"Fixing" Higher Education Requires a Diversity of Assessments and Reforms

Empowering centralized education bureaucracies to apply one-size-fits-all reforms and rating systems is a recipe for disaster.
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Note: This blog was conceived and written in a truly collaborative fashion with four of my colleagues at Brevard College: Megan Kaiser (education professor), Laura McDowell (music professor), John Padgett (English professor) and Charles Wallis (math professor).

There is much hand-wringing these days about how higher education is broken and in dire need of reform. At one end of the spectrum, grossly underpaid and overworked adjuncts and graduate students teach an ever-increasing proportion of our students. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, overpaid and underworked professors spend their time denigrating each other's arcane research and sub-sub-disciplines.

Adding insult to injury, despite higher education's often obscene price tag, an embarrassingly high percentage of our graduates apparently still can't think, write, speak, work with others, do anything practical or get a job. For instance, a recent Gallop survey found that only 11 percent of business leaders and 14 percent of the broader population "strongly agree" that our graduates are well prepared for employment.

No wonder so many hackers, hipsters and Tea Partyers want to replace these crumbling ivory towers with online platforms that can provide a dirt-cheap, no-nonsense education.

Unfortunately, more than a grain of truth runs through such broad-brush criticisms. However, a closer examination of America's higher education landscape reveals a remarkable diversity of institutions, pedagogies and outcomes. Flagship state universities, highly selective private colleges and "alternative" schools typically have quite different cultures, missions and challenges. Consequently, empowering centralized education bureaucracies to apply one-size-fits-all reforms and rating systems is a recipe for disaster.

In our collective zeal to fix higher education, we should not forget that some schools are already working quite well, and others are successfully reinventing themselves on their own. We should also acknowledge that unlike the stereotypical elite and aloof research institutions, many small, under-endowed colleges such as ours do not have the resources or the inclination to tolerate large egos, academic in-fighting or hyper-specialization. In fact, despite our meager salaries, most of us work tirelessly to provide our students with an interdisciplinary, experiential education that is both academically rigorous and intimately connected to the real world. We even tend to like, respect and collaborate with our colleagues.

For instance, last semester, our Theatre Studies department invited our math faculty and students to attend the first read-through of David Auburn's play, Proof. This led to rich subsequent philosophical and practical discussions about mathematics, drama and argumentation. Several math faculty and students wound up attending the final performance of Proof, and the theater faculty and their students in turn attended some of the math students' senior presentations.

In addition to these kinds of informal, yet often profound learning experiences, some colleges are now providing more structured opportunities for their faculty and students to break out of their disciplinary silos and learn from and work with one another. For example, all of our students participate in at least one "learning community" in which faculty from different departments explicitly link their separate courses, attend each other's classes, and model the attributes of what we consider to be an ideal student, such as a passion for learning and the ability to think critically and connect seemingly disparate ideas and disciplines. We, along with an increasing number of other institutions, also regularly offer our students off-campus learning and service opportunities, such as interdisciplinary wilderness expeditions and collaborative projects with individuals and institutions in the business, government and non-profit communities.

Even though it can be difficult or impossible to meaningfully quantify the effect of these kinds of experiences with standardized assessment tools, we know they often lead to life-changing intellectual and personal growth. They also help transform our students into well-rounded, engaged citizens and employees who can more effectively adapt to and succeed within our society's ever-evolving, multi-tasking job market. Indeed, at least for us, stories of math majors becoming lawyers, music majors running businesses and science majors working as photojournalists are now more the norm than the exception.

Of course, we have our share of problems just like everybody else. Probably the greatest challenge of them all is that yes, this kind of highly personalized, hands-on education is expensive and labor intensive. Yet, like virtually all of our peer institutions, we want to at least maintain, if not increase, the socioeconomic, cultural and racial diversity of our student body. We also want our students to graduate without acquiring a crushing load of debt, and to pay our faculty (including adjuncts) and staff a decent living wage.

When it works, this model of education is transformational and worth every penny. But because this or any other model is not right for every student, we as a society need to figure out how to maintain and support a healthy diversity of institutions and approaches. Accomplishing this goal in turn will require a healthy diversity of holistic, decentralized assessments and reforms.

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