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.
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.