The future of higher education arrived without fanfare for Kimberly McClish during her freshman orientation last fall, when she was handed a laminated notebook divider.
On it were the "Principles of Undergraduate Learning" a reminder of what her life would now be about: Communication skills, critical thinking, applying knowledge, intellectual depth, understanding society, and ethics.
Within a day or two, Ms. McClish forgot all about them. But later that semester, she found that her professors at the Indiana University-Purdue University campus in Indianapolis (IUPUI) insisting she compose assignments with those principles in mind and explain how they were incorporated. The principles were in course syllabuses, too.
A simple tool, the statements are part of a five-year-old IUPUI effort to bring more coherence and focus to educating 19,000 undergraduates spread across 180 degree programs. The principles will also be the basis for assessing students to ensure they graduate with core abilities.
The experiment is just one small part of a growing effort to rethink and retool American higher education for the 21st century.
By most measures, higher education in the United States is a huge success story. Multitiered, diverse, with wide access and world-class research faculty and labs, US colleges are wildly popular with foreign and domestic students. Many of the 4,000-plus higher-education institutions are enjoying unprecedented enrollment.
Yet behind that rosy glow, the basic structure is increasingly ineffectual in its fundamental purpose of undergraduate education, some say. Low college-completion rates, soaring tuitions, and employer complaints that graduates can't write or analyze well are spurring speculation that higher education must change its approach. The student body, they say, has far different needs from those of the highly homogeneous, elite group of the 1960s.
Indeed, a study released yesterday by the American Association of Colleges and Universities argues that higher education runs a grave risk if it won't adapt.
"Even today, too many students still receive what Robert P. Moses calls a 'ghetto education,' " says the report, entitled "Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College." "If colleges hold low expectations for many of their students and shunt them into narrow or shallow tracks, they could be re-creating at the collegiate level the severe, discriminatory problems of the twentieth-century high school experiment."
A "practical liberal education" is not a "utopian dream" for institutions of higher learning, the report argues. Instead of graduating students with mediocre analytical and communications skills, colleges need to insist on crafting students who may become:
"Empowered learners" with strong oral, written, and quantitative skills they can use to evaluate a flood of information.
"Informed learners" who understand global and cross-cultural relationships, know a second language, and value the history underlying US democracy.
"Responsible learners" who understand the ethical consequences of actions and are active participants in democracy.
In tone, the report pitch sounds similar to President Bush's K-12 No Child Left Behind Act. And it's the sort of idealistic message that might have met with stony indifference even a year ago. But currently, groups with names like "the Millennium Project" (University of Michigan) and "the Futures Project" (Brown University) are churning out new models of higher education. The National Governors Association has its own project, too.
It could appear to be so much academic rumbling. But some observers see a new intensity behind the initiatives.
"Academics are forever writing about the future of higher education," says Alan Guskin, director of the Project for the Future of Higher Education at Antioch University in Seattle. "But this time is different from those. What we're seeing now is a sustained level of concern about the way in which the university is structured and funded that could lead to real change."
Substantive change, if it comes, would be remarkable for an entity that hasn't altered its basic structure much since the 12th century, observers say. When change has come, it has often been imposed from outside, rather than from within: the GI Bill of Rights, the women's movement, and the civil rights movement all pried opened the doors to American higher education.
But access has been followed by pressures and expectations that appear set to reshape the role and cost of higher education.
Paramount is the expectation now that college is necessary to achieve a middle-class lifestyle. And unlike earlier eras, schools are being flooded with students of widely varying skills and income levels who expect a degree.
About 75 percent of high school graduates today go on to college, a far higher proportion than two decades ago. About 28 percent of college students are minorities. Women outnumber men on many campuses.
At the same time, preparation lags. Only 47 percent of high school graduates complete college-prep courses. Nearly 40 percent of students in four-year colleges take remedial courses and these students have lower prospects for graduating.
Attendance patterns have changed, too. About 73 percent of undergraduates are nontraditional students, and 28 percent attend part time. By 2015, up to 2 million more young adults will seek to go to college, many from low-income families.
Higher education isn't responding nearly fast enough to such profound changes, critics say. Yes, a few freshman-year programs have improved learning and retention. Still, most freshmen take large introductory courses. Professors lecture. Students take notes and tests.
As the economy sours and tuitions soar, cost and quality are coming under more intense scrutiny. Parents, employers, and public officials want to know what students are actually learning for all that time and taxpayer money.
It's a question colleges have avoided.
"Every time we ask what they're learning, every time university administrators just say 'trust us,' " says Frank Newman, director of the Futures Project at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "Some states are discussing how to create incentives to improve retention and graduate rates. Others (Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, South Dakota, Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Georgia) have laws requiring testing of undergraduates on general education and other fields of study.
Still others say higher education needs a fundamental makeover. That's why IUPUI which is lauded in the Greater Expectations report is focusing on what Ms. McClish, now a sophomore, actually learns, instead of just totaling up how many course hours she accumulates.
"Our retention rate was terrible before, students just weren't being successful," says Scott Evenbeck, dean of University College at IUPUI. "We needed to come together as a campus and help students make the transition to university life."
Since the six-principles program began five years ago, retention has risen sharply. Also, the principles are starting to catch on with some students. McClish even requested extra dividers for each one of her notebooks. "When I do a paper or a homework assignment or a speech, I use it as another gauge for how I've performed," she says. "Did I hit all of them? If I do that, I figure I've got the assignment well done."
Richard Hersh, the new president of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., has thought a lot about changing higher education. He sits on the panel of educators that developed the new "Greater Expectations" report, which calls for an "invigorated and practical liberal education."
The current US higher-education system is falling woefully short of its abilities and failing students in the process, Mr. Hersh says.
"Our universities are world-renowned for their research," he says. "We've always assumed those reputations were equally true of the undergraduate programs and now we're finding out that they're not."
Less than 48 percent of students who start college graduate from a four-year program. "If we're so good, why do we have such weak retention?" Hersh asks.
To begin to fix the problem, he says, colleges must set explicit goals for student learning so academic departments and general-education courses can align with them.
The report is intended as a road map for policymakers to create a "learner-centered" approach in college focusing on what and how students learn, not just on what teachers wish to teach. To create engaged "intentional learners," it advises:
Having faculty members across disciplines and departments assume collective responsibility for the curriculum, to ensure that every student has an enriching liberal education.
Regularly assessing student progress in achieving goals.
Creating faculty reward systems that value learning-centered education.
Placing the institution's vision of a liberal education at the center of strategic planning and resource allocation.
We do not need more vocational-type teaching in college, Dr. Hersh says.
"The much more important and more powerful form of education for the 21st century is about getting people to deal with masses of information, make sense of it, and to be able to think, write, articulate, and have a moral compass so we're not left just waiting for the next Enron moment."