Briefly Noted: Faculty-Free Universities & A Buyer’s Market in Higher Education?

Faculty-Free Universities?

We don’t make these things up, you know. The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 12, 2013, p. A6) informs us that the state of California is considering endorsing a “faculty-free” division of higher education. The California Assembly has in front of it a bill proposing a fourth division of the state’s higher-education system, a “New University of California,” which would have no faculty members but which would still grant degrees based upon students passing examinations.

This New University of California would be governed by the same chancellor and board of trustees that oversee the other universities.

Under this proposal students enrolled in the New University would be able to “obtain the necessary knowledge and skills to pass the exams from any source, including paid courses, self-directed study, and . . . MOOCs.” When students felt prepared enough they could then pay a fee and take a test to get credit for the “course”–if they pass. Legislators hold mixed opinions on the bill while the California Faculty Association expresses concern at the bill. Most of them argue that increased classroom support and resources, not online options would better serve California.

In response, I note that this sort of mix-n-match system poses several challenges, of which I’ll limit myself to two: (1) the faculty-free university poses the same challenge as online degrees: how can students flourish if the human elements of the degree program are further removed and mostly electronically-mediated? At least in an online degree the institution can build in relational elements, but in the mix-n-match system this will be difficult, if not impossible, to do. (2) The Western university increasingly is becoming a pluri-versity. Even Christian universities are experiencing an ever-increasing worldview disintegration and disciplinary fragmentation which keeps us from building an increasingly unified and God-centered body of knowledge, that it further handicaps the specialized disciplines themselves, and that it impoverishes human existence by separating out what ought to be held together.

A Buyer’s Market in College Education?

The same edition of The Chronicle includes an article “Colleges Must Prepare for a Buyer’s Market” (p. A60). The author, Jeffery Selingo, argues that colleges must get better at answering the questions of increasingly savvy prospective students and parents. On the basis of increased resources, such as the U.S. Education Department’s College Scorecard, and the hyper-speed growth of online education, Selingo offers the following as questions colleges ought to prepare to answer.

First, colleges must be able to answer “What is my return on investment?” That is, colleges must describe to prospective students the relationship between the quality of the education and level of debt they may incur while attending that college. Second, “how mobile are the academic credits earned on your campus and elsewhere?” Selingo notes that with the rise of online education, particularly MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), colleges should “expect students to ask what happens if they come to your registrar seeking credit with a certificate . . . from a MOOC in hand.” Third, “how tech-savvy is your institution?” Here colleges must answer to the rising tide of course delivery options and thus should be prepared to answer questions about how technologically and pedagogically savvy their professors are.

Fourth, prospective students increasingly ask, “What are your college’s priorities, and does academic rigor rank at the top?” That is, more informed students and parents will sniff out an emphasis on prestige or tradition over academic rigor. Selingo suggests that colleges provide an honest appraisal of their grade distribution among the student body and faculty instruction. Fifth, colleges must grapple with the reality that the hot jobs of today may not exist in twenty years. Thus they must be prepared to answer: “Does your college prepare students for their fifth job, not just their first?”

Sixth, if money is king in the decision process, the king often makes his real face known late in the game. That is, most families do not know the complete financial-aid package and thus their expected contribution to the cost of education until a few weeks before the deadline for a decision. Hence colleges ought to answer, “How easily does your institution allow admitted students to compare financial-aid offers?” Finally, in light of the fact that one-third of all colleges in the U.S. are “significantly weaker than before the recession and are on an unsustainable fiscal path” prospective parents especially will wisely ask “Is your college transparent about its own financial health?”

Selingo’s article raises a praetorian guard of further questions and discussion points. I limit myself to this point: Selingo is right that colleges must learn to be increasingly consumer-friendly while at the same time unflinchingly sound academically and pedagogically. The learning curve will be steep, but if we navigate these waters wisely, we might just come out stronger in the end with an increased ability to give our students a strong and consistent return on their investment.

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.

Cultivating Godliness in College

We have all heard the horror stories. Some of us have been the horror stories. A student grows up in a Bible-believing church where she has professed faith in Christ and participated in a myriad of programs designed to help nurture her in that faith. By the time she graduates from high school, she has been to church camp a half dozen times, participated in two mission trips, signed a True Love Waits card, and accumulated enough Christian t-shirts to “wear her witness” for a month.

She then goes off to college, where our freshman is faced with a number of temptations, some of which were not even on her radar in high school. There are the obvious vices like sex and drugs, both of which manage to find their way onto even the best of college campuses. There is also a new sense of freedom; gone are the days of asking for permission to go to a particular event, checking in with mom and dad about changes in plans, or (at many schools) being home in time for curfew. If a collegian is not careful, this newfound freedom can lead to newfound compromise.

