Your “frill” is not my “frill. “ My frill, in fact, is an essential component of the work I do, which is an equally essential aspect of our institution’s mission. Maybe you say the same about yours.
And therein lies the heart of the difficulty in discussing what has recently become a phrase bandied about in the world of higher education. “No-frills education” has been touted by the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, the president of Southern New Hampshire University in recent attention-getting interviews, and pundits commenting on the out-of-control costs of college. If we can just strip the college experience down to its most basic form, the argument goes, we can restore sanity to the price structure and access to those who need it.
But the first challenge comes when we begin to discuss, and decide on, what constitutes a “frill.” Unfortunately, the contentious and fractured nature of higher education, long a hotbed of competing priorities, makes that a difficult conversation.
Shopping for a college education is not like buying a new car, and building an effective institution to provide that education is not like building one. If one of us goes into a car dealership with a plan to buy the most stripped-down vehicle on the lot, and we stick to that plan, we have a pretty good idea of what we will drive away owning: a car without many of the nifty features now available. No GPS, no satellite radio. We will have a smaller engine, which we understand will leave our simple little car a bit underpowered on the highway.
But we know too that we will have a car equipped with the basic safety features required by law -- seatbelts and airbags -- and that it will have the components necessary to drive off the lot: four wheels supporting a frame, powered by an engine.
But what is it about a college education that is truly essential? And how do we arrive at that conclusion? We can start with the curriculum, but if there is an institution out there that has not suffered through lengthy debates about the components of that curriculum, neither of us knows where it is. The only thing constant about the “essential” components of a curriculum has been the regular change each institution imposes on it.
Foreign languages, for example, have been a mainstay of a liberal arts education. But as demand has lessened and resources have dwindled, a number of institutions have reduced or eliminated this requirement. Skill in writing has long been one hallmark of a college education, but at many large research institutions, students can graduate having written fewer than a dozen substantive papers, many of those having been graded and returned with few comments and corrections. Colleges and universities have added, and then removed, requirements for courses addressing diversity, gender issues, global concerns.
What was essential in one decade is seen as frivolous in another. At the furthest extreme is an institution as esteemed as Brown University, which has no required courses among its thousands of offerings.
Is academic support a “frill”? If one agrees that writing is indeed an essential component, then is a writing center that provides intensive tutoring in this skill also an essential component? That’s a fairly easy argument to make. And yet, in a time of budget cuts, we have seen writing centers forced to reduce their hours and staff. At what point does this essential component become so limited that an institution’s mission is threatened?
To return to the car-buying analogy, we know that tastes and needs have an impact on standard equipment in a car, and that over time, we adjust our expectations of that equipment upward. One would be hard-pressed, for example, to find a car without a radio today. It doesn’t mean the radio hasn’t added to the cost of the car, just that we are in agreement that we will accept the cost as part of the price of the car.
But easy acceptance has never been part of academic culture. We can, and do, argue over everything from the lack of vegetarian options in the dining halls to class schedules, from the awarding of tenure to a less-than-stellar instructor to the political correctness of a mascot. Debate is, one could argue, an essential component of our mission (though we have to admit there are days when we wish it were a frill that we might be willing to do away with). The risk for our institutions is not in the content of this debate, but in the oft-reflexive assumptions we bring to the debate, which can then degenerate into a harsh and morale-sapping exchange between groups of colleagues.
“No-frills education” discussions have their common fodder: gleaming recreation centers, posh residence halls with concierge desks, heavily-funded student activities events, athletics and all its attendant costs. These are among the items that proponents of “no-frills” education seek to eliminate. The “no-frills” education offered by Southern New Hampshire University, for example, is a commuter-based approach to garnering credits; many classes are taught by the same faculty who teach at the university’s “heavily frilled” other campus. But are those students getting the same education as their peers down the road? Perhaps they don’t need a recreation center, but is there any doubt that students learn valuable skills from activities outside the classroom?
Over the past 20 years, service learning as a component of the curriculum has become increasingly common as faculty and students alike, supported by data, acknowledge the deep level of learning that takes place when students must put their classroom skills to good use in the community. What about learning to develop a budget for an organization, motivating volunteers, evaluating the success of an effort? And practically speaking, how does a no-frills education impact a student’s relationship with the institution? Will these students be loyal alums 10 or 20 years after graduation?
It’s equally critical that we remember that very few frills are either/or propositions. Most exist on a continuum of cost and usefulness. Perhaps a climbing wall (a “frill” often cited as an example of an unnecessary expenditure) isn’t a good use of campus dollars. But is a fitness center with basic cardio equipment that gives students, as well as faculty and staff, a convenient way to relieve stress and stay healthy in that same category? Similarly, a residence hall with a spectacular view of Boston’s skyline, such as the luxury accommodations recently opened by Boston University, can hardly be discussed in the same conversation as the standard double-room, shared-bath residence halls still operating on most campuses.
