The Role of Higher Education Is Expanding

A former teacher by the name of Sarah Smith recently wrote an article “[blaming] liberal education dogmas for creating a generation of hopelessly ill-equipped teachers.” Smith points-out that, despite her degree in English, she chronically makes spelling and grammatical errors — and that she’s not alone.

Unfortunately, the problem is far more complex than liberal-education dogmas. Reading and writing involve so much more than grammar, spelling, and vocabulary that college courses cannot remediate students, at least not adequately, and still meet its higher educational objectives. Mathematics has a similar remediation problem. Nowadays, educational software supplement many writing and math classrooms to target students’ individual learning needs–but they cannot make-up for the lack of a strong foundation.

In April, the American Association of Community Colleges recommended metrics-based connections and collaborations between community colleges and high schools to ensure college readiness, and as we continue to expand college access with a simultaneous insistence on higher graduation rates, we’ll see more unusual solutions.

Higher education is in the midst of expanding its paradigm. Just as Lincoln’s land-grant universities expanded higher education from developing informed leadership to creating informed citizenship, we’ve recently broadened the focus from improving college access to simultaneously increasing student retention and graduation rates, and likely we will expand again to bridge the gap between graduation and employment. With each of these larger visions come new challenges. Currently, we have unprecedented numbers of first-generation, low-income, and non-traditional students. Politicians, federal and state grants, teachers, high-school counselors, and parents encourage students who otherwise never would have attended college, to now go to college; theoretically, we’re increasing opportunities for the disenfranchised and raising the local resource pool for skilled employees, community problem-solving, and general prosperity.

Unfortunately, because so few of these new students expected to go to college, many come with insufficient background knowledge or skills. Whereas some already had what it takes to get a college degree and needed only the financial resources and social encouragement, others never cared about their education because they never expected to work anywhere but the corner store or in local day-labor pools. Even when armed with individuated software and the most solvent pedagogies, including differentiated instruction, today’s faculty face unprecedented challenges.

Many universities now explore technological and systemic solutions: default scheduling, living learning communities, bundled courses, academic alerts, advising as teaching, introductory courses with extra hours for remediation, first-year experience courses, second-year experience courses, course recommendation software, degree-major recommendation software, degree pathways, redirect advising, grit-scale evaluations …. And I suspect, similar to the American Association of Community Colleges’ recommendation, universities will integrate with community colleges and high schools — and as initiated via service-learning and internships, with local or even global employment opportunities.

The role of higher education is expanding. And that expanded role comes with growing pains. The transition appears to — or perhaps does — lower the value of a degree, not merely by increasing the percentage of people with degrees (an elitist argument that we should strike from the conversation), but also by allowing students like Sarah Smith to graduate with higher-order skills but without an adequate remediation of their basic skills. But we’re working-out the kinks, and I have complete faith that we’ll get there.

And for someone who calls herself illiterate, Sarah Smith did write a great article.

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