Undergraduate Education Reinvented

A proposal that promises to greatly reduce cost while improving quality.

Posted Oct 10, 2018

Lain Stewart, CC 2.0
Source: Lain Stewart, CC 2.0

Undergraduate education is beyond fixing. Five factors have diminished what had widely been deemed a national treasure:

  • Many students are admitted to college who are insufficiently prepared for college-level work. According to the College Board, in 2017, only 46% of SAT takers were. That pressures instructors to lower standards and inflate grades, which degrades what a degree certifies.
  • Faculty has grown more focused on research than on teaching.
  • Tuition, fees, and room/board charges for decades have greatly exceeded the inflation rate, now affordable only by the well-off. The often astral sticker price is causing student debt so have become so great as to exceed the nation’s credit card and car debt combined: $1.5 trillion.  And student debt is accelerating—It is the fastest-growing form of debt.
  • College is supposed to expose students to the full range of responsibly held ideas, the so-called marketplace of ideas. Alas, that marketplace has been truncated. I would be as concerned if higher education were heavily biased toward conservatism—Wisdom resides across the spectrum—but fact is,the opposite is true. In the largest study of professors’ political affiliation, only 9% were conservative. This year, a survey of 8,668 tenure-track faculty members at 66 top-ranked liberal arts colleges found  that 78.2% percent of departments had “zero Republicans or so few as to make no difference.”

Those personal views are often incorporated into the curriculum, for example, the explosion of “social-justice” and "intersectionality-centric" programs.  At a Maine university, students were given course credit if they pressured Senator Collins to vote No on the Kavanaugh nomination. The bias extends even into STEM. For example, Pomona College’s only general statistics course, taught by Omayra Ortega, was converted into a “social justice” course.  The leftist bias extends even to the unarguably vile. Georgetown University Distinguished Associate Professor, Christina Fair, wrote, “White Republican Senators in the Kavanaugh hearings deserve to die....All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: We castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.” In response, Georgetown’s president, while not agreeing with the statement, said, “We protect the right of our community members to exercise their freedom of expression.” Do you think the president would have said that if a professor said that a slew of Senate Democrats “deserve to die. All of them deserve miserable deaths. We castrate their corpses while men’s advocates laugh.”?

  • Employers increasingly yawn at a bachelor’s degree. Even some highly selective employers, for example, Google, Apple, and IBM no longer require one. So the old statistic trumpeted by the colleges and parroted by the media—“You’ll earn $1,000,000 more”—is less valid than ever. Even in earlier days, it was invalid because the pool of the college-bound is brighter, more motivated, and better connected than the pool of non-goers. You could have locked the would-be-college-bound in a closet for four years and they’d earn much more. But with the mushrooming cost and a degree still a mere hunting license for most professional jobs, the reflexive assumption that college is worth those prime years and the crushing price tag is ever more dubious.

A solution?

Higher education thus cries for reinvention. I’ll save my thoughts on reinventing graduate education for another day. Here, I propose a reinvention of undergraduate education.

Campus-based colleges with porcine administrations have raised the costs of attendance so much that my proposal need be campus-light. And although I’m aware that government-run systems inhere liabilities, I’m proposing a federal-government-run U.S. College. It would be a sub-agency of or contractor to the U.S. Department of Education that would set standards, store course credit for students as traditional registrar’s offices do, review transcripts, and administer the two capstone exams that would be required to get a degree.

U.S. College would list the requirements for general education plus 100 majors and 10 interdisciplinary majors. Students would have the flexibility to meet requirements via live or online courses from any combination of regionally accredited institutions and others (e.g., LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, Udacity) that U.S. College certified. When students believe they’ve accumulated sufficient learning to qualify for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, they would have U.S. College review their transcript. When that’s approved, students would take a capstone pair of tests, one for general education, another for their major, which when passed, earns their U.S. College degree. To clarify the required level of competence, U.S. College would post—for both the associate’s and bachelor’s degree—a sample general-education exam and one for each of the offered majors.

Students could, for a fee, use residence halls, sports facilities, meeting rooms, etc., at any college or other locations, for example, a community swimming pool, church basketball court, or live in a private apartment. Colleges could continue to offer—also on a fee basis— the panoply of college extracurriculars: clubs, intramural and intercollegiate sports, orchestra, student newspaper, college radio, and TV station, etc. Most metropolitan areas are home to a number of colleges. That facilitates students mixing and matching to meet their needs, for example, live at home or in a dorm at College A, use the swimming pool at college B, join a club at College C and an activist group independent of a college.

Most students’ college costs would decrease dramatically because students could pick low-cost/highly rated courses not just at the one institution but nationwide. And instructors and their institutions, because they don’t have a captive audience of students enrolled at their college, would have greater incentive to control how much they charge. As with traditional college, financial aid would be available through the standard institutional and government grant and loan programs.

On average, students at U.S. College would receive a better education: picking disproportionately from the nation's highest-rated course. Students would not be limited to one college's extracurricular choices.

Upon enrolling at U.S. College, students would attend an in-person or online orientation on how to make the most of it. There, they’d be taught, among other things, how to select courses and extracurriculars, and be encouraged to, after completing each course and extracurricular activity, provide a thoughtful evaluation.

Downsides?

Objections to U.S. College could be raised. For example,

Having curriculum standards set by the federal government risks bias. Of course, as described above, traditional higher ed is far from immune from bias. As a safeguard against bias at U.S. College, a blue-ribbon, diverse panel would regularly review and revise its curricular standards, and those standards would be transparent to the public so concerns could be raised. That’s what’s occurring K-12, with the Common Core Curriculum. U.S. College’s curriculum would merely extend that to undergraduate education.

While most colleges offer fewer than 100 majors and 10 interdisciplinary ones, nationwide, there are thousands. So a student wishing to major in, for example, entomology, wouldn’t find that among U.S. College's 100. But even if despite carefully selecting electives, a student couldn’t adapt one of U.S. College’s majors into an interdisciplinary major, s/he could complete that major at a traditional college. I can envision some traditional colleges specializing in offering majors outside of U.S. College’s 110,

U.S. College would require a high degree of self-motivation, and orientations’ addressing that plus colleges offering the traditional advising, counseling, and tutoring won’t fully solve the problem. But given traditional college students' high cheating rate (86% admit to have cheated,) and higher ed's low retention rate and lower graduation rate (only 59% graduate even if given six years,) U.S. College seems at least worth a pilot program to evaluate how its students fare compared with traditional institutions’.

The takeaway

It’s become a cliché that American higher education is broken. U.S. College would seem to offer a major improvement. What do you think?

Of course, many readers of this essay are less focused on changing higher education and more on making the most of it as-is.  To that end, the following may be helpful:

  • Consider just-in-time learning. Take the course or find a tutor in what you need when you need it. You'll be more motivated and have a way to apply what you've learned.
  • Consider the more practical courses offered by the quality non-university-based course providers listed above: Udemy, Udacity, LinkedIn Learning as well as by University extension programs.  Of course, consider the student ratings and reviews of those courses, and examine the syllabus before enrolling.
  • Consider adapting major assignments. Often, the standard term paper or project feels less than useful to you. You might propose an alternative to your professor.
  • It's often said that students may learn more outside the classroom than in. So be especially careful in choosing fieldwork and internships. If you're unhappy with the one assigned to you, ask for reassignment. In choosing extracurriculars, because so many good jobs are requiring communication, management, and leadership skills, consider participating in student government, being a student member of the faculty senate, writing for the student newspaper, being on-air on the campus radio or TV station, starting a club, or leading an activist group.

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