Like hundreds of other freshmen at Pennsylvania State's
Park campus each fall, Brad Nestico arrived ready to study - and
party - hard.
Soon he had joined a fraternity and was part of a drinking
culture. About that time, though, Penn State was ramping up its
anti- "binge-drinking" program: late-night movies, comedians, and
But in a departure from schools with similar programs, Penn State
homed in on an oft-touted, little-implemented ideal of American
higher education: character.
The 1990s have seen increased focus on K-12 character development
- especially in the wake of recent school shootings. But the
"character" question has also been steadily creeping back into the
less-likely arena of college life.
Recent student deaths from alcohol abuse, date rape, hazing, and
cheating have college presidents increasingly looking to character
education as a tool.
But the goal isn't an ethics discussion. By some estimates,
10,000 courses on applied ethics - business, nursing, accounting -
are scattered across America's higher-education landscape. Yet only
a few hundred of the nation's 4,000-plus colleges and universities -
many of them small, religious liberal-arts schools - try to educate
character across the curriculum.
"Higher education is rediscovering a mission it has had from the
beginning," Elizabeth Hollander, director of Campus Compact, a
national service-learning program at Brown University in Providence,
R.I. That has translated into "educating the character of a new
generation of students for the sake of our democracy, and not simply
training them for work."
Since the 1960s, student demands for more control over their
academic lives and court rulings led colleges and society to
college-bound students adults and think of their education as "value
Graham Spanier, president of Penn State, says the tendency among
large public universities, until the past five years, was to move
away from character issues.
But that laissez faire attitude is breaking down. "What we're
seeing now throughout the nation is people at universities like ours
paying more attention than ever before to character issues," he
"In meetings I've had with other presidents, it's much more of a
Arthur Schwartz, director of character development programs at the
John Templeton Foundation in Philadelphia, whose job is ferreting
colleges and universities that do a good job instructing on
issues, also says the pendulum is swinging back."
Mr. Spanier, Mr. Hollander, Mr. Schwartz and others point to signs
*For the first time in memory, university presidents say, fellow
presidents are talking about character and implementing programs
focusing on "civic values" - what it means to be a good citizen -
even if they are still tentative about delving into educating
"personal moral values."
*"Service learning" that combines academic teaching with
experience - often in volunteer-work that focuses on civic values -
has exploded. Formal programs are in place on at least 620 campuses
today, compared with 120 a decade ago, Hollander says.
*This fall, a new college guide by the John Templeton Foundation
will profile 600 "colleges that encourage character development" in
dozen categories. The idea is to enable college-bound students and
their parents to examine character-building at an institution
alongside financial aid, academics, and other rankings.
*Research into character education and higher education is getting
new attention by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of
Teaching, Templeton, and other organizations.
*The increase in alcohol-and-substance abuse, date rape, cheating
and other problems on campus is prompting authorities to look beyond
traditional solutions toward programs that involve values education.
"Our challenge is greater today because students are coming to us
from troubled backgrounds," says Dr. …