What You Should Get Out of College

We often base our work on assumptions that seem reasonable, only to find out later that those assumptions are not shared by those whom we serve. That major mis-communication affects the how people perceive the quality, effectiveness, and utility of the service that they receive.

When it comes to higher education, do students share professional educators’ assumptions about what students should get out of college – which is essentially the fundamental purpose of higher education? Apparently not. If professors think the outcome of an undergraduate education is X, while students think it is Y, then one would expect students (and payers) to be dissatisfied. Broadly speaking, this seems to be the situation we find ourselves in today.

In early December 2014, I e-mailed the note below to my university president, provost, and dean:

What You Should Get Out of College“A few weeks ago I gave my undergraduate students a copy of the attached file, ‘What You Should Get Out of College,’ and reviewed it with them in detail. I want to share with you their reaction to it (edited for clarity) and provide some comments and a few recommendations:

‘I’ve never seen it broken down like this before.’

‘It explains why I spend 4 years taking classes, so many of which I’ll never use.’

‘We don’t care about gen ed courses and we don’t retain information from them, other than to pass, when real world application is non-existent. And they don’t connect to that document.’

‘A lot of teachers have us do busy work, rather than making these things come alive.’

‘It helps to explain why I’m here.’

‘Students cheat because the system values grades and numbers versus actual learning and retaining the information.’

‘It tells us why we are taking the courses we take.’

‘It provides the theory behind the actions [courses taken].’

‘I don’t feel valued… I feel taken advantage of. I’m a customer, and I want more relevant courses.’

‘It seems like all we’re here for is to get a piece of paper so we can get a job. [What You Should Get Out of College] helps me understand what I’m supposed to get out of college.’

‘It’s a good way to self-reflect on your studies.’

‘Courses should have more relevancy and focus on learning [rather than grades].’

‘Too many courses focus on success, while life is mostly failures – which is what we’ll actually see. Teachers should focus more on failure and what we can do about it to prepare us for the real world.’

This was eye-opening to me. The assumption that students comprehend the purpose of a university education the same as we do appears to be flawed – and thus an improvement opportunity.

My personal view is that there should be a university-wide effort to help undergraduate students understand what they should get out of their college experience, because this is fundamental to the university’s reason for existence –and which strongly connects to ensuring a successful first year, improving graduation rates, developing skills to achieve life and career goals, and so on.

I recommend sending ‘What You Should Get Out of College’ to undergraduate students upon admission, signed by the senior academic leadership team: president, provost, and appropriate dean. It should also be reinforced by the senior academic leadership team to all students, both undergraduate and graduate, via personalized e-mail, annually or at the start of each semester.

In addition, faculty can incorporate the attached document into their teaching and show how the material links to each of the 9 items listed. That is what I intend to do starting next semester. University-wide student course evaluations could be centered the 9 items listed in ‘What You Should Get Out of College.’

Overall, students had negative views of general education courses. They perceive them as busy work, lacking relevancy, and disconnected from the real world. The attached document can help change those perceptions, but ultimately the professors teaching gen ed courses, as well as in-major courses, can improve their focus on real-world relevancy and learning.

This view of gen ed courses connects to the 9th item on the list, ‘Intellectual Curiosity,’ which was seen by students as not being attained. ‘Busy work’ courses, teaching centered on testing and ‘the numbers,’ and lack of real-world relevancy has the effect of reducing students’ intellectual curiosity rather than cultivating them for lifelong intellectual growth. That should never be the outcome of higher education.”

The response from the president was:

“I will discuss this with the Provost when he returns from China. Thank you for taking the time and creating the process to provide some very thought provoking feedback.”

I did not hear anything more from the president or provost (or dean) for three months. At my prompting a few days ago (5 March), the provost replied with a bureaucratic response that essentially said, “We’re already doing that.” But, of course, that is not actually the case.

In my view, the bureaucratic response and absence of any action provide additional evidence that the interests of higher education administrators is with matters other than students, teaching, and learning. It also illustrates a general lack of interest in continuous improvement in higher education, which is surely to its detriment.


Update 11 March:

My reply to the provost suggesting “sending ‘What You Should Get Out of College’ to undergraduate students upon admission, signed by the senior academic leadership team: president, provost, and appropriate dean. It should also be reinforced by the senior academic leadership team to all students, both undergraduate and graduate, via personalized e-mail, annually or at the start of each semester” generated this response:

“That sounds like a reasonable suggestion to consider. You’re right: your intentions must not have been clear. We can discuss when I return to campus next week.”

To which I replied:

“My intentions were clear. The suggestion in my e-mail below was contained in the original e-mail, word for word. I think it’s more of a ‘just do it’ than it is a ‘let’s discuss it.'”

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