Leadership & Governance

Why a 'Big-Picture Education' Has Never Been More Important

Carol Geary Schneider, president, Association of American Colleges & Universities

May 12, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

Carol Geary Schneider, who is retiring in June after 18 years as president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, describes what we know now about a high-quality education and its greatest threats. Even amid "a very toxic environment" about the value of college, Ms. Schneider explains why she sees reason for hope.  

TRANSCRIPT

DAN BERRETT: Hi. My name is Dan Berrett. I'm a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. We're here today with Carol Geary Schneider, who is stepping down in June after 18 years at the head of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Dr. Schneider, thank you for joining us.

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: I'm pleased to be here. Thank you.

DAN BERRETT: So why did you feel that this particular time was the right time to step down after 18 years?

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: Well, AAC&U has just come through its centennial. And in anticipation of that centennial, we had planned and launched a long era of work in the early 2000s, and official launch in 2005. So in a sense, in my own time frame, 2015/2016 sort of capped an era of work. And it's time for others to step in. I'm not as young as I might be. So that's why.

About This Series

The Chronicle’s On Leadership video series explores various aspects of campus leadership with movers and shakers across academe. The series is hosted by Chronicle editors and reporters. Visit our complete collection of interviews. 


DAN BERRETT: Now AAC&U is the prime defender, in many ways, of the ideals of a liberal education. And as you and I have both talked about many times over the years, the value of a liberal education is very much the subject of skepticism in state houses and among policy makers. Does that give you pause at this moment to be stepping down?

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: Well, it gives me energy. I'm not stepping away from the quality conversation. And I do expect to affiliate with another organization that's also interested in quality, and continue to write and speak and cooperate with all our colleagues across the country who are working to make liberal education the expected, the default curriculum, rather than something we have to argue about and defend.

There's so much to say on this. I don't think of our work as defending liberal education. I think of our work as responding to the moment we're in, where it's never been more important that students have a big-picture education that prepares them to deal with complexity, and prepares them to take ethical responsibility and civic responsibility for what they're learning.

So those are things that a great liberal education does, whatever the student's actual major. And whether – policy [makers] may be skeptical, but society needs this kind of learning. And our students need this kind of learning. So AAC&U is highly energized. And my successor is equally energized, and intends to give this her best shot as she advances the campaign to make liberal education desired and expected, rather than beleaguered and under discussion.

DAN BERRETT: What are the best ways to through the curriculum help students see what that big picture is, and what those big picture questions are?

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: Right. I think the most important thing is that we actually have clarity about what we mean by liberal education. AAC&U's actual mission is advancing liberal education and inclusive excellence. Everybody loves the term "inclusive excellence." I hear policy leaders using it all the time. I wonder if they've thought hard about what it means.

I don't think you can have inclusive excellence unless you have some specificity about what you mean by the excellence, and are working hard to ensure that the curriculum is well-designed so that students with different interests, different backgrounds, different levels of preparation are being guided to the kind of learning they actually need. So an institution should have clear goals for the kind of big-picture learning students need – the broad learning in the liberal arts and sciences, clarity about intellectual skills, clarity about the kinds of practices that students ought to engage in, like research, like service, like project-based learning, collaborative learning. And they ought to have clarity that these things are well-designed into the curriculum.

And all of it ought to be explained to the students before they apply, when they arrive, as they are in their first-year programs, as they move forward in both general education and the major. We think that one of the most important things for a 21st-century liberal education is to have clear connections between students' majors, whatever they are, and that broad learning so that students have the opportunities to rehearse putting their questions, their interests, their concerns – let's say they're going into health work. They may think of themselves as learning how to be a nurse, for example. Well, the nurse is operating in a very, very complicated social and cultural environment, political environment. So you need to connect that broad learning in the liberal arts and sciences to the particular things a student will do as a nurse.

DAN BERRETT: And I'm glad you brought that up, because that goes to the idea of relevance with education. And I looked back in our archives. You're a historian –

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: I am.

DAN BERRETT: – by training. And around the time that you took over – February 1, 1998 – over AAC&U, The Chronicle ran a story about attitudes held by freshmen in a survey out of UCLA. And what they found wouldn't be out of place today.

One described somewhat despairingly that students do what they need to do to get through college, and that quote – "their intrinsic interest in what they're learning seems to be down." Unquote.

So what are the ways you see to enhance that intrinsic interest, or awaken that intrinsic interest?

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: In my own experience both as a student, and eventually as a teacher, and certainly as a leader both at the University of Chicago and as I came to AAC&U, to me it has always seemed that you make the connection between the intrinsic value of the learning and the students' hopes for their own future by zeroing in on questions that actually matter to the student, and helping the student make more of those questions than she would know how to do by herself.

This is certainly what was done for me as a first-year student at Mount Holyoke College. I had very naive questions about religion. And I had a very patient freshman-English teacher who had a more ambitious notion of what I might do with those questions.

