Rethinking the liberal arts university in an age of uncertainty
While many have warned that higher education is a bubble about to burst, fewer have advocated specific, integrated steps to reinvent it. The situation calls for drastic measures, however, particularly for private liberal arts institutions where public dollars are limited and expected to decline.
As an enterprise these colleges and universities face a period of creative destruction—one in which an entire system will be eliminated or replaced by a more efficient and more effective one.
The ideas suggested below are not modest ones, especially when taken together. But this is no time for timid, incremental steps.
Teaching colleges have focused largely on credit hour production as the currency of the realm. This has led most schools to address financial challenges almost exclusively by creating new programs and recruiting new students.
This is understandable. Credit hour production can be easily measured. Unfortunately, it can no longer be predicted. Cultural expectations and attitudes about the liberal arts are shifting rapidly, and economic pressures (including burgeoning costs and resulting student debt) have resulted in fewer students and more competition between programs that have been overbuilt.
But what if the driver of such institutions was to serve their local communities instead of to increase credit hours? This is not as measurable, but it resituates the liberal arts as a practical and tangible force in both local and global contexts.
To redefine the mission is a cultural shift, and has less to do with rewriting goals than with rethinking values. The liberal arts are transformative, or should be. But this transformation can not be measured by degrees. Or at least not by the number of them.
The importance of broad, interdisciplinary approaches to myriad cultural, economic and social problems can not be overstated. But it can be overlooked. And as the challenges to liberal arts schools mount, it is easy to turn inward and to count the things that can be counted.
Counting (and accounting) are necessary, obviously. But turning outward is more necessary. And more urgent.
For liberal arts colleges to see themselves as agent of positive change in their communities opens up new sources of income. Infrastructure becomes more available to local organizations and causes. But the institution and its faculty also begin to see themselves in a different way, as resources to their neighbors.
This means workshops and seminars become as important as classes and serving citizens becomes as important as matriculating students. Recruiting students becomes no more important than engaging boomers. Research becomes more practical as the problems of local businesses and nonprofits are addressed. The arts move from the campus to the street.
This invites a new curriculum where students and faculty are more motivated as the focus shifts from critical thinking to situated action. Communities will support such efforts and students will come. They are well aware of the problems in the world and they want to make a difference. Or they can be taught to want to.
The issue of community, which is so important to liberal arts institutions, can be addressed differently by raising the stakes. If we were to create projects that mattered, that made a difference, students would care more about their work and about each other.
Requiring every course to engage the community radically alters the curriculum, of course. It may mean the end of survey courses as we know them. It alters everything, actually, requiring new relationships and accepting new responsibilities.
College and universities that see themselves in this way will also attract political, economic, aesthetic and social interest, so cultivating relationships with local leadership is critical as schools create laboratory experiences off campus.
This requires administrators not to see such relationships merely or even primarily from a development perspective. While such initiatives will probably result in more donations, the focus must be on the services themselves, some of which may be paid services. Sacrificial ones are more likely.
Nevertheless, new income streams must supplement or even replace tuition as reliance on credit hour production alone is not sustainable. While grants may also contribute to the bottom line, some services could and should be fairly compensated as dedicated faculty and students help solve real problems or create new venues.
Students who have learned to do this will be sought after, based on portfolios of meaningful work. They will have increased confidence based on meaningful accomplishments. Their continued relationship with mentors and with the university is assured.
Partnerships need not be local, however. Technology allows dispersed teams to work together across geographical barriers. Coalitions of like-minded liberal arts schools could interact with organizations and communities to address global issues. Social networking tools enable more immediate issue and concern based learning with broader collaboration.
Reduce student debt
Student debt is of course the elephant in the room, as students and their parents are increasingly less willing to mortgage an uncertain future. Reducing student debt is mission critical.
One way to do this is to reduce costs, of course. Privatizing various aspects of the universities operation can help. While food service and book stores are commonly handled in this way, janitorial and maintenance services—often staffed by poorly supervised and unmotivated student workers—are examples of areas where private management would result in reduced costs.
Not-for-profit universities, unfortunately, are less likely to focus on workplace efficiencies than their for-profit counterparts, and breaking off units not essential to the core enterprise of student development and learning would reduce administrative and operational bloat.
Students could still work for such services, but they would probably be more accountable. Interactions with the community would also result in more, and better paid, opportunities for students, providing a better real world experience.
Other aspects of university operations could also be privatized, including athletics, housing, media outlets, etc. New revenue streams from community engagement and reduced operational costs are essential. But these streams alone do not reduce students debt enough to make a university education attractive again to middle class parents whose neighbors have a child that is $60,000 in debt and can not find a job.
Shorten the experience
Another way to reduce student debt would be to reduce the time they spend in college. While some schools are looking at three-year bachelor programs as one way to do this, it might be more fruitful to rethink the semester itself.
Typically students take five classes over 14 weeks, meeting two or three times a week. This is not like any schedule they will encounter the rest of their lives. It may also not be a model consistent with their attention span and learning styles.
Imagine then a five-week term as the standard; residential students only take two classes per term. If each class is worth 3 credits, and there are nine sessions a year, a student could earn 54 credits a year, easily finishing within 3 years.
This does not diminish the time they spend in a course. Two hours a day every weekday for five weeks is 50 hours, roughly the same “seat time” as the current model. But the shorter term has several academic advantages:
- By limiting students to two course in five weeks, there is plenty of time for laboratory or field work, learning to solve problems that matter.
