The Problem with George Kuh

For two years the CSU has been pursuing GE reform on the basis of the AAC&U’s LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes and recent research by George Kuh, suggesting that high-impact practices like learning communities and collaboration with faculty on research both deepen student learning, and improve engagement and persistence, especially for the historically underserved:  first generation to college, ethnic minority, economically disadvantaged.

Kuh’s findings add a disturbing wrinkle:  not only are the underserved more likely to benefit, they’re also less likely to sign up.

Intuitively this makes sense:  if college is new to your family, if you’re not sure you belong, or can’t quite afford the whole run up to the degree, then you’re likelier to stick to the meat and potatoes — the familiar routine of lecture-read-recall that feels like school.  Leave the frills like civic engagement to those on surer footing.

From this insight the CSU and state systems in Wisconsin and Oregon, with guidance from the AAC&U, have been looking for ways to build high-impact practices into the lower-division general education curriculum, the set of courses everyone has to take.  That way no one can opt out.  High quality and high impact for all.

The summer 2010 issue of Peer Review is dedicated to one such practice, undergraduate research.  With Beth Ambos at the CSU Office of the Chancellor I think about this one a lot — it holds the promise of demonstrating relevance across all disciplines regardless of proximity to the student’s major:  creating new knowledge is a visibly valuable activity, and it develops habits of mind and inquiry likelier to stick.  Even when it’s, say, a nursing major helping a historian.

Reading that issue today I was struck by a couple of things.  First, institutions from across the spectrum are involved, from tiny liberal arts colleges to giant research-Is to — even — one of the CSUs, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Second, no one is requiring it of all students.

We can’t.

It’s too much of a resource hog.  To judge from what I read here, we can no more build research experiences into the GE we require of all students than we can give everyone on earth a sirloin.  Later this month Beth and I are meeting with Susan Elrod, director of PKAL, and I want to ask her about this question of scalability.  It haunts me.

I have an answer, but it’s not easily workable:  change the higher ed business model.  As long as we fund by course enrollment, high-impact practices are expensive.  Nothing is cheaper than herding a couple of hundred students into a lecture hall.

But if we were funded instead by degree completion, the lecture model would stop looking so cheap:  most of the couple of hundred in the lecture hall don’t graduate.  But when we deepen and contextualize the learning with high impact practices, they stick around.

Say high-quality, high-engagement educational practice adds 25% to the cost of doing business but doubles our degree production.  Then it’s a bargain.  And even if it turns out not to be such a multiplier, even if under funding-by-degree, high-quality educational practice turns out to be a wash, we’re still ahead of the game because we’re closer to meeting society’s needs, producing more college graduates for the same money in, because we have fewer misfires.

So changing the whole business model would be hard to do, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.  And I’m not the only nutcase thinking this way:  Ohio is committing to this kind of funding, and Indiana is too, at least partway.

Here’s the problem, and where I am completely stumped:  most of our general education is taught not at the CSU, but at the community colleges prior to transfer.  And funding on degree production isn’t an option there, because most of their students, even those in the GE classes, aren’t seeking a degree.  They’re brushing up on skills, dropping in and out, dabbling.  Fund THAT on a basis other than enrollment.  You can’t.  The enrollment in that single course may be the student’s whole postsecondary career.

Prompting the question:  what’s the higher ed business model that will better align funding to learning, instead of funding to signing up?  Where’s the angle that financially incentivizes best educational practice?

I don’t know.


3 thoughts on “The Problem with George Kuh

  1. How do you fund community colleges on a basis other than enrollment? It seems to me that a great place to start looking is suggested by the case used as an example: a student whose whole postsecondary career comprises a single course.

    We can ask – what would success look like in a case like that – beyond signing up? I’d suggest that course completion would be an excellent place to start: does the student keep attending throughout the term?

    Wouldn’t course completion rates be a better metric than course beginning rates? And then how about going one step further, moving to the use of course pass rates as a basis for funding? This, too, would work, even if a student took only one class.

    We would want to work hard to be sure that passing the course required an acceptable level of achievement of the learning outcomes associated with that course, in order to avoid rampant grade distortion – but we know that’s possible to do without NCLB-type standardized exit exams: many freshman composition programs have done this for years, requiring portfolios of student work to be evaluated as “acceptable” or “competent,” by knowledgeable faculty members beyond the students’ own teacher, before the student is given a passing grade.

    Substituting completion or passing rates for enrollment rates as a basis for funding would encourage everyone to embrace the high-impact practices that keep students in classes and enhance their achievement of the outcomes that should be required (and documented) for passing the course.

  2. I’d like to suggest that the characterization that ” most of [community college] students, even those in the GE classes, aren’t seeking a degree. They’re brushing up on skills, dropping in and out, dabbling” may not be completely accurate and may thus obscure the importance, for community colleges, of all the high-impact practices and structural reforms discussed here. Today, the first day of the semester, I met my new community college students in 2 sections of Freshman Composition and 2 sections of the developmental composition course one level below Freshman Comp. Most of the students (but not all) have just finished high school. In the 2 sections of Freshman Comp, 43 of the 57 students have declared majors that include Fire Control Technology, Nursing, Biotechnology, Psychology, Music, Construction Crafts Technology, Music, and Sociology. Most of them clearly have goals in mind. In the lower-level course, only 29 of the 57 have declared majors. Nevertheless, most tell me they are planning to transfer. We all know how few of these students are going to persist, but I don’t believe it’s because they only intended to take one class . . . . There are many, many complex reasons why most don’t complete some sort of pathway in higher education, but I don’t think we want to assume that the intention to do so was never there or that we cannot devise more successful educational models to guide them through at community colleges. Of course we do have returning adult students who may not be seeking a degree, but most students not long out of high school don’t deliberately plan to lose their way.

  3. I’ll take a (rough) stab at this. Fund for the work that winds up in students’ ePortfolios.


    If we really want to fund learning that is relevant to the students and their stakeholders, (future employers, collaborators, community members, etc.) then we should focus on the work that students can “take to the bank” which is the work they can use in their ePortfolios to demonstrate skills like critical thinking, global competency, team communication, innovation, persistence at tracking down information, problem solving, disciplinary expertise etc. etc.—all the usual suspects.

    That would mean that the people who design and facilitate learning activities that elicit these kinds of real-world relevant skills would be rewarded. If none of a program’s assignments made it into any student ePortfolios for a number of years, that would certainly be a sign that it was time for the program to examine the relevance of what it’s doing.

    Of course that’s going to mean that students will need expert help envisioning and planning their ePortfolios; they’ll need mentoring about how to approach their ePortfolios and their learning. They will need help getting feedback from stakeholders and figuring out how to ask for the kind of feedback they need at any given point—a pretty important skill. My guess is that these mentors should not be the course instructors but rather a sort of adviser/advocate/mentor that could stay with them throughout their career at a given institution and help them to make sense of the system.

    Of course that would shift the balance of power in favor of the students….

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