By Doug Ward

SAN FRANCISCO – A sense of urgency pervades this year’s meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The tenets of a broad, liberal education have been under assault at the state and national level, many Americans have grown skeptical of the cost – and debt – that college brings, and the terms “evidence” and “value” seem mandatory in any conversation about higher education.

The sessions at the AAC&U’s annual meeting this week have been filled with discussions about telling the story of liberal education, effecting change across departments and campuses, scaling effective practices to improve learning and retention, and creating an inclusive, equitable and global-facing educational environment amid a political climate of anxiety, suspicion and nativism.

No one at this year’s gathering has all the answers we are all seeking. And yet, even among the concern and urgency over the future of higher education, there is clearly a sense of hope. After all, those of us at the convention believe in the mission of liberal education and see ourselves as problem-solvers. No one is cowering or retreating.

The atrium of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco provided an expansive visual setting for the AAC&U conference. Like higher education, it mixed the abstract with the practical, the expansive with the creative. A big question, though: Are the elevators of higher education going up or down?

An early panel discussion did an excellent job of framing the problem that colleges and universities face – one that they helped create – but also of illuminating potential pathways forward. That panel, titled “Always on the Fringe,” emphasized the shift over the last two decades away from college as a public good.

Jeff Selingo, a professor at Arizona State, said that most colleges now emphasized their personal benefits. And Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple, said that approach had turned a college degree into a commodity. Illustrating that, one audience member said that at many colleges, students now enroll by putting classes into an electronic “shopping cart.”

Goldrick-Rab said that as colleges shifted their focus to education as a commodity, the financial system shifted from grants to loans to pay for college. That has led to a “high tuition, high aid model,” she said, convincing colleges that they could charge increasing amounts because degrees have value, while offering scholarships and other financial aid to discount the price.

That approach, she said, hasn’t worked, largely because it fails to take into account the rising cost of housing, books and other learning materials. Students are being priced out, and middle-class students are struggling with the cost of housing and food. Thirteen percent of community college students are homeless, she said.

“One reason people don’t have trust in the system is that we’ve told them these things and they know they aren’t true,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They’ve learned over and over that when we tell them there will be money, that just isn’t true.”

Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College, said Spelman had avoided that “high cost, high aid” model but that the financial pain families endure is very real, especially when students fail to graduate.

“The worst possible outcome is debt but no degree,” Tatum said. “That is the betrayal.”

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, spoke about the challenge of regaining the public’s trust. If universities depend solely on the private sector, he said, they will be told to produce more welders and fewer anthropologists.

“So how do we lobby for more funding without sacrificing our autonomy?” he asked.

Selingo said higher education needed to stop clinging to the past and start thinking about what the college model, mission and experience in the 21st century should be.

“We keep going back to the model of public education from the 1960s rather than looking forward,” he said.

One way to start that process, he said, is to rethink how we talk about higher education. Our emphasis on the broad components of liberal education doesn’t register with most people, he said. People want opportunities and jobs but don’t know how to get there, and colleges and universities need to learn how to speak in those terms.

Policymakers in Washington haven’t been much help, he said. They tend to come from elite institutions that continue to grow more elite.

“They have never met the students who have struggled,” Selingo said, but they set policy for everyone.

All the panelists spoke of a need to help students connect classroom learning to careers. That is, we need to better explain how the skills students gain in philosophy, chemistry and other disciplines translate into skills they can use on the job. That is especially important, they said, because the number of freelance and temporary jobs has been growing faster than traditional jobs. Many students may never work as a traditional employee, they said, and must learn how to thrive in that freelance world.

Roth said, somewhat facetiously, that “critical thinking is vastly overrated.” For most students, criticism comes easily, he said. They find it much harder to build on ideas, develop opportunities and work creatively – all things that we need to improve in our classes.

“If everyone is critical, ideas die quickly,” he said.

True critical thinking is as important as ever, though, Tatum said, given the political turmoil and our tendency to surround ourselves with people who look and think like us, even as the world grows more diverse. Those are components of what she called the “stuckness” of society.

Among the solutions that came up in that panel discussion and at other sessions this week reflect the determination among educators.

