Academic administration

Colleges start new academic programs

Colleges should consider halving the gen-ed curriculum requirements (opinion)

On my campus, as very likely on yours, we’ve recently emerged from a difficult if not well-intentioned struggle over deep general-education revisions. Raised on a Midwestern farm, I confess to being of a don’t-fix-it-if-it-ain’t-broke mind-set, but even I can admit the old-fashioned distribution model baked into our gen-ed curriculum had grown a bit moldy around the edges. While we ultimately decided on a new nexus model more relevant to a digital age, the battle left me asking why gen ed itself wasn’t on the cutting board.

It sounds heretical, perhaps especially to me, a faculty member based in the humanities, but it’s been my observation over the years that the unquestioned and often outmoded fixtures that institutions fight to preserve are sometimes those that have the weakest rationales, which may explain our sensitivity and defensiveness where they are concerned. Just as travel agents once fought bitterly to keep their monopoly against the rising threat of internet-based travel bookings, and defensive real estate agents brought out the heavy artillery in an attempt to defeat the creeping threat posed by online for-sale-by-owners, it’s worth asking if America’s colleges and universities need struggle so desperately for the 40 to 60 gen-ed credit hours they often require.

Even a 40-credit-hour requirement, for example, amounts to one-third of many students’ total required credits, or roughly the equivalent of one to one and a half years of tuition. Given the College Board’s calculation that average tuition and fees for the 2017-18 academic year averaged $34,740 at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities, the cost to complete a general-education program could be in excess of $50,000.

The math is imperfect, but it still raises the question: As important a contributor to civil society as gen ed may be -- and as emotionally tied to its long-standing virtues as many of us are as teachers, scholars and mentors -- can we adequately justify its hefty price tag to our most financially needy advisees, many of whom are working one and sometimes two part-time jobs to help foot the tuition bill, to say nothing of room and board?

A product of a humanities education and a liberal arts professor myself, I can easily articulate the time-honored virtues of general education: it creates better-rounded individuals, develops more engaged critical thinkers and citizens, builds common cause and community around a shared set of concerns, and so on. But during an era of record student debt and continuing retention and demographic challenges, it’s worth asking whether we might find ways to reduce gen-ed mandates by half. Putting gen ed on a diet may enable some students to graduate a term, if not a year, early, thereby lessening the debt load they carry into a difficult job market.

Making gen ed lean wouldn’t necessarily mean surrendering our most sacred outcomes -- writing, critical thinking, scientific and mathematical literacy, physical education, service learning, and community engagement -- but better incorporating those outcomes into existing majors. For example, suppose a new, streamlined gen-ed package required one rather than two composition classes, while asking students to enroll in a writing-intensive course within their major or minor to make up the difference. Granted, such hybrid intensives may prove more difficult to administer and staff, but their necessary economies would no doubt stimulate and incentivize interdisciplinary invention.

For example, I know a senior mathematics professor who piloted a course in the mathematics of square dancing. While even he would admit the course presented students quantifiably more mathematics than physical education, its innovative transdisciplinary curriculum got students moving, thinking and quantifying, all while tapping their toes.

While far from a panacea, and problematic in their own right, internships, co-ops, student-faculty research, undergraduate theses, student teaching, study abroad and other substantive outside-of-class commitments could, if properly sanctioned and supervised, help students acquire core competencies in areas like writing, communication and quantitative reasoning. Why couldn’t more established internships with proven corporate and nonprofit partners be preapproved to meet a gen-ed requirement? Rather than charge students a full three or four credit hours of tuition for an internship taking place off campus that requires little if any on-site faculty supervision, low-overhead credits like these could be offered at a discounted rate. Or, as an alternative, corporate internship sites could compensate students for a portion of the tuition cost incurred in return for their labors.

Before we devote scarce faculty and administrative resources to building a bigger, better, more enlightened mousetrap, perhaps it’s time to set students free by reducing gen ed’s appetite for increasingly expensive credits. Yes, we must be careful, lest, like the travel agents of yore, we argue ourselves right out of a job, but surely we can acknowledge that enlightened self-interest has limits. The credit-hungry gen-ed revision packages under consideration at so many campuses this academic year may be giving faculty a free pass on necessary innovation and needlessly harming students’ pocketbooks while damaging something far more valuable: their good faith.

