How Could We Reinvent “College”? Fifteen Ideas

Shocker. An increasing number of intellectuals and major publications are questioning the value of America’s colleges. Recently Newsweek ran a cover story suggesting that college is a lousy investment, something not worth nearly the dollars or the time that is invested. In response to these sorts of criticisms and questions, the most recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct 19, 2012) includes an article entitled, “College, Reinvented.” This article contains 15 suggestions, by 15 educators, on how we might improve the system.

Some of the suggestions are plausible, while others are, ahem, something like the opposite of “plausible.” For what it’s worth, here is a sampling of The Chronicle’s suggestions, along with a few of my own reflections:

An Old-School Notion: Writing Required. Dan Berrett suggests that a good old-fashioned regimen of researching and writing is better than other newer and sexier suggestions offered by cutting-edge pedagogues. “Writing works exceedingly well,” writes Berrett, “as both a way to assess learning and a means of deepening that learning, according to experts who study its effects on students.” In a study that he and his colleagues published, “researchers found that clearly explained assignments in which freshmen and seniors had to construct meaning through their writing—summarize something they had read, explain in writing the meaning of numerical or statistical data, argue a position using evidence and reasoning—had a noticeable effect on deep and sustained learning.”

I couldn’t agree more with Berrett. As Francis Bacon once put it, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” The process of writing forces students to organize their knowledge, build arguments, and communicate with concision and precision. Of course, it is difficult to teach incoming college students to write, when they’ve never committed themselves to serious reading.

2 Captains at the Helm of Each College. Jack Stripling suggests that colleges consider hiring two presidents. That’s right, two. He argues that no college president can fulfill all expectations, so why not hire two equals? He quotes President Buck Smith of Davis & Elkins college, who ways, “Presidents complain about loneliness at the top. This arrangement is a helpful antidote to that. We’re never hanging out there by ourselves.”

Uh huh. I’d like to see how many Boards of Trustees could be convinced to do this. I’d imagine they’d see no more need for two presidents than they do for donning a tutu or wrapping their heads in asbestos.

Grades Out, Badges In. Jeff Young asks his readers to consider giving merit badges to students when they do well in class. He argues that college grades are inflated to the point of meaninglessness, that students look for professors that give easy A’s, and that students often strive for good grades in a way that actually circumvents the teaching/learning process. Young thinks that “badges” could motivate students better than grades.

I suppose we are in favor of anything that helps to subvert the “grade idolatry” that pervades our educational system. Students sometimes tend to view their course grade as an assessment of their personal worth, as a lever for future earnings or status, and so forth. With that said, I’ll wager that merit badges won’t work.

School at Age 3. No More 12th Grade. Linus Wright asks us to consider mandatory schooling at age 3. That’s step one. Then he asks us to eliminate the 12th grade. That’s step two. Wright suggests that the 12th grade “is the least productive and most expensive of all grades, and the money saved by getting rid of it would pay for early-childhood programs, which are the most productive and least expensive.”

My initial response: On the one hand, it is true that a very young child possesses an immense capacity for learning. He/she forms approximately 700 neuron connections per second.  We want to capitalize on this potential. On the other hand, I do not want my child to undergo any sort of social engineering at this age, before we as parents have a chance to shape their minds and hearts, and prepare them for public or private school.

2 Tracks for Faculty. Anybody familiar with higher education knows that faculty members often are expected to excel both in classroom instruction and research/writing. In this article, Robin Wilson argues that colleges should allow faculty members to choose one or the other of these two skills. “What if the academic work force were made up primarily of two types of faculty members?,” writes Wilson. “One, a small proportion of tenure-track professors—those who earn doctoral degrees, do research, train graduate students, teach advanced seminars, and help administrators run the university. And two, a larger portion of full-time instructors…who teach undergraduates, help advise them, keep up with developments in the field by reading and attending conferences, but do no research.”

As I see it, Wilson is right that one rarely finds a faculty member who truly excels at both tasks, and that often faculty members feel pressure to do exactly that. However, colleges and seminaries will be harmed if they bifurcate the faculty so neatly. Most faculty members can excel at one of those tasks, while doing fairly well at the other; and they should be encouraged in exactly that manner.

How Can We “Reinvent” College Education? This “Briefly Noted” has summarized only five of the fifteen suggestions listed in The Chronicle’s article. In the near future, BtT will be offering some suggestions about improving higher education. In the meantime, we welcome our readers to offer their own suggestions in the comment section below. We hope to use your suggestions and questions when we address this topic again.

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  1. Dougald   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    Good points. I especially like the one concerning two tracks for teachers. Being a former Ph.D. student I felt the pressure to publish before I even graduated (a pressure that I knew I would have for the rest of my life). This increased my stress level quite a bit. Even though I was encouraged to publish one of my papers by Dr. Black, I never did. Partly because I didn’t think I was an expert in the field and therefore shouldn’t.

    When I subbed for my major professor, I felt at ease in the (Hebrew) classroom. Most students responded well to me teaching style, and usually told me I made Hebrew interesting and brought it down to their level (I have often said the problem with learning Hebrew grammar is Hebrew grammarians). I knew that my strength was teaching at this point in my “career.”

    However, I always felt like I was only evaluated by my publishing record (not by my major professor, of course). Even though, I would argue, not everything published is worth publishing (I recommend Lindsay Water’s work “Enemies of Promise).

    Also, do you think that grades are inflated at the college level because we seek to admit everyone to college? Why not make college more for the elite (completely realizing that this suggestion would exclude me). Of course, this would mean major changes in primary education.

    Through Christ,

  2. Nathaniel   •  

    That was fun. Perhaps the badges idea has more merit than you give it credit for. What if students worked through school more like a Boy Scout. Passing and failing wouldn’t have long term consequences and professors wouldn’t feel pressure to pass a student with low quality work. Instead, they simply tell the student to keep working til they master the skill/subject.

