Changing Minds in Higher Education: Students Change, So Why Can't Colleges?

By Tagg, John | Planning for Higher Education, October-December 2008 | Go to article overview

Changing Minds in Higher Education: Students Change, So Why Can't Colleges?


Tagg, John, Planning for Higher Education


The problem today is that when students change, colleges don't have to because they camouflage and conceal the evidence that could guide change.

Introduction: Paradigm Shift, Learning Imperative, and Educational Change

In 1995 my colleague Robert Barr and I announced, in an article published in Change, a paradigm shift in higher education. With a degree of temerity that only came home to me after the article saw print, we declared in the first paragraph:

A paradigm shift is taking hold in American higher education. In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. It is both needed and wanted. (Barr and Tagg 1995, p. 13)

Are we getting there? Is higher education changing in this respect? Is it planning to change? A good deal of the literature about students and colleges seems to assume that colleges can deliberatively plan in light of changing circumstances to better serve changing students. But this may be a more difficult proposition then it at first appears.

There are dozens of exciting examples of institutions that have moved a long distance. In my book The Learning Paradigm College, I recounted 17 institutional examples of significant reform in the direction of the "learning paradigm" (Tagg 2003). In 2005, Kuh and his colleagues at the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) reported in Student Success in College on 20 institutions that had performed notably better than their demographics would have predicted on the NSSE (Kuh et al. 2005). In 2007, the Association of American Colleges and Universities published the report of the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP). The report, College Learning for the New Global Century, outlines the principles that should animate reform and is filled with examples of institutional change (National Leadership Council 2007). At the beginning of 2008, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation instituted its Award for Institutional Progress in Student Learning Outcomes, recognizing four institutions. Yes, much is happening.

But not enough. There is fairly clear consensus among those who have seriously addressed the subject that most institutions are behind the curve and generally cannot even coherently describe what they are trying to get students to learn, much less produce credible evidence of what they actually do learn. The agenda that reformers have been pursuing for at least 30 years is yet to be realized at most institutions. That is not to say that higher education will ever go back to "business as usual." But it is also impossible, for me at least, to predict just what the trajectory of change will be. Some of the most exciting changes in colleges and universities have been amazingly constrained: One college in a university has adopted a completely new way of working, while the other colleges remain stuck in conventional practices. An exciting innovation has vastly improved outcomes for a large body of students, but it survives primarily through the work of contingent faculty while the tenured and tenure-track stick to the conventional. Learning communities or service learning or undergraduate research thrive in some enclaves, but cannot gain a foothold in others. As the LEAP report concludes, "Across all the work on access, readiness, costs, and even accountability, there has been a near-total public silence about what contemporary college graduates need to know and be able to do" (National Leadership Council 2007, p. 7).

Changing Students in a Changing World

Students pursuing higher education have probably changed more in the last half century than in any other period in history. Much of this change was driven by social transformation and economic development and much by the past successes of higher education. …

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