One of the main thrusts of what has come to be called "the undergraduate student success movement" is misguided. Yes, we did mean to use the term "misguided." A strong word and a strong assertion, but we have equally strong evidence. Simply stated, higher education institutions in the United States focus heavily on student success programs, but rarely do they have a comprehensive plan to guide those programs. In the absence of a plan, redundancies and gaps occur, and retention stagnates. In short, a program or programs do not a successful plan make.
Of course, making this assertion means that John Gardner, one of this essay’s authors and a key architect in the national student success movement, has to admit that over the years he may not have given the best advice to all people at all times. For about three decades, Gardner has gone around the country telling college educators that their institutions need to adopt or adapt one form of student success program or another. Drawing from his experiences, the recommended program was often a first-year seminar -- a contemporary staple in the American college curriculum that dates back to the 1880s. And, in fact, research does correlate participation in first-year seminars with positive differences in student retention and graduation rates.
At the same time that Gardner was advocating for first-year seminars in particular, he was also advocating for a broader philosophical approach to the first year. He coined the term, “the first-year experience,” and meant it to encompass a total campus approach to the first year, not a single program. Upon reflection, it seems that speaking about one program extensively while at the same time advocating for a collective approach may have fostered a bit of confusion. And today the “first-year experience” can mean anything from a single course to a full-fledged coordinated effort to improve the first year. But it was the single course that gained the most national and international interest.
Gardner himself ran University 101, a first-year seminar at the University of South Carolina, for 25 years, and then helped replicate this course type at many other institutions. Colleges and universities often adopted first-year seminars because they increased retention rates, and thus increased tuition revenue. Educators were hunting for the silver bullet -- the “program” that would bring about miraculous student-saving and money-making results. This search for the ideal program also became subsumed under the language of “best practices.” The idea was very simple: there are best practices out there, they can be identified and replicated with minimal thought given to context, and these best practices should yield the same results everywhere. But retention improvements that resulted from one-shot programs have generally been short-lived and, taken together, have failed to move the national retention statistics in a positive direction.
Fast-forward several decades, and this search has been intensified. A plethora of organizations and consultants now exist to feed the hunger for specific programmatic solutions to the retention problem. Clearly it is time for a change.
Beginning in 2003, with support from several foundations, the Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education launched a process, called Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year -- a self-study and planning process designed to help campuses move beyond “programs” and “best practices” to the development of a comprehensive intentional plan for the first year. Participants in the Foundations of Excellence process are encouraged to answer a fundamental educational question: What does our college or university need to do to provide an excellent beginning experience for all students relative to our unique mission, location, and student characteristics? To answer that question an institution first needs to assess how it is currently performing vis a vis standards of excellence for the first college year. The process provides nine such standards. Finally, once the plan has been created, institutions must implement it.
But implementing a plan is more easily said than done. Our own research on the effectiveness of the institute’s work with 197 institutional participants has found that the two most significant variables that interfere with executing a plan are a change of senior leadership with its resulting destabilizing effects, and the impact of unforeseen budget cuts.
We have also learned from successes. Over 95 percent of the campuses with which we have worked report implementing action plans. An independent analysis of Foundations of Excellence found that campuses that implemented the plans to a self-reported “high degree” recorded significant first-to-second year retention rate increases -- an aggregate 5.62 percentage points or 8.2 percent higher over four years as reported by IPEDS. Institutions that did not implement their FoE action plans experienced a 1.4 percentage point decrease in retention -- in other words, if you don’t implement the plan you have, you seem to get attrition. To plan is not enough. The executed plans included a combination of changes in institutional policies, a renewed focus on pedagogy in first-year courses, and particular programs -- yes, programs -- that were intentionally selected to address the unique needs of the institution and its students. For example, institutions connected their learning community offerings with their evolving core curriculums to maximize the success of both efforts; orientation programs were expanded to include and serve previously underserved and/or completely unserved populations such as low-income and transfer students; and oversight offices and/or committees were created to intentionally connect previously disparate pieces so that learning opportunities were not left to chance.
In conclusion, our experience leads us to convey that while programs are necessary, unless they are conceived and carried out as parts of a whole, they are not sufficient. What we believe is that institutions need to undertake a thorough planning process focused on excellence in the first year. Appropriate programs and best practices can then organically emerge and/or be modified, executed, assessed, and refined in context.
Institutions cannot fulfill their potential for improving student success without a comprehensive vision for excellence in the first year. Thus, we encourage you to recognize that the future of our students is too important to leave to chance. Instead, we hope you and your institution will become more intentional and deliberate in the way you commit to first-year excellence. In the process, you will be contributing nationally as you act locally to create the change and foster growth that our students and country require.
