The future of higher education arrived without fanfare for
Kimberly McClish during her freshman orientation last fall, when she
was handed a laminated notebook divider.
On it were the "Principles of Undergraduate Learning" - a
reminder of what her life would now be about: Communication skills,
critical thinking, applying knowledge, intellectual depth,
understanding society, and ethics.
Within a day or two, Ms. McClish forgot all about them. But later
that semester, she found that her professors at the Indiana
University-Purdue University campus in Indianapolis (IUPUI)
insisting she compose assignments with those principles in mind -
and explain how they were incorporated. The principles were in
course syllabuses, too.
A simple tool, the statements are part of a five-year-old IUPUI
effort to bring more coherence and focus to educating 19,000
undergraduates spread across 180 degree programs. The principles
will also be the basis for assessing students to ensure they
graduate with core abilities.
The experiment is just one small part of a growing effort to
rethink and retool American higher education for the 21st century.
By most measures, higher education in the United States is a huge
success story. Multitiered, diverse, with wide access and world-
class research faculty and labs, US colleges are wildly popular with
foreign and domestic students. Many of the 4,000-plus higher-
education institutions are enjoying unprecedented enrollment.
Yet behind that rosy glow, the basic structure is increasingly
ineffectual in its fundamental purpose of undergraduate education,
some say. Low college-completion rates, soaring tuitions, and
employer complaints that graduates can't write or analyze well are
spurring speculation that higher education must change its approach.
The student body, they say, has far different needs from those of
the highly homogeneous, elite group of the 1960s.
Indeed, a study released yesterday by the American Association of
Colleges and Universities argues that higher education runs a grave
risk if it won't adapt.
"Even today, too many students still receive what Robert P. Moses
calls a 'ghetto education,' " says the report, entitled "Greater
Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to
College." "If colleges hold low expectations for many of their
students and shunt them into narrow or shallow tracks, they could be
re-creating at the collegiate level the severe, discriminatory
problems of the twentieth-century high school experiment."
A "practical liberal education" is not a "utopian dream" for
institutions of higher learning, the report argues. Instead of
graduating students with mediocre analytical and communications
skills, colleges need to insist on crafting students who may become:
* "Empowered learners" with strong oral, written, and
quantitative skills they can use to evaluate a flood of information.
* "Informed learners" who understand global and cross-cultural
relationships, know a second language, and value the history
underlying US democracy.
* "Responsible learners" who understand the ethical consequences
of actions and are active participants in democracy.
In tone, the report pitch sounds similar to President Bush's K-
12 No Child Left Behind Act. And it's the sort of idealistic message
that might have met with stony indifference even a year ago. But
currently, groups with names like "the Millennium Project"
(University of Michigan) and "the Futures Project" (Brown
University) are churning out new models of higher education. The
National Governors Association has its own project, too.
It could appear to be so much academic rumbling. But some
observers see a new intensity behind the initiatives.
"Academics are forever writing about the future of higher
education," says Alan Guskin, director of the Project for the Future
of Higher Education at Antioch University in Seattle. …