Liberal Education

Ensuring High-Quality Learning for All

As it continues to advocate the value and relevance of liberal education in contemporary life, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has embarked on a sustained program to enhance the quality of student learning on campuses, while also supporting AAC&U members’ efforts to bring liberal education to all sectors of society. This commitment to quality and equity in service to democracy forms the basis for AAC&U’s 2018–22 strategic plan and its vision for the future of liberal education.

The cornerstone of AAC&U’s advocacy is the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, which seeks to ensure that students are prepared for success in the workplace and as active members of their communities and our great American democracy. These goals have gained added clarity and focus due to recent economic and societal trends.

On the economic front, labor experts project that as many as 90 million Americans will not have the skills needed in the technology-driven workplace of the next decade.1 In New England, where my campus is located, it is estimated that by 2020, 69 percent of jobs will require at least some postsecondary education.2

At the same time, the postsecondary attainment of large sectors of the region’s population are lagging behind. Postsecondary attainment rates for African Americans and Latinos are only 37 percent and 33 percent, respectively, compared to 47 percent overall for the region.3 These regional data mimic national statistics and suggest that the population sectors that are growing the fastest don’t have the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

The gaps between college attainment and labor market needs are occurring at a time of rapid demographic change that has major economic and social implications. In New England, for instance, the size of high school graduating classes will continue to decline by 14 percent over the next fifteen years, while the percentages of those classes that are African American or Hispanic students will continue to grow.4 Ensuring educational access to these growing populations—largely underrepresented on college campuses—is a major consideration when designing academic programs and support services.

To address these trends, higher education must continue to examine not only which students we are teaching, but also what we are teaching them, and whether or not they are receiving the best education we can provide.

As we consider what constitutes a high-quality education, we need to ask a series of questions: How can we teach students—including those from underrepresented populations—so they learn the broad intellectual and life skills they need to be successful professionals? How do we instill the values and knowledge our students need to lead civic lives in their communities and our nation? How can we ensure that all members of society have the opportunity and support to earn a college degree that conveys these skills?

Quality depends upon engagement

A decade ago, George Kuh and his colleagues at the National Survey of Student Engagement popularized the term high-impact practices to describe both classroom and out-of-class experiences that extend or reinforce classroom learning.5 They defined these practices to include first-year programs; learning communities; writing-intensive courses; undergraduate research; diversity/global learning; community-based learning; internships; and capstone courses and projects, both individual and team-based. A campus that uses such practices to challenge students while supporting their intellectual exploration has the best hope of retaining and graduating students who are ready for success in life.

High-impact practices. At Eastern, our data reaffirm what national statistics tell us about student engagement. When students actively pursue learning in a variety of settings on and off campus, they do better academically. Whether it is living on campus (versus commuting), participating in student clubs and intramurals, volunteering at a local school, or interning at a nonprofit agency, students at Eastern who are engaged in high-impact practices have higher rates of satisfaction with their learning, get better grades, and graduate on time.

Eastern students are busy learning leadership skills in more than ninety student clubs and organizations. They are using National Science Foundation and NASA grants to conduct undergraduate research on the effects of weightlessness on astronauts, the genetic implications of cancer, and the use of social media in political campaigns. They are interning at Pfizer, Pratt & Whitney, United Technologies, Travelers Insurance, and hundreds of other international companies based in Connecticut. They provide pro bono web design services to local nonprofits as part of service-learning courses. They take field study trips to Israel (history), Italy (creative writing), and Costa Rica (biology). Most recently, first- and second-year students in our liberal arts core courses are benefiting from a $200,000 Davis Educational Foundation grant to improve reading and writing skills in our first-year program.

These and other engaging learning activities are products of our 2008–13 and 2013–18 strategic plans. Yet throughout our planning and implementation processes, we have grappled with a key question—when will we know if the engagement activities we have implemented are providing students with the competencies they need to succeed in the twenty-first century?

What employers want. Over the past decade, national surveys conducted for AAC&U indicate that the vast majority of US employers value the broad-based skills that a liberal education nurtures more than a graduate’s specific major. In the most recent of these surveys, more than 80 percent of employers cited oral and written communication, the ability to work in teams, ethical judgment and decision making, critical and analytical thinking, and the ability to apply one’s learning to real-world settings as key skills needed in today’s economy.6

As a public liberal arts campus, Eastern is dedicated to infusing our curriculum with learning activities to develop these broad-based intellectual competencies and life skills. However, assessing these “soft skills” has been a major undertaking.

