College professors have long bemoaned the fact that they view the product or outcome of higher education differently from their students. Ask a professor what the goal of a college education is, and the answer you’re likely to hear is wisdom, knowledge, insight, understanding, or some variant of these. Ask the same question of a student (or that student’s parents), and you’re likely to hear an answer like a diploma, a job, or lots of money. That difference in perspective is certainly not new and, although some generations of college students are more idealistic or socially engaged than others, it’s certainly not surprising that American families tend to make college decisions in terms of return on investment; that’s how they make most of their other decisions, too, at least when the question involves how they should spend their money.
What is perhaps more surprising is the extent to which legislators, trustees, and university administrators are increasingly also defining the purposes of a college education as an issue of return on investment. Whereas once discussions of cultural, social, and intellectual impact were carried on side by side with reference to a university’s economic impact, most analyses about American higher education today take for granted that its purpose is to make graduates more employable, to make the nation competitive in world markets, and to add to the economy’s of the university’s service area. For this reason, undergraduate education, particularly in the first two years when most students take the majority of their general education courses, often becomes a sequence of survey courses taken either online or in large lecture sections, with few extensive papers written, little oral defense of ideas in seminar settings, and insufficient opportunities to create or even to experience original art, music, dance, and theater. In other words, the very activities that are most likely to enhance a student’s critical and creative thinking are also those that have become far less common in many undergraduate programs.
Administrators are fond of noting that most studies of large and small classes suggest no difference in the degree to which students master the material and that online courses require much more work and student engagement than many critics suggest. They pose false dichotomies such as whether it is better to sit in a classroom a hundred feet away from a Nobel Prize winner or four feet away from someone whose last publication was his or her dissertation and use the terms “strategic planning” and “viability” as euphemisms for the mere counting of student credit hour production, graduation rates, and course evaluation scores.
The experience that a student will have, and the type of education he or she will receive, will be dramatically different depending on the amount of writing and speaking the student does in each course, the degree to which quantitative skills and research methods are taught across the disciplines, the extent to which he or she is challenged not only by the professors but also by his or her fellow students, the time spent learning and reflecting on issues independently outside the classroom, and whether the student’s residential environment provides a further source of intellectual, cultural, and professional development.
Not every college degree is alike, and not every university provides the same type of education, even though many people speak of college graduates as though they all received identical experiences. If America is indeed a society in which market forces are among the most dominant factors, then we as administrators need to do a better job of explaining to students, parents, legislators, and trustees what services we provide and why they continue to be important to a free society.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. His latest book is Academic Leadership Day by Day: Small Steps That Lead to Great Success (Jossey-Bass, 2011).