Is College Over?
“The secret kept from the public is that lots of people in higher education actually know that we’re much more ineffective than we have a right to be,” Hersh confides. He knows this firsthand because he’s the former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York and Trinity College in Hartford, and he also served as director of the Center for Moral Education at Harvard. For far too long, he tells me, we’ve smiled and nodded while colleges impressed us with data points that have little to do with how much students actually learn. We don’t take hospitals at their word that they’re giving us excellent care, he says; we expect them to prove it with statistics and well-articulated standards. But we don’t ask the same of universities. Instead, we focus on the trivial, like how big the library is, or the spending per student. “Go and look at the variables that U.S. News & World Report uses,” Hersh says of the bible of college rankings. “Not one of them predicts learning.”
Think of your own college experience: Did you take a test measuring your critical-thinking skills, your analytical abilities, or your writing proficiency before you were handed a diploma? If you graduated more than a decade ago, you probably didn’t, because such a test didn’t exist. But it does now. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which is the basis for a large part of the research in Academically Adrift, requires students to solve the kinds of problems that arise in the actual workplace—for instance, using various documents to make the case for or against purchasing an airplane.
The CLA, which is used at more than 500 schools, is just one of the assessment tools that universities are employing these days to determine where learning and teaching are coming up short. Another that’s been dreamed up right here in Massachusetts is the Vision Project, which involves “curriculum-based embedded assessments” to identify areas where colleges can improve teaching, curriculum development, and even the sequence of courses. The man behind the project is Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland, who worked for more than 20 years in the UMass system, is the author of a book on the history of higher education in the Bay State, and is the former president of Northeastern University. Freeland’s effort involves a team that’s working with the faculty and deans at the state’s 29 campuses to come up with a strategy to better measure how much students learn. He got a huge boost this July when Governor Patrick announced a new $2.5 million Performance Incentive Fund that will provide competitive grants to campuses that demonstrate performance-based innovation—kind of a Race to the Top for state colleges.
“I consider this the most important educational work of our generation of educators,” Freeland says. “The strong universities and colleges in the future will be ones who have figured out how to do this.”
ON A WARM AFTERNOON IN JULY, I join the next generation of educators at Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning for the start of a new course called “Developing and Articulating Your Teaching Philosophy.” Associate director Marlon Kuzmick, a young guy with a shaved head, bushy eyebrows, and rolled-up shirtsleeves, sits in the front of the room. Thirteen graduate students from various disciplines are arranged in a rectangle before him. All of them will soon leave the crucible of Harvard and begin looking for teaching jobs at universities across the country.
The Bok Center’s courses are part of an effort at Harvard to improve the teaching skills of its faculty, but they also speak to a problem that’s plagued universities for decades: that the brilliant educators whose classes you pay so much to attend are not often the ones actually teaching students, and, what’s more, the graduate student who’s filling in for Dr. Brilliant hasn’t been taught to teach.
When I bring up the subject to author Richard Hersh, he sighs. “You have to remember, virtually no faculty member in doctoral work has ever been prepared to teach,” he says, noting that most Ph.D. candidates get only a few hours of teacher training before they set out to shape the supple minds of undergrads.