Which Path Forward? | Higher Ed Gamma

Which Path Forward? | Higher Ed Gamma

The four-year graduation rate at the Cal State campuses reached a record high—33 percent—in 2021. The six-year rate also rose, to 63 percent. These figures represent a striking improvement since 2015, when the figures were 19 percent and 57 percent, respectively. But those higher figures still won’t bowl you over.

Meanwhile, equity gaps persist, with graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients and Black and Latino/a students roughly 10 points lower than among non–Pell Grant recipients and white and Asian American undergrads. Stepped-up advising, more aggressive interventions and academic and financial supports have made a genuine difference. But much more needs to be done.

A recent blog posting by Michael Feldstein, one of higher education’s most astute observers, asked a fascinating question: If you were designing Cal State today, what would you do differently? He proceeded to examine a proposal that came out of MIT to reimagine the “midtier” universities that serve the bulk of undergraduates but that occupy a kind of nether land, as “‘lesser’ versions of research universities,” without their resources or reputation.

The Cal States, Feldstein asserts, lack “a distinctive and valued purpose and identity.” Harsh, but perhaps true.

The result, according to Feldstein: these institutions “make the same research demands on faculty and incur expenses for building out facilities that are not focused on creating well-educated citizens, successful professionals and thoughtful human beings. Money that could be used to build better connections to employers, add more advisers or cut tuition is instead spent on the same trappings as research universities.”

So what should these broad-access institutions do instead? The MIT professors argue that “all parties would be better off if professors were trained, supported and rewarded for effective teaching of relevant (though not narrowly vocational) skills and tuition money were invested high-quality, well-trained, well-supported educators.”

Ugh. That’s certainly not a role or responsibility that the MIT profs would embrace. Why would faculty who were disciplinary specialists trained at elite graduate schools and well published in their fields forsake scholarship? I certainly wouldn’t.

What, then, is the alternative? What we need, I think, is what Feldstein calls a “radically conservative” vision that conserves “the best parts of an American-style liberal arts education by re-imagining it but not rejecting it.”

I call that the learner- and learning-centered university. This is an institution that values scholarship, the liberal arts, a physical campus and the teacher-scholar. It doesn’t offer a narrowly vocational education, but it is career conscious. It’s a mission-driven university and that mission is, above all, to give a diverse student body educational experiences second to none—plus the feedback and mentoring they need and deserve—in order to prepare them for postgraduation success as adults and professionals.

If we were honest with ourselves, we’d acknowledge that most American colleges and universities have embraced an educational model that doesn’t work very well. Only about 60 percent of undergraduates at four-year institutions earn a bachelor’s degree, while fewer than 40 percent of community college students ever get a degree or certificate. Even among those who do receive a bachelor’s, about 40 percent find themselves underemployed, in a field unrelated to their college major.

If the nation’s K-12 schools had such awful outcomes, politicians and the public would cry foul.

Yet the problems go deeper. Alongside the challenges of completion and postgraduation employment, there are a host of other concerns involving affordability, time to degree, learning and equity. There’s a widespread perception that too many degree holders lack the skills and knowledge expected of a college graduate. Whether true or not, college students’ learning outcomes are highly uncertain. Even as grades have risen, scores on standardized tests haven’t, while assigned reading and expectations about writing have dwindled.

Then there’s a growing recognition that higher education, long viewed as an engine of upward mobility, is beset by inequalities, with students from lower-income backgrounds concentrated in the least-resourced institutions with the highest dropout and the poorest graduation rates and with Black and Hispanic students and many women grossly underrepresented in majors with the highest earnings.

The broad-access institutions that serve the bulk of undergraduates need a new educational model. That’s not the model proposed by the self-styled disrupters and innovators, who call for cheaper, faster paths into the job market. Some of those disrupters believe that the path forward lies in a fully-online career-focused education, others in a self-directed, self-paced model. Still others think the answer lies in unbundling the traditional college: replacing teacher-scholars with course mentors, coaches and graders; eliminating buildings, fixed-length terms and extracurricular activities; and substituting stackable, short-term credentials for traditional degrees.

Nor is it the MIT-proposed model: where research expectations are reduced; where degrees are subdivided into stackable credentials; where all faculty would have the (nontenurable) status of professors of practice.

I favor a different vision: a learner- and learning-centric model that reaffirms the value of a physical campus and of a professoriate that combines research, teaching and mentoring, that embraces the value of a liberal arts education, seeks to educate the whole student and strives to bring all students to success academically and postgraduation.

The model I favor differs from existing practice in its emphasis on:

  • explicit learning and skills outcomes.
  • coherent, integrated curricular pathways.
  • the well-rounded development of the whole student, socially, emotionally and ethically as well as cognitively.
  • alternatives to traditional lecture and seminar courses that involve more active, immersive, participatory, inquiry- and project-based and experiential learning.
  • a curriculum that intentionally seeks to cultivate graduates with the knowledge and skills in quantitative analysis, social science thinking, the scientific method and fluency in the arts, literature, history and philosophy and in the humanities’ interpretive techniques.
  • preparation for the job market.

Implementing a learner- and learning-centered approach will require far-reaching changes in curricula, pedagogy, assessment, the faculty role and student support structures. This won’t be easy, but it is essential if campuses are to bring many more students to a bright future.

Change is imperative, first of all, because the student body has changed. The new student majority—which consists of commuting students, part-time students, working students, international students and students with disabilities, many of whom received an uneven education in high school—needs approaches to teaching and learning that differ from that in the past.

The education we offer also needs to adapt to changes in students’ life challenges as well as their expectations and aspirations. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, colleges and universities must serve the students they have, not the students they might want or prefer.

