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Saving the Traditional University

April 27, 2012

Earlier this week, I wrote about online education and the effects that it will have on the traditional university. Widespread changes will likely be subtle and may require decades before establishing themselves in the public consciousness; American universities are powerful corporations with a monetary interest in maintaining the status quo. The last thing that the universities want are websites that offer free, university-level courses that provide students with acceptable certificates of accomplishment. Such a system would, in theory, make the traditional universities all but obsolete.

In the spirit of fairness, I’ve imagined how America’s universities could make themselves relevant again. Some of my thoughts cut right to the heart of the identity of America’s elite universities; these ideas I’ve since either tempered, altered, or nixed outright, knowing that they would otherwise derail my purpose, which is not to attack certain fields of study, but to recognize what schools do well, what they do poorly, and what they could improve. These ideas are an invitation to a dialogue about what higher education is, what it ought to be, and how we can make our idealized image of higher education a reality.

Join the Revolution

The first thing that universities must do is get with the times. It might appear counter-intuitive, but universities must get online. Universities like Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania, among several others, have already recognized that online education is very much a part of their educational vision and a part of their future. Some schools may sneer at this attitude, but those schools will be left behind, relics of a bygone era in education.

How can universities best educate their paying students when they are offering their courses online for free? Universities offer resources that non-paying students simply cannot access: free high-speed Internet, laboratories, peer-to-peer study sessions, face-to-face meeting time with their professors, and real real time feedback on projects and coursework. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Sebastian Thrun (former Stanford professor and founder of Udacity) mentions that 170 of the 200 Stanford students enrolled in his now infamous Artificial Intelligence course chose to watch his lectures online. When he asked them why they preferred to watch the lectures when they could attend the class in-person, the students said that they preferred his online lecture style and the ability to rewind. So doesn’t it make sense to put lectures up online, freeing students to spend that time studying, while also making it more likely that the students will “attend” the lecture? That class time, now free, can be used for the seminars where real peer-to-peer learning happens.

Least you forget, America’s biggest universities are brands. Harvard. Yale. MIT. These are world-famous education brands. The rest of America’s biggest schools are competing with one another for similarly lofty international reputations. What better way to export your brand than by offering free lessons and courses, taught by your finest faculty, to people all over the world?

Curb Grade Inflation

As part of my work-study as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I worked in the registrar’s office. Now, when an alumnus dies, the university checks the course records of the deceased. Often, I’d have to retrieve an old microfilm cartridge and then run it through a microfilm reader. These grades, most of them from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, never ceased to amaze me. Students commonly received Cs and Ds, even in such basic courses as Western Civilization and English 101. Grades, it would seem, were handed out on merit. Compare these scores with those of Humanities courses today. I once entered grades for a class where all fourteen students received an A. Tell me, how is that even possible?

The rise of grade inflation. Private schools are the worst offenders; no surprise since they rely far more on donor money than do public universities.

Grade inflation is widespread, a festering virus that has infected every university in America (perhaps not this college). While there are a number of reasons for this trend, it has had the effect of rendering a bachelor’s degree nearly worthless. Let’s recognize grade inflation for what it is: the sad by-product of the self-esteem movement and a symptom of the modern university’s never ending pursuit of alumni donations. What good are grades if everyone knows that they’re worthless?1

Degree Standards: Rigor Creates Value

Let me be clear right now: my history degree is hardly worth the paper that it’s printed on. That’s not because the study of history is worthless, or because I didn’t learn anything as an undergrad. Rather, it’s because the history major lacks rigor. Take a look at the requirements for a history major from America’s top university:

“All History concentrators are required to take 10 half-courses.” (emphasis mine)

1. History 97 – History Analysis

2. 1 Reading Seminar

3. 1 Research Seminar

4. 1 half-course in western History

5. 1 half-course in non-western History

6. 1 half-course in premodern History

7-10. 4 additional electives (here, they note: “Normally, only one of these electives may be in a Related Field”).

