Nearly twenty years ago, when my children were just getting started in elementary school, I attended a community meeting about the proposed school budget. I live in a very small town (smaller now, with the regional demographic shifts), so such meetings were an important part of the democratic process. We came together to discuss the details of the budgets before heading to any votes. At that time, I recall two dominant themes – what do we need to invest in to create a great educational experience and how do we keep the costs down so we do not price people out of our community. These themes, of course, turned into questions about must haves vs. nice to haves. Like any town, we had differing opinions about what that meant, but we generally came to some consensus, or at least voted to approve a budget.
Today, I am a member of that school board, and we are still having the same conversations. Our shrinking enrollments and aging tax base have made the conversations a little more strident, but it is still mostly good conversation. We are spending our time trying to define quality educational experiences that will help our students thrive, without creating an overwhelming cost burden for the town. As I listen to the concerns of my neighbors, and try to keep us from speaking in the hyperbole that so easily divides, I find my mind turning to my job as provost. We, too, are facing shrinking enrollments (the drop in K-12 enrollments has a necessary consequence in higher education) and a tax base concerned with their ability to support everything the state needs. As the challenges have descended upon us, we have done a lot of speaking in hyperbole. Perhaps, it is time to have some honest, if difficult, conversations.
Let’s start those conversations by asking ourselves to identify the necessary components of an outstanding undergraduate education. No one sets providing mediocre education as a goal, of course, so we want to set the bar high. However, we do not usually think carefully about what we mean by “outstanding” or how we might achieve it. Instead, we wait for it to emerge from our offerings.
Because higher education is built on the idea that faculty expertise is our greatest resource, we have a habit of deferring to that expertise at all times. Much of this habit is a good one. It would be foolish to hire people who have deep expertise in their disciplines and then tell them what to teach. No innovation will happen under those circumstances. So we try to create an environment that encourages faculty innovation and hope that this will help us discover excellence.
However, the result of too much deference to this expertise is generally curricular sprawl. New options or concentrations or majors and courses pop up on a regular basis. They reflect emerging interests or fields, or sometimes a momentary trend. These additions to the curriculum are rarely accompanied by a reduction in other offerings, because, well there is a good argument to be made for any course or any major. Frankly, good arguments are a specialty of higher education. The sprawl is fine until we see sustained dips in enrollment. Then we are faced with low-enrolled courses, degrees, or majors, and the removal process awaits. We are not good at this part, so we try to avoid the question, or speak in the language of outrage, and try not to eliminate anything.
But, eliminate we must. Enrollments have made the decision for us. So has the proportion of our costs that states are willing to fund. The time for avoidance is over. However, we still want to rely on the insights of our faculty. So, as we take these necessary steps, instead of starting the conversation with dollar figures, we should start by coming together to define the components of an outstanding undergraduate education.
There is a lot to consider, and it isn’t just the number of courses or majors. For example, we might want to look at how we have defined our degrees (BA vs. BS vs. BFA) and the proportion of each in our catalog. Doing so might uncover a tendency toward more professionally oriented degrees (or the opposite), and reveal that for the students we serve and the faculty expertise we have, we see this as a priority. At the same time, we might want to take a close look at the differences between options within a major and answer the question of whether that level of specialization really benefits our graduates. Perhaps some things could be a little less career focused.
Then there is the general education curriculum or liberal arts core. What role is it playing in the overall vision of an outstanding undergraduate education? Are students encountering varied ideas or are they mastering key skills or some combination of the two? Is it organized developmentally? Does it support the major? We know we must provide general education, but have we set it up in a way that promises to support critical habits of mind in our graduates?
What pedagogies should we feature? Are there approaches to teaching that every student should experience? If so, how do we organize schedules to support those, pedagogies while keeping the balance of offerings in view? Is it possible to design schedules around encounters with critical pedagogies, without privileging one approach?
Then there is that very tricky question: How will our graduates be different from the graduates of any other college or university? This is a difficult to answer, of course, because much of what is promised in higher education really is the same everywhere. We are all trying to support graduates who have a reasonable grasp of the world around them and the potential to thrive in an environment where change is a constant. Nevertheless, we have different students, different faculty, and different expertise. Surely, we have a unique point of view that can help shape the decisions we must make about what we offer.
If you read any news about higher education, you will encounter a long list of mergers, financial challenges, closures, and other worrisome trends. No one in the northeast is immune (well, no one but Harvard and Yale). It is a scary time, but I think, if we try to come to a consensus about the qualities of an outstanding undergraduate education, we might just start to see what the path forward could be.