upon the established goals of undergraduate education. Instead, the practice of reserving up to half of the required number of credits for the major is simply taken for granted along with maintaining a distribution requirement and preserving an ample segment of the curriculum for electives.

The obvious remedy is to include the non-tenure-track instructors who currently make up a majority of the teaching faculty in curricular reviews so that all those who play a substantial part in trying to achieve the goals of undergraduate education can participate in the process. It is anomalous to allow the tenure-track faculty to enjoy exclusive power over the curriculum when they provide such a limited share of the teaching. Such a reform might be difficult under current conditions in many colleges where most undergraduate instructors serve part-time, are often chosen haphazardly and frequently lack either the time or the interest to participate fully in a review of its undergraduate program. If adjunct instructors achieve the status previously described, however, their prominent role in teaching undergraduates should entitle them to a seat at the table to discuss the educational program, including its current structure. Such a move could at least increase the likelihood of a serious discussion of the existing curricular structure to determine whether it truly serves the multiple aims of undergraduate education.

Colleges should also consider allowing some meaningful participation by members of the administrative staff who are prominently involved in college life, such as deans of student affairs and directors of admission. The current division between formal instruction and the extracurriculum is arbitrary, since many goals of undergraduate education, such as moral development and preparation for citizenship, are influenced significantly by the policies for admitting students, the administration of rules for student behavior, the advising of undergraduates, the nature of residential life and the extracurricular activities in which many students participate. Representatives from all groups responsible for the policies and practices that affect these goals should have something to contribute to reviews of undergraduate education.

The Need for Research

Finally, there is an urgent need for more and better research both to improve the quality of undergraduate education and to increase the number of students who complete their studies. Among the many questions deserving further exploration, four lines of inquiry seem especially important.

  • How can remedial education be improved? At present, low rates of completion in remedial courses are a major impediment to raising levels of educational attainment. The use of computer-aided instruction in remedial math provides one promising example of the type of improvement that could yield substantial benefits, and there are doubtless other possibilities.
  • Far too little is known about the kinds of courses or other undergraduate experiences that contribute to such noneconomic benefits in later life as better health, greater civic participation and lower incidence of substance abuse and other forms of self-destructive behavior. Better understanding of those connections could help educators increase the lasting value of a college education while providing a stronger empirical basis for the sweeping claims frequently made about the lifelong benefits of a liberal education. Such understanding would also reduce the risk of inadvertently eliminating valuable aspects of a college education in the rush to find quicker, cheaper ways of preparing students to obtain good jobs of immediate value to economic growth.
  • Existing research suggests that better advising and other forms of student support may substantially enhance the effect of increased financial aid in boosting the numbers of students who complete their studies. With billions of dollars already being spent on student grants and loans, it would clearly be helpful to know more about how to maximize the effects of such subsidies on graduation rates.
  • More work is needed to develop better ways for colleges to measure student learning, not only for critical thinking and writing but also for other purposes of undergraduate education.

The importance of this last point can scarcely be overestimated. Without reliable measures of learning, competition for students can do little to improve the quality of instruction, since applicants have no way of knowing which college offers them the best teaching. Provosts, deans and departments will have difficulty identifying weaknesses in their academic programs in need of corrective action. Academic leaders will be handicapped in trying to persuade their professors to change the way they teach if they cannot offer convincing evidence that alternative methods will bring improved results. Faculty members will do less to improve their teaching if they continue to lack adequate ways to discover how much their students are learning.

All these reforms could do a lot to improve the quality of undergraduate education -- as well as increase levels of attainment. With more research and experimentation, other useful ideas will doubtless continue to appear.

Derek Bok is the 300th Anniversary University Research Professor, professor of law and president emeritus of Harvard University. His books include Higher Education in America, Our Underachieving Colleges and Universities in the Marketplace. This article is excerpted from The Struggle to Reform our Colleges, being published this week by Princeton University Press. (© 2017 by Princeton University Press.)

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Community college's job market study highlights need for middle skills despite low unemployment

St. Louis Community College’s annual employer study finds openings for middle-skilled employees but also concerns about applicants’ skills and training.

Colleges need to be much more innovative with their curricula (essay)

The Curriculm

As students return to campus this fall, they (along with their families) are facing another round of pricey tuition bills. Last year, tuition, fees, room and board averaged about $20,000 for public four-year universities, according to the College Board. That’s more than double the total cost 25 years ago, even when adjusted for inflation. To add fuel to the fire, in a recent poll, nearly half of undergraduates said they learned “nothing” after their first two years of college.

Interestingly, that’s the period during which many students are required to take courses that don’t align with their interests or career goals and instead are part of the “core curriculum” that is required of all students to graduate.