To summarize, there is minimal emphasis placed on historiographical skills, a broad emphasis on breadth of historical understanding, and very little opportunity for or emphasis on interdisciplinary study (in other words, they treat the modern study of history as if this were the 19th century). Interestingly, the department does not require the study of a foreign language.

I’ve come up with my own program, which consists of a whopping 18 (!) courses (in a trimester school year – between 15 and 16 courses in a semester system).

1. 4 courses Historical Analysis (including research, writing for History, theory, and historiography)

2. 5 courses in History (including a minimum of 3 classes related to the student’s research)

3. 6 courses (or 4 in a semester system) in a foreign language (or demonstration of intermediate competency)

4. 3 courses in interdisciplinary fields (e.g. archaeology, anthropology, statistics, economics, sociology, geography, etc.)

An undergraduate degree ought to mean something. The only way to truly imbue a degree with value is by adding rigor and standards to each area of study.2

The Value of a Physical Campus

The University of Chicago's new center for the arts.

Traditional universities have at least one thing that online education lacks: a physical campus. There’s no denying that the physical campus is itself a quintessential and extremely important part of the university experience. Thus, schools ought to be thinking hard about how to make their campus a place where students can both collaborate and innovate. Whether this means investing in expensive labs, creating different kinds of libraries, or offering unique study spaces, schools must do whatever it takes to instill value in the place itself. In other words, they must think about what their campuses offer that cyberspace cannot.

The importance of place takes on even more importance when considering the skyrocketing costs of higher education. If you are paying $60k/year, you at least deserve unlimited access to campus resources: laboratories, libraries, study rooms, football fields, equipment, etc. Many schools prefer to keep these things locked up in webs of bureaucracy. Unlock these tools and resources and make them freely available to the student body. It’s the least they deserve for what they’re paying.

Help Students Network

When asked about the price of a college education, many people will tell you that you’re paying for the brand name on the degree. Harvard. Yale. Stanford. There’s some truth to that; a brand name could help you get your foot in the door. However, if you expect the name on your degree to get you a job, you’ll be in for a world of hurt. The real value of your undergraduate education is in the opportunities you have for networking. Stanford has recognized this, providing ample opportunities for its students to rub shoulders with some of the most important names in Silicon Valley.

Stanford is not alone of course. Many universities, especially the best universities in the country, offer a steady stream of networking events for their undergraduates. However, schools don’t do enough to emphasize the importance of these networking events. Schools should be doing everything they can to both provide opportunities to network and to encourage undergraduates to participate in these events.

Make the Liberal Arts More Exclusive/Incentivize the STEM Fields

Here’s where things get a little controversial. I strongly believe that universities should limit the number of students who can major in liberal arts fields. These openings should be made available on a scholarship only basis. This both creates competition for spots within the field and increases the overall value of the major. It also reduces the financial burden on students and the U.S. economy by limiting the amount of total student debt, especially for students in fields with little monetary value (the liberal arts). Students in the STEM fields should not be prohibited from studies in the humanities (they should, in fact, be encouraged to study outside their field!), but they should be limited to a minor in an unrelated liberal arts field. As for the scholarship students, they should have to forfeit their scholarship if they decide to change majors.

Academics would protest this change on the grounds that students should be free to study whatever they want. That’s fine for students fortunate enough to be paying almost nothing for their education. However, for the rest of the student body, a degree in the STEM fields is the only thing that makes financial sense. Academics need students to keep their jobs; they might complain when we suggest cutting Gender Studies or Romance Languages and Literature, but the burden is on them to justify their field when a degree costs students over $150,000, causes the nation’s national student debt to balloon, lacks rigor, and offers no value on the job market. Yes, college is a time for exploration and inquiry, but not at its current costs.

1 I am not sure that this is true for some of the STEM fields. For example, engineering students routinely receive Bs, Cs, and Ds. Yet, they still receive recognition from employers because most are aware of the rigor of the courses, the general lack of grade inflation in the field, and the overall difficulty involved. An A in an engineering class means a lot more than my A in a class on the Crusades.
2 Once again, the STEM fields come out on top here. Many of these programs already possess the kind of rigor that creates strong students with measurable competencies.

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