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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Perfect Storm: How the Imminent Crisis in Higher Education Can Strengthen Liberal Education

Event Recap

Higher education today faces a perfect storm of three mutually reinforcing crises: economic uncertainty, a demand for quantifiable results and a failed theory of educational improvement. This was the sobering message delivered in an April 5 lecture by W. Robert Connor, past president of the Teagle Foundation and former professor of classics at Princeton and Duke universities. Unless faculty, administrators and students alike make needed reforms, Connor warned, higher education will find itself increasingly subject to reforms from legislators and policymakers outside the academy. By revamping the current theory of educational improvement based on research about what works, he argued, we can not only strengthen higher education, but also strengthen the case for liberal education. Held at the Lynch School of Education at BC, the lecture was co-sponsored by the school’s Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy.

The three crises Connor described are familiar to most people connected to higher education. First, most Americans today face some level of economic uncertainty thanks to a major recession that lowered average household income and put millions of people out of work. But the recession has merely added salt to an already gaping economic wound for college graduates: outsourcing and competition for white-collar jobs means that a college degree no longer guarantees a well-paying job. At the same time, the tuition required to earn a degree has been rising for more than two decades at rates well above inflation.

This disjunction, along with austere state budgets, has led to the second “crisis” Connor cited: an increasing demand for quantifiable results of higher education. An influential book entitled Academically Adrift recently reported that over a third of American students at four-year colleges and universities failed to improve their critical reasoning or real-world problem-solving skills (assessed by the Collegiate Learning Assessment) in a statistically significant way between their freshman and senior years. It’s no surprise, Connor said, that parents and students alike demand evidence of returns on their huge investment in education.

Efforts to improve education—and to prove it with data—reflect the third crisis Connor described: an unsustainable reform policy. Conventional wisdom in higher educational reform calls for smaller class sizes, more specialized fields of expertise, and more faculty research time to develop that specialization—and each of these changes have important benefits. But they are also all very costly, and it is not at all clear that their cost outweighs the marginal benefits they produce. We need a new alternative, Connor said.

The good news is that recent research can tell us a lot about what works in higher education, Connor noted. Studies show that the greatest gains in critical thinking occur in foreign languages, sociology, and interdisciplinary studies—areas in which students are forced to consider alternative views of reality and thus think critically about their own views. Data also shows that top students improved critical thinking skills most when professors engaged fully as teachers and mentors, providing prompt feedback on student work, engaging in high-quality interactions outside of classroom (which signal care for the student as a learner), fostering challenging academic environments with high expectations and allowing for diverse views about how life ought to be lived. Extracurricular programs such as internships, research and community service also lead to higher retention and graduation rates, not least among minorities.

One thing is clear, Connor concluded: the path to reform requires everyone involved in higher education—students, faculty, and administrators—to ask what students ought to get out of their education, and to take responsibility for the answer.