Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

A Students-Eye View of Higher Education Issues

Robert Strong, Hal Higginbotham and W&L’s Politics 294 Class

The pages of higher education journals and newsletters are filled with commentary by faculty and administrators, higher education experts and the journalists who cover the college beat. Given the opportunity, what would students — the people who matter most in discussions of higher education — have to say about the educational issues of the day?

During the recently completed spring term at Washington and Lee University, 15 undergraduates took a course titled College Conundrums: Issues in American Higher Education, taught by a former W&L provost and a recently retired senior vice president of the College Board. The students read about the history of higher education in American culture. They encountered the budget and equity dilemmas in admissions and financial aid. They examined the complicated factors that explain the rising costs of college and the questions about who should bear the burdens of those costs. And they developed critiques of both the Education Department’s pending system for rating institutions and the ranking formula used by U.S. News and World Report. Their end-of-term assignment was to write an op-ed essay on their choice of a major issue facing higher education today.

The following quotations are drawn from their essays, and the essays in their entirety are available by clicking on each student’s name.

“Read about higher education in the news today,” one student observed, “and it is almost guaranteed that the word ‘crisis’ will be utilized. Tuition is too high, access is too low, the admissions process is in shambles and a college education just might not be worth it.” (Shelbi Hendricks) What is to be done?

The Three-Year Degree

Several students explored the three-year degree. Although one cautioned against rushing, saying “you’re only in college once,” others saw virtue in the shorter path. One junior had decided in the fall term to accelerate his progress and complete all remaining degree requirements in one year. Though his plan involved heavy overloads and a rush to complete the college’s physical education requirement (decisions that others might characterize as insanity), he emerged confident that finishing in three years “would be a challenging but very manageable goal for motivated students who plan correctly.” (Christian von Hassell) One first-year student outlined with precision how someone could combine modest Advanced Placement credit with online courses in the summer and an occasional term-time overload to meet W&L’s existing degree requirements in three years. “It is no secret that college is expensive,” and a three-year degree could save families real money. Won’t parents put pressure on students to take this option? Maybe, she observed, but that “would just be ignoring the fact that students already receive pressure from their parents.” (Monica Musgrave)

On the negative side, one student observed that there might be no real savings for institutions because undergraduates who take “the required amount of credits at their school in three years instead of four” would be paying for three years while “still using the resources it would take to do it in four.” (Kendra Nedell) Another student wrote that a tight three-year schedule would make it harder to change majors and might not provide enough time for the growing up that usually occurs in college. “Attempting to speed up the college experience could be very harmful to students as they do not have the opportunity to fully mature and learn from their mistakes.” (Elizabeth Case) A classmate offered a different view, however, saying “it is incredibly difficult to tell a junior and senior apart on a campus based on how they comport themselves, while it is easy to tell a freshman apart from an upperclassman.” She contended that three-year-program students might mature more rapidly since “they would be forced to balance more responsibilities in a faster-paced educational system.” (Caroline Bearden)

The Minerva Project

Two students evaluated the Minerva Project’s reimagined version of liberal arts education without a campus. They liked the courses taught online to seminar-sized groups with high levels of interactivity, and they were enthusiastic about the idea of living in four different cities during the course of a college education. “Living in another country is very different from visiting one. Students have to put themselves out there and figure out their daily routines and possibly a new language.” (Ravenel Harrigan) But they questioned whether the approach would really provide significant cost savings, citing the travel and living costs associated with famous foreign cities and the projected level of personal mentoring and online instruction using a low student-to-faculty ratio.

Money and MOOCs

Money was a theme in many of the papers. For these students, the attraction of MOOCs was not the quality of education they provided, but the potential for cost savings. They recognized, however, that a key consideration was the willingness of colleges to grant MOOC participation some legitimacy. One student questioned institutions that offer MOOCs but frequently do not permit regular students to take them for credit. “Why are Harvard online courses good enough for other students but not for actual Harvard students?” (Riley Garcia)

They applauded the flexibility that MOOCs might provide to students holding full-time jobs, but doubted that online courses could fully replace the four-year residential college. “The college experience can be anything from conversations in the dining hall … to playing in your conference championship game, to going on a weekend camping trip through your school’s outing club.” (Matt Parker) For the moment, as these students see it, MOOCs can’t compete, but “when online courses can offer high-quality learning, personalized interaction and effective assessment, they will become a well-recognized form of higher education.” (Annie Boyd)

Admissions and Access

Other areas where money played a role in our students’ assessments of higher education involve admissions and loan repayment. Some highlighted the importance of better recruiting of talented low-income students who may be unaware that they would qualify for admission and financial aid at high-quality institutions. “Students from low-income families are significantly less likely to earn a four-year degree by age 24 than students from well-off families; even poor students who score between 1200 and 1600 on the SAT are 40 percent less likely to earn a degree than students from wealthy families.” (Hannah Hoskin). “If low-income students had the information and assistance, they would apply and attend schools that fit their academic and economic needs. … Politicians should focus efforts and money on creating the services to change” the match between students and institutions. (Hayley Price)

In response to the stronger competitive situation that might flow from this outreach, one student proposed the elimination of alumni preferences in admissions to open more seats to talented students from every background. “Preferential treatment creates a dynastic system where it is easier for the rich to get richer as their family name earns more power over generations.” (Jonathan Granirer)

Another student looked at the other end of the college experience and recommended expanded income-based debt repayment to reduce the burdens of loans and maintain the freedom of all students to choose majors and careers that may not generate large salaries. “There is an argument today that students going into college are too career-driven and aren’t enjoying higher education for the experience and love of learning that used to convince students to attend college.” (Maggie Sands) She saw income-based repayment as one way to help restore the balance between career and creativity.

We leave the final word with a first-year student who summarized her views on what higher education ought to be by describing the best course she had taken at Washington and Lee. It wasn’t online and it wasn’t in a classroom. It was a “conversational Spanish class with a service-learning component. A few times a week, I would go to an elementary school in a low-income area to teach Spanish. This experience benefited me and enhanced my learning in more ways than I could have imagined. …Doing work in the world is an experience I personally want more of as a student and one I think needs to be more standard in colleges.” (Mary Elizabeth Silliman)