John N. Gardner and Andrew K. Koch
John N. Gardner is president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education and distinguished professor emeritus and senior fellow at the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, at the University of South Carolina.
Andrew K. Koch is vice president for new strategies, development, and policy initiatives of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education.
Most attention is paid at institutions of higher education to the beginning and end of undergraduate studies. Curriculum committees debate the nature and number of requirements that students must fulfill, mostly in their freshman year; and departments spend a great deal of time evaluating the content and structure of majors, which tend to occupy students in their junior and senior years. No one gives much thought to what students do in the middle, when they're generally encouraged to explore whatever topics they wish.
The principal philosophy that governs this middle period of a student's education is of course the elective system. The right for all students to take a class on the subject of their choosing is a hallmark and admirable feature of the American university. It is often through such chance encounters with less common subjects that scholarly passions are born and majors are chosen. No one studies linguistics or anthropology in high school.
But because the elective system is so fundamental to higher education, and because the major is under departmental control, we rarely step back and ask whether this combination of general ed requirements, electives, and specialization actually meets the objectives of a liberal education. Of course, the answer to this question depends largely on how one defines liberal education. For the sake of argument, let’s take the definition offered in the 2009 Modern Language Association Report to the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature. This report identified the acquisition of broad, cross-disciplinary and transhistorical "literacy" as a central component of liberal education (scientific literacy would be another component, but that’s a different story). In other words, students should be sufficiently well versed in an array of humanistic fields, canons, methodologies, and periods, for them to engage with sources (and pursue further research, if they wish) in a large number of areas. To be sure, we expect a lot more from liberal education than this single aim; this is simply a minimalist definition.
Given this definition, it seems fair to say that we place blind faith in the academic virtues of our current system. We simply assume that somewhere along the way, between fulfilling their general education and major requirements, students will pick up enough knowledge about other fields to meet the demands of a liberal education.
It is easy to understand why we place such faith in this system, since there is no obvious, acceptable alternative. Institutions such as St. John’s College, whose curricula are set in stone, will only ever cater to a tiny minority of students; even Columbia University’s two-year core curriculum is highly exceptional. As Louis Menand recently noted in The Marketplace of Ideas, it is virtually impossible to imagine introducing a curriculum such as Columbia’s core today; such highly regimented courses could only evolve under particular historical circumstances. The vast majority of students today desire a greater say about the content of their education. And we must honor this desire, if only because students who do not buy into their educational program are unlikely to be good learners.
There are other ways, however, to think about the middle part of undergraduate education, particularly in the humanities. Let us focus momentarily on students who major in the humanities. Whether students chose to major in English, religious studies, anthropology, or history, there are in fact no structures in place to encourage or enable them to acquire a solid foundation in other disciplines, cultures, literatures, and historical periods. The student writing her honors thesis on Alexander Pope often does not know who Pope Alexander VI was.
Moving now to all undergraduates, I would push this argument even further. Why is it that the vast majority of humanities courses are taught as if we were training students to professionalize in a given field (say, French), when only a tiny fraction of these students – non-majors and majors alike – are actually going to pursue a graduate degree in the field? Whether a student is majoring in engineering and taking a French class out of a love for French literature, or whether she’s a French major and is required to take a French class, chances are that she is not going to become a professor of French. And yet our humanities majors, and our undergraduate curricula more broadly, are designed to produce budding experts in fairly narrow fields. This design is understandable in fields such as economics or engineering, where students often do go on to take jobs in which they need specific skills and knowledge. But why is it so in the humanities?
To be sure, specialization, even at the undergraduate level, has its virtues: engaging with material at a higher level of expertise allows students to hone their research skills and to produce more consequential bodies of work (such an honors thesis). Still, I would ask whether our primary objective, as humanities professors, should be training students as though they will all go on to become scholars, or whether our primary objective shouldn’t be something else – such as offering all undergraduate students a broader and less discipline-focused foundation for their future lives.
This issue seems particularly pressing today, as the humanities have gone from facing an existential crisis, to literally fighting for their existence. If smaller departments (such as those that were just axed at the State University of New York at Albany) continue to justify their academic purpose chiefly in terms of number of majors, then they will perennially fear (and often face) the chopping block. Admittedly, such a change would also require a shift in perspective on the part of the administrative powers-that-be. But if humanists made a stronger case that the chief purpose of a liberal education is not disciplinary specialization, but broad historical and cultural literacy, then universities simply could not make do without Greek epics, French classical theater, German philosophy, or Russian novels.
