What Higher Education Owes Its Students to Achieve Success
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What Higher Education Owes Its Students to Achieve Success

What Higher Education Owes Its Students to Achieve Success

Higher education has a value problem. What was meant as the gateway to social opportunity and higher earning power has seemingly been treading water for decades. The student community owes more money in educational loans and interest today than at any point in history — but you may feel less and less like you’re getting something worthwhile for your money.

Now’s the time to change things. Being honest with yourself about what you should receive in return for your time and money should turn into a national priority. With an eye toward greater and wider success for all, here are ten proposals for what the modern college owes each one of its students.

1. An Engaged and Supportive Career Center

Attending college is an investment in your future. So why does it seem like career services often feel like an afterthought? Some schools make more of an effort than others. And some students are more interested in taking advantage than others.

But it’s probably fair to say that most colleges don’t excel at impressing just how important proactive career planning is. It’s a shame because an engaged and supportive career center is how students find out about those opportunities in the first place. Colleges should invest much more money and talent into their career services, resources and personnel.

It’s tempting to spend three and a half years at college and assume the career thing will take care of itself. But it doesn’t, really — at least, not for most of us. This is the vitally important “last mile” of the college experience.

But higher education is currently failing a lot of people who need practical guidance on seeking a rewarding career in their field. Between 2010 and 2016, 61 percent of college students visited their school’s career center. Regrettably, only 17 percent found the services “very helpful.” Another 17 percent said they did not find the experience helpful at all.

2. Required, in-Person Advisor Meetings Before Course Scheduling

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when choosing classes. Advisors are “humanizing” individuals who can help make the opportunities college represents a little more real, practical and relatable for students.

In-person meetings with advisors should be mandatory whenever course scheduling season comes around again. Students deserve somebody who understands their strengths, weaknesses and hopes for the future and is “in their corner.”

Ideally, these advisors would be professors and professionals in that student’s department who can give rigorously practical advice about the next steps to take in an unfolding educational career. That kind of insight is absolutely priceless and helps students get far more out of their education than they would have otherwise.

3. Mentoring Programs

The benefits of mentoring programs aren’t often what you think they are. Sure — mentors are incredible resources when it comes to imparting knowledge and hard skills. But it’s also about networking — or “professional socialization.” It’s about opening doors.

Multiple surveys of graduate-level students indicated that those who developed mentoring relationships with faculty were more likely to find themselves in a tenure-track career later on and enjoyed greater access to administration-level job opportunities.

Moreover, students with mentoring relationships are more likely to receive financial assistance, more productive in terms of research and publication and even stand a greater chance of reducing the time required to earn their degree.

4. Continual Self-Improvement

Colleges aren’t always willing to perform critical self-assessment which is a big part of the reason why the actual value of a college education has not kept pace with its cost.

Colleges have every reason in the world to take a deep dive into the long-term impact and effectiveness of their course catalogs. That means using the data at their disposal to see whether students are engaged with their chosen programs and whether those programs actually translate into real-world success.

Big data stands a good chance of helping colleges engage in this kind of institutional soul-searching. There are several examples of what’s possible when colleges gather insights and study patterns using student and faculty assessments, regular reviews of student engagement and results in individual programs.

Professionals in the workforce are well accustomed to undergoing periodic reviews of their performance. Colleges shouldn’t be any different, and modern data gathering removes any excuse.

5. At Least a Surface-Level Education in Personal Finance

We’re setting young people up for failure every time one of them makes it into the workforce without learning what a Roth IRA or a mutual fund is. Unless we choose to attend college to study the financial sciences specifically, there aren’t many universities that require students to take classes in practical personal finance.

A robust and practical education on surviving adulthood with our financial dignity intact should turn into an ideal core curriculum in college that balances the pupil’s chosen fields of study.

6. Affordable and Diverse Study Abroad Options

You might’ve attended a college yourself that required students to study abroad for a semester. Or maybe you know somebody who did. The value of this kind of transcontinental education is difficult to express in terms of a cold cost-benefit analysis. But imparting a sense of worldliness is one of the greatest gifts a college can give.

In an educational setting, “worldliness” involves learning communication skills that apply across cultures. It also means learning to place one’s home country in context with a quickly globalizing world.

Visiting another country is an immersive learning experience that makes the retention of new skills dynamic and exciting. But on a more subjective level, it also opens our eyes to how the peoples of the world live and think.

7. More Robust Retention Programs

It’s easy to take for granted that, once a student enrolls in college, they’re going to stick with the program, the school or even higher education in general, for the full course.

In 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics looked at 1.5 million first-time college enrollments to better understand student retention. They found that less than 40 percent of enrolled students successfully earned a bachelor’s degree in four years. And of the nearly 900,000 students included in the study from two-year schools, only about one-quarter of them earned a certificate or degree.

So what’s missing?

For a start, although we tell ourselves higher education is for self-sufficient, put-together adults, there’s quite a lot more that the modern college could do to seek out and support students who are at risk of dropping out and giving up.

Modern technologies such as predictive modeling can help schools identify red flags such as patterns of absenteeism, lackluster math and writing skills, falling grades and changes in behavior.

8. More Distance Learning Opportunities

There has been a well-observed increase in the number of adult and “non-traditional” students enrolling in colleges over the last several decades. What this teaches us is that the “quintessential” college experience — dorm living, meal plans and campus life — isn’t as “necessary” these days.

Accommodating people from different walks of life and those who got a later start in higher education is absolutely essential. One way to cast as wide a net as possible is to broaden the types and availability of distance learning courses.

Since adults are likelier than ever to pursue degrees later in life, colleges increasingly owe their students as many options as possible for earning those degrees. Even many Ivy League schools are recognizing this and finding new ways to help adults work education into their already busy lives.

9. An Education on Basic Civics

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni published research in 2015 with the goal of better understanding the average student’s level of civic knowledge. Among the 55 top-tier schools they looked at, more than 80 percent of college seniors would have failed a high-school-level civics exam.

Politics is thorny and controversial. But maybe the problem lies in assuming this is always true. And perhaps things would get a little less controversial, and consensus a little easier to assemble, if we didn’t let our students stop learning about how democracy works, how government functions and how taxes get spent when they’re still in grade school.

10. A Lower Financial Barrier

Private and public colleges have only gotten more expensive and exclusive over the years. Thankfully, we’ve learned a few things about college inclusivity thanks to the handful of colleges who go out of their way to enroll a student body that more closely resembles the cultural and financial makeup of the country in general. What’s hanging in the balance here is the very idea of upward mobility in modern society.

When we rank American universities using a combination of their financial inclusivity and their students’ “mobility rates” — that is, their likelihood to elevate themselves to the next rung of the socioeconomic ladder — you end up with a list that doesn’t even remotely resemble most of the college rankings you’ve seen.

Compared with Ivy League schools, more affordable and less-selective schools — those who admit more students from lower income brackets — rank far higher when it comes to social mobility.

Cal State Los Angeles, City College of New York and UT Rio Grande Valley admit 20 percent of their student body (compared with Harvard’s 4.5 percent, for example) from the bottom fifth of the economic scale.

Building a Better Graduate

It’s not just about earning power, obviously. Everything we’ve talked about here today is another component in helping to build a worldlier and more confident graduate — and a more collaborative and harmonious world.

1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Dr R Wayne Branch

    December 21, 2018 at 7:44 pm

    These are excellent guides (a kind of have and have not checklist) for students deciding what college, university or training program to attend after high school.

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