Both of us are university educators; dismaying to us (and perhaps surprising to the reader) is that such requirements are often arbitrary, and there’s little or no data to support their selection. For organizations grounded in research and experimentation, universities engage in surprisingly little analysis about the educational value of courses they offer, beyond those perfunctory student course evaluations.

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.

It’s a small amount of time that costs a great deal of money, and neither should be wasted by requiring students to sit in large lecture halls on the campus, taking introductory-level courses from an arbitrarily-chosen bucket of courses. We need to reconsider that approach.

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.

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. 

Instead, universities should create a marketplace of online courses to provide students with the best instruction available, even if it’s not produced locally. Those courses could even be taken before students start college, similar to AP courses hundreds of thousands of high school students take every year.

With those core courses out of the way, universities could direct their resources towards more focused curricula where students don’t just learn basic facts but instead learn to think and function as mature adults.

Small group courses would focus on developing skills like oral and written communication, interaction with peers, team behavior, leadership and -- just as important -- followership. Importantly, 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.

A few of these courses would be required, but they would also be subject to experimentation and demonstration of a contribution to the student’s maturity. On-campus courses might include debate, art and architecture and great books. Students could take an “innovation” course, in which they’d interview professionals in a field of their interest to understand the challenges they face in the real world, then discuss possible solutions with classmates. Students would also be required to keep a personal digital portfolio of their accomplishments throughout their college years, which would form the basis for meetings with their adviser and help with self-reflection.

Students, of course, would take elective courses -- also in small groups -- which would help them prepare for a final capstone course. There, students would work in teams and in coordination with a professor to address a problem in real terms, whether building a model of a device or planning an event that addresses a social issue. This work should be carried out beyond the boundaries of the campus, through interviews with professors or experts across the United States or even internationally. The student should guide their team to write the findings of the work as the final product of an exercise in team leadership in the real world.

American universities are known the world over for faculty who do innovative research. But they haven’t always applied that innovative spirit to their own curricula. As technology advances and the costs of education soars, it’s time for institutions to rethink their approach and focus on preparing mature students to best serve the country’s future generations.

Arthur “Tim” Garson Jr. is director of the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute and the former provost of the University of Virginia. Robert C. Pianta is dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

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Overcoming the obstacles to curricular coherence (essay)

The Curriculum

Congratulations are in order for all the new college students now arriving on campuses. As they prepare for the transition to college and contemplate their academic futures, their focus will turn to choosing a major.

Students typically do not consider how degree requirements are organized, whether their general education or major courses are intellectually interrelated, how to choose wisely when presented with scores of course options and whether their courses will be scheduled so they can graduate on time. And why should they? The responsibility for coherence in the curriculum rests with faculty members, not students.

Proliferating course offerings can overwhelm and confuse students, simultaneously lead to both underenrolled courses and oversubscribed courses, encourage the hiring of adjuncts, and, in general, make a college education seem like a box-checking exercise rather than a cohesive and comprehensive intellectual endeavor. Yet faculty members often struggle to maintain coherence over the curriculum, to the detriment of student learning, and in extreme cases, to their institution’s fiscal health. Why is addressing course proliferation so hard? What can be done about it?

As problematic as course proliferation is, it emerges due to a host of factors that might generally be viewed as positive: student demand for variety and a concomitant fear on the part of the faculty of impoverishing students’ education through limits on choice; the explosion of knowledge in the disciplines, leading to majors that did not exist even a decade ago; and efforts to engage students in high-impact practices like undergraduate research, which necessitates changes -- generally, additions rather than transformations -- in the curriculum.

Overlooked structural and cultural issues at the heart of how faculty work is organized also contribute to the problem. Those factors came to light at a recent convening by the Teagle Foundation of grantees participating in our “Faculty Planning and Curricular Coherence” initiative.

Participants observed that faculty members are the masters of the curriculum but are neither incentivized nor penalized for attending to the coherence of their curriculum as a whole. Professors tend to think about their responsibility for their individual courses rather than how those courses contribute to students’ learning holistically as they move through their programs of study. Faculty rewards for teaching, even at institutions that place a premium on it, are typically tied to the student experience in a single course -- not how the course helps them build their skills and knowledge base as they progress toward their degrees.

Faculty-led curriculum committees that are charged with approving new courses and programs may be empowered to make unpopular decisions but still typically default to approving additions without mandating subtractions to the curriculum. That happens partly because of the tendency of faculty members to defer to one another as content experts, and partly because a new course or program may not be seen as being in direct competition with existing offerings -- particularly when it is delivered through a new faculty line rather than a reorganization of courses.

The problem of curricular incoherence is worsened by continuing trends in higher education. For instance, most contemporary graduate education programs leave new faculty members unprepared to teach outside their relatively narrow areas of research specialization. At some institutions, notions of faculty workload have become so highly individualistic that teaching and advising responsibilities are being discharged without meeting the needs of the department as a whole.