And that's what I mean. You start with what the student's really thinking about, what they think is relevant. And then you help them enter a journey where they just develop a more sophisticated understanding of what their commitments and their questions really mean.

So it's not intrinsic versus relevance. It's really connecting the larger value of a broad education with the specific journey the student is on.

DAN BERRETT: I understand. And as you look back over these past 18 years, what is something we know about the educational quality or academic rigor that maybe we didn't fully appreciate back then?

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: When I became president of AAC&U in 1998, we had just passed a revised mission statement, which called on us to put the aims of liberal learning squarely at the center of institutional and educational practice. But we didn't have anywhere a current statement of what we meant by the aims of liberal learning.

So one of the first things I did as president was to begin to articulate that at the time with my board. But then I was fortunate to get a lot of funding from several major foundations to begin a dialogue with the higher-education community at large, with educators who were already working to update their programs, with employers, civic leaders. It was really a very broad based discussion as to what we meant by quality.

And so out of that we brought three sets of insights that are all I would say newly achieved during my tenure, and not yet fully established across higher education. But we had the framework. And we didn't have it before.

So the first is the notion that liberal education doesn't belong just to selected disciplines. It really should be a goal for every discipline, for the professional fields, for the career and technical fields. This conversation you're writing about in the recent issue of The Chronicle about should we really invest in career and technical education, as though that is somehow separate from liberal education, is an outdated way of thinking about it.

We need to make sure that we have broadly educated career and technical people. They need to understand the world they're part of just as much as anybody else. So we need new designs.

But the point is, we have the framework now for the learning. We have a lot of evidence on practices that actually work and have a two-fer benefit. High-impact practices is the term people are using now. And we didn't have that term in 1998.

But now we have evidence that the more students are doing – research, projects, writing-intensive activities, e-portfolios, service learning, things that connect actual problems with the academic learning. The more they do that, the more they're likely to persist in college, and the more they're likely to actually achieve the kind of learning that is described in these big frameworks – the big picture, the strong intellectual skills, a sense of responsibility for how knowledge is used, and the ability to apply knowledge to real problems.

I have heard other reasons. Just this morning I was looking at a Harvard report on general education in 2007. And I saw that they wanted to emphasize what they called activity-based learning. And then I read the paragraph. And they were really searching for a language for just what I've been talking about – projects, research, service learning, community-based learning.

DAN BERRETT: They were high-impact practices.

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: Exactly. So that came out in 2007. And the decision that the evidence now allowed us to name these kinds of practices as "high impact" was 2008. And that phrase has just taken off.

The CSU system is putting some $20 million into trying to track how many students are benefiting from high-impact practices, and what difference it makes to first-generation students, especially, to have those experiences. So that's all new.

DAN BERRETT: Interesting. And as you look forward, what do you think the greatest risks are to a quality education?

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: Oh, let me count the ways. There are so many risks. I was thinking as I've thought about this conversation that higher education today feels to me as though it's a bowl half full of jewels poised on the edge of a table.

And the question is whether we'll end up move those jewels back centered on the table and really begin to work with them, or are we going to actually continue to see the things that matter to a great education erode. So we have a very toxic environment in which people feel perfectly free to attack the broad learning that is fundamental to a democracy and get saluted for it.

We've just watched this campaign. We see the disinvestment in higher education, and your own paper is reminding us that even though state investment is now turning around a bit, we're still not where we need to be. And we know that there are institutions that want to expand students' participation in high-impact practices. But they're struggling to find the money, because the state support has gone down. They can only raise tuition so much, or they can't raise them at all. Sometimes they're not allowed to.

And you end up having larger classes, more contingent faculty, more make-do responses to a very, very difficult funding environment. And the funding environment is not as though people feel apologetic about it. No. Policy people are happily blaming higher education for being too expensive, even as they have made decisions that force the price up. So it's a very toxic and difficult environment.

DAN BERRETT: So we'll see if the bowl of jewels stays on the table, or –

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: Exactly.

DAN BERRETT: – or shatters on the ground.

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: Right. Yes. I hadn't gone that far with my metaphor, but, thank you.

DAN BERRETT: Sure.

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: The thing that gives me hope is that I see so much energy and commitment across higher education. I think all the changes that I've been talking about – the effort to better define quality, the effort to experiment with and evaluate practices that might improve performance. All of this is responding to the changing student population.

People want today's new students to succeed in higher education. And they're trying everything they can to really help students get the benefit of a good education. So I take energy and confidence from all the commitment I see, across broad-access institutions and selective institutions as well, to try and make our programs work better for students.

But I do worry, of course, that it does take money. And we're in a difficult environment.

DAN BERRETT: Well, thank you very much for joining us today, Dr. Schneider.

CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER: You're most welcome. I'm pleased to be here. Thank you.

Dan Berrett writes about teaching, learning, the curriculum, and educational quality. Follow him on Twitter @danberrett, or write to him at dan.berrett@chronicle.com.