It has long been a truism in American higher education that junior and senior year are seen as at the top of the curricular pecking order. That is when the major is taken and, frankly, that is where most of our senior faculty really prefer to teach.
First year, on the other hand, is seen by many of us as less important. And because of this, guess who is often assigned general education and introductory courses? Adjuncts, graduate assistants and our most junior faculty.
It’s almost as though introductory and general education courses that define the first two years of college are what students get through as quickly as possible so that they can get to the good stuff in their third and fourth years -- that is, upper-level courses and the major.
But this view is out of sync with what many prospective college students and their parents are thinking. In a book I recently wrote about the transition from high school to college, virtually all of the high school seniors I interviewed, along with their parents, hoped that the first year of college would be a major step up from what they were doing in high school. But they are often disappointed.
At many colleges and universities, first-year students take large introductory courses in classes of 100 or more. Teaching is usually done by an instructor lecturing in front of the classroom while students dutifully take notes later to be regurgitated on a quiz. There is very little class participation involving discussion and debate. Writing anything over a few pages is unusual.
Arizona State University has gone even further. They are offering a Global Freshman Academy that allows first-year students to take their courses by the use of MOOCs (massive open online courses). Students won’t even have to leave the comfort of home to complete their first year! First year is seen as a means to an end, with the end being upper-level courses and the major.
But I would argue that the first year of college is far more important than this -- perhaps, in some ways, just as important as the final years of college.
Why do I believe this?
First year is when college students get a sound, cross-disciplinary grounding in the liberal arts and sciences, especially those who go on to vocational majors like engineering or nursing. The liberal arts are where they learn how to think critically and how to communicate effectively, skills that are crucial for a generation that will have many different careers in their lifetime.
First year to sophomore year is when attrition is at its highest. When I was a college president, 20 percent of first-year students at my institution didn’t return for their sophomore year. Some transferred, but many dropped out of college altogether. Why does this happen? In far too many exit interviews I have seen, dropouts say that they found their first-year classes meaningless.
I will never forget the admissions tour I took at a well-known university with my youngest daughter. We were in the university’s amazing library, and the tour guide, a sophomore, was bragging about the fact that most of his teachers were graduate assistants. “They’re really cool,” he said, “and understand our generation,” whereupon a mother standing next to me uttered sotto voce (but loud enough for everyone to hear), “Why am I paying a small fortune to have my child taught by someone who is only a couple years older than she is?”
That parent was articulating what many parents I interviewed for my book were saying: for $50,000 or more per year, the expectation is that their children will be taught by experienced faculty with the requisite credentials, not by part-time employees or graduate students.
Of course, many of the instructors assigned to introductory or general education courses including adjuncts and graduate students are quite capable teachers. But I believe that first-year students could really benefit from also being taught by senior faculty members who excel in the classroom. In many ways -- and I know this is heretical -- assistant professors who just completed their Ph.D. dissertations are probably the most capable of teaching the major that requires up-to-date knowledge of their discipline. Senior faculty, on the other hand, who through wisdom and experience have a wider view of the world are, in my opinion, the most qualified to teach general education courses designed to give first-year students a broader perspective on human knowledge and, in the process, excite them about what will come later.
Increasingly, colleges are coming to see the crucial importance of the first year. At one college I feature in my book, the freshman writing seminar is largely taught by the college’s most distinguished and experienced senior faculty, who are handpicked because they are also master teachers. First-year advising is also being given a new emphasis. At far too many colleges, advising is relegated to new faculty who have limited knowledge of the curriculum or to adjuncts who have equally limited office hours. But many colleges, realizing that solid advising reduces attrition, are assigning experienced faculty who are skilled at advising or professional advisers to first-year students.
For these colleges and universities, the first year has been given a new priority.
I’d like to end by saying that there is money to be raised by rethinking the first year, which should make presidents who are reading this article happy. I believe that philanthropic individuals and foundations, concerned about the cost of higher education and the human waste when students prematurely drop out and don’t graduate, will resonate to programs that support first-year students and keep them in college. I’m talking about:
Innovative first-year general education programs that challenge and excite first-year students through active learning (including discussion, debate and writing) so that they don’t want to leave college.
Endowed writing centers and other support systems that can save kids who come to college with academic deficiencies.
Endowed first-year opportunity programs that keep underserved and first-generation students in college.
Attrition is enormously expensive. A college of 2,000 students like my own that loses 20 percent of the first-year class potentially forgoes $5 million or more in tuition, room and board, which for many colleges is more than the development office raises each year in the annual fund.