What would a curriculum reconfigured along these lines look like? One option would be for humanities departments to join forces to offer genuinely interdisciplinary core courses on major topics of interest. An art historian could team up with a literature professor and religious studies scholar to teach a course on the Renaissance; a historian, political theorist, and Spanish professor could offer a course on the discovery of the New World; or a philosopher, psychologist, and musicologist could lead a course on Modernism. These courses, which would need to be vetted by appropriate faculty committees, would stem from faculty interest, and could vary over time.
This curricular structure presents a number of advantages over the existing one. First, by virtue of having courses team-taught and not placed under the auspices of a single department, they would not have a narrow disciplinary focus, but would open up key events or questions to a variety of approaches. (This is currently the structure adopted at Stanford for the fall Introduction to the Humanities courses.) At the same time, professors could underscore the methodological differences between their disciplines, thereby providing students with a roadmap of how knowledge is divided between the various academic departments (and where to look for classes in the future).
Secondly, by requiring these courses to cover broad topics, they would collectively constitute an overarching panorama of the humanities. This would be a disjointed panorama, to be sure, yet that might be a quality, since it would avoid the problems associated with establishing a grand récit. If this panorama resembles an exploded version of an ideal, inaccessible core curriculum (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”?), this is ultimately a misleading resemblance. Since the various pieces of this series would constantly be changing, it is not a palliative for a "Great Books" curriculum, in an age that has turned against such courses, but rather the product of a different pedagogical philosophy. Rather than valuing certain specific texts more than others, this philosophy places value on the breadth of knowledge, and the ability to synthesize very different forms and genres of information, from plays and paintings to maps and graphs.
The truly thorny issue that every curricular reform faces is that of requirements. If we build a new program, will anyone come, if they’re not obliged to? One option would be to require students to take, say, two or three of such courses at some point during their studies. This arrangement grants students a degree of choice and a good deal of scheduling flexibility. Other incentives could be found to encourage students to take more than the bare minimum of courses: completion of additional courses could lead to some sort of certification, or could form part of an honors program.
Since a central objective of a liberal education is to ensure breadth of knowledge, it follows, to my mind at least, that a significant humanities requirement is needed. In cases where this is impossible for pragmatic or philosophical reasons, I would argue that it is still important to provide students with a curricular structure that would allow them to achieve the goals of a liberal education on their own. This is particularly true for non-humanities majors, who often do not venture into humanities classrooms, not necessarily due to a lack of interest, but because of the highly specialized focus of most courses. They also may simply not know where to look: our courses are not listed in a central place, but buried behind individual department nomenclatures.
Our academic divisions may make sense for research purposes, but are often at odds with our pedagogical goals. The MLA Report to the Teagle Foundation identified four “constitutional elements” that it considered key to liberal education – "a coherent program of study, collaborative teamwork among faculty members, interdepartmental cooperative teaching, and the adoption of outcome measurements" – yet the first three of these four elements cannot be achieved at the departmental level alone. To fulfill the promise of liberal education, we must ensure that students can build “coherent programs of study” that cut across disciplines.
Finally, perhaps we should have more confidence in the wares we’re vending. Wide-ranging courses that combine powerful texts, vivid iconic material, controversial ideas, and dramatic historical episodes, with insightful analysis should not fail to exhilarate students. Of course, good professors, catchy titles, and intriguing perspectives are also needed to invigorate the study of our disciplines; a dry "introduction to X" approach will never be sufficient to meet the goals of a liberal education. But there is also a real thirst for this kind of knowledge, and not only among students in the humanities. Who knows? Maybe if we build it, they will come.
Dan Edelstein is assistant professor of French at Stanford University.
Loyola University New Orleans is starting three interdisciplinary majors in the environment: a bachelor of science in environmental science with a concentration in biological sciences; a bachelor of arts in environmental studies with a concentration in the humanities; and a bachelor of arts in environmental studies with a concentration in social sciences.
Today's students have different expectations and skills with regard to technology, and colleges sometimes fail to meet those expectations or understand what those skills mean, according to a new e-book.
The e-book, the first published by Educause, is Educating the Net Generation. It is available free on the organization's Web site.
Diana G. Oblinger, a vice president of Educause and co-editor of the book, answered some questions about its themes in an e-mail interview:
Lots of colleges brag about undergraduate research, but particularly in the sciences, separating the substance from the fluff is a challenge. Outside validation helps, and Cody Locke's work on epilepsy research at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa has it.
For months now, Brandeis professors have been riled by the possibility that key liberal arts programs -- including instruction in ancient Greek -- would be eliminated. Now the dean who put those ideas up for consideration has withdrawn them.
Adam Jaffe, dean of arts and sciences, recently told faculty members that they no longer needed to view these ideas as being under active consideration. Linguistics and a music composition program also faced elimination and several other departments faced possible reductions in size.