Liberal Education

Toward That Second Century: Making Liberal Education Inclusive

As AAC&U’s centennial year approaches, AAC&U leaders have been looking backward to the root commitments that have guided this association for nearly a century and planning forward to the next generation of work to make liberal education more empowering and more inclusive.

To my mind, the most consequential development for AAC&U and the entire higher education enterprise is the tectonic shift that has made postsecondary learning the necessary portal for virtually anyone who seeks expanded economic opportunity and a purchase on middle-class life. The current policy effort to send 60 percent of Americans to postsecondary education within this decade is, or at least ought to be, an extraordinary opportunity to build new capacity both for individual graduates and for our society as a whole.

But are we prepared to seize fully the potential of this new policy determination to send the better part of a generation to higher education? Will history show that we invested successfully in the development of new talent from all parts of our society? Will we be able to look back and say that higher learning built new capacity for democracy’s future as well as for the economy? Or will it turn out that we delivered more college credentials but a significantly less empowering education to a very large fraction of this generation of students?

On this score, there is real reason for deep concern. Proposals abound for having students, especially low-income students, move through college on their own, with generic “coaches” rather than high-quality faculty and with automated bubble tests rather than the engaged learning projects that actually build high-level capability. Even educators who ought to know better are now busily “innovating” to further fragment the curriculum, with entirely predictable consequences for the degradation of learning. All of this may indeed save money. But in a world crying out for innovation and creative change, the routinization of shallow learning is most certainly the wrong choice for our future.

Narrow instrumentalism and anti-intellectualism have long been powerful forces both in US society at large and in many of the headlined proposals to make higher education less costly and more accessible. And today, strikingly, even as students young and older flock to college, instrumentalism and anti-intellectualism are driving efforts to steer learners, especially low-income learners, toward narrow forms of training that may carry the label of “college” but that, in fact, exclude by design the most important aspects of a high-quality education: broad, big-picture learning; cutting-edge scholarly inquiry; deep engagement with hard questions; evidence-based reasoning; and, the crucial key to all the above, a full complement of accomplished faculty who are themselves well supported by their institutions.

The United States is coming, in sum, to a quality and equity crossroads. Will we continue the US pattern—already deeply entrenched at all levels of schooling—of offering high-quality learning to the few, while providing only narrow training or shallow, fragmented learning to the many? Or will we mobilize once and for all to make high-quality and liberating education our priority for all students and democracy’s first obligation to those from historically underserved groups?

With these crucial choices in view, AAC&U will focus intensively during the upcoming centennial year on the kind of learning that builds new social capital, both for individuals and for society, and on effective strategies for providing an empowering education across all sectors of higher education—not just in honors programs, not just in the most honored institutions. We invite you, our members, to join in active partnership with us in an all-hands-on-deck effort to make high-quality learning truly inclusive—with a special focus on first-generation students of all backgrounds who are likely to benefit most from a great education, but who must look to educators rather than families to help them determine what a great education really is.

The needed dialogue about quality and equity can’t just be held “in-house,” however. We need proactive public outreach and will building to persuade policy and thought leaders alike that America’s best hope for the future lies in the expansion of access to high-quality learning and in creative curricular redesigns that make complex learning the norm rather than the exception.

The good news is that we begin our work on quality and equity with tools in hand that educators simply did not have even a decade ago. The LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, vetted and strongly endorsed by educators and employers alike, provide a touchstone for what all students need to accomplish in college. They describe learning goals (or proficiencies) that are just as important for career and technical students as they are for students in the liberal arts and sciences. Moreover, we have important research on the educational effectiveness of a set of high-impact practices as well as a rapidly burgeoning body of definitive evidence that guided learning pathways are crucial catalysts for student success. The research also shows that mapping those pathways intentionally and unavoidably with high-effort assignments—writing, research, problem solving, practicums, major projects, integrative portfolios—yields increased rates of achievement, persistence, and graduation.

The next critical step, we believe, will be an intelligent redesign of curricular pathways. It is high time to break free entirely of the old “breadth first, depth second” model for college learning, which is underperforming and badly outdated. Instead, we need to create what may best be described as guided pathways to integrative and adaptive learning. The core design principle—whose implementation will necessarily require the combination of high-tech and “high-touch” approaches—should be to ensure that students are given opportunities to tackle complex questions at every step of the way, from first to final year. And as students build their proficiencies, they must be helped to demonstrate, to themselves and others, what they can actually do with their learning.*

To help educators with the needed redesign, Lumina Foundation has just released the “first edition” of the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), which makes full use both of the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes and of the powerful empirical evidence on the benefits of high-effort, high-impact practices. The DQP has been field-tested at over four hundred institutions, and this 2014 “first edition” is informed by feedback and recommendations from the field. Aimed at programs rather than courses, the DQP shows educators how to build high-impact learning unavoidably into degree programs, both general and specialized, so that students reliably practice the integration of knowledge, skill, and application at all levels of study and from first to final year. The DQP makes it clear that higher education is supposed to build civic capability and experience as well as major-field capability and experience. Most importantly, it shows us how.

Narrow instrumentalism and anti-intellectualism may be at high tide in this moment of recession-fueled economic anxiety. But an empowering and liberating education is what Americans urgently need. And we now have the tools in hand to help all our students achieve it. Together, let’s use the coming year to make the case, advance the cause, and put these new tools to work toward a learning-centered and equity-intentional redesign of college learning—and let’s ensure that digital innovations and investments build rather than deplete higher education’s capacity to move big-picture, inquiry-centered liberal learning to scale.

*Watch for more on this in 2015 from AAC&U’s GEMs initiative: General Education Maps and Markers.

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