In summary, by putting more energy and resources into the first year I believe we keep more of our students in college and thereby cut down on the enormous human waste when otherwise good students prematurely leave college with outsize debts they can’t pay back because they are unemployable. At the same time we improve our bottom line by not losing so much in tuition dollars. Most important, we graduate students for whom education from the very beginning is a pleasure, not a hardship to be endured.
Roger Martin is president emeritus and professor of history at Randolph-Macon College. He is the author of Off to College: A Guide for Parents. This essay is based on a presentation at the Council of Independent Colleges’ Institute for Chief Academic and Chief Advancement Officers.
Justice's death may not change outcome on affirmative action, which he opposed. His record includes key votes and dissents on issues of black colleges, hate speech, single-sex public higher education and church-state line.
Where to start? Let’s start with a simple fact: CBE programs that offer associate or bachelor's-level degree programs and are regionally accredited (in other words, the majority of programs) have to include liberal arts and general education.
Indeed, we would argue that CBE strengthens the case for liberal arts by more clearly outlining the claims for that part of the curriculum, defining those competencies with well-designed rubrics and administering rigorous assessments.
While Ward’s students can slide by with a B or C in his class and one would be hard pressed to know what students actually learned or can do with their learning based on their transcripts, our students must demonstrate mastery, even if that takes two or three times longer than the mere 14-week term Ward’s students experience. When CBE students are successful, we know what they have learned and what they can do with that knowledge, and employers do not have to guess.
Ward erroneously posits liberal arts in CBE as “a light, fast and vocation-friendly version,” but in our CBE models learning is fixed and nonnegotiable, and we can stand behind the claims we make for our students. Can the professor say the same for his classes in a traditional model, where nationally students routinely graduate with poor writing, math and critical-thinking skills (and in half the cases don’t graduate at all)?
Consider this post from College for America graduate Shannon Lougee:
“While in the program, I learned about so many things. I learned about lean principles, the Federal Reserve, globalization and the moral philosophies of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. I learned about the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment while exploring art from masters such as Giotto, Donatello, Rembrandt, Manet and Picasso. I studied how the earth cycles water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous; the enormity of the Great Pacific garbage patch; and the devastating impact pollution is having on sea turtles, birds, fish and the overall health of our precious oceans. Through CfA, I strengthened my listening skills, practiced giving and receiving feedback, and improved my ability to resolve conflict while working on teams. I even learned how to better manage stress, which helped me juggle work and family while earning my degree.”
Shannon’s education does not sound merely “vocation friendly” or reflective of “mundane knowledge,” but full of the breadth, depth and richness of liberal learning that we value and that Ward worries about.
What he seems to worry less about is evoked in Lougee’s last sentence, her life as a student while also taking care of a family and working full time. Ward imagines CBE as “an education system that is ‘restructured to stream youth into the flexible labor system, based on a privileged elite, a small technical working class and a growing precariat.’” The great majority of our students are not youth. They are in the labor system, often making minimum -- non-family sustaining -- wages, and looking for the competencies and credentials that will allow them to get better, more meaningful work, so they can take better care of their families.
A hallmark of CBE is to assess a student's prior learning and to add efficiency to the student's pursuit of education. Why force students to relearn what they already know or to learn at the same pace? Ward makes an assumption that not only do all his students come to the class with the same background and experience, but that all will follow the course calendar and are moving on whether material is learned or not.
So yes, an important part of CBE is that it is focused on labor market value, and we won’t apologize for helping our students get better-paying jobs.
We think CBE can work in almost any context for any kind of student, assuring quality in learning in ways that the traditional models simply do not touch, but we know that it can be transformative for students who have been marginalized or failed in the traditional models Ward valorizes. For those students, real skills and a college degree can mean food on the table and a pathway to advancement. This end result of “democratizing knowledge” through CBE is what higher education was always intended to do.
Workplace relevancy aside, it is telling that Ward seems oblivious to the considerable failings of the model he defends, whether it be high attrition rates, slow completion rates (isn’t it telling that we measure success in four-year programs by using a six-year measuring stick?), high costs and the amount of debt students are now asked to assume, and the general loss of faith in what it produces in terms of quality, knowledge and skills.
Quality is ostensibly Ward’s chief concern, and as such, he should embrace CBE. Not only because it can strengthen the liberal arts by making clearer its value and making sure our graduates meet the claims we make for them, but because well-designed CBE programs work so well.
Consider that Western Governors University, a pioneer in the CBE world, has the top-ranked teacher education program. Or that associate-level students in College for America outperformed 7,815 of their peers from 27 conventional institutions in seven of eight categories on the externally validated ETS Proficiency Profile.
We of course worry about poorly designed CBE programs, as we worry about poor online programs and poor programs on traditional campuses.
