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Writing in response to Yale’s decision to alter its mental health policies, a colleague described an incident that has left a lasting impact not only on his life, but on many others’. Despite repeated warnings from faculty and classmates, his institution failed to act responsibly when a student was undergoing a severe mental health crisis. In this particular case, the institution simply couldn’t offer the mental health services the student needed. That meant sending the student home, where he might well have received the intensive care he needed.

My colleague’s student ultimately died by suicide, leaving roommates, dorm mates, residence advisers, faculty and shattered parents to bear and process the awful burden largely on their own.

I, for one, worry that rather than having the serious, fair-minded, scientifically informed campus mental health discussion that campuses need, we may be witnessing a reprise of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when two trends converged: a studied societywide neglect for the severely mentally ill—those suffering from psychotic disorders, paranoid ideation and crippling schizophrenia, while resisting treatment—and a romanticization of extreme mental illness, which climaxed with the publication of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness.

This is a subject explored with extraordinary sensitivity by Jonathan Rosen in his book The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness and the Tragedy of Good Intentions, and by Freddie DeBoer in commentaries on the case of Michael Laudor, a Yale College and Law School graduate who later hacked his pregnant girlfriend to death with a kitchen knife.

Among Rosen and DeBoer’s points are the ways that Laudor’s mental health issues “were subject to benevolent, willful neglect” and that Yale’s “smiling permissiveness” proved to be “a kind of abandonment.”

Let’s not delude themselves: whatever else our campuses are, they aren’t especially effective mental health providers, and the students who are suffering from clinical depression or suicidal ideation may not be the best judges of the care that they need.

Let me next turn to an exceptionally thought-provoking contribution by Inside Higher Ed’s John Warner that discusses, with great empathy and compassion, students’ grade anxieties.

As Inside Higher Ed readers know, between 1998 and 2016, the average high school GPA went up from 3.27 to 3.38, with the proportion of students in the A range rising from 38.9 percent to 47 percent—even as average SAT scores fell. At the most highly resourced high schools in affluent areas, grades averaged as high as 3.56 on a four-point scale, abetted by the practice of awarding extra points for honors and AP courses.

When students tell me that they’ve never received a grade less than an A, they may well be speaking the truth.

The Warner column provides eye-opening insights into why today’s students care so much about their grades—and why grade grubbing has become omnipresent. Because many scholarships are linked to grades. Because entry into high-demand majors, like nursing, engineering and even business, is grade aligned. And because of the perception that admission to graduate and professional schools is largely contingent on grades, as opposed to the letters of recommendation that you and I painstakingly write.

To very mixed emotions, I myself have made my grading much more “objective.” How well students do depends largely on whether they complete an elaborate set of course requirements, even though I do, of course, take into account the quality of their work, their contributions to the class, their effort and the extent of improvement over the course of the semester. Those who receive lower grades get them largely because they failed to complete some of the required work.

Which brings me to this posting’s real topic: Quo Vadis? Whither higher ed?

When I step back and survey the changes that have taken place in American higher ed over the past five decades, I am struck by four striking developments.

  1. The emergence of the college-for-all ideal. The idea that all young people should have the opportunity to go to college is an ideal worth celebrating. After all, college is valuable for a host of nonmonetary reasons. College graduates are, in general, happier, healthier and more well-rounded, knowledgeable and civic minded.

But the college-for-all ideal has meant that colleges now serve a much more diverse student population, many of whom face intense financial pressures or are unevenly prepared, work full-time, carry family responsibilities, speak English as a second language, or have learning disabilities.

We need to recognize an unpleasant truth: many faculty members are not well prepared to deal with students who need intensive support or various accommodations, and professors can’t expect much institutional help.

  1. The student success imperative. The pressure on campuses to raise persistence and completion rates and accelerate time to degree is intense—and should be. It is morally unacceptable to admit students and then have a third or two-fifths or even more fail to graduate. Campuses know what to do:
  • Increase scholarship support.
  • Enhance onboarding.
  • Make the transfer and credit evaluation process more seamless.
  • Provide every entering student with a degree plan and an adviser.
  • Place first-year students in a learning community.
  • Expand access to gateway courses.
  • Use data analytics to identify students off-track and intervene pro-actively.
  • Institute a tiered system of support, including tutoring organized study groups, supplemental instruction sections and a variety of learning centers, including centers in data, math, science and writing.
  • Offer one-stop student services.
  • Redesign high DFW classes.
  • Incorporate more active, inquiry, problem- and project-based learning into pedagogy.
  • Expand access to high-impact educational practices.
  • Integrate career preparation throughout the undergraduate experience.

Failure to take these steps should be severely sanctioned by accreditors.

