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October 19, 2007

college, from scratch

(On an airplane between Denver and Charlotte): I'm sure people learn something in college, but the evidence is not strong that, on average, they learn very much. Students perform better on assessments of knowledge and critical thinking at the end of college than at the beginning. But the gains are fairly consistent regardless of the type, size, and mission of the institution.* This finding suggests to me that students aren't much affected by the educational opportunities that colleges offer. And that doesn't surprise me, because their main opportunity is the chance to sit in a large lecture-hall listening to a distant figure who might as well be on TV.

If students don't learn all that much in college, why do they (or their families) pay tuition? And why do students struggle away on schoolwork for four years? One answer is: sorting. Students with good grades from fancy institutions get better jobs than students with poor grades from easy-to-enter colleges, who get better jobs than people with no degrees at all. This is because employers use admission, graduation, and grades as measures of how desirable students are. The fanciest colleges, being the hardest to get into, can pick the applicants who are on course to being the most desirable employees. Merely by admitting a kid, they raise his lifelong income, especially if he performs as well or better than his peers.

In order to attain a privileged position in the market, colleges need not actually educate students. Instead, they need need a reputation for being difficult to get into. To attract applicants, it also helps to provide very comfortable facilities and lots of services outside the classroom; and to appear in the newspaper often for excellent research or athletics. Harvard, for example, employs 5,102 "administrative and professional" staff (excluding clerical and technical workers and those in "service and trades"). Harvard has 112 full-time professional and administrative workers in its athletics department alone. This compares to 911 tenured faculty (or 2,163 total faculty).

I exaggerate this picture, of course. But I fear there is truth in it.

If you wanted to start completely over, you could imagine a college like this:

  • No frills. Minimal student services, no intercollegiate athletics, but virtually all the tuition money goes to faculty, who are required to teach.
  • The admissions office looks for students who are likely to benefit from the education, not for students who have beaten the competition in high school. Those most likely to benefit will be motivated and will have baseline skills; but they will not all be at the top of their classes in prep schools and suburban megaschools.
  • All courses are seminars or labs, with lots of assignments that require collaboration on lengthy projects. Working with others is a crucial skill that should be learned in college. Besides, such collaboration would compensate for a lack of extramural sports and other expensive extracurriculars
  • Residences for students, classrooms, professors' offices, and apartments for some of the faculty are combined in the same buildings. All these buildings are constructed simply and cheaply, with techniques to reduce energy use, and are designed to be decorated over time by the students. All arts, architecture, design, and landscape architecture courses are devoted to beautifying the campus.
  • The faculty is selected for excellence of teaching and research, but with no attention to their fame either within their own disciplines or in the media. Criteria for excellence are set by the institution itself; external offers, peer-reviews, and other measures of market value are proudly ignored.
  • A system of assessment or evaluation involves graded group projects at the beginning and end of each academic year. The college discloses changes in the students' scores on these projects over time and claims any positive changes as evidence of its actual impact. When the impact is weak or negative, the college changes its curriculum.
  • *Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Vol. 2, A Third Decade of Research (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

    October 19, 2007 9:30 PM | category: academia | Comments


    Sarah Lawrence College, my alma mater, was designed in the late 1920s as a laboratory for progressive educators and artists very similar to the principles you describe. I'll offer a few observations to fill in the challenges of creating such institutions in today's consumer-driven education environment.

    Henry MacCracken, the disgruntled President of Vassar, worked with his friends the Lawrences, to implement Dewey's democratic education. Since the Depression students have worked in anti-poverty research and advocacy. SLC's founders thought the school will exist if the interest and need remains, so they did not endow the school.

    Like and Antioch and Bennington, SLC has struggled to remain financially viable while maintaining integrity of the founding vision. And this has driven tuition up. Frills are very low but increasing to attract top students from posh backgrounds. Admissions is a very individual process which I've appreciate from working in inside. We prided ourselves in finding undiscovered gems from small towns in the mandatory admissions interview.

    Much of the housing is integrated as you suggest though original buildings and infrastructure are old and inefficient. (I studied energy use one semester). The newer buildings are highly eco-designed. All classes are labs or seminars, except for 2. Student ratio and access to faculty are incredible (though salaries are uncompetitive and the area is expensive). Each seminar or lab (limited to 15 students) requires an independent project with bi-weekly faculty-student conferences.

    The assessment and group projects you describe could improve the uneven support and assessment for projects. The group work, as you suggest, could help unite a highly individualized/fracture campus culture which lacks sports.

    October 24, 2007 3:17 AM | Comments (1) | posted by Scott D

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