These debates about “amenities” versus “necessities,” about what our students need versus what they want, rage on, as they should. It is our responsibility as the keepers of our institution’s educational integrity to own these debates and decisions. If we abrogate our responsibility to do this, someone else, like a state legislator or policy maker or a popular magazine that makes a bundle on its “rankings” issue, will step in.
Who should get to decide that a particular outside-the-classroom activity is a frill? Living on campus is a “frill” in the minds of some higher education policy makers, and certainly the community college system in American has shown for a century that students can receive a good education without experiencing dorm life. But who would argue that learning to live with others isn’t a valuable skill? It’s certainly one we hope our neighbors have learned before they move into the townhouse next door.
Is residence life essential? No. Is it a frill? No. Is it somewhere in the middle? Most likely. So who on any given campus is best positioned to determine whether it stays or goes as part of a move toward “no-frills” education?
An athletics program is similarly difficult to gauge. At one of our institutions, a small, professionally focused college, athletics was eliminated without much of a fight, and the college hasn’t missed a step.
At the other of our institutions, a small, selective liberal arts college, a quarter of the students participate in an intercollegiate sport. The budget to support these efforts, while modest compared to larger schools, is not insubstantial at a time when every dollar is scrutinized. There are on this campus, as we’re sure there are on every campus, those who would characterize athletics as a “frill.”
But if we eliminated the entire program, or even a few sports, enrollment would suffer greatly as those student-athletes sought other opportunities to continue their athletic pursuits, and we would have a hard time keeping our doors open for the rest of our students. It’s also worth pointing out that on this campus, as is the case on many small college campuses, our athletes are retained at a higher rate, and receive less financial aid, than the student body in general.
Some of the “no-frill” efforts being proposed are closely aligned with a view of higher education that is more vocational in nature, more targeted at providing students with skills essential to building an effective and pliable work force to rebuild the American, and global, economy. Setting aside the enormous question of whether this should be the true purpose of a college education, we nonetheless need to consider the role of career services in this equation.
Does a “no-frills” institution help its students find jobs after education? Perhaps, but how? Does it help students identify possible internships with employers? That would be a good idea. Does it invite recruiters to campus to interview students? That makes sense. Does there need to be an employee whose responsibility it is to arrange these internships and visits? That is helpful. Should someone work to prepare these students for these interviews? Review their resumes? Help them determine which recruiters might be of interest to them? Offer a workshop on interviewing skills? Those services make sense if the institution is truly committed to helping students move successfully into the workforce. So now perhaps this institution needs a career services office to provide these opportunities, replete with staff, a small resource library, some career-oriented software supplied on office-located computers.
Frills? Yes, no, and somewhere in between, depending on the vantage point from which you approach the matter.
The point of these examples is not to lead us down a path of endless debate about residence halls, athletics, career services, student activities, or any of the “frills” that proponents of “no-frills” would like to eliminate. It’s to point out that we have, at this point, no agreed-upon framework with which to discuss and define “essential” versus “frill.”
Will these “no-frills” campuses take a pass on academic support services? How about orientation or a campus conduct system? Will faculty at these no-frills institutions be any more comfortable dealing with students in serious academic or emotional distress than our faculty colleagues are now, most of whom appear grateful to have a counseling center (which some might consider a “frill”) to refer these students? Will students with learning and physical disabilities still be able to get the assistance they need, or will anything beyond the bare minimum required by the federal government be considered a “frill” and cast aside along with the climbing wall, spring concert, turf field and whatever else is the frill-of-the-day as portrayed in the media?
We can’t, and won’t, answer yes or no to these, though we each have our opinions. We just want to propose that each institution should own its discussion about these matters. Casting aspersions on the work of others, on the contributions of that work to students and to an institution’s core mission, is not productive. What is productive is an ongoing, civil conversation about those students and that core mission, and an effort to first build a framework for that conversation that educates each of us in the work of one another.
Every institution must have its own conversation, and no two institutions will reach identical conclusions. One institution’s frill is another institution’s essential service: ours to decide, and ours to defend. Leaving the definition of “frill” to others puts us at grave risk of losing control over our very purpose. We must look inward for the anchor points of this conversation. Who are our students, and what do we owe them? What do they need from us (rather than want from us) to ensure they have the best chance of succeeding at whatever it is we have crafted as our institution’s goals? And then we must measure what we offer against those goals, rather than against the college down the road that is awash in apparent frills (which, perhaps, they don’t define that way, and that is, of course, their prerogative).
What each one of us believes is essential may not be what another believes is essential, but we do share, at our best, a deep commitment to this work of educating college students, and we each deserve a voice in the conversation.
Lee Burdette Williams is vice president and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, and Elizabeth A. Beaulieu is dean of the core division at Champlain College.