The drumbeat of mergers and closures of small colleges appears to be speeding up. Chancellors and Presidents of public systems of higher education are examining mergers, shared leadership, and stripped down administrative structures to try to preserve the range of opportunities available in their states. In New England (and Alaska), shrinking demographics are driving these conversations forward at a sometimes alarming pace.
At the same time, we have seen other developments such as SNHU’s competency-based degrees, Stevens Point’s proposed cuts of several majors (now reconsidered and reconfigured as mergers), Hamilton’s promotion of an open curriculum (less focus on majors, more on developing an area of interest), and this morning, Wichita State’s shrinking of their general education requirements from 42 credits to 33. And in the background is the constant credential refrain, with short certificates gaining more and more traction.
How can those of us in higher education leadership respond to this tidal wave of change in sane and thoughtful ways? Well, I don’t really know where to begin, but here are a few thoughts.
Credit hours may be an archaic idea, but the idea that it takes time and interaction with other people to develop the habits of mind we associate with a college education is not.
I am happy to consider online or blended learning, shorter and longer times on material, and even the opportunity to test into higher levels of courses to reflect learning prior to higher education. These considerations are driven by focus on what and how our students will best learn with us. This does not mean, however, that I am willing to consider the notion that higher education should be construed as a series of tests of existing skills in exchange for a credential.
While the complexity of non-standard times, differing learning modalities, and the evaluation of prior learning are much more difficult to manage well than the simple admissions tests of our existing structures, I embrace them because they are responding to genuine changes in the world of potential students. Information is everywhere and it is clear that people can learn to do many, many things from a YouTube video (play an instrument, develop a computer app, pass algebra, build a shed). We must not ignore this, or the fact that some of the things we want our students to be able to do are well supported by these short tutorial formats.
Nevertheless, the more complicated abilities that are described as critical thinking, lifelong learning, cultural competency, and communication take sustained interactions with others and with the support of a professor. The opportunity for (slower) sustained interactions is the opportunity for students to develop comfort with ambiguity, stumble on their assumptions with the chance to revise them, and learn that all knowledge is developed through insight and error. If we move to new time constructs, we must not lose this part of education.
Interdisciplinary connections matter, but they do not replace disciplinary expertise.
I love the imaginative things that are happening with majors. Hamilton’s open curriculum mirrors what many elite schools have done for years. They allow students to discover connections between subjects to build a major or a portfolio of capabilities that will help them pursue advanced study or careers. At my university, we do this through Contract Majors or the Interdisciplinary Studies degrees. We have lots of traditional majors, but we also make room for those new or yet undiscovered connections. Making more room for those authentic connections might be a good idea, because disciplines are evolving and sometimes students see the change before we do.
Nevertheless, a biologist is still a biologist. A literature scholar still offers depth of understanding of genres and structures of the novel, poem, etc. A mathematician is still the expert on differential equations. Combining disciplinary perspectives should be the heart of a college education, but that combination should be made by experiencing learning with people who have advanced knowledge in each topic. Without that advanced expertise, students will not discover the nuances of a topic or the complications that arise from ambiguity. Instead, they will end up with a simplified overview of a topic. That is not college, that is YouTube. So, let’s support the pursuit of connections with new strategies, but let’s not lose the value of the expert.
Focusing on higher order learning outcomes is a good idea: making everything the same is not.
AAC&U has long supported the Essential Learning Outcomes and as we see an increased emphasis on what employers want, it turns out that they frequently list the very same things. Everyone wants college graduates who are skilled in critical & creative thinking, oral and written communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, problem solving, inquiry & analysis, the ability to collaborate, and some understanding of the world around us (history, culture, ethics, etc.). These essential learning outcomes (codified in the VALUE Rubrics) prevent the narrowness of focus found in course finals or major field tests and frame the outcomes of a college degree as habits of mind and skills that prepare graduates to engage with all kinds of questions for the rest of their lives. In short, graduates should know how to evaluate information, make decisions, and ask more questions.
As a communication scholar, it is easy for me to see that at a high level of abstraction everything we do in college is about inquiry and analysis. The behaviors and skills that represent competence in inquiry and analysis can be summarized in a way that allows every discipline to demonstrate some level of mastery in these abilities. But this does not mean that every discipline is the same. Comfort in inquiry and analysis will reflect the specific skills most emphasized in the major. For it to reflect the whole of an undergraduate degree, it must include some comfort in the areas that are not well situated in the major. That was the point of the liberal arts degree.
So where does this leave me and my quest for thoughtful consideration of the many changes facing higher education? It leaves me with a clear focus on learning. We can support learning in any number of formats, time frames, and disciplinary innovation, but we must remember that to support it well means to resist the temptation to overgeneralize (make everything the same) or to reduce everything to very narrow skills (badges). It is the fluid motion between the abstract and the specific that will help students grow, develop, and take control of their own learning. That is the environment that I’d like to nurture.