Learning And Understanding: The Power of The Residential University

In contrast to the swelling flood of higher education critiques, Frank Bruni in the New York Times has recently offered a refreshing breath of nuance and insight. He argues that American higher education must pull off a "delicate balancing act" -- increasing completion rates without sacrificing quality, making degrees practical but aiming at more than preparation for vocation, and lowering costs without lowering quality.

Bruni's concern is well placed. The din of voices clamoring for educational reform, including President Obama's, has threatened to drown out attention to what should be a key driver of our national educational policy. How do we ensure that college graduates in this country have a fundamental understanding of how society works -- how the complex pieces of our social order fit together?

More online education, more competency-based credits, more certificates and "badges," more focus on how much our graduates earn in their first job -- all of this is understandable in a world that seems increasingly credentials-crazy. To assume, however, that true education is simply a matter of bundling such loosely connected experiences until one satisfies requirements for a credential is misguided and ultimately a recipe for national weakness, not strength.

The pernicious consequence of this wave of enthusiasm for quick and cheap fixes is that it threatens the institutions best able to deliver long-term value to students and to the nation. We need learners to be educated in an environment that builds foundations of understanding, that requires them to see the connections between seemingly unrelated things.

It is not difficult to see how vitally important it is for our college graduates to appreciate such coherence. How does one make sense, for example, of the dysfunction produced by the intractable views of tea party conservatives and liberal Democrats about the proper role of government? Understanding this deeply-rooted polarization requires us to appreciate the social, religious, philosophical, political, economic and historical antecedents of such divergent views. Would our polity not be stronger if more Americans were able to better understand the world views of those we too easily demonize -- even among our own fellow citizens?

Do we believe that those who will tackle the challenges of the future are best educated by taking a series of disconnected MOOCs, or earning badges for having mastered narrow skills? As others have said, there is a difference between skill development and education. This is not to denigrate the institutions that offer a rich menu of choices suited for non-traditional as well as traditional learners, regardless of age or social circumstance. Indeed, this is the great strength of American higher education.

Those of us in the traditional institutional sector should support innovation that enriches the fertile educational soil of a residential college. The University of Evansville, for example, is a member of the New American Colleges and Universities (NACU), a consortium of 21 similar institutions across the United States. NACU schools are collaborating to create the New American Academic Community, one feature of which is an online course catalog that will enable students at any of our institutions to take selected courses offered at any other university in the consortium. A student in Evansville might take an online course offered at the University of Redlands in California, or at Wagner University in New York. The key is that the foundation stays strong -- for the course is part of a coherent, residential educational experience that marries breadth and depth.

But we seem increasingly tempted to throw out the baby with the bath water. We must remember that the traditional age college sector -- the 17 and 18 year-olds graduating high school and searching for a way to prepare themselves for life -- is very large indeed. These young men and women will reap substantial benefits from learning that is broad and foundational -- but which also requires students to explore a field in depth and think carefully about career paths.

Yes, our graduates need to develop the skills that will make them attractive in the vocational marketplace. And yes, it is the responsibility of colleges and universities to offer quality educational experiences not only at prices that most Americans can afford, but with a concern for access that ensures the availability of generous financial aid for those who cannot. There is abundant evidence that this is precisely what the large majority of four-year, residential American colleges and universities are doing, and we'll see much more of this in the years ahead.

The current national discussion about higher education is stimulating and ripe with opportunity. The siren call of non-traditional educational options, however, must not distract us from the critically important need for an educated citizenry able to make connections and draw conclusions that best serve the nation.