Zachary Michael Jack is an associate professor of English at North Central College, where he is a member of the Leadership, Ethics and Values faculty.

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Summit on the Credentialing Economy

Thu, 06/07/2018 to Fri, 06/08/2018


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Author discusses her new book about how U.S. laws led to growth in female enrollments

Author discusses her new book, which argues that federal laws that weren't focused on gender led to rise in female enrollments in higher education.

Why the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point plans to eliminate certain traditional liberal arts majors (opinion)

How can you be a university without a major in history?

We field this kind of question frequently at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. In March, we released curricular recommendations designed to repair our budget and stabilize enrollment. The proposal, Point Forward, called for the elimination of numerous majors in the traditional liberal arts, a greater emphasis on career-focused programs and the reimagining of our core liberal arts curriculum.

Since then, we have received a flood of messages from students, faculty members, alumni and scholarly organizations across the country. Some of them ask about process, wondering why we made recommendations suddenly and without stakeholder input. In fact, we discussed these issues for years. Others suggest there must be alternatives to eliminating underenrolled majors. I wish there were; we have tried nearly everything else. A small but growing number of people express sympathy with our dilemma, placing responsibility on the decades-long erosion of public investment in higher education. They are correct.

Set aside such issues for the moment. More interesting are the numerous messages wondering how we can be a university without majors in the traditional liberal arts. Are we not becoming a trade school, abandoning enrichment of the mind in favor of training in workplace skills?

These perceptions result from misunderstanding. Far from eliminating liberal arts disciplines, our proposal aims only at full majors. In fact, we are fighting to preserve as much as 80 percent of our faculty and curriculum in these areas -- and not just through general education but in refocused majors and minors with upper-level courses offering genuine opportunities for deep engagement in the liberal arts. Equally important, our baccalaureate degrees in natural resources, health, business, education and the performing arts -- the majority of degrees we offer -- are hardly narrow or technical.

But set this aside, too. Implied in the claim that “abandoning the liberal arts” means we “cannot be a university” are assumptions worth examining. Most students at UW Stevens Point do not choose to major in the traditional liberal arts disciplines. In fact, many universities already do not offer some of these programs. Within the University of Wisconsin System alone, four universities lack full majors in philosophy, three in sociology and four in Spanish. One of the founding tenets of the UW System was the idea that each campus would have a distinct program array defined by its select mission. If our current proposal takes this concept seriously, do we really cease to be a university?

Reading these comments as an environmental historian, I’m reminded of American attitudes toward wilderness. Few people choose to live in the wild, and most visit only rarely. True wilderness is uncomfortable and the Wi-Fi is terrible. Instead, most Americans seem content just knowing that wilderness is there, a notion that celebrates a romanticized frontier that never existed. Similarly, the implicit message from some of our critics is: it’s OK if your students major in finance, health science, and resource management; we just need to know that a philosophy major is there. This feeling, too, derives from false nostalgia -- specifically, for the idea that regional public universities can be smaller versions of research institutions. During the 1950s and 1960s, an aberrational moment in higher education when students and funding were plentiful, institutions like UW Stevens Point could afford to launch majors in the traditional liberal arts. Today, everything is different.

The inability to acknowledge this reality is deeply rooted in academic culture. Take the numerous condemnations we received from scholarly organizations asserting that without majors in their respective liberal arts disciplines, our university will lack something fundamental. “Elimination of the history program,” reads the letter from the Organization of American Historians, “means the elimination of a university’s capacity to teach … critical life skills.” Really? No one would dispute that every graduate should have meaningful courses in history. As the letter noted, “History is the discipline dedicated to studying the past … [and is] essential to navigating rapid economic transformation, international crises, epidemic disease, political gridlock and myriad other modern challenges.” I agree. I want every student in our College of Natural Resources to have a course in environmental history. But to conflate this with needing to preserve a history major seems disingenuous.

Here we encounter the elephant in the room in our current dialogue about the liberal arts and the meaning of a university. If the majority of students in universities today encounter these traditional disciplines, not as majors but only through general-education programs, should we not direct our attention there? The need for new approaches to general education has long been evident, and many institutions have sought meaningful change. Yet many such efforts, including ours, have run aground due to structural impediments rooted in our conflation of the narrow role of liberal arts majors with the much broader and more vital role of these same disciplines, a dynamic that stifles curricular innovation.

