Higher Education

What if you could start over?

One-course-at-a-time, gap-year, 2-year programs, and on-line programs!  Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all in higher education.  Today, higher education is challenging historical and traditional practices.  Parents want to know outcomes!  They want programs that translate into results.  They want to know what “works”.  Why does a bachelor’s degree take four years?  Why is college typically relegated to two semesters or three trimesters between September and May?  Who makes these rules and are we confident that there isn’t a better way?

Like a little kid, one of my favorite questions is “why”.  The questions above are great examples of questions I ask myself often.  And most recently, I asked if Doane College can graduate a student in less than four years.  The answer led me to try and impact our approach to AP tests and dual-credit coursework.  Although Doane College is a 4-year traditional college, we are taking steps to think differently.  Today, Doane College is rolling out a 3-year graduation program in which certain majors are backed by a 3-year graduation guarantee.

As a quick digression, Doane College has offered a 4-year graduation guarantee for many years.  We were one of the first to offer such a guarantee and the first in the state of Nebraska.  I believe the 4-year guarantee is a component of our culture and while the 4-year guarantee red-tape can be duplicated almost anywhere, I’m not certain that the culture can.  In that same vein, I look at the new 3-year program.  This is not rocket science.  The academic requirements for graduation have not changed.  Instead, we’ve packaged our academic programs with the understanding that a student may choose to accelerate their educational experience.  In the event they want to do that, we provide them the road map.  But make no mistake; this is not for the faint of heart.  Eighteen credits a semester and summer coursework wasn’t in my college plans, but it is for some students today, particularly those that have already taken over 24 college credits while in high school.  And by the way, we have a few Doane students graduating in three years without this program.

Now, before even the first faculty member says, “you can’t do that,” I say yes, we can and yes we are.  Today, high school students are taking more college level dual-credit courses and AP tests than ever before.  And I believe they are doing this because they believe there is a benefit to doing so.  They believe they are getting ahead.  Moreover, high schools are helping to facilitate programs to encourage more college coursework prior to graduation.  But, how many colleges and universities are acknowledging this openly and actually embracing this proactive approach to college?  If a first-year college student enrolls with 36 credits, doesn’t it stand to reason that they consider themselves at the sophomore level relative to credits earned?  And, furthermore, if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be logical to assume that they need only three more years to graduate in college.  If that’s not true, why are we talking about college being four years?  Shouldn’t we talk about it being four-and-a-half or five years?  (Truthfully, there are colleges that do speak to honest fact that it takes more than four years at their school).  Why would high schools encourage their students to do college coursework before high school graduation without some understanding of a benefit?

The four-year model is tried and true and a tough mold to break.  But, I believe colleges and universities should embrace the fact that there are quality students working hard in high school with expectations of getting ahead both academically and financially.  More importantly, colleges must get in the game and respond appropriately with packaged programming that helps a student to leverage pre-college credit toward an accelerated degree plan.  Obviously this assumes that the student wants this.  A student could also want to double or triple major.  They could want to study abroad.  They could want to stop out for a year.  All these options are acceptable and may prolong any accelerated program to four years or beyond.  That’s not the point.  The point is that there are students who want this and their current success in graduating in three years is often predicated on the strong collaboration with a faculty advisor who shepherds the student through any red tape.  I vote for making it easier for a student to see these opportunities.  Notice I didn’t say make it easier to graduate.  In fact, I think it goes without saying that graduating in three years is more rigorous than a four year plan.

A three-year program isn’t a game-changer in higher education.  In fact, changing higher education today is difficult and requires patience.  But, who doesn’t like to dream?  To that end, give some thought to this question.   What would you do if you could start your own college and take advantage of all the lessons learned over time?  Start fresh!  Would you use one-course-at-at-time?  Would you use a hybrid approach to online and classroom work?  Would your program encompass year-round programming?  Would you require an urban plunge or an international experience?  Would you require an internship?  Would you still require the liberal arts?  This all gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.  Part of me fears the pace of educational change is impacted more by the inability to insert new ideas into old structure.  So, what if you could start over?

