Pick the Right College … Learn the Right Things!

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I want to continue my discussion of ideas related to changing higher education. Last week I addressed the issue of faculty appointments. This week, I want to pick up on two more of the essays included in The Chronicle of Higher Education series that are related to the quality of the educational experience … picking the right college and learning the right things. I think these essays point us in important directions, but don’t go far enough.

In an essay entitled, “High-Tech College Counseling,” the proposal is made to increase the use of technology in college guidance. According to recent data, the average student to high school counselor ratio in public schools in the United States is 459:1. Obviously, few students receive the kind of personal guidance necessary to navigate the complex process of applying to college. This problem is likely exacerbated for first generation and minority students, who may not have the family structure or experience to assist in this process.

The article suggests that more and better use be made by technology. There are already emerging software systems and programs that engage students in the process from beginning to end. These sites remind students about deadlines and requirements; they provide basic information about types of colleges and financial aid; and, they are beginning to become more interactive allowing prospective students to connect online with counselors.

Certainly there are many college-bound students who need this type of basic help. Despite what often appears to be endless communications about admissions requirements and the multiple opportunities for assistance in preparing applications, preparing for exams, etc., navigating the process is only part of the college search process. In fact, I think there is something even more important.

Students and families need more than basic help in determining how to apply for college. They need much more help in deciding why to apply to a specific college. There are hundreds of great colleges that provide extraordinary opportunities for a quality education. But the key to success for students is more often based on fit rather than admission. This is not a case of better or worse, it is about finding the college that meets a student’s educational and personal needs… a place where s/he will thrive educationally and personally.

Data indicate that the student’s first visit to campus is the key determinant in the college decision. Some studies suggest that the decision about fit is made in the first ten minutes on campus. The best decisions … the right decisions … are not typically made on first impressions. Students need to work through a much more reflective process to better understand the type of learning environment, the campus culture and the geographic location that will best serve their needs … especially after the “10 minute impression” wears off.

Once a student arrives at the right college, the next important question relates to curriculum. In an essay entitled, “An Old School Notion: Writing Required,” the suggestion is made to return to an approach popular a decade ago called writing across the curriculum.

This idea was embraced by many colleges that embedded writing requirements (and therefore writing instruction) in every course and in every discipline, rather than only in writing specific courses. These writing assignments took many forms including papers, short essays, journals, etc.

I remain amazed at why these programs seem to be less popular today despite the persistent concern raised by all faculty that incoming students do not write well. But I think we need to do more than writing across the curriculum. We need to consider thinking across the curriculum, research across the curriculum, analysis across the curriculum, etc.

We speak eloquently about the value of liberal education and the need to prepare our students to be lifelong learners equipped with the skills for both professional challenges and citizenship. And yet we often relegate these important skills to specific courses, continuing to focus on discipline-based content that we all know will be less important and likely outdated in a short time after graduation.

High schools and colleges need to work together to better assist college-bound students to make the right choice. And colleges need to rethink their curriculum to make sure these students are well educated and fully prepared for the challenges that will face them. These ideas are worthy of further discussion. These ideas are necessary for the future of higher education.

What do you think?

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Guest Monday, 21 April 2014