Too many general-education programs rely on courses that are introductions to liberal arts majors, even as they enroll primarily nonmajors. This double duty leaves the majority of students wondering why they must take such classes and hoping only to “get them out of the way.” Too many general education programs spark battles over department “turf,” elevating the protection of student credit hours, budgets and faculty positions above thoughtful consideration of student needs in shaping curricula. As a result, too many general education programs have little purposeful cohesion and little relevance to the majority of students. Given that most universities assign one-third of the courses required to complete a baccalaureate degree to these core curricula -- and given the tuition we charge -- is it any wonder that students resent the cost of higher education?

Our aim at UW Stevens Point is to fix this problem, to look beyond a set of majors that serve roughly 6 percent of our students and ask how the disciplines of the liberal arts can better educate everyone. Do we lose something in this equation? Absolutely. The loss is real and should be debated in the context of urging greater public investment in higher education. Will we cease to be a university? Of course not. In fact, if we succeed in making the liberal arts more relevant and available to the majority of students who never major in these disciplines, we will be a stronger university indeed.

Greg Summers is provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.

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Fri, 03/22/2019


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Group seeks to set standards for flipping the classroom

Finding many educators are using outdated flipped learning techniques, a new group proposes global training standards to keep them up to date.

How to adapt the German apprenticeship model to work best in the U.S.

The American industrial sector is at a crossroads. The fourth industrial revolution has ushered in automation and precision manufacturing that increasingly requires highly specialized skills. Employers, government officials and higher education leaders alike are looking for a way for workers to acquire the expertise needed for the jobs of tomorrow.

Apprenticeships are typically associated with Germany, but they are gaining steam in the U.S. After all, there are more than 500,000 Americans currently in apprenticeship programs that offer an alternative pathway to traditional higher education -- one that is capable of bridging the STEM talent gap.

What makes the apprenticeship model so effective is a mix of classroom instruction at a high school, college or university with on-the-job training. That combination is invaluable in a rapidly changing industrial community where extremely specific skill sets are required.

However, colleges, universities or employers interested in starting an apprenticeship program should be wary of simply copying the German model. The two countries’ education and training systems are too different. To be successful, the U.S. must adapt the German model. To be certain, this will require work and there may be some missteps along the way, but the long-term benefit is immense.

It used to be that coding and design software knowledge were skill sets mainly associated with office jobs. However, they’re now part and parcel of modern factory life. Because of the constant information stream from sensors in today’s smart factories and a frequent need to build precision devices, the skill sets of 2018 are far different than the industrial skill sets of 1988. Working in a smart factory requires highly specific and hard-to-obtain skills that demand both academic dexterity and long hours of on-the-job experience to master. In this environment, hands-on learning is no longer elective.

While high schools and colleges are making greater strides to integrate advanced STEM skills into curriculum, they can only train for careers in Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to a certain point. Apprenticeships effectively bridge the gap in the education-to-career continuum by providing students the opportunity to be in the workplace mastering complicated, ever-evolving machinery and applying critical thinking to sophisticated manufacturing processes. In addition to these technical skills, apprenticeships also provide students with the opportunity to build soft skills and develop a professional work ethic that will serve them their entire careers.

Growing up in Germany, I saw firsthand how apprenticeships opened new career pathways for my friends. It’s why I’ve been excited to see the buzz around apprenticeships get louder in the U.S., first driven by organizations like the National Skills Coalition and Jobs for the Future, and more recently after President Trump called to expand apprenticeships.

Festo Didactic, a global provider of industrial education, is working to help colleges in the U.S. to create apprenticeships that draw from the German approach but are designed to work well in this country.

For example, in cooperation with several companies and Sinclair Community College, we helped create an apprenticeship program in Mason, Ohio, that focuses on mechatronics (electronics, mechanical systems and fluid systems). The program trains participants as automation specialists and maintenance, service and manufacturing technicians and has proven to be an effective addition to the education and training of the students involved.

