College Beyond The Smorgasboard

By Matthew Cameron

Anyone involved in higher education knows that the field is facing a perfect storm of challenges, and this column by Professor William G. Tierney in the Chronicle of Higher Education touches on a number of those issues. In particular, he argues that large lecture classes “are taking on the feel of online learning” and are causing students to become disengaged with their learning, a concern that recent research substantiates.

Tierney’s solution, however, misses the point:

The curriculum-as-undergraduate-buffet should be replaced with a pared-down list of offerings geared toward the advancement of the intellect and the acquisition of skills needed in the 21st century. (To satisfy a bachelor-degree requirement for science, my friend took a class on earthquakes, a class on life science—read: good eating habits and personal hygiene—and one on astronomy.) We have to decide what students should learn and then offer courses that will enable them to achieve the goals we have set. The smorgasbord that currently exists is inefficient, ineffective, and meets the whims of the faculty rather than the needs of the students. As it stands now, we assume that sitting in a lecture class and earning credits is a proxy for learning. A streamlined, stripped-down curriculum would help free up professors’ time to get to know their students.

Cutting down on course offerings won’t solve the issue of overcrowded lecture halls unless sections of popular, skills-oriented classes are expanded to replace the disappearing courses in fringe disciplines. That will require additional resources – which state governments seem unlikely to provide — since professors teaching “21st century” subjects such as economics, business and computer science earn more than those in the fields they would be replacing. Moreover, it fails to address other problems such as grade inflation and the erosion of the liberal arts curriculum that have contributed to the decline in students’ analytical learning while in college.

Instead of trying to reengineer the purpose of college toward providing kids with job skills, it might be time to consider more efficient ways to provide those job skills. As Tierney points out, large lecture classes offer little beyond what students can obtain in community colleges or online courses. Therefore, individuals who want to forgo the non-skills oriented liberal arts component of higher education should be encouraged to opt for those more affordable alternatives. This will both free up resources at traditional universities and will reduce the financial pressures put on students seeking to improve their credentials. In the latter case, it could enable those students to become more engaged with their studies since they no longer will have to work 30-hour-per-week jobs just to pay their way through school.