But we know that well-designed CBE programs that make very clear the claims for student learning -- all kinds of learning, including the liberal arts -- and then subject their students to rigorous assessment can not only offer very high-quality learning, but we also believe they will have a positive impact on traditionally delivered programs.
Indeed, it is our belief that CBE, with its focus on quality, disregard for time and prices that working people can afford (the majority of College for America students graduate with zero debt), can save higher education in many ways.
Paul LeBlanc is President of Southern New Hampshire University, and Jim Selbe is a higher education consultant.
From angry student protests to the backlash that paints them as coddled and pampered, we have reached a watershed moment on college and university campuses across this country as we begin 2016. Empowered and emboldened by their peers at the University of Missouri and many other institutions, students have presented college presidents, faculty members and administrators with lists of demands meant to address discrimination, racism and sexism, and to create more inclusive environments.
Those requests have been wide-ranging: hire more minority faculty, remove the names of donors and patrons implicated in colonialism and racism from buildings, include questions about microaggressions against students in faculty evaluations. And that’s just the short list.
The pushback against these students has been equally lively and includes outright mockery and ridicule -- citing the grammatical errors in a list of demands, for example. Some observers have criticized the students for being too sensitive. The president of one university accused some of them of wanting to “arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn.” Unfortunately, those are precisely the responses we would expect when those with power are being challenged.
But some of the reactions of college administrators and faculty members are well reasoned. Certain things can’t be accomplished within existing faculty governance structures -- or if they can, they will take time. For example, much of the faculty hiring process is well beyond the jurisdiction of students. Colleges and universities have a duty to protect not just students but also faculty members.
Those are, in fact, reasonable responses. But sometimes administrators, faculty members, and other campus leaders have undercut those responses with an air of impatience and frustration: students just don’t get it. They don’t understand how the college or university works. They don’t understand the role of faculty. They don’t understand history.
All of which prompts me to ask, as students return to classes: Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for? Until this past year, our hand-wringing about students focused on their apathy and selfishness. We criticized Millennials for their passivity and lack of empathy. But lately they’ve been standing up, asking questions, criticizing the system and arguing not just for themselves but also on behalf of others. Isn’t this precisely the behavior we wanted?
Certainly, their responses are sometimes naïve, sometimes overly ambitious. They haven’t always reflected the complexities of the higher education environment and its management. But that’s OK. They’re college students. College should be the place where they try on controversial ideas, push the envelope, make demands. And get things wrong sometimes.
What if we -- administrators and faculty members -- leveraged this moment? There is an opportunity here. We have the students’ attention -- perhaps for some less than ideal reasons, but we have their attention nonetheless. The question is, what are we going to do with it?
We could simply rebuff them and say that they need to “humbly learn.” What if, rather than rejecting their ideas outright and saying they just don’t understand how things work, we taught them how the university works, acknowledging that it doesn’t always work well? What if we engaged their demands and told them to bring their critical-thinking skills (which we say we are teaching them in every curricular assessment report I’ve ever read) to bear on the situation?
To take just one example: the historian in me can’t help but wonder what would happen if we harnessed the student critique of donors, patrons, named buildings and the like to examine our institutional histories. I’m envisioning a series of conversations among faculty members, students and administrators that explored the lives of the historical figures whom students find controversial and whose names they want erased from the institution. Rather than dismissing such demands out of hand as too sensitive or misinformed, we should use students’ demands and critiques to further their education and the cultivation of critical-thinking skills.
What if professors and students engaged in the process of curricular design to increase the diversity of course offerings? We could harness student enthusiasm for particular issues and topics and involve them in the research and work necessary to guide curricula in new directions.
What if we pulled back the curtain and let students see what shared governance and the administration of higher education looks like? I’ve mentioned a university’s obligation to protect its faculty members -- which to students often sounds like an excuse for inaction. But what if we invited them to participate in a series of conversations about academic freedom and what it protects?
Even as I pose these questions, I know why we haven’t done it yet. Digging deep into the past of our institutions’ donors and patrons might result in some uncomfortable discoveries. It might even incite the removal of those names from our campus buildings. Involving students in curricular design would mean exposing our teaching and pedagogy. And a conversation about academic freedom? I can’t even get my colleagues to have such a discussion among themselves, much less with students and administrators.
The reason we hesitate is because these protests and these demands, even when they are naïve and even when they overreach, challenge our power and authority. But that’s just it: we have the power and the authority in this situation. And without perhaps fully realizing it, our students may be asking us to use it in the service of their education. Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for?
Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Honors College and Mandel Professor in Humanities at Cleveland State University and vice president of the teaching division of the American Historical Association. She blogs at Tales Told Out of School.