As we initiated the program, we took baby steps, evaluating our approach along the way. We knew we didn’t want to do a copy and paste of the German model; instead we looked to lift the components that were the best fit for the apprentices and our partners and to modify the rest. The apprentices typically spend a few hours per day at a desk gaining foundational knowledge. Then they are tasked with applying that knowledge through hands-on exercises, becoming more familiar with the equipment and complex design engineering systems.

One of the most rewarding parts of the apprenticeship program is seeing the many ways it benefits the participants and educational institutions. Apprentices in the program are earning while they learn, and they’re already in a pipeline to a well-paying job with growth opportunities. The average worker in an advanced manufacturing role typically earns $60,000 to $90,000 annually, depending on experience. Equally as beneficial, Sinclair is able to give its students a leg up, and local employers are able to source and train the best talent in the tristate Cincinnati area.

The program in Ohio, and others across the country, are microcosms of the national potential of apprenticeships. The U.S. is rapidly converting to a new type of industrial economy where automation and workflow optimization mean that low-skill and even middle-skill factory jobs are disappearing. The jobs of today and tomorrow, those born out of IIoT and Industry 4.0 innovation, are more complex and require a new approach to training. It’s estimated there will be nine million new jobs in advanced manufacturing by 2022. Some of these jobs have yet to be invented. At the same time, the manufacturing industry often feels the full weight of the skills gap and unemployment challenges.

Apprenticeship models, which have been perfected in Germany over centuries, are one of the easiest ways to resolve that talent conundrum. Those of us who have been invested in this work know these work-force training programs are effective, practical solutions benefiting all involved. But it is time to connect the individual efforts across the country into a stronger network of programs. The interest, opportunity and need are all present -- and we have a template to follow from the Germans. Now it’s up to employers, government officials and education leaders to join forces to create an apprenticeship culture that is authentically American.

Thomas Lichtenberger

Thomas Lichtenberger is CEO of Festo Didactic Inc., a global provider of equipment and solutions for industrial education.

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Colleges should more regularly kill academic programs for underperforming (opinion)

My first real job was a triumphant lesson in unplanned obsolescence. I landed a paid internship at a New York PR firm called Creamer Dickson Basford and was assigned to the Pizza Hut account. It was an auspicious summer for Pizza Hut public relations. Not only was Pizza Hut launching a 3-D campaign for its Chunky-Style Pizza -- I was responsible for assembling a 3-D press kit, complete with 3-D glasses and 3-D photo of chunky toppings bursting from the pizza -- but Creamer Dickson Basford had convinced its client to run a national blimp tour to draw attention to the launch of the Bigfoot Pizza: a 21-slice rectangular pizza, or two square feet of pizza.

As this wasn’t just any old pizza, it couldn’t be just any old blimp. The Bigfoot Pizza Blimp was the first with a fiber-optic night sign, permitting 24-7 promotion of gluttony. On July 2 it was scheduled to fly from Boston to New York to provide a magnificent large-pizza-themed aerial spectacle alongside the fireworks over the Hudson River.

But on the morning of July 4, as the blimp flew over the Hudson River, it began losing air. A lot of air. Seeing no other choice, the pilot of the dirigible I had promoted to Sports Illustrated for Kids as “safe and fun” crash-landed on the roof of a squat seven-story apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen.

Images of the deflated blimp pancaked down the side of 410 W. 53rd St. dominated the New York tabloids for days. All the attention being paid to the Pizza Hut Bigfoot Pizza Blimp was astonishing. Fortunately no one was hurt, so we kept the blimp in the news with stories like how much we were paying to store remnants in the parking lot across the street. The front page of the New York Post later that week: “At Lee’s Parking on 53rd and 10th, it’s Cars $5, Trucks $10, Blimps $75.” The nonstop coverage drove Bigfoot Pizza awareness and sales through the roof.

Some things just aren’t made to last, like high-tech blimps. But what about programs of study at colleges and universities? They’re intended to last forever, and most do. In a 20-year period between 1978 and 1998, my alma mater offered 97 distinct academic programs or tracks for undergraduates. During that time, only three programs were discontinued, and two of the three were reorganized (engineering was split into various engineering tracks, and economics and political science became ethics, politics and economics). Meanwhile, over one-third of these programs and tracks -- including German studies-- failed to attract more than 100 undergraduate course registrations per year. And yet the only program to receive a Viking funeral was organizational behavior. That’s a generational obsolescence rate of 1 percent.