Assessing core competencies. Following their most recent site visit in 2010, our accrediting agency—the New England Association of Schools and Colleges—asked Eastern to develop a more comprehensive strategy for assessing student learning in our liberal arts core curriculum. We are not alone. Many colleges and universities across the nation are being asked to prove that students in core or general education courses are learning the broad intellectual competencies sought by employers. Governing boards, legislators, students, and their parents share this expectation with accrediting agencies.

Our university’s response to the challenge has been to redouble our assessment efforts while taking advantage of several AAC&U-sponsored projects in which we have had the fortune to participate, including the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Quality Student Learning (MSC) and the LEAP Challenge New England Institutions Initiative.

The Multi-State Collaborative. In 2014–15, Eastern began participating in the MSC, a major national project to assess broad intellectual competencies that is cosponsored by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and AAC&U. Connecticut was one of nine states in the MSC pilot project, and Eastern was one of eight institutions in Connecticut that participated.7 The project used AAC&U’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) rubrics to assess the broad intellectual skills of critical thinking, written/oral communication, and quantitative literacy.

The project evaluated the actual artifacts of student work—for example, the portfolio of a graphic arts student, an award-winning educational video produced by early childhood education students, or a robotic prototype built by a computer science student. By focusing on student work, the project avoided using standardized tests, which faculty have consistently told us cannot properly evaluate the diversity and richness of individual student learning. The review process was led by out-of-state faculty reviewers who did not assign the work they evaluated or come from the campus where it originated.

Fifty-nine institutions were involved in the pilot, with more than a thousand faculty members across the nine states using the AAC&U VALUE rubrics to assess more than seven thousand products of student work. In an exit survey following the pilot project, almost 90 percent of participants said the VALUE rubrics were useful in measuring the quality of student work.

The LEAP Challenge New England Institutions Initiative. Eastern also has been involved in the LEAP Challenge New England Institutions Initiative, a project sponsored by AAC&U and funded by the Davis Educational Foundation, involving eight colleges and universities in New England.8

Running through 2018, the three-year project aims to improve experiential learning by helping faculty modify their courses to enhance capstone projects as well as freshman research experiences. By engaging students in “signature work” that addresses real problems facing local communities, the initiative seeks to enhance students’ engagement, deepen their learning, and prompt assessment of how participation in experiential learning affects students’ progress in their majors.

At Eastern, our faculty are developing courses and hands-on learning experiences that begin in the first year and continue all the way to the senior capstone experience. For instance, our honors program has used a VALUE rubric to assess honors students’ problem-solving skills from their entrance into the program through their senior thesis work. The New Media Studies major has added a sophomore-level experiential learning course that serves as a link between introductory courses and the senior capstone experience; a recent theater production provided the hands-on component of the course. Computer science faculty have developed an introductory course to immerse new students in the goals of the computer science major through experiential learning and problem solving. A biology professor has developed a signature work experience for her microscopy students so they can grow their skills in the digital imaging of organisms.

Digital art and design students are using their skills to solve marketing problems for community organizations like the local hospital, in collaboration with Eastern’s Center for Community Engagement. The psychology department has been conducting summer institutes for first- and second-year students to better connect them to their senior experiences in undergraduate research. Students who interned during the summer at the Jackson Laboratories for Genomic Research, as well as students working with local schoolchildren in after-school programs, have also been part of the LEAP Challenge.

Nurturing an assessment culture. In response to the recommendations of our accrediting agency, our assessment committee has created a five-year plan to ensure that we can validate student learning, whether across broad intellectual skill areas or within our majors. The Multi-State Collaborative and LEAP Challenge have been instrumental in informing the committee’s work.

Strategies include an Assessment Day to focus on data collection and analysis; a new program to teach ethics across the curriculum; efforts to assess critical-thinking skills through the Davis Educational Foundation grant mentioned earlier; and the use of broad surveys—such as the National Survey of Student Engagement, the Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement, and the Information Literacy Test—to measure essential core competencies.

These and other assessment strategies allow us to evaluate and support student learning on our campus while strengthening our liberal arts core by linking core courses more directly to high-impact practices outside the classroom. We aim for these efforts to result in curriculum reform, faculty development, and enhanced institutional effectiveness.

