Wednesday, July 9, 2008

If I Could Reinvent Undergraduate Education

My previous posts and articles such as America's Most Overrated Product: A Bachelor's Degree document how little value added the average college student accrues for all the years and money spent.

Here, I allow myself the luxury of dreaming up Utopia College. Here would be its major components:

1. Faculty would not have PhDs. They'd have a masters in higher ed. teaching. Their training would focus on how to help typical undergraduates grow in those critical elements of an undergraduate education: writing, critical thinking, mathematical reasoning, ethics, how to learn, and as Ralph Wolff, president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges advocates, unlearning: We get very stuck in our ways, which will be ever more dysfunctional as the pace of new knowledge accelerates.

2. Courses would be problem-centered rather than discipline-centered. So they'd bear such titles as "What, if anything, should we do about climate change?" "The art of finding and nurturing a great romantic relationship" and, "Reducing the racial achievement gap."

3. Provide extensive opportunities for long-term, one-on-one relationships with faculty, peer mentors, etc. All faculty and students would receive training on how to be a mentor and protege.

4. Cost of attendance would be dramatically reduced. There are many ways to lower cost without reducing quality:
  • Utilize faculty and student residences as classrooms. They lie vacant during the day.
  • Using non-PhDs as faculty would be less expensive and more effective. The disparity between the way PhDs and undergraduates think is too great. Also, many PhDs’ primary interest is research, often arcane research that shouldn't be core to undergraduate education. Carefully selected holders of an M.A. in undergraduate instruction would be both less expensive and better.
  • Forgo fancy administration buildings.
  • Forgo country-club-like campuses with their arboretum-like lawns and shrubs and amenities such as swimming pools and golf courses. Instead, make deals with nearby swimming and golf facilities that enable students to participate at reasonable cost.
  • Reduce the cost of marketing. By providing crucial data about Utopia College (see below) on its website, the college should be able to sell itself. And because Utopia would offer a superior undergraduate education at a very low price, the media will likely provide lots of marketing assistance of greater credibility than any brochures a college could create. What sorts of data would be provided?
-- Value added. How much do students grow at Utopia College in writing, critical thinking, problem solving, information literacy, etc. Separate data should be provided for students entering with low, medium, and high SAT scores.

-- Results of the most recent student-satisfaction survey, to be conducted by the institutions themselves.

-- The most recent accreditation report.

-- The average cash, loan, and work-study financial aid for varying levels of family income and assets. And because some colleges use the drug-dealer scam — give the first dose cheap and then jack up the price —Utopia College would list the typical financial aid packages, not just for the first year, but for years 2 through 6.

-- Retention data: the percentage of students returning for a second year, broken out by SAT score, race, and gender.

-- Safety data: the percentage of an institution's students who have been robbed or assaulted on or near the campus.

-- The four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates, broken out by SAT score, race, and gender.

-- Employment data for graduates: the percentage of graduates who, within six months of graduation, are in graduate school, unemployed, or employed in a job requiring college-level skills, along with salary data.

And so now, dear readers, what do you think? Have any suggestions for improving Utopia College?

I want to thank Ralph Wolff for the stimulating discussion that spawned this blog post. Of course, I take full responsibility for any and all weaknesses herein.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

What's missing?

-Admissions criteria. How would the students be selected? How exclusive or inclusive would it be?

-You listed how Utopia College would be different from other colleges. How would it be similar to them? When you're selling the idea at the beginning to attract students, it can't stand out as being TOO different.

-Would there still be a tenure system? If not, how would the abilities of the faculty be judged?

-You said that all faculty and students would learn how to be both mentors and proteges. What other requirements (if any) would be in place?

-What would be the grading system?

-How rigorous would the courses be?

-What kind of majors would be available?

-How would you encourage a free exchange of ideas instead the political bias and political correctness that stifles so many campuses?

-How would you encourage long-term retention of the class info as opposed to cramming for tests or papers?

-How would you continue to innovate so that Utopia College wouldn't become corrupted, obsolete or irrelevant?

-How would you determine "student satisfaction"?

-What if the more established colleges and universities had enough political power to close Utopia College down, just to cut down on competition?

I had fun coming up with those questions. I look forward to as many as you care to answer, Mr. Nemko.

You probably don't want to post this on the Chronicle of higher Education blog.

Dave said...

I enjoyed reading this.

On the Masters in undergraduate education: Don't you think this would create a mass exodus in primary and secondary education? You have touched on the retention rate of school teachers in your articles and I believe you stated that the retention rate for teachers is just 35% after five years. Correctly me if I'm wrong.

Many primary and secondary teachers would love to jump into higher education if the standard professional degree was a 'Master of Undergraduate Instruction'. Many teachers do the online MLS/MLIS degree just to get out of the classroom!

Marty Nemko said...

First, I would like to thank Anonymous for an excellent set of questions.

I will take a shot at each:

-- How would the students be selected? How exclusive or inclusive would it be?

I believe there should be multiple versions of Utopia College, some aimed at top students, others aimed at far less well-prepared students. To encourage a heterogeneously grouped college, I believe would create too great a challenge for both instructors and students. Imagine, for example, that you were in a discussion section of a psychology class. Some students were brilliant, offering great insights and asking advanced questions, while students were struggling to understand basic facts. In a mixed-ability class, both high- and low-achievers fail to get their needs met.

However, in my view, all variants of Utopia College should maintain at least moderate admission standards. We don't want to admit students who are far more likely to derive sufficient benefit by taking a path other than a four-year college. For example, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education, among students entering four-year colleges who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class, 2/3 never earn their bachelor's, even if given 8 1/2 years. Meanwhile, such students suffer an assault to their self-esteem and acquire little learning but a mountain of debt in the process. In addition, professors are forced to dumb-down classes, depriving the qualified students of their right to an education. While there are the rare exception, the vast majority of students with weak high school records would be far better off being turned down by four-year colleges and advised to consider two-year colleges, apprenticeship programs, the military, etc.