  1. The campus as a provider of wraparound supports. One consequence of the college-for-all ideal is that campuses are expected to provide the services and supports that the rest of the society lacks: food pantries, housing assistance, mental health supports and much more. Duties of care have risen, driven by legislation, agency rulings and, of course, litigation. So, too, have expectations about the responsibility of campuses to safeguard students’ physical safety and psychological well-being and provide appropriate accommodations—as a result of student and parental activism and court rulings.

In terms of academic accommodations, campuses need to do more to help faculty members implement universal design principles in instruction and assessment that do not undercut the rigor or fundamental nature of the courses while ensuring that all students can take advantage of the educational opportunities offered. Let me add, accommodations aren’t enough. Accommodations shouldn’t be a substitute for the kinds of services that these students truly need. Accommodations need to be supplemented with individual educational plans that will ensure that students with disabilities acquire the strategies and tools that they need to function successfully at school and in life.

  1. The “overproduction” of bachelor’s degrees. Over all, the economic value of a college degree—whether defined in terms of income or wealth—is declining. To be sure, individual outcomes vary widely, depending on degree-granting institution, choice of major, pursuit of postbaccalaureate degrees and occupation. General skills majors, like those in the humanities, the performing arts, anthropology, psychology and sociology, tend to have the lowest wage payoff, while those with occupation-specific skills, especially those in finance, health care or STEM fields, have the highest.

The wealth premium has declined even more steeply than the wage premium, partly due to the increase in student debt. Whereas college graduates born in the 1930s and 1940s had a net worth three times that of nongraduates, the wealth premium for white college graduates born in the 1980s is only about 42 percent.

As I see it, higher education is at a crossroads. Two roads lie ahead. We can create faster, cheaper paths to a marketable credential, for example, by expanding early-college/dual-degree offerings; offering more accelerated and asynchronous, self-paced online courses; and reducing the number of credits required for a degree.

Or, alternatively, we can preserve something that looks something like the current four-year degree—with, I hope, some essential modifications:

  • More coherent, career-conscious degree pathways consisting of synergistic courses from multiple disciplines. One possible model was the biomedical science degree that the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the UT system developed that included courses in chemistry and physics that drew their examples from the human body and humanities and social sciences courses on the literature of pain and illness, the history of medicine and public health, health economics, health informatics, representations of the body, and the sociology of medicine.
  • Gen ed courses better aligned with student majors. Examples from my discipline might include courses in the history of business, law, diseases and epidemics, natural disasters, environmental change and adaptation and technology innovation and technological failures.
  • A more integrated curriculum that bridges disciplines. Such an approach might involve interdisciplinary or team-taught classes or course clusters that grapple with a broad, timeless theme, such as evil, justice or the good life, or that wrestle with a timely issue involving equity, identity or race, class and caste.
  • Integration of career exploration, high-impact practices and essential job and life skills across the curriculum. Campuses should, in my view, play a much more active developmental role in preparing undergraduates for life after college. That will require institutions to do more to ensure that students develop a host of life skills that aren’t formally taught, including relationship skills, money management and stress management and self-care, as well as essential workplace skills, involving collaboration, conflict management, cross-cultural communication, project management, public speaking and social etiquette.

When I ponder the direction that higher education might pursue in the years ahead, two contrasting economic “laws” come to mind. There’s Gresham’s law, which states that bad money drives out good money. Then, there’s Thiers’ law, which postulates that good money drives out bad money.

I ask myself: Do students, parents and employers care whether students receive a rigorous, demanding, well-rounded liberal undergraduate education, or do they simply treat a degree as a credential and a path to a career?

Graduate and professional schools and the better-paying employers, I suspect, will demand something more than the cut-rate, bargain-basement, low-end credentials that some are touting as a cheaper, expedited pathway into the workforce.

But I think if our campuses fail to evolve, if they continue to rely upon a three-part, cafeteria-style curriculum that consists of box-checking gen ed courses, a stand-alone major and a host of elective classes that many students choose less out of interest or a desire to explore and experiment and taste test than simply to fill various distribution requirements, then more and more students will embrace a spartan, bare-bones, minimalist path to a degree and a career.

If we don’t want the inferior to displace something better, then we need to offer something truly superior—and demonstrably better than what we offer today.

In recent years, colleges and universities have invested vast sums of money into various support services and student life even as spending on instruction stagnated, a pattern made possible by increased reliance on nontenurable instructors, larger classes, the elimination of breakout sections and redeployment of faculty away from the humanities and the interpretive social sciences.

It’s high time for faculty to insist that the time has come to shift priorities, place teaching and learning front and center and rethink and enhance the academic experience. That education must better align with the realities and needs of the new majority of nontraditional students: commuters, transfer students, adult learners, family caregivers, first-gen students and international students.

But that doesn’t mean that we need to dump the idea of a liberal education. We need to ask ourselves: What would a liberal education look like if we were to discard the gen ed, major and elective tripartite paradigm and truly think outside the box?

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. Dial 988 for help.

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

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