One can hardly fling a mortarboard these days without hitting someone decrying the state of American higher education. And there’s much to decry. One particular strain of critique centers on the issue of choice, with students suffering from either too many or too few options. The problem apparently lends itself to gastronomic metaphor, as two recent takes make clear.
First there’s the cafeteria. Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, which we published last month, seems to have been the right book at the right time, coming just on the heels of President Obama having introduced a $60 billion initiative to make two years of tuition-free community college accessible to everyone. That plan essentially bolsters what the community college system was designed to do: expand college enrollments, particularly among underrepresented students, and to do so at a low cost. As authors Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins explain, though, while community colleges have been extraordinarily successful in increasing access they’ve not excelled at ushering their students along to graduation. “Colleges designed to maximize course enrollment,” they write, “are not well designed to maximize completion of high-quality programs of study.”
The root of the problem is that students face a clutter of choices in an absence of guidance:
The emphasis on low-cost enrollment has encouraged colleges to offer an array of often-disconnected courses, programs, and support services that students are expected to navigate mostly on their own. Students are confused by a plethora of poorly explained program, transfer, and career options; moreover, on closer scrutiny many programs do not clearly lead to the further education and employment outcomes they are advertised to help students achieve. We refer to this as a cafeteria-style, self-service model.
We argue that to improve outcomes, colleges need to move away from the prevailing cafeteria-style model. Instead, they need to engage faculty and student services professionals in creating more clearly structured, educationally coherent program pathways that lead to students’ end goals, and in rethinking instruction and student support services in ways that facilitate students’ learning and success as they progress along these paths. In short, to maximize both access and success, a fundamental redesign is necessary. We refer to the resulting strategy as the guided pathways model.
At the same time, Fordham University prof and Chronicle of Higher Education columnist Leonard Cassuto takes aim at the choices offered to graduate students, framed again as foodservice. Cassuto, whose The Graduate School Mess we’ll publish this fall, declared last month in a CHE piece that “Graduate Students Cannot Live by Pimentos Alone”:
Imagine a distant grocery store that advertises that it can meet all of your cooking and eating needs. You make the trip, and when you get there you discover that you can only buy lemon grass, pomelos, and Sriracha sauce. You ask about the limited selection, and the manager tells you to wait till next week, when they’ll be selling pimentos, artichoke hearts, and brandied cherries.
That’s what it’s like to pick your courses when you’re a beginning graduate student in the humanities. Term by term, year by year, the graduate course offerings in humanities departments don’t make sense together. They’re a hodgepodge of specialized inquiries: snapshots of books and articles in progress by professors who know what they’re teaching, but aren’t much aware of what’s being taught in colleagues’ courses alongside their own.
Humanities graduate students pick through the eccentric course offerings on the buffet table and try to make a balanced meal out of them. They know that they have to nourish themselves for the comprehensive exam that’s ahead. But how do you gather together a bunch of specialized inquiries into preparation for a general and comprehensive one? Graduate students in the humanities usually solve that problem—that is, they pass their comps—but it takes time, and they have little of that to spare.
In each case it falls to the student to create a coherent program of study, or—to continue the theme—a balanced diet. Community college students are presented with a wide range of courses but relatively little help in translating those options into a specific career goal or the path to achieve it; graduate students are given a clear goal of comprehensive competence, but a slate of courses too specialized to help them prepare.
Both Cassuto and the authors of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges recommend moving to a more student-centered model that helps learners toward their goal, be it an associate’s degree or a PhD. Despite any limits such restructuring may appear to impose on the freedom of faculty to pursue their interests, “doing right by our students,” Cassuto concludes, “is a form of academic responsibility.”