At most broad-access institutions, these are students who attend part-time, commute, work 25 hours a week or more, have transferred and hold various family responsibilities. Many are among the first in their family to attend college and therefore need more advising and mentoring than those who are already familiar with college terminology, offices, practices and procedures, requirements and academic expectations. In addition, many need help with basic needs for food, housing, health care, childcare and transportation and handling the unpredictable disruptions that all too frequently interrupt their education.

Unlike their counterparts a half century ago, these students’ primary goal is a glide path to a rewarding career. That means that colleges and universities must:

  • Furnish entering students with a clearly delineated road map to a degree.
  • Offer an education that the students regard as engaging and relevant.
  • Provide wraparound academic and nonacademic supports, including intensive, personalized academic, financial and career advising and ready access to supplemental instruction.
  • Eliminate obstacles to timely completion, including outdated or irrelevant graduation requirements and barriers to transfer.

Such institutions would strive to maximize students’ return on investment and prepare undergraduates not just for their fifth job, but their first. This will require faculty to make sure that their teaching is, first and foremost, about advancing their students’ welfare. Instructors need to create educational experiences that are intentionally designed to engage and motivate students, tie in with their postcollege aspirations, offer a sufficient amount of flexibility and options, and help students persist.

We know what to do. Let’s look at the steps that need to be taken.

Policies and Practices

  • Incentivize full-time enrollment. Offer a robust new-student orientation to introduce students to campus services and provide them with a degree plan and a personal point of contact.
  • Create block schedules that allow students to make more productive use of their time on campus, whether in the morning, the afternoon or the evening and on specific weekdays or weekends.
  • Replace remedial courses with credit-bearing classes that provide corequisite support and supplemental instruction.

Guarantee Availability of Essential Gateway Courses

  • Make the transfer process more seamless and fully articulate degree plans between four-year and feeder two-year institutions.
  • Expedite transfer credit evaluation.
  • Ensure course availability for transfer students.


  • Create structured, integrated degree pathways in high-demand fields, in which courses are intentionally designed to reinforce one another.
  • Align math requirements with students’ program of study and associated careers.
  • Rethink general education by offering for-credit courses that 1) promote personal development; 2) build academic success skills; 3) involve civic engagement and service learning; 4) address pressing, timely social problems; and 5) introduce students broadly to social science and historical thinking, the frontiers of science and the arts of looking, listening and reading, from multidisciplinary perspectives.
  • Supplement lecture courses and seminars with other learning experiences that feature active and experiential learning.


  • Redesign large-enrollment gateway classes to make them more dynamic, interactive and participatory.
  • Assist faculty in incorporating active learning strategies and educational technologies that facilitate annotation, collaboration, text mining, visualization and novel kinds of student presentations, including digital storytelling, podcasts and the development of virtual encyclopedias, museum exhibitions and websites.
  • Encourage faculty to introduce more low-stakes formative and authentic assessments into their teaching.
  • Provide students with more timely, substantive, constructive feedback directed at building their essential communication, analytic, critical thinking, quantitative, collaboration and presentation skills.


  • Place first-year students into a learning community aligned with their career aspirations.
  • Expand access to various kinds of cohort programs, including research, community service and opportunity programs.

Support Services

  • Implement a data infrastructure that can allow advisers and instructors to monitor student engagement, performance and progress in near real time and that can trigger nudges and interventions when students fall off track.
  • Establish a tiered system of student support that includes tutoring, peer-led study groups, supplemental instruction sessions and learning centers in mathematics, science and writing.
  • Consider introducing a one-stop student support center to make it easier for students to resolve problems with financial aid, billing and course registration; adopting a case management approach to advising, to allow a single adviser to address the multiple issues that a student might need to resolve; and appointing a graduation specialist to help students nearing graduation to cross the finish line.

Career Preparation

  • Embed career preparation across the undergraduate experience.
  • Establish pre-professional centers in high-demand areas such as the arts, computer science, information technology, pre–health care, prelaw and public policy.
  • Scale experiential learning opportunities, to help students create a record of career-related skills and accomplishments.
  • Consider creating a skills transcript to document demonstrated career-related skills.

The simplest, most straightforward solutions to the enrollment, financial, completion, political and postgraduation employment challenges that today’s broad-access colleges and universities confront require campuses to increase retention rates, expedite time to degree and prepare students for entry into a meaningful, rewarding career.

However, if degree attainment and credentialing were our only objective, we could certainly do that more cheaply and efficiently—perhaps along the lines that the MIT proposal envisions.

Certainly, we need to think more strategically about the education we provide. We must ensure that students acquire the range of knowledge and competencies and soft, technical and digital skills signified by a college degree. That will require instructors to devote much more attention to skill building.

It also means that faculty will need to develop new kinds of lower-division courses that are more sweeping and interdisciplinary than the discipline-based classes that dominate that portion of the curriculum. Sure, highly specialized courses have an important place in the upper division, but undergraduates also need broader classes that expose them to the ways that humanists, social scientists and scientists think and how scholars grapple with the issues involving climate change, democracy, equality, international relations, justice, merit, gender and race, and other hot topics.

Feldstein asks whether his readers would feel comfortable sending their children to the institution that the MIT professors envision. He would; I wouldn’t, and not just because I don’t think we should encourage the development of a two-tiered faculty, one tier eligible for tenure, the other not, one tier engaged in research and scholarship, the other not so much.

However unequal our system of higher education has become, we still cling (however precariously) to the idea that all college students should have the opportunity to work with specialists, authorities and experts. Let’s not compromise that great democratic ideal. Let’s not exchange our birthright as scholars for a bowl of stew.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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