Next steps

Like other schools, Eastern has much left to do to ensure high-quality learning for all students. As AAC&U notes on its website, “On almost all campuses, utilization of active learning practices is unsystematic, to the detriment of student learning.”9

While we must be much more systematic about coordinating high-impact practices, we also need to develop an integrated assessment model to evaluate the learning taking place both in and outside of our classrooms. The same evidence-based portfolio model we have used in the various LEAP initiatives can be adapted to evaluate student learning that occurs in experiences ranging from community service to internships to study abroad.

One place where we are beginning to use the knowledge we have gained to support and assess out-of-classroom experiences is in our initiatives on service learning and civic action. While more than 50 percent of our students participate in some form of community engagement, and we have received the Carnegie Foundation’s prestigious Community Engagement Classification, Eastern is committed to institutionalizing community engagement more broadly on our campus. A new Civic Action Plan seeks to link community engagement more closely to academic programs and to such LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes as intercultural knowledge and civic engagement. The plan provides faculty incentives, changes to institutional structures, and other initiatives to create a sustained culture of civic engagement on campus.

Quality requires equity

As Eastern and other college campuses work hard to ensure that our educational programs are of the highest quality, it is imperative that we do all that we can to ensure that all students succeed. In aspiring to provide high-quality learning experiences to all students, we must keep in mind that equality is not equity. Access is not enough; “equal opportunity” is not enough; a rising tide does not lift all boats! To achieve equal outcomes, we need to ensure that students from underrepresented and underserved populations have access to the specific supports they need to be successful in college.

Students of color, low-income students, and first-generation students—cohorts that often overlap—face significant structural barriers to achieving success on our campuses and in the workplace. Cultural isolation and generational poverty are just two of the barriers that underrepresented and underserved student populations encounter. To give these students a level playing field, we need innovative strategies that address the structural barriers they face.

We also need to recognize and build upon the assets these students bring to campus. At Eastern, we have found that low-income, minority, and first-generation students embrace leadership opportunities and have a natural affinity for giving back to their communities. We need to design learning opportunities that allow these students to develop their strengths while building new capacities.

Emphasizing high-impact practices has been a good place to start. As George Kuh has written, “While these and other educationally purposeful activities are positively linked to desired outcomes for all types of students, historically underserved students and those who are less well prepared tend to benefit even more.”10

Clubs and community service. On our own campus, we have found that minority and first-generation students embrace opportunities to join and practice leadership through student clubs. The Africa Club, the West Indian Society, the Organization of Latin American Students, and other clubs are specifically designed for students of color. We also have several leadership development programs on campus, and we work hard to encourage students from underrepresented groups to participate. The MALES (Men Achieving Leadership, Excellence, and Success) organization combines leadership, professional development, and service opportunities for male students—most of them students of color. The club just celebrated its twentieth anniversary with hundreds of alumni returning to campus to thank the faculty and staff mentors who coached and supported them.

Low-income, minority, and first-generation students have also been leaders in the many service projects coordinated by our Center for Community Engagement. Not only are they contributing to our local community, they are gaining valuable leadership skills and a sense of civic responsibility essential to our democratic way of life.

On-campus internships. Like most colleges and universities, Eastern has an impressive array of off-campus internship opportunities at companies such as ESPN, Aetna Insurance, Stanley Black & Decker, and other Connecticut-based corporations. But for low-income and minority students, accessing these internships can be difficult. Low-income students in particular may not have their own cars or the money to pay for gas, and our campus lacks easy access to public transportation. These students may benefit from opportunities located on or near campus, as well as from coaching and support to gain the cultural awareness necessary to succeed in unfamiliar professional environments.

In 2011, Cigna, the global health care company, opened a site of its Technology Early Career Development Program on our campus. The company provides staff to supervise a cadre of student interns, who learn such technical skills as web applications, database management, and technical writing. The students also learn to work collaboratively and independently while contributing to Cigna’s information technology infrastructure. These paid internships, located only a short walk from student housing, are a huge benefit for students who are financially strapped.

Almost one hundred students have completed the program. Many of them are minority students or from low-income backgrounds. Most are now working full time at Cigna, earning excellent salaries in rewarding technology careers. Cigna recently indicated that they want to expand the program, which is a wonderful example of how we can provide a meaningful on-campus high-impact practice that provides career opportunities to underrepresented and underserved students.

Additional supports

In addition to making high-impact practices available to students of color, first-generation students, and other marginalized students, we strive to provide the specific supports these students need to overcome the structural barriers they face.