  • Build on skills students already have. Too often, we focus on what students are lacking rather than on what they bring to the classroom.
  • Bring students into the conversation. If we hope to change higher education and the culture that envelops it, we must enlist the help of students. One workshop leader recounted something a student told her: “Don’t have a conversation about us without us.”
  • Broaden the conversation. We usually think of education in terms of teaching, but everyone a student comes into contact with can have an impact. In fact, one workshop leader said, food service workers and maintenance staff often know students better than faculty and administrators do. We need to bring those members of the university community into our conversations.
  • Improve listening skills. This goes for students, faculty and administrators. We need to help students listen to one another but also need to improve our own ability to listen to opposing views and understand the underlying thinking. We all need to break out of our parochialism, Roth said.

Throughout the conference, there was agreement that higher education needed to do a better job of explaining what it does, why it matters and why it deserves public support.

“I don’t think we can go back to a time when we think that higher education is a public good,” Selingo said. “We have to shift the narrative as a result.”

And we need to do that quickly.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

There’s no shortage of ideas for remaking higher education.

Consider a few recent ones:

Margaret Rhodes at Wired is among the latest to report on ideas for remaking an antiquated educational format that rewards students for taking notes, memorizing facts, and then checking boxes on tests.

“Students don’t need information,” Rhodes writes. “They need to learn how to process and use it.”

Bravo!

Rhodes offers four ways to help higher education become more creative, based on ideas from the Stanford School of Design:

  • Revamp the timeframe. Substitute the four-year degree for a six-year program that allows students to move in an out as their needs change.
  • Eliminate class designations. Rather than designating students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, let them range across the curriculum, learning and then applying and then learning something new.
  • Ditch the transcript. Rather than focusing on GPAs, focus on skill building and portfolio development.
  • Forget majors. Rather, have students declare goals or missions and let them take classes that help them meet those goals.
barn-raising
Thinking about education as a barn raising offers many possibilities as we move toward changing teaching and learning.

Cathy Davidson of City University of New York immediately added two other ideas to the list: eliminate tuition, and provide better pay for high-quality instructors.

Davidson is spot-on in her argument that radical changes will have little effect unless we’re willing to change the underlying problems. That is, we say we want high-quality education but still fail to provide the incentives and rewards that would make that happen.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Forham University, explains perhaps the central difficulty of elevating teaching in the research-driven culture of higher education. “It’s not that teaching doesn’t matter,” Cassuto writes, “but even many community colleges are looking for publication these days. It’s the only credential that crosses institutional boundaries, so it’s the easiest one for institutions to brag on.”

Cassuto is right, but even in higher education’s research-driven culture, we brush aside teaching as impossible to measure. So we send research packets out for external review when a professor goes up for tenure or promotion, but to evaluate teaching, we generally resort to student evaluations and observations of a single class. We shrug our shoulders and move on.

We can change that. The Provost’s Task Force on Course Redesign, of which I was a member, offered several solutions to improving teaching at KU. The solutions apply to every university, though. They aren’t particularly radical, and there’s nothing as eye-popping as the ones from the Stanford School of Design. Rather, the ideas are intended to help change the culture of teaching and the systemic problems that hold good teachers back. They include these:

  • Create community. We need to identify faculty who want to improve or change their courses and provide opportunities for them to network with similar-minded instructors to share ideas that will lead to additional change.
  • Encourage collaboration. This means within departments but also among departments and universities to share ideas and approaches to improving education. It also applies to faculty members who teach different sections of the same course.
  • Provide support. We need to expand programs that provide support for faculty members interested in changing their courses. In our case, that includes the C21 Consortium and the teaching fellows program, both of which help faculty members and departments improve active learning.
  • Recognize and reward effective teaching. Until we truly reward innovative, high-quality teaching in the same way we reward innovative, high-quality research, we have little hope of wide-scale change.
  • Increase funds for remaking classrooms. Classrooms alone won’t change anything, but as I’ve written previously, classroom design can indeed improve student engagement and motivation.
  • Make better use of digital technology for learning. Good teaching starts with sound pedagogy, but digital technology provides the means for reaching students in new ways, making courses more engaging, and time-shifting assignments so we can make better use of class time to address areas where students struggle.

Whether radical or not-so radical, the ideas for improving higher education offer no magic powers. Rather, they provide blueprints we can follow and frameworks on which we can build.

Think of an old-fashioned barn-raising, which provides a lens for looking at many aspects of education. By joining our forces and applying our expertise, we can create something that none of us could accomplish individually. And yet, to effect change we need individuals to step up and join the community.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.