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Higher Education

A hybrid proposal to the gap year.

Have you heard of the “gap year” concept?  Basically, the concept suggests that a student should consider taking a year between high school and college to work, explore, and mature.  It’s the notion that a seamless and immediate transition from high school to college may not be the best approach to career preparation. While there may be some truth to that, I don’t believe too many colleges outwardly support this idea out of fear that a much greater number of students would ultimately choose not to attend college especially with today’s already frustrating college-going rates. Frankly, I’m not interested in arguing the value of a college degree in this post.  Instead, I’m interested in exploring the idea of the gap year under a different structure – a way to leverage the perceived value of that “real world” experience within the confines of a college experience and curriculum structure.

What I like about the gap year concept is two-fold.  First, I think it provides an individual time to get out of high school mode and really think about what they want to do in order to make the best college decision for him or her.  Rather than make a “safe” choice (or even too radical a choice), a little time in the real world might just ignite something within the student’s soul.  Second, I think students should try to find a job and work full-time for a period of time if for no other reason than to realize that minimum wage or even slightly better may not pay for that car they want or that trip they want to take; let alone paying for cable and utilities.

Now, consider a college that takes this gap year concept and makes employment a component of the general curriculum.  Here is my vision (albeit potentially oversimplified). A college requires second-year students to enroll in “Real World 200”.  Consider the following course requirements:

  • Students must seek and ultimately secure full-time employment.
  • Students must maintain a daily journal.  Content is focused on what they learn each day from experiences interacting with others, following orders, meeting expectations, etc.
  • Students must participate in a 2-hour course during each semester focused on discussion of the job, what they learn, what they like, don’t like and ultimately what it’s helping them to learn – finances, getting to work, etc.
  • Students must complete a course paper related to what they learned and how they will use what they learned to improve their college experience and opportunities in their final two years.

My vision is a full-year program providing 16 credits per semester (14 credits for employment and 2 credits for the course discussion).  Ultimately, the student’s grade is based on participation in the 2-hour course, securing a job, the daily journal entries, and a final paper.

I completely recognize that this concept has not been vetted to satisfy many reading this post.  While many may seek to identify reasons that this won’t work, I wanted to share my idea for bigger purpose – I’d like to encourage college faculty and administrators to consider looking at general curriculum differently.

There are colleges that approach learning one course at a time. There are colleges that don’t issue grades.  There are colleges that don’t have a general curriculum program.  Colleges are being challenged at local, state, and the national level to produce greater results to substantiate the cost.   Rating and ranking systems are being introduced to suggest that we can arbitrarily determine the quality of a college in comparison to all others.  I don’t see this pressure going away soon and while I don’t endorse government-created rating systems, I do appreciate the notion that education must evolve at a greater pace than it has.  And, this isn’t the responsibility of government.  This is our responsibility in higher education.  We should challenge the traditional approach to college education.  Is four years the right amount of time in college?  Does time really matter?  Are 16 credits the right amount of credits per semester?  Is a 2-semester system still the right approach?

Colleges and universities are in a dogfight with each other for students, particularly in the Midwest.  What if we embrace being different not just to be different but because different may produce better results?  Change is hard.  Change takes time.  Admission offices recruit students differently today compared to five years ago.  Recruiting offices are adapting because they must to secure enrollment objectives.  I believe there are many people like me in higher education (faculty and staff) who have day-dreamed about doing things differently, but unfortunately our lives get in the way and we quickly fall back into doing most the same way we’ve done it in the past.

For you dreamers out there, what do you think of my idea for a “Real World 200”, or better yet, do you have your own idea(s) that you believe would challenge the traditional methods of education and ultimately improve our students’ experience? Don’t focus on being realistic and conservative.  Some of the best ideas stem from being unrealistic and radical. Thanks for taking the time to read this post.  What is your idea?

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