One fundamental support we offer is to provide students with the presence of familiar faces at the front of the classroom. When African American, Latino, and Asian students see someone who looks like them as a successful professor and role model, they are empowered to work harder to succeed. In recent years, Eastern has had the largest percentage of minority faculty of any college or university in Connecticut, public or private.

Another support system that has been instrumental is our “one-stop-shopping” Academic Services Center. Located on the first floor of the library in the center of campus, the center provides professional advising, peer tutoring, and supplemental instruction in writing and mathematics to more than half our students each year. Students themselves have created the center’s nonjudgmental learning culture, and students of all academic levels can be found in the center’s bustling environment.

Conclusion

As educators seek to ensure the quality of every student’s college experience and help each one prepare for career and life success, we need to connect our focus on quality to a focus on equity, while aligning our goals for employability with the broader benefits of a liberal education. “Employability” does not have to be a forbidden word on a liberal arts campus, nor does a commitment to our students’ career success minimize the broader benefits of a liberal education.

Indeed, the broad-based intellectual and life skills that prepare students for careers are the same skills they need to be civically engaged in their local communities, active citizens of our American democracy, and ethical actors in the world at large.

Economic success enables active civic participation. It is difficult to think about serving on the board of your local YMCA, for instance, when you cannot pay your rent or mortgage. And people living in poverty, despite the fact that they may have the most to gain from shaping public policy, typically vote at lower rates than people in higher income brackets.11

Preparing our students for success in the workplace also prepares them for success in life. Ensuring that students of color, first-generation students, and low-income students share in the economic and social mobility that comes with a college education is not only necessary to bring equity to our campuses—it is imperative for the future economic and social vitality of our great nation.

A liberal education, with its focus on helping students become self-supporting free thinkers, continues to be the best path to the American Dream and the strongest support for our American democracy. While on our campuses, our students constitute a community of learners engaged in serious debate and discovery about the complex problems facing humankind, and solutions to those problems are rarely simple or certain. As the columnist George Will has written: “The greatest threat to civility—and ultimately to civilization—is an excess of certitude. . . . It has been well said that the spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure that you are right.”12

In that spirit, colleges that offer a high-quality liberal education to all students, whether they are public liberal arts colleges like Eastern Connecticut State University, private universities, or community colleges, hold aloft AAC&U’s vision to provide students with engaging experiences that prepare them for the workforce and for democratic participation. With AAC&U’s leadership and a shared commitment to authentic learning and equity, we can become elite—not elitist—institutions that graduate active and economically empowered citizens.

Notes

1. James Manyika, Susan Lund, Byron Auguste, and Sreenivas Ramaswamy, Help Wanted: The Future of Work in Advanced Economies (McKinsey Global Institute, 2012).

2. Commission on Higher Education and Employability, New England Board of Higher Education, “Implementing an Equity Lens,” accessed December 22, 2017, http://www.nebhe.org/info/pdf/policy/commission/resources/Implementing-a.... As defined in this document, “postsecondary attainment includes a college degree, workforce certificate, industry certification or other high-quality credential beyond high school.”

3. Commission on Higher Education and Employability, “Implementing an Equity Lens.”

4. Commission on Higher Education and Employability, “Implementing an Equity Lens.”

5. George D. Kuh, High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008).

6. Hart Research Associates, Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015), 8.

7. The nine states participating in the MSC pilot were Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Utah.

8. In addition to Eastern Connecticut State University, institutions participating in the LEAP Challenge New England Institutions Initiative include Boston University, Champlain College in Vermont, Providence College, Quinnipiac University, the University of Hartford, the University of Massachusetts–Lowell, and the University of Southern Maine.

9. “High-Impact Practices,” Association of American Colleges and Universities, accessed December 12, 2017, https://www.aacu.org/resources/high-impact-practices.

10. George D. Kuh, “What Student Engagement Data Tell Us about College Readiness,” Peer Review 9, no. 1 (Winter 2007): 4. Emphasis in original.

11. Sean McElwee, “The Income Gap at the Polls,” Politico Magazine, January 7, 2015, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/01/income-gap-at-the-polls-....

12. George Will, “The Oddness of Everything,” Newsweek, May 22, 2005, http://www.newsweek.com/oddness-everything-119263.

To respond to this article, email liberaled@aacu.org with the author’s name on the subject line.


ELSA M. NÚÑEZ is president of Eastern Connecticut State University and was 2017 chair of the Board of Directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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