You no doubt remember the Cowardly Lion’s comic lyrics, “If I Were King”:
I’d command each thing, be it fish or fowl.
With a woof and a woof and a royal growl – woof.
As I’d click my heel, all the trees would kneel.
And the mountains bow and the bulls kowtow.
And the sparrow would take wing – If I – If I – were King!
Fortunately, for everyone’s sake, I am not a king. Still, if there were ever a time for us to get our creative juices flowing, it is now. Now is to time to imagine higher ed’s post-pandemic future.
So, here’s what I would do if I were king:
1. I’d work closely with high schools to better prepare their graduates for college.
Expanded dual degree/early college courses are the wave of the future. But if these are to be truly meaningful, they need to apply for general education credit. Let’s follow the example of Texas OnRamps, and offer advanced professional development training for the teachers who offer those courses accompanied with robust curricular materials – and make sure that those courses count for core curriculum credit, not simply as electives.
2. I’d co-enroll community college students in a 4-year institution and take other steps to bring many more transfer students to a bachelor’s degree.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has a proposal along the lines I favor: Co-enrollment of community college students at a 4-year institution, with access to advising, the library, and other campus resources. I’d also build on CUNY’s Pathways program and California’s Associate’s Degree for Transfer, which insure that community college courses meet gen ed and major requirements.
We know what to do to make it easier for students to move from a two-year institution to a bachelor’s degree. Evaluate transfer credits within hours, not days or weeks. Align curricula with feeder schools. Make sure community college advisors are able to provide their students with accurate advice. Let community colleges offer courses that automatically apply toward majors. Eliminate curricular roadblocks that require students to repeat classes or that prevent entry into high demand majors.
3. I’d rethink the orientation and onboarding process.
As selective private colleges have long understood, a robust orientation and pre-college bridge programs contribute to a sense of belonging and give new students a jump start on academic success.
Too often, a new student orientation consists of perfunctory introductions of administrators and vague references to student services. Let’s make orientation meaningful and ensure that every new student comes away with a degree map, contact information for a professional adviser, and familiarity with the support services that are available to help them.
4. I’d place as many students as possible in a cohort program.
A sense of belonging is a key to student success and cohorting students is one of the most effective ways to accomplish that goal.
I’d do everything in my power to place many more undergraduates in a cohort. This might be a program in the visual and performing arts, media and creative writing, law, civic life and public policy, scientific research, healthcare, or ethics. Or it might be the kinds of scholarly research programs that the Mellon Foundation funds: like Mellon-Mays or Mellon Public Humanities or Mellon Arts.
The key to a cohort program’s success is a faculty mentor, dedicated advising, and rich co-curricular activities that, in turn, foster connections with faculty, classmates, and the institution as a whole.
5. I’d make it easier for students to graduate in three years.
Streamline and simplify degree paths. Eliminate gen ed and major requirements that can’t withstand close scrutiny. Remove inessential prerequisites. Address course unavailability. Make sure that prior learning counts. Encourage year-round enrollment, including during intersessions. And at least consider custom-designed majors.
I, for one, don’t see the point of imposing more and more graduation requirements. Wouldn’t it be easier to only approve courses that incorporated at least one or two elements that we consider essential: intensive writing, quantitative reasoning, inquiry, ethics, and global and cross-cultural awareness?
6. I’d greatly expand the number of offerings that are developmental – not remedial courses, but classes and workshops dedicated to well-rounded student development.
Life adjustment education – a post-World War II fad – acquired a deservedly rotten reputation as aneducational anathema, a substitute for a rigorous academic curriculum. Its legacies surround us. Most 4-year campuses award no credit for academic success courses or for classes that teach life skills (like relationship building) or vocational skills or public speaking, let alone etiquette.
But we’ve thrown out the baby along with the bath water. I’m convinced that we’re failing to address vital but unmet student needs involving mental health, relationship maintenance, coping with anxiety and stress, conflict resolution, career preparation, and interpersonal and cross-cultural communication. Today’s students are more sophisticated and more knowledgeable in certain ways, but underdeveloped in other respects. As a consequence, we need to offer credit-bearing “adult preparation” courses and “career preparation” workshops.
7. I’d reimagine the lower-division humanities courses.
I had the great privilege of teaching within Columbia’s core curriculum, which epitomizes much of what higher education has rejected: A prescribed syllabus, canonical texts, extremely rigorous reading and writing requirements, and pedagogies that most colleges have rejected: Disputations, declamations, and recitations.
It’s distinctive in another respect: Faculty and preceptors attend weekly pedagogy sessions as well as a weekly seminar with a content specialist from outside the university.
The classes themselves do not fall easily into any humanistic discipline. Their focus is broader: There are year-long sequences in moral and political philosophy and in masterworks of literature, along with one semester courses on masterworks of music and art. The core’s goals bestride disciplines; they involve refining students’ aesthetic sensibilities and strengthening their capacity for analysis and logical reasoning.
We need not mimic Columbia’s core to achieve its essence: A sweeping encounter with masterworks of human creativity and thought, an introduction to the arts of listening, looking, and close reading, and engagement with enduring questions involving identity, belief, taste, and judgment. Harvard’s Humanities 10 and 11 and Purdue’s Cornerstone program offer undergraduates such a curricular experience as an option. Hunter College’s Humanities 10200, which combines visits to museum exhibitions and performing arts venues along with a signature seminar, offers another attractive model.
8. I’d expand access to high-impact practices.
Give students more opportunities to conduct research, including field research, under a faculty mentor. Establish partnership relationships with neighboring museums and arts organizations. Expand service learning and civic engagement programs. Broaden access to study abroad with short-term offerings, participation in faculty research trips, and virtual experiences that pair classrooms across national borders. Offer opportunities for app creation or social entrepreneurship.
Let’s treat our students as makers, creators of knowledge, and active agents in their own learning.
9. I’d embrace the “hybrid” university model.
Blur the lines between an on-campus and an online student experience. Let students access classes and workshops online. Consider cross-campus course sharing arrangements for low enrollment or difficult to staff classes. Offer virtual internships and digital connections with alumni. Make academic and career advising, tutoring, and other student services available electronically, and consider letting at least some staff work remotely. Leverage the campus’ online presence by enrolling fully online students.
10. I’d institute 3+1 and 4+1 bachelor’s-master’s programs.
Increasingly, access to high demand jobs in artificial intelligence, data science, environmental and resource management, healthcare, information technology, and urban and environmental planning require an advanced degree. Let’s offer more accelerated dual degree programs that fast-track students’ entry into the workforce.
Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, transitions, and endings had two faces, one gazing at the past, one future-facing. Janus, who presided over life’s transformations — birth, marriage, death, and the transition from youth to adulthood – strikes me as an appropriate symbol for higher education today.
Our colleges and universities are perched on the edge of momentous transformations. The institutions that will thrive will be those that can articulate their value proposition and demonstrate that their worth exceeds the cost.
Even as we look to the past and strive to sustain the commitments that have defined American higher education, including a dedication to a liberal education, we must also fix our eyes on the future. We need to build on what we have learned during the pandemic: that our institutions are more adaptable than many had assumed, our faculty more agile, our students more resilient.
Those lessons should give us hope: That it is indeed possible for our institutions to become more learner and learning centered, better prepare high school for college, better serve transfer students, and better produce graduate who are career-ready and life-equipped.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.