Creating a Meaningful College Experience in an Era of Streamlining

Michael Morgerstern for The Chronicle

June 12, 2011

A change is afoot at many of our traditional four-year colleges and universities, and it's a change for the worse: More and more courses are taking on the feel of online learning, even if they take place on campus and are taught in person by a professor. Reduced state budgets, along with a consequent inability by faculty to develop and effect drastic changes in teaching and learning, have resulted in stale curricular paradigms that remain much the same as those offered a generation ago—but with bigger classes.

A young friend of mine has been experiencing this decline in classroom teaching firsthand during his freshman and sophomore years of college. Now nearing the end of his second year at a large public university, he has earned a respectable 3.2 grade-point average and says he's made many friends. Because he comes from a poor family, he hasn't had to pay for his education. He has, however, gone into debt to cover his living expenses, so even if he graduates in four years—a big if—he'll have about $25,000 in student loans to pay off. That's a scary burden for a poor kid.

One day last summer, he startled me by saying, "I wonder if I'm learning anything." It's a question that, increasingly, college students are asking and researchers are examining. My friend had his own reasons for asking: Of the nine classes he took during his first year, six of them exceeded 200 students. In three of those courses, students numbered more than 300. In six classes, he never met the instructor, and the teaching assistants were, he told me, "too busy with their own work to have time for my questions."

Assessments of his progress have been sparing. For his final exams in three of his first-year classes, he received a letter grade without any commentary. He had no writing assignments in two classes, and in those classes that supposedly emphasized writing, barely 20 pages of work were required. Only sometimes was a letter grade accompanied by a brief comment.

Classes have been smaller in his sophomore year, although only one has fewer than 30 students. His professors have made few efforts to engage him or his friends either in or outside of class. He still receives sparing comments on papers, which never exceed 20 pages.

My young friend's estrangement from his professors, while disheartening, is not unexpected. The National Survey of Student Engagement continually finds that up to 40 percent of first-year students have never discussed ideas from readings or classes with faculty members outside of class—a number that is even higher at large public universities. Other recent research, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, shows that such estrangement is common throughout many students' time in college, and that it hinders learning.

Indeed, lacking engagement with his professors and courses, my friend has found another outlet for his youthful energy: He took a job at a cafe to earn money, at first working just a few hours a week. He now works 30 hours each week, earning what he says is good money in tips. When I pointed out that he wasn't in college to become a barista, he replied: "You said I needed over a 3.0, and I'm still getting above a 3.0. The money helps my mom, and I can pay off some of those loans." Graduation is still his primary goal, and he was and is prepared to work hard in college. But I don't have a good response to explain why he shouldn't work in a cafe and earn money if he still gets good grades working 30 hours a week.

I don't want to romanticize the good old days, but in many classrooms on today's traditional campuses, with class sizes in the hundreds of students, distance learning begins in the fifth row. At the same time, students spend much of their days holed up in their dorm rooms chatting with one another on Facebook. The opportunities to learn from other students and professors, in and out of class, are declining at the very time that we know such engagement is critical for learning. Shrinking state budgets have intensified this development, as boards, administrators, and faculty have largely agreed that one logical response is to increase class size.

But the increasingly online character of college education also reflects a broken culture on our campuses, both private and public. We no longer look to college presidents to be intellectual leaders as they scurry about raising money. Provosts and deans have meekly accepted their role as managers of bureaucracies and development officers rather than as academic leaders. The faculty continues to defend a bloated, academically incoherent curriculum. We choose methods of assessment that offer the least work for professors and students alike—a final exam with only a letter grade affixed to it—and offer the fewest opportunities for students to reflect on what they are learning.

We know students learn more when expectations are high and when feedback on what they need to do to improve is constant. I'm certain that my young friend, and his friends, would work harder if we expected it of them—but we don't. Gigantic classes limit that kind of personal interaction.

Even when class size is not a barrier, the incentives for engagement between student and faculty are few. Replenishing higher-education budgets, even if that were likely, would not solve the problem. If students and faculty are to engage on campuses, long-overdue academic and intellectual reforms are needed, and everyone—including college presidents and provosts—must participate.

The curriculum-as-undergraduate-buffet should be replaced with a pared-down list of offerings geared toward the advancement of the intellect and the acquisition of skills needed in the 21st century. (To satisfy a bachelor-degree requirement for science, my friend took a class on earthquakes, a class on life science—read: good eating habits and personal hygiene—and one on astronomy.) We have to decide what students should learn and then offer courses that will enable them to achieve the goals we have set. The smorgasbord that currently exists is inefficient, ineffective, and meets the whims of the faculty rather than the needs of the students. As it stands now, we assume that sitting in a lecture class and earning credits is a proxy for learning. A streamlined, stripped-down curriculum would help free up professors' time to get to know their students.

We must improve the quality of student-faculty interactions both in and outside class. Faculty reward structures should honor involvement with students, and professors need to think about what is in our students' best interests, rather than our own.

Unless we recognize our common interest in developing a true 21st-century curricula, and in restoring the student-faculty relationship that once was the norm, students like my young friend will keep wondering if they're learning anything of value in college. If we want to keep what has made American higher education the envy of the world, we must commit to dramatic change. Maintaining excellence does not mean rigidly adhering to what worked yesterday; it means understanding what made us excellent so that we can maintain our core values while adapting to current conditions.

William G. Tierney is a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California, and president-elect of the American Educational Research Association.