A bid to give four key years a makeover

When Richard Freeland takes stock of higher education, he often sees inverted priorities - with many universities and colleges seeking a higher ranking, but not really better learning.

It's a harsh irony that this historian of higher education feels acutely every day in his job as president of Northeastern University in Boston.

"Everyone laments this situation," Dr. Freeland says. "The kids are being neglected and the reason is very simple: It's the reputations of the faculty that drive the reputations of the institutions."

The focus on big-name faculty is aimed at getting more grants and funding, to get higher rankings that beget higher status, he says. And that status lures students. It's an "almost paradoxical" approach that is quite rational, given the competitive emphasis today, Freeland says.

"You get this bizarre situation," he says, "in which institutions that are fundamentally in the business of education ... actually erode educational quality to get a fancier faculty."

One antidote, he suggests in a recent interview on a range of issues facing higher education, is for each school to assess the quality of its learning experience by finding ways to measure and prove it scientifically.

Northeastern's signature approach to education has long been "cooperative learning" - linking class work to workplace internships. Student internships are common today. Even so, some elite schools sniff at the notion that substantive education happens in an off-campus office.

"My mission," Freeland says, "is to somehow try to make respectable - make intellectually and educationally respectable - this notion that a combination of classroom experience and work experience can be a more powerful growth and learning exercise for many young people."

That's what Freeland has set out to do amid a rapid-fire series of changes at Northeastern that haven't let up in his five years at the helm.

Smaller is good

He has already radically recast his university from a one-time lumbering Mack truck hauling 50,000 students - the nation's largest private university in the early 1990s. Today it might be likened more to a luxury sport-utility vehicle - with about 26,000 graduate and undergraduate students, and a host of changes geared to improving educational quality.

Of course, admitting fewer but better academically qualified students has had the effect of helping to pump up Northeastern's rankings.

But Freeland claims his focus is far deeper - extending to making the shift from a commuter to a residential school, boosting the scholarship (though not necessarily name recognition) of faculty, and strengthening the curriculum.

Until about 1990, the school had been targeting low- and middle-income students. But keen competition from lower-cost public universities whose quality was improving began to siphon away students.

Shortly after his appointment in 1996, Freeland began working on acquiring land for new dormitories - part of his plan to reposition the school to survive and thrive as a "smaller, better" Northeastern.

The school cut its freshman class from about 4,500 in the late 1980s to about 2,800 today. Selectivity has boosted the quality of students attending the school. New dorms opened this fall.

The curriculum, too, is being shifted from a quarter to semester system between now and 2003. Doing so requires professors to revamp their courses to a deeper, more deliberative 16-week process instead of the 12-week "fire drill," Freeland says. But the main idea behind that move was improving the school's student internships program, by cutting back their number and focusing instead on the quality of each one.

In the earlier version of Northeastern, the school offered a work experience to students primarily so they could earn money to pay their way through school, Freeland says.

"We always claimed there were real benefits in terms of student development and learning from the work experience. And we believe there were," he says. "But fundamentally it was about earning money. We weren't very systematic in thinking about exactly what learning occurred. We just sort of thought, you get more mature, you learn how to get up at 7 a.m. and catch a bus. All these are good things. But we didn't say, 'how does working at DEC make you a better electrical engineer?' "

Better outcomes for interns

Internships are now more central than ever, he says. But they are being refined to focus more on "learning outcomes," jargon that means gearing the work-study to target explicit educational goals. Professors now focus on what skills and information will be learned on that internship - and how it complements the more theoretical course-based learning.

"We believe the opportunity for students to move from the classroom where theory is learned, to the workplace where those ideas are tested and applied, is a more powerful formula for learning than a pure classroom experience," Freeland says.

He has coined the phrase "practice-oriented education" to convey the significance of what Northeastern is trying to do as it now starts documenting the effectiveness of that system. The computer-science department is furthest along, he says, but he acknowledges that there's still a ways to go before the research is in place across the disciplines to show what and how much internships contribute to learning.

There's at least one indicator, however, that this message has resonance. Last year the school had hundreds more freshmen accept Northeastern's offer of admission than it had expected. That jump in the "yield rate" indicates the school is on the right track, Freeland says. Another factor is history.

The lecture hall vs. the real world

Since World War II, the United States has democratized higher education so that today, about two-thirds of high school graduates go on to college rather than about 15 percent formerly, Freeland says. That's a big shift away from an elite model of learning.

But the curriculum and modes of teaching are mired in pre-World War II methods that still depend heavily on lectures and doses of theory in the classroom, without much insight into how the real world operates.

"We are requiring young people whose learning style is not that of a faculty member, is not that of an intellectual, to behave and function in an essentially intellectual context," he says. "But it only partially reaches many of the students going through it. The form of education is vastly underappreciated as a way of reaching students who would otherwise be drifting through college, getting the minimum amount out of it."

The result, he says, is that many students are put through the exercise of a traditional education, sitting in a room with 35 other kids listening to lectures or reading books and being fundamentally bored.

"I think the amount of waste in higher education in this sense is really quite great," he says. "To me, the biggest missing piece in our system of higher education in the last 50 years is our inability to compare, in a really sensitive way, the quality of undergraduate learning."

Rather than simply railing against rankings, though, he says rankings are so unsatisfactory that they are actually driving higher education in the right direction - toward a new model that will really assess the quality of learning on campus, not simply the number of books in a library or the size of a school's endowment.

Now, Freeland says, another historic change is taking place. He points to different testing regimes popping up to test the quality of learning in higher education.

"We're seeing a shift that's part of the whole assessment movement," he says. "Higher education faculty have ignored it. But now rankings are forcing a second look at assessment because, in the end, that's what rankings are all about. It will put something valuable in that gap."

During recent weeks, Freeland has, like others on campus, closely followed events since the attacks on the World Trade Center. At least one undergraduate, and a dozen alumni and others connected to the university, died.

Freeland predicts that the discussions that have occurred since Sept. 11 will have a lasting, positive impact on higher education as students and faculty debate issues at a deeper level and strive to get beyond political correctness.

"I feel no hint of political posturing, political correctness, or academic games by people at Northeastern," he says. "On the contrary, I feel the enormity of these events have swept all that aside."

Higher education can serve the country, he says, by offering a candid appraisal of America's role in the world and things it may have done that contribute to negative perceptions from other nations.

"This is something we can do to help," he says. "There's nothing the slightest bit unpatriotic about that."

E-mail claytonm@csps.com.

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