Treat Students As Adults

In a recent blog post, I criticized higher education leaders who seek big disruptive strategies and suggested that they recognize the importance of small daily improvements that eliminate waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness in non-zero-sum ways. However, there is one big disruptive strategy that is worth pursuing: curriculum design.

In most cases, products or services are designed by the producer with no customer input (or, sometimes, a little customer input). As a result, the product or service fails to meet customers needs, either in whole or part. The producer, then, has a cost problem that can only be corrected in by discounting until an improved product or service is designed and brought to market. Leaders of organizations err when they allow engineers to design products and services that lack customer input.

The situation is largely the same for higher education, especially public higher education. As faculty, we have designed undergraduate curricula based on what we think is best for students, payers, and society. We have designed general education and in-major curricula from our point of view, heavily informed, no doubt, on the curricula that we experienced as undergraduates. Our educational service has failed to meet students’ needs, either in whole or part, for a long time. As the relevancy of higher education decreases over time, discounting will become even more common than it is today. Likewise, the leaders of higher education err when they allow faculty to design undergraduate programs that lack customer input.

So how can this situation be improved? Administrators and faculty can willingly cede power to students, who, after all, come to higher education because they want to solve their own individual educational problems. We know from decades of complaints, students learn little in certain courses or dislike taking courses that they will never use, or likely never use, just because faculty think the subject is what students should know. Ignoring this feedback will drive students to other sources to satisfy their individual educational needs, thereby further weakening public higher education.

Undergraduate students are adults, and most will make intelligent decisions about how best to satisfy their individual needs. Most will seek multiple sources of advice prior to making important educational decisions. They will confer with parents, academic advisors, payers, professionals, others students, and so on, to determine the out-of-major and in-major courses that best solve their individual problems.

Students should be allowed to design their own curriculum, particularly when it comes to courses outside the major, while courses inside the major should include many more experimental courses on cutting-edge topics. Doing so will help students as they enter the job market or graduate school, and keep faculty fresh and engaged.

Rigidity and requirements-driven public higher education should be replaced with flexibility and needs-driven education. Rather than being a checklist of courses to complete, the plan of study should reflect students’ solution to their individual educational problem. Doing so will create graduates who can think, take risks, enjoy the fruits of their decisions, and also bear consequences.

Brown University made this change 45 years ago. Few colleges or universities followed their lead, not because Brown’s Open Curriculum (originally called the “New Curriculum”) was bad or produced inferior graduates. No, it was a great innovation, one that produced superior graduates. Administrators and faculty in these colleges and universities preferred to insist that they know better and ignored chronic students complaints. They preferred to be laggards. Public higher education can instead prefer to be leaders.

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