  3. Lance   •  

    I am familiar with the badge arguments and I disagree with the notion. I don’t want my doctor or pastor or engineer to simply received a badge for exceptional efforts, I want to know that these individuals have been accurately assessed and that they are competent in their field.

    The assessment process needs to be reformed and standardized. If there are 12 faculty members in a department and there is no standard by which they assess students, then there are 12 different opinions of what an A quality grade is. Do any of these match up with what the institution’s opinion of academic quality? Who knows?

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Dougald, I agree with the tension of trying to teach and publish, and excel at both of them at once. For most people, one or the other will lag behind. But I think that can be a healthy tension, and that the two components can be mutually reinforcing. As for your second suggestions, I’m hesitant. I do think that society needs to look with approval upon folks who opt to work rather than to attend college…

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Lance, good point about assessment. That is why accreditation agencies are valuable, as they force faculties to go through the process of delineating common student outcomes, core competencies, etc., which optimally bring about a measure of faculty consensus on what an “A” is in any given course.

  6. Andy Cockrell   •  

    Higher education will be improved most certainly by a reform of lower education. We have a 180-day calendar, and realistically you can lop 20 days (at least) off of that. Dare suggest we go to a longer school year and wstch the backlash. Students are promoted even if not up to grade level. Teachers teach to standardized tests and not so that students learn. There is a reason the world is passing us scholastically and it starts way before college.

  7. Wesley L. Handy   •  

    Bruce, I always enjoy your blog posts on education!

    I definitely think there is value in continuing to assess higher education models and effectiveness, but at some point the value of college for a particular individual hinges on what they bring to the equation from their primary and secondary schooling. Colleges can improve; there is a need, in general, for recapturing the unity of knowledge in something other than a single subject (such as science or math). Educational models must find a way to balance the need for being student-oriented and at the same time not becoming consumer-driven. That being said, colleges have to do the best they can with the student they receive.

    Thus, it takes quite a bit of effort to assess the starting point and mold not just individual courses, but entire curricula from that point of departure.

    Unless of course higher education is only a means towards the end of getting a job. Then, we fail to have education at all, just job training. Certainly there are more efficient and cost-effective ways of training the widget makers and engineers (seriously, who needs a college education to be an engineer or computer scientist? Maybe our forbears had thought through this a little bit by creating institutes for those individuals rather than universities.)

  8. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Andy, good point. Christians have significant ability to shape private high schools, and home-school networks. The bigger challenge, I think, is shaping the public school system.

  9. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Wesley, let me respond to two things you said in particular. First, we’ve got to shape entire curricula according to the type of students we are receiving. The hard things is that we faculty are “homo academicus,” a rare breed of animal that is resistant to change and set in our ways. We can’t be. Second, i think we can have different types of “higher ed” for different types of students, similar actually to what we have. Universities, colleges, technical colleges, institutes, training centers, etc. And all of these need to be counted as legitimate institutions that make a positive contribution to society. Agreed?

  10. dr. james willingham   •  

    We also stand in need of education that takes in more than one area. The Ph.D. programs are too rigid. I found that earning degrees in three fields (History, Theology, and Counseling) put a whole different slant on understanding, a missing element in much of the educational system today.

  11. Roger Simpson   •  


    Since when don’t we need academic training for engineers and scientists? When I used to do recruiting for microcode jobs in my Silicon Valley group I didn’t go to Podunk Institute. I always went to universities with strong engineering schools.

    Generally speaking, it has been my observation that there is a correlation between acedemic credentials and effectiveness in doing a “real world” job.

    However, I admit that there are examples which demonstrate the opposite. I’ve had to deal with removing guys from the business, who weren’t cutting it, even though they had PhDs from elite schools. So I agree that there are examples that it takes more than academics to survive in the real world.

    But if I only had a single indicator to predict success in software engineering it would be based upon coursework and projects that the person did in school. If I see a guy/gal who worked with a group on a senior project and built a working model {a hardware / software solution} to demonstrate how to achieve higher “errorless data rates” using some type of error detection and correction algorithm then I’d have something tangible to suggest that this person could make a contribution.

    As it relates to seminary, I’d argue that looking at the outcomes of practicums [spelling??], where MDiv students became involved with “real world” situations in local congregations, would inform pulput comittees regarding any given candidate. I’d argue that it is simplistic to isolate academic performance from “on the job training”. Good schools simulate job-realted enviroments through senior projects and internships in industry. Good schools are able to demonstrate that their graduates excel at more than just “book learning”.

    Roger Simpson

  12. Wesley L. Handy   •  


    Thanks brother for the response. I like your first response, and I like your concluding point about the equal legitimacy of all institutions.

  13. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Roger, great point about seminaries needing to pay serious attention to practical on the job training. Over the past few years, we’ve been making a serious stab at doing that at SEBTS. Seminary should not be divorced from local church.

  14. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    James, you are right that cross-disciplinary expertise is a very valuable thing.

  15. Wesley L. Handy   •  


    Thank you for your response to my comment. I didn’t mean to say we don’t need academic training for engineers and scientists. I should have been more clear. The point I should have made more explicit was that I believe that a full-blown 4 year degree may not benefit an engineer or computer scientist (especially if they have received a proper education at primary and secondary levels), whereas practical-oriented training, as you propose, would. I was also making a slight jab at the pendulum swing towards the STEM fields. As important as those fields are, they are not the only fields worthy of study at higher levels.

    I apologize for not being more clear.



  16. dr. james willingham   •  

    Having attended 10 schools above the secondary level, all the way from a small Baptist college in Texas to an Ivy League University, I think I can say that it is surprising as to where one will find the best teachers.

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