- Students are more focused, with fewer courses to concentrate on at one time.
- Daily interactions reduce the time needed for review, since the student’s mind is less cluttered and the interactions with mentors and instructors is more frequent and immediate.
- Courses could be moved off campus to different, more appropriate venues—a theater downtown or an orphanage overseas.
- Creative and innovative learning experiences could be created which are not consistent with current models.
An argument can be made that some courses, such as a lab science, require more processing time. In rare instances a 10-week course could be offered, but for the most part any five-week project based course could result in significant learning and practical portfolio pieces.
Other practical (and marketable) advantages exist as well:
- A student who has a family or health crisis only misses one five-week term, not an entire semester.
- Struggling students are identified earlier and helped sooner.
- Students with two classes can schedule work more easily.
- Students can take two to four terms off each year and still finish in four years, allowing them more flexibility in finding work since everyone is not competing for the same summer jobs.
- Rolling enrollment allows the student to enter the program at any time, without waiting until September.
- Students can mix and match delivery systems, all available within the same five-week terms. This allows more opportunities for them to work, thus reducing overall debt.
Rethink faculty contracts
Shorter terms and more community engagement would require new ways of thinking about faculty “load.” If credit hour production is not the only important thing, or even the most important thing, other activities will need to be compensated.
But assuming, for the sake of illustration, that a full-time contract is 24 credit hours. In this example we will call them units. Already, most schools assign load for some non-teaching responsibilities, but a more fluid approach would be necessary.
Community engagement would be part of a course, but practical research and service have to also be incentivized. More activities have to be rewarded if more things are going to happen.
But the flexibility needed in this model would be better served by connecting these units of production (sorry, that’s what they are) to flat rate compensation and giving contracted faculty more flexibility.
Suppose any contracted faculty can choose to complete any number of units between 12 and 36, with a certain number being required for certain benefits. Suppose also they could spread them out or condense them as long as institutional needs are meet.
So one person teaches two courses (3 units each) for four straight terms and they have 24 units. Another does so for six terms and they have 36 units. Someone else does one course (3 credits) for nine terms and has 27 units.
In return for this flexibility, which allows ample time for travel and study, faculty has a new, and higher, set of expectations about community involvement. They take students into these contexts, helping to fulfill the new, broader mission. Poetry students do readings. Science students monitor water quality. Literature students develop a curriculum for an at-risk high school. Accounting students help seniors with their taxes.
Faculty in this model would be more engagement in the material they teach, with fresher and more pertinent perspectives. Helping solve real problems will require preparation and research that is responsive and applied.
New technologies allow the creation and updating of learning materials on the fly, of course, but they also allow immediate connections with diverse scholars and practitioners. Students can interact with people who have direct knowledge of the problems they are trying to solve.
In such an environment textbooks become a crutch, limiting timely, creative engagement with the material and the community. Finishing the textbook becomes the real objective, regardless of what the syllabus may say.
Textbooks can thwart innovation and interaction. They lack the currency of trade books and the immediacy of conversation. They create distance between students and primary sources.
While many teachers engage students in conversations about the textbook, they do so at the expense of real engagement with real problems or real conversations with real people. And while good students may be able to apply the material in the abstract, all student need to experience success or failure in concrete ways.
At least some lead faculty may need to be compensated for creating or assembling learning materials, but all faculty members should be expected to be fresh, prepared and engaged. And while we expect that even now, the current structure of three to five preparations encourages shortcuts and the reliance on textbooks enables sloth.
By limiting teaching assignments to two in a five-week term, however, faculty has more time to focus on keeping their material relevant and to move themselves and their student out of the classroom.
As expectations for faculty increase in this way, the expectation for students would also increase. It is one thing to learn and even analyze the material. It is quite a different thing to apply it to real problems.
Once we connect students to the welfare of an actual child, the expectations of an actual audience, the livelihood of an actual business, the needs of an actual congregation or the health of an actual neighborhood, then we must expect more from them.
And they will expect more from themselves. We change the conversation.
What did I do wrong is not about earning points but about solving problems. What do I have to do to get a B becomes what do I have to do to make a difference.
The answer is step up. Start sooner and work harder. Think carefully and act intentionally, because it matters. Get over yourself, which is the truest measure of a liberally educated man or woman.
Assessment changes in such a world. New communities of practice emerge. Innovation roots itself in new realities and transformation is grounded in new insights. Bright, earnest people will want to teach at, attend and give to such schools.
None of this would be easy. But with current management structures most of it is impossible. Too many levels of approval are necessary and too many committees are involved. And way too many bosses.
Within budgetary constraints, departments and contracted faculty need to respond quickly to community needs and opportunities. Approval processes should be streamlined and decision making pushed down to the lowest level possible.
The privatization of services would reduce the number of things administrators have to manage, freeing them to coordinate and evaluate an explosion of service focused educational innovation. Clearly the oversight of every student need distracts them from the essential enterprise of learning and doing.
Every dean, and every vice-president, would have to focus on creating partnerships and engaging constituents in a more vital mission. But the execution of that mission would have to be much closer to the ground, by people who have the freedom to act and the expectation of support.
Simpler hierarchies with visionary leadership are not easy to create. Training, technology and off campus travel are expensive. No one knows if this would actually work. But we do know that what we are doing now is also expensive and almost extinct.
No utopia is envisioned here. Reinventing the liberal arts college will require more work than we do now and result in different problems than we have now.
But just adding a new program is not bold, even if it is online.
Bold is rethinking the whole thing.
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