Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What Student Centered Reform Might Look Like

A few weeks ago I caught a quote in the Wall Street Journal by Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System. In discussing the resistance by the UT Board of Regents to continued increases in undergraduate tuition he stated "the trend of consistently raising tuition to counter reductions from other funding sources is not sustainable for students and parents." Therein lies the problem: if you plot out the current trajectory of tuition increases, by 2030 a traditional college education could likely be out of reach for all but those with substantial economic means.

I worry that higher education reforms, particularly those focusing on scalability and access (think online education), could result in a two-tier system where those with economic means benefit from a traditional experience while those without such means are left with something potentially far less. I would be willing to bet that both elite private institutions and research-oriented public flagships would remain viable in 2030 even at $130,428 or $57,609 a year, but less selective public institutions and tuition-dependent privates likely would not; thus requiring reforms that potentially lead to a two-tiered system. While we must alter our present course, we must do so in a way that ensures that higher education reduces social and economic inequity and does not perpetuate it by decoupling access from student ability.

A recent bright spot in my weekly reading was an article discussing what students want from a reformed higher education, which contained some real nuggets of wisdom.
  • The face-to-face experience matters. While social networking tools and online communications constantly consume student’s attention, it often results in social isolation that is undesirable when it comes to learning. While students think online courses are good for completing prerequisites or obtaining remedial instruction, they want face-to-face collaborative learning experiences with faculty and other students.
  • They want earlier career advice that ties career choices to a major. While most students engaged in a deliberative, thoughtful process to select a school, their major was often chosen haphazardly. Students want to be engaged about career choices and majors in a more thoughtful and deliberate way once they step on campus.
  • Majors are less important than they used to be. Students feel that the notion of a traditional field of study is outdated and has more to do with how faculty organize their work and less to do with what serves student needs. Students would prefer a set of learning experiences that emphasize information processing, increases their capacity for critical thinking, and helps them to become better communicators, regardless of subject matter.
Such a model would not be a one-size-fit-all model exclusively centered on career development, but one that would allow students the opportunity to design their own learning experiences consistent with their unique goals and aspirations. If we follow their advice we just might be onto something.

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