Eight Ways to Fix College?

I just saw a Washington Post article on the “eight ways to get higher education back into shape.” For the time-strapped, here’s what the author (WP staff writer Daniel de Vise) is proposing:

  1. Measure how much students learn in college.

  2. End merit aid.

  3. Promote a three-year bachelor’s degree (at least for some subjects).

  4. Revive the core curriculum.

  5. Bring back homework.

  6. Tie public funds to (or at least focus on) college completion, not just enrollment.

  7. Cap athletic subsidies.

  8. Stop re-teaching high school in community colleges.

There’s obviously a lot more nuance in the actual article (I encourage you to read it), but that’s the basic outline.

Now, my Stanford-centric reactions to each of these ideas:

  1. It sounds like a good idea in theory. But how, how, how are you supposed to do that? Like some academics quoted in the article, I consider standardized testing at the collegiate level completely useless. I’m sure we all remember what a farce the SAT was; would you want your educational achievements to be measured by a slightly-more-advanced version of that? And of course there’s the glaring problem that not everyone is at college to learn the same things. Yes, I suppose we could use a well-designed, hand-graded test to provide a broad assessment of critical thinking and writing skills (which we should all have), but that’s about it. I sure as hell can’t pass a test on electrical engineering or East Asian history.

  2. Well, we’ve already done this, so I suppose I can’t complain much.

  3. I suppose I could support this one, especially as an option for students who have a difficult time paying for college. Of course, it would only be workable in certain majors (certainly not engineering), and it might have unintended chilling effects on the ability of students to engage in intellectual exploration during their first couple of years. But as I’ve written before, the leeway for that kind of exploration is fast becoming a luxury item.

  4. Aha, I knew this one was coming. On the one hand, core curricula tend to encourage focused, in-depth study of complex works, which is an excellent way to develop critical thinking skills. On the other hand, the cultural baggage surrounding the idea of a “common knowledge base” might be insurmountable- and as much as I admire the ol’ Dead White Men, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for the academic establishment to re-embrace them.

  5. We got rid of it? Can someone please tell my professors? In all seriousness, though, I think that the real issue isn’t the quantity of work- it’s the quality and type of work. The author recommends moving to more capstone projects, research assignments, and intensive writing courses. I’m in complete agreement. Let’s admit it: how often do we devote any real thought to short “response papers” or do more than skim heavy reading assignments? We should throw off the remnants of busywork and devote our time to serious, challenging, projects, extended throughout the quarter and structured to promote- nay, require– proactive, independent work. (Of course, plenty of classes do this already, which is great. And maybe it’s not my place to comment on this- as a techie, I just do problem sets and read journal articles all the time anyway.)

  6. No complaints here.

  7. I’m not sure about Stanford’s situation here- the author highlights plenty of colleges that “tax” their students in the form of higher tuition & fees in order to fund their money-losing athletic departments, but I was under the impression that the Cardinal was doing fine. Anyone know more about this?

  8. I’m not really qualified to comment on this- I’ve never attended a community college- but the author argues very convincingly in favor of abandoning one-size-fits-all remedial classes and embracing more personalized learning for students who leave high school still performing below grade level. Sounds good to me.

I’d also like to add one more suggestion:

  1. Require students to meet regularly with helpful & knowledgeable career advisers, from the beginning of freshman fall until the last week of senior spring. (For my reason why, click here.)

How do *you *feel about these eight ideas? Any suggestions of your own? Let me know in the comments!

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