What other kinds of products have no expiration date? Physical infrastructure and industrial goods can only aspire to last this long. In contrast, knowledge- and technology-based products -- much closer to academic programs than to roads, buildings and airplanes -- are designed for a limited useful life with the expectation that they’ll be surpassed by new and better products, or fundamentally transformed by regular iterations.

This is what’s happening in India, where, facing massive unemployment and underemployment among its 750,000 engineering graduates each year, the government is now demanding that universities update all course syllabi “annually … per requirements of industry.”

Of course it’s true that the vast majority of academic programs (including lousy engineering programs at Indian universities) -- if pursued diligently -- inculcate core competencies, cognitive and executive function skills. A generation ago, the depth of these programs combined with the breadth of distribution requirements was sufficient to launch most graduates onto the first rung of a professional ladder. But unlike our programs of study, the economy hasn’t stood still. And while critical thinking is an unmitigated good thing, continuing to defend the status quo with broad terms like “critical thinking” doesn’t demonstrate great critical thinking.

The key question -- and the most pertinent to students themselves -- is what programs will mean for graduates and their pathways for the next five years.

Curriculum doesn’t become obsolete because knowledge -- when not supplanted by new and better knowledge -- doesn’t become obsolete. Cognitive skills survive the test of time. But for most students, a successful launch into an increasingly technical economy requires a combination of soft skills and digital skills.

Students are flailing about, trying to figure this out. We’re seeing massive shifts from arts and humanities to STEM. Alex Usher recently pointed out enrollment increases of between 30 and 60 percent in STEM programs from 2009 to 2016 at a number of Ontario universities. And the percentage of students who are hedging their bets by double majoring appears to have doubled since 2000.

I suspect that had Yale shuttered more than one program between 1978 and 1998, it would have launched more than two new STEM programs. And although the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point has launched six new STEM degree programs in the past decade, including applied computing, data analytics, health information management and technology, and health information management and technology, I wonder if UW-Stevens Point might have done even better had it eliminated any academic programs in that same period (it did not).

A more proactive approach could have boosted enrollment, reduced the $4.5 million deficit the campus faces over the next two years and limited the need for the drastic restructuring plan announced last week to cut 13 majors, including English, history and all three foreign languages.

The near immortality of departments and majors provides a misleading sense of academic plenty. College students may well be getting soft skills and digital skills -- and most do in their extracurricular activities -- but there’s little guarantee it’s happening in their program of study. And there’s no reason why not besides the absurd durability of programs that fall short. Planned obsolescence in designing academic programs -- or at least a systematic review of whether programs are doing an adequate job of producing all the skills graduates require -- would be helpful in this regard.

Yale can afford to be inefficient in a way that few other colleges and universities can. Every week we learn of new nonselective schools forced to shutter programs due to falling overall enrollment and mandatory institutionwide budget cuts. The key to avoiding becoming the next Sweet Briar College -- a school facing a conundrum of fundamentally needing to change, while relying on the generosity of nostalgic alumnae who don’t want change -- is, as Trace Urdan says, “beginning the process long before your back is against the wall.”

At a minimum, programs that fail to attract a threshold number of students should go under the microscope. But we ought to do better than react to student flows. Why not institute a regular, thorough review of whether every academic program is providing the skills graduates actually need, and make clear to all stakeholders that programs that fail to make the grade will be culled?

Such a self-imposed standard would be much higher than accreditors currently require, where the test of stating learning outcomes and demonstrating outcomes are being met ensures that an institution’s accreditation is as long-lived as its academic programs.

The challenge, of course, is facing the fact that curriculum can become obsolete -- or that you can become obsolete -- which is a lot less enjoyable than teaching exactly the same course you taught when you were much younger.

No one enjoys confronting their own mortality. But we die to make room for the new. To really understand this eternal tension, you’d need to take a few courses in humanities or classics. The problem, you see, is that few employers are profound enough to prioritize such understanding over the skills new graduates actually need to do the job.

Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures and author of the upcoming A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College (BenBella Books).

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