Liberal Education

Real Reform, Faux Reform: Facing the Cost of the "Throughput" Follies

At the 2010 annual meeting, the AAC&U community marked the halfway point in Liberal Education and America's Promise, the LEAP initiative. Members shared examples of engaged liberal learning and worked on solutions to problems that stand in the way of student achievement, including the all-important "wallet" issue. The sense of momentum was palpable and energizing.

It is exciting to see the extraordinary range and number of colleges and universities—and even whole state systems—that have adopted their own versions of the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes and invested significantly in "high-impact/high-effort" practices that help students achieve the outcomes. Together, AAC&U members have developed the broad parameters needed to take the learning outcomes challenge seriously and to help today's students acquire high-level skills, essential knowledge, and an examined sense of their responsibilities to self and others as they progress from school through college.

Articulating twenty-first-century aims and outcomes for student achievement is only the first step, however. We still have a very long way to go to help all college students embrace, achieve, and demonstrate high levels of accomplishment on the essential learning they need. Moreover, we are now facing a new crop of faux reforms that, if adopted, would send us backward.

What are these faux reforms? In one way or another, they all seek to accelerate degree completion by cutting students' time in school and college. Some focus on high school, proposing to cut the expected time by one year. Others urge curricular downsizing at the college level. If three years is enough for Europe, the thinking goes, why not here? Still others are more ambitious, seeking to cut high school and college. Shrink the high school curriculum by half, one set of recently funded "reforms" proposes, and get students into community colleges where they can earn the high school diploma and an associate's degree both in a total of four years.  

It is only possible to believe these so-called reforms would "work" if you are operating with no framework whatsoever for the quality of essential twenty-first-century learning. No vision of necessary knowledge. No conception of how far students now are from meaningful competence in writing, critical thinking, problem solving, and quantitative reasoning. No sense that a democracy needs knowledgeable and ethical citizens. No recognition that our graduates play a disproportionate role in deciding whether global problems are seriously addressed or left to fester and deepen. No serious understanding of scientific inquiry and literacy. 

Focused mainly on degree and certificate production, the "throughput" proponents have not taken the time to interrogate what it really means—or what it would take—to educate STEM-literate and globally savvy citizens who are ready to tackle twenty-first-century challenges. Here's the basic truth that the "faster/cheaper" crowd needs to face: the majority of college graduates are far from prepared for the challenges of either the economy or our democracy. By every possible measure—outcomes studies, employer assessments, faculty reports, and proficiency levels on standardized tests—too many students already are currently falling short.

LEAP has insisted from the outset on three points. First, changes in the external environment—global, economic, civic, demographic—require higher levels of learning than used to be needed to succeed in any sphere: career, civic, or personal. The bar for essential learning is being raised, not just by global competition from other nations, but by the very nature of the complex problems we now face in every sphere of our lives. Second, to prepare students for these new realities, we need to move way beyond the twentieth-century curriculum, with its fragmented and often shallow surveys of many disconnected subjects and topics. The LEAP report outlines the dimensions of learning and the curricular remapping we need. Third, we need to establish new forms of intentionality and aligned efforts, between school and college, in order to help students start on the essential outcomes earlier and achieve them at the much higher levels required for real-world success.

Shrinking the curriculum—at whatever level—is exactly the wrong thing to do. The move to substitute high school course-taking for college-level study takes direct aim at the very heart of a high-quality education. The No Child Left Behind Act has already weakened these studies in the schools; the throughput proposals would make a bad situation worse.

Optimally, school studies lay a foundation in the arts and sciences, and college helps students build on that foundation, by tackling cross-disciplinary topics and problems at a level reflective of their complexity. This is a central LEAP principle: that college students need to "engage big questions" using the lenses of the arts and sciences, throughout their college studies and especially in the final years, when they can bring both specialized knowledge and cross-disciplinary insight to their investigations. Yet big questions and problems can only be engaged rigorously, across disciplinary lines, when students have a working foundation that includes modes of inquiry as well as core concepts.

Indifferent to such issues, the "less time, more degrees" proponents want students to use so-called college courses in high school to satisfy not just their high school "core subject" requirements, but college-level arts and sciences requirements—the general education curriculum—as well. These proposals would effectively blinker the breadth of vision that has always been this nation's competitive strength. Students should indeed start rigorous work earlier in school and do as much advanced placement as they can in high school. But the point of this should be to get them started on even more rigorous "big questions" studies in the arts and sciences at the college level.

AAC&U has long recommended that professional and arts and sciences studies should be woven together at the college level, so that big-picture thinking and the student's chosen field become part of an integrated liberal education. But this kind of integration would become impossible if the college curriculum shrinks and students are hustled forward into the narrowness of the major. (Any major, including a major in one of the arts and sciences, is, by itself, much too narrow to constitute the entirety of college study.)

We need to take note that Asian countries already are busily weaving a broader liberal arts component into their own designs for university studies. This is exactly the wrong time to persuade ourselves that the dominant three-year European model of primary study in a single field ought to be the future design for college-level learning in the United States.

The forces promoting faux educational reforms are well organized and well funded. And with the economic crisis deepening, legislators see schemes for "faster, cheaper, narrower" education as lifesavers. This is a very sobering state of affairs. When we called on higher education to LEAP, the idea was not to leap backward. Or downward. The AAC&U community needs to speak out—forcefully and urgently—about the difference between designs for learning that can expand American capacity, and forms of learning that would put our future at risk.

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