Another more subtle temptation is busyness. There are countless activities in which to be involved including clubs, athletics, campus ministries, parties, pep rallies, concerts, informal gatherings with friends, etc. Many of these are worthy pursuits, but if a student is not disciplined with his time, the sheer number of possible activities can choke out his spiritual life by leaving little time to pursue a stronger walk with God.

All too often these and other temptations overcome the Christian student, and before long he has ceased attending a local church (if he ever did), is uninvolved or only half-heartedly involved in a campus ministry, is nurturing habits that are questionable at best and blatantly sinful at worst, and is hanging out with folks who he would have never considered befriending in high school. And he is not making these new friends so that he can share the gospel with them.

Every year thousands of Christian students enroll in college and downplay, redefine, or walk away from their faith. It really does not matter whether the college is a secular university or a Christian private school; threats to the faith abound at both, though the dangers manifest themselves differently on every campus. But college does not have to be the reef upon which one’s faith is shipwrecked. There are many ways students can actively cultivate personal godliness on even the most hostile of college campuses. Let me suggest some strategies for cultivating godliness during the college years.

First and foremost, every student needs to cultivate his or her personal walk with God through spiritual disciplines such as regular personal Bible study, Scripture memorization, private prayer, fasting, and personal evangelism. None of these other suggestions will get very far if a student is unconcerned with personal spiritual growth, even when nobody but God is watching.

Second, collegians need to become vitally involved in a local church. This may seem obvious to many readers, but it is surprising how counter-cultural a notion church membership is to some young adults. But there is almost nothing as important as committed involvement in a Bible-believing church. The vast majority of the time that the word ekklesia appears in the New Testament, it is referring to a local congregation of believers. It is among local churches that Christians covenant with each other and commit to hold each other accountable. It is among local churches that the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are observed. It is among local churches that seasoned believers are able to mentor and encourage younger Christ-followers. I greatly appreciate parachurch campus ministries and dorm Bible studies (as will be clear below), but there is simply no substitute for active membership in a local church.

Third, many students should consider becoming involved in a campus ministry devoted to reaching and discipling collegians. This is especially true of students attending a college where none of the nearby local churches are interested in having a meaningful ministry among college-aged adults (unfortunately, it happens). Some of the better campus ministries include Campus Crusade for Christ, Campus Outreach, The Navigators, Baptist Collegiate Ministries, and Reformed University Fellowship. The quality of each of these ministries varies from school to school, so students should do their homework before signing on with a particular group.

Fourth, collegians need to establish a network of accountability. This network can come from a local church or a campus ministry, and ideally it involves two different levels. The first level is a peer group, whether it is a Sunday School class, dorm Bible study, or a campus ministry-sponsored small group. What matters is that the student feels the freedom to confess his struggles and commit to receiving godly counsel from fellow believers. The second level is a mentoring relationship with an older Christian who has “been in the shoes” of a college student. All too often this type of relationship is missing in the lives of Christian students. Many churches offer the opportunity for interested collegians to be pared with a mature believer who can combine biblical counsel and a good free meal from time to time.

Fifth, students need to read good books. Fortunately, most college students are in the habit of reading anyway, so they are often open to reading edifying books, even if they only have time to read a couple of extra books a year. Furthermore, there are some authors like Jerry Bridges and John Piper whose books are both enormously popular with collegians and in many cases are written with college-aged adults in mind. Other solid authors who seem to be fashionable among collegians (at least the ones I know) include J. I. Packer, John Stott, Mark Dever, A. W. Tozer, C. J. Mahaney, Tim Keller, and Tullian Tchividjian. Also helpful, especially if you are struggling with your faith on a secular campus, are the apologetic works of authors like J. P. Moreland, James Sire, Peter Kreeft, and Lee Strobel.

Finally, collegians need to maintain as close contact as possible with their families and home churches (assuming they have moved away to attend school). It is easy to virtually walk away from your pre-college life when you move off to a new community and begin school. But students need to continue to nurture close relationships with their parents (especially those with Christian parents) and their childhood churches. These relationships are reminders of God’s past grace, and during difficult times in college, can be reminders of God’s faithfulness and future grace.

College does not have to be a roadblock to Christian growth or the end of faith itself; in fact, many non-Christian students first meet Jesus Christ during their college years. But there is no denying that for many young believers, college is anything but a means of grace in their Christian lives. Fortunately, this does not have to be the case. If collegians are willing to take the initiative in actively cultivating godliness during their college years, then this period of life can be filled with spiritual milestones, greatly influencing the type of Christian man or woman the student is becoming.

So if you are a Christian collegian, let me urge you to pursue a stronger walk with God, even as you pursue your degree. And if you are the parent of a Christian student (or future student), encourage him to make the most of his college years for the sake of the gospel and not squander this critically important season of his life. I would also recommend that all Christian college students or future collegians (and parents!) read J. Budziszewski’s How To Stay Christian in College (NavPress, 2004).