Without a shared vision for a unified and streamlined curriculum, planned collectively at the department level and then coordinated cross-departmentally, even modest efforts at promoting more integrative learning get bogged down in what ought to be easily resolvable issues like academic scheduling. Ultimately, as institutions contend with an intellectually disjointed curriculum that becomes increasingly expensive to deliver, administrators blame faculty members and their love of specialization, while faculty members blame administrators for imposing new course requirements or chasing new programs to attract students.

Overcoming Obstacles to Coherence

Discerning the barriers to curricular coherence makes them more navigable. And we can learn how to overcome those obstacles by example.

San Francisco State University’s student exit surveys showed that the primary reason why undergraduates dropped out was because they were not getting into courses they needed to graduate -- an obstacle that is directly related to how faculty staff the courses they set as requirements for students. With support from a faculty learning community, schools and departments ranging from history to chemistry are reorganizing upper-division courses so they advance programwide learning objectives, are scheduled to meet students’ needs for timely graduation and reduce reliance on adjuncts over the long run.

For example, faculty members at the School of Social Work have devised a new curricular road map that has removed several redundancies and combined two courses into a single course on intersectionality, opening space for a new, shared core course in the process. SFSU is also establishing program review policies to encourage departments to periodically take stock and prune course offerings with an eye to student learning and success. Lessons learned from the process have been captured by SFSU faculty in a “survival guide” for curricular change in a shared governance setting.

Virginia Wesleyan College now emphasizes the expansion of student participation in study away, undergraduate research and internships, and it is restructuring its curriculum around such high-impact practices. Most of the college’s 33 liberal arts departments are engaged in curriculum mapping designed to make majors more transparent to students and show students how courses and co-curricular activities lead to culminating experiences like study away and undergraduate research that, in turn, connect to career opportunities. The curricular changes are being brought about through departmentwide revisions and substitutions, not additions, so they can be carried out by the current distribution of faculty. During the 2015-16 academic year, 74 percent of graduates completed at least one internship, study away or research project. This represents a steady increase since 2004-05, when 60 percent of graduates had completed at least one of the three high-impact practices.

Austin Community College is in the midst of developing guided pathways: highly defined, structured and coherent curricula leading to a postsecondary credential that is aligned to high-quality employment, either directly after community college or posttransfer after attainment of a bachelor’s degree. On the liberal arts guided pathway, humanities faculty members are working to scale up a Great Books approach to teaching a mandated student success course for hundreds of transfer-bound students by engaging their peers, including those who may not have a background in the humanities. Eventually, this course may be adapted for students pursuing professional pathways like nursing.

As these examples show, curricular coherence takes different forms depending on the institutional context, but it is marked by collective responsibility for student learning and a desire to maximize scarce resources, including faculty time.

Instruction is the biggest cost driver at many institutions. In principle, nothing is wrong with this picture. But the biggest cost driver ought to combine quality with efficiency. When departments present an incoherent assortment of courses to satisfy degree requirements, use inexperienced and unsupported adjuncts to staff introductory courses, hire visiting faculty members to accommodate those on sabbatical, and let oversubscribed courses interfere with on-time graduation, students flounder and learning suffers.

The consequences of course proliferation and curricular inefficiency are borne not just by students and their families. They’re borne by the institution -- in the form of lost tuition revenue and penalties from performance-funding initiatives now in place in the majority of states for public institutions. And they’re borne by all of us, as public trust in higher education is eroded by the damaging perceptions that students are jumping through hoops rather than learning and that their professors -- with the protections of tenure and perks like sabbaticals -- are not helping.

Precisely because curriculum is within the control of faculty members, we have the opportunity to profoundly reshape students’ college experiences for the better while also restoring the public’s respect for faculty members and trust in higher education.

Loni Bordoloi Pazich is program director at the Teagle Foundation.

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Association for Non-Traditional Students in Higher Ed Conference 2018

Date: 
Thu, 03/15/2018 to Sat, 03/17/2018

Location

100 Beatties Ford Road
Charlotte , North Carolina 28216
United States

World Economic Forum gives U.S. high marks for human capital development

The U.S. gets high marks on World Economic Forum index on human capital development, which could ease worries about higher education's contribution to a skills gap. But some experts are skeptical.

How to be an effective acting director, chair or dean -- part I (essay)

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Stepping up to serve as an acting director, chair or dean? Elizabeth H. Simmons offers perspective on how to approach the tasks that lie ahead.

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Indiana University's 'grand challenge' on practical solutions to environmental change in the state

Indiana University’s new “grand challenge” takes a practical approach by seeking to connect university research on environmental change to the lives and work of people across the conservative state.

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