-You listed how Utopia College would be different from other colleges. How would it be similar to them? When you're selling the idea at the beginning to attract students, it can't stand out as being TOO different.

Excellent point. The basic goals of Utopia College would be the same as of most undergraduate colleges: to acquire bachelor's level competence in writing, critical thinking, problem solving, information literacy, appreciation of key elements within the sciences, humanities, social sciences and fine arts, plus guidance in career and life matters. Too, there would be residence halls and rich co-curricular programming.

-Would there still be a tenure system? If not, how would the abilities of the faculty be judged?

No. Tenure hasn't even accomplished what it was intended to: preserve academic freedom. In fact, there's great censorship of ideas in today's universities, especially in the prestigious. It's very difficult for a social science or humanities professor with right-of-center views to land a tenure-track job. Another key reason to not offer tenure at Utopia College is that teaching, done right, is a difficult task, subject to professor burnout. Student learning is too important to give instructors lifetime tenure. I'm in favor of annual reviews for the first three years. If the person passes that probationary periods, he or she would become eligible for
five-year renewable contracts.

-You said that all faculty and students would learn how to be both mentors and proteges. What other requirements (if any) would be in place?

All faculty would be required to successfully complete a week-long teaching/learning boot camp and an advanced Teaching/Learning weekend-long Summer Institute every five years. Faculty who pass the boot camp but later have poor student and peer evaluations, would be required to work with a peer faculty member of his or her choice or with the college's faculty developer.

-What would be the grading system?

I believe in providing frequent feedback during a course--for example, detailed feedback on oral and written work, especially with regard to the writing and critical thinking skills demonstrated by the student. At the end of each course, students would receive letter grades and a narrative evaluation, a la the University of California, Santa Cruz.

-How rigorous would the courses be?

That would depend on whether the particular "Utopia College" was highly selective in admissions or not. The goal is always to make the courses MODERATELY challenging to most of the students in that class: not so challenging that it leads to cheating or too much frustration, not so easy that little growth in critical thinking, writing, etc., will occur.

-What kind of majors would be available?

Perhaps 20 of the most popular majors. Higher educators often sniff at practical majors such as business, but I believe that such majors can be useful vehicles not only for career preparation but for improving thinking skills, problem solving, writing, etc. Offering more than about 20 majors becomes unduly expensive and difficult to maintain quality.

-How would you encourage a free exchange of ideas instead the political bias and political correctness that stifles so many campuses?

Of course, the most important criterion in hiring faculty and administrators (a small number of those would be used at Utopia College), would be their likelihood of helping undergraduates grow maximally in problem solving, critical thinking, writing, etc. But also important in hiring, would be do ensure an ideologically diverse faculty. The good undergraduate education fairly exposes students to the full range of responsibly held ideas. Unlike what one might think when attending our elite colleges, not all wisdom resides left of center.

-How would you encourage long-term retention of the class info as opposed to cramming for tests or papers?

Another excellent question. Student work would consist heavily of projects designed to help solve that course's core problem: for example, "How to reduce the racial achievement gap." The learning that accrues from attempting to address that problem is far less likely to be quickly forgotten than the learning derived from a standard term paper, let alone multiple-choice test.

-How would you continue to innovate so that Utopia College wouldn't become corrupted, obsolete or irrelevant?

Yet another excellent question. Faculty and administrators would be selected to be voraciously open to growing and enthusiastic about contributing to the institution's growth. Then, a variety of activities would be embedded to maximize the chances of that occurring: for example, an annual blue-sky retreat, faculty field trips to see innovations in practice, promotion and tenure that is in part based on the faculty member's continued growth and contribution to the growth of the college, and perhaps most importantly, a culture that encourages faculty and administrators to share innovations" with each other.

-How would you determine "student satisfaction"?

I don't have a magic answer here. I believe that a well designed survey, supplemented by interviews would be helpful. I'd, of course, ask about all the factors that are key to Utopia College: e.g., "Have you consistently received extensive feedback on your writing assignments that has improved your writing?"

-What if the more established colleges and universities had enough political power to close Utopia College down, just to cut down on competition?

That's where the media can be your friend. I'd shine a bright light on them.

Again, thank you dear Anonymous, for terrific questions. This, I believe, is what blogging should be about: the exchange of thoughtfully derived questions and ideas.

Marty Nemko said...

In response to Dave, about 1/3 of K-12 teachers LEAVE the profession within their first few years in teaching.

And there would be a separate M.A. in undergraduate instruction. The criteria for admission would be quite different than for admission to a K-12 teacher preparation program. Yes, some of the people who otherwise would have entered the K-12 program might apply for the undergraduate-teaching program, and if well suited for it, great. But many aspiring K-12 teachers would much rather teach K-12 than higher ed.

Sweating Through fog said...

I'd eliminate department departments like Women's Studies and Gender Studies

Anonymous said...

I just found the following story:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121623686919059307.html?mod=dist_smartbrief

It's from the Wall Street Journal, and it's called "The Declining Value Of Your College Degree." Sounds like Greg Ip, the article's writer, agrees with you.

Will the students and employees of the near future need advanced degrees to get basic employment? Or will the pendulum swing the other way, making practical job experience more important? If it is the latter, how would you factor that into Utopia College?

Marty Nemko said...

It saddens me to advocate this because I do feel that most students derive far too little learning of value for the time and money, but ever more employers are demanding ever higher degrees, especially from designer-label institutions.

 

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