Maximizing the Value of a College Education
Maximizing the Value of a College Education

Every once in a while, all of us need to release our inner curmudgeon. We long to get the things that annoy us off our chest. We kvetch, grumble, and bellyache about all that bugs us.

Now, the stereotypical curmudgeon is a cranky, ill-tempered, grouch: touchy, irritable, ornery, and cantankerous.  But regardless of our personality or temperament, we are all vulnerable to the temptation to give voice to our complaints and grievances.  

Griping and grumbling are a particular temptation for those who are older, who contrast a rose-colored past with a sour present and a bleak future.

Here, I’d like to compare and contrast two books about fair Harvard, one by a bona fide insider – a former Dean of the College, who happens to be highly critical of his institution – and one by a professor at the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Education. 

Neither book is new, but both point to issues that are as important today as the days those books were published roughly 15 years ago.

Harvard is, of course, anything but American higher ed writ small. Its highly motivated, well-prepared, richly supported, and highly privileged student body receives opportunities that few undergraduates elsewhere can imagine. 

But for better and worse, Harvard and its peers continue to establish the expectations and serve as the template for what a college education ought to be. Harvard envy is omnipresent.

The argument of Harry Lewis’s Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education is summed up in its title.  Although Harvard stands at the apogee of higher ed in terms of resources and reputation, it has, Professor Lewis argues, lost sight of its fundamental mission, which is to transform callow undergraduates into mature adults and produce ethical, well-rounded civic, professional, and corporate leaders.

The author paints with a very broad brush.  Harvard’s curriculum, he claims, consists of a laundry list of disparate, specialized courses that fail to reflect what a college graduate ought to learn.  Its faculty, focused on their narrow research specialties, eschews the role of mentor, and fail to provide students with the guidance, support, or feedback they need.  The students, coddled by administrators, receive easy As instead of what they truly need: the challenge, rigor, and high expectations essential to real growth.

This argument is, of course, obviously overstated, overly general, and far too negative.  But like many higher ed jeremiads, it does speak to basic truths:  Too many undergraduates navigate an incoherent, disjointed curriculum, with a disconnected faculty, within impersonal, anonymous, bureaucratic, soulless institutional environments.

Richard J. Light’s Making the Most of College, which draws on 1,600 interviews with students conducted over a ten-year span has a very different tone than Lewis’s, but it, too, might be understood as a critique of the college’s failure to provide the scaffolding and mentoring that even the most talented and privileged undergraduates need if they are to realize their potential.

Light’s book has two goals:  to uncover what students at institutions like Harvard need to do to maximize the value of the college-going experience and to discover what administrators and faculty can do to make the undergraduate years more meaningful and impactful.

His answers aren’t wholly surprising, and are as applicable to commuter as to residential students.  Those undergraduates who get the most out of college are those who make close personal connections with a faculty or staff mentor and with diverse classmates and who take part in outside-the-classroom activities and complete a substantive, meaningful project independently or in collaboration with others.

Among Light’s other findings:

  • The most consequential courses are those that are demanding, incorporate frequent assessments, align with a student’s interests, and  offer fresh and often unexpected perspectives on the subject.
  • The professors who have the greatest impact are not the most entertaining, but those who capture students’ hearts and minds, model serious thinking, convey high expectations and standards, and provide generous, if sometimes uncomfortable, feedback.
  • To be effective advising must go beyond provision of a degree plan; it must intervene proactively when students are off-track, and work intensively with students to identify their talents and passions and find a realistic way to realize their ambitions.
  • Academic success hinges on developing effective time management skills and learning how to read and take notes efficiently, write with precision, and master the methods of one’s discipline; especially important is studying in small groups rather than alone.  However, these are lessons that most students currently learn on their own, if they learn them at all.
  • Much of a student’s learning takes place outside the classroom, and, therefore, engagement in extracurricular and co-curricular activities is essential.

What unites these two books is a common understanding of college’s primary purpose. This is not simply to offer a credential or career preparation or pre-professional training.  It is to help young people launch successful adult lives.  

It is, therefore, not enough for a college to focus on academic achievement or disciplinary specialization.  Maturation needs to take place across multiple dimensions: the interpersonal and intrapersonal, the psychological, and the ethical, as well as the cognitive. 

Insofar as most institutions accept this goal, they cede responsibility to student affairs professionals. Let me suggest some other ways that colleges and universities might make holistic development a priority.

1. Encourage faculty to embrace their mentoring role.
Instead of viewing themselves largely as disciplinary specialists, faculty members need to take a broader view of their roles and responsibilities and to envision their classes in more expansive terms.  They must think of themselves not just as content experts, lecturers and discussion leaders, graders, or even as learning architects, but as drivers of student development.

2. Offer more courses that are developmental by design.
Institutions need more classes – like Stanford’s Designing Your Life or Yale’s Science of Well-Being – that combine the academic with the developmental. These are courses that strengthen students’ intrapersonal skills (including their ability to cope with frustrations, disappointments, failures, and losses, overcome distractions, negotiate conflicts, engage in cross-cultural conversations, and adapt to shifting circumstances); that prompt critical thinking about current campus, social, and political issues; and strengthen students’ metacognitive skills and capacity for critical self-reflection.

3. Create more spaces on campus where students have opportunities to develop, mature, and achieve a degree of adult independence.
By historical standards, contemporary U.S. society is unique in the degree of parental involvement in children’s lives and in adult supervision of young people’s activities. This reflects our society’s deep-seated fears for young people’s physical and emotional well-being, well-founded anxieties over litigation, and nagging doubts about the young’s capacity to behave in a responsible manner. 

But if we truly want college students to develop the leadership, collaboration, and organizational skills that we claim to prize, then we need to offer more places where they can act independently of supervision and surveillance. We need more spaces for multicultural interaction.   We also need to provide students with the maker spaces and innovation hubs where they can undertake substantive projects.

Herman Melville coined the phrase “the shock of recognition” to describe those moments or incidents that unexpectedly lay bare an underlying truth. 

Light begins his book with an anecdote that will sound familiar to most academics.  When asked what his institution did to ensure that students got the most out of college, a senior administrator joked: “find good students and then neglect them.“

Certainly, we can do better.  The college years, we often hear, are the best year’s of a person’s life.   It’s high time to do more to see that our students make the most of what truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore, develop, learn, and mature.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

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