Photo by Andréia Bohner

A montage of conversations and topics around the changing role of higher education have been going through my mind over the past couple weeks. I will simply describe them here in hopes they become part of your mental montage, too, and maybe with enough people thinking about such things, we will end up with a big picture.

Scene 1:  Hallway Conversation

After a recent faculty meeting, I was talking with a colleague and the topic of demonstrating the value of education to our students came up. You’ve probably heard the same frustration expressed at your institution: students feel entitled to grades and degrees without doing any work because they’ve paid their tuition and fees. One of the instructors in this conversation wondered why no one feels such an automatic entitlement from their personal trainer, yet they’re paying them, too.

I pointed out that people go to a personal trainer knowing or having a fairly good idea of the areas in which they’re lacking. The patron of the personal trainer has a concrete goal in mind: to lose weight, to get fit, to be ready for a marathon. They know where they stand at the beginning and where they want to be at the end. Students, however, don’t have the benefit of such a clear picture for their education and they don’t really know where they stand when they start college. We don’t really do much for intake assessment and if we do, we don’t share it with the students.

Scene 2: Setting Goals

This semester I’m helping out with a professional development class for business and liberal studies students. I’ve been sitting in on several of the class sessions in order to get a better idea of how to develop the portfolio assignment I’ll be doing with future versions of this class. One of the major projects the students do is build a sort of “life plan” – they outline five-year goals and one-year milestones across seven different aspects of life: family, career, health, social, spiritual, financial and personal development.They refine the goals and milestones to fit the “SMART” format – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. They come up with realistic ways of attaining their goals and meeting their milestones. They also have to describe where they stand in these areas at the present time so they can understand and explain just how much work is ahead of them in order to meet their goals.I really have to wonder: why don’t we have ALL students doing something like this? I know there are pockets out there of certain classes or certain departments doing this, but wouldn’t it be best to do this at the very beginning of a student’s matriculation to a university? Shouldn’t we be creating a system that encourages this kind of introspection and at the very least an annual review of one’s goals to see if they still apply?

If students only come in expecting a piece of paper (the degree), then they only work forward to a piece of paper.

Scene 3: Reinventing College

At a session of THATCamp Hybrid Pedagogy, a small group of us talked about reinventing college. Audrey Watters had asked just that morning, “What is the purpose of higher education?” The answers around the room ranged from the faculty perspective (“make them better well-rounded people”) to the student perspective (“get jobs”). I think faculty are reasonably aware of the student perspective, but are students aware of the faculty view?When I imagine reinventing college, I see education as something goals-driven rather than class or curriculum driven. The purpose should come from the individual, not the institution.

By the end of our time with a personal trainer, we want to be a different person somehow. By the end of a student’s time in college, what should they have to show for it?