Formation | Culture | Mission

How to Fix Higher Education

I don’t know much about American higher education, but I think I might know how to fix it. (It’s a good thing I’m not writing an essay on humility.)

1.

This paragraph comes from a New York Times op-ed piece posted yesterday:

American students are enrolling in college in record numbers, but they’re also dropping out in droves. Barely half of those who start four-year colleges, and only a third of community college students, graduate. That’s one of the worst records among developed nations, and it’s a substantial drain on the economy. The American Institutes for Research estimates the cost of those dropouts, measured in lost earnings and taxes, at $4.5 billion. Incalculable are the lost opportunities for social mobility and the stillborn professional careers.

If I were a nationally-recognized Czar of Education—meaning I had complete authority over America’s education system—I would begin by making a few changes to higher education that would accomplish three goals: (1) Increase the average college-educated adult’s ability to read, think and write; (2) Instantly raise graduation rates at all levels of post-secondary education; and (3) Better prepare students for working and living in the real world.

Here’s how The JS Linneman Higher Education System would work.

2.

College as we know it would be broadly focused on liberal arts and sciences, and most students would complete a B.A. in two or three years. College would become more affordable and easily accessible to students of all backgrounds and intellectual capacities (i.e. public colleges would be the norm and would be less exclusive than many currently are).

A typical student’s college program would look like this:

Bachelor of Arts

4-6 courses in languages, culture and religion
4-6 courses in history, politics and economics
4-6 courses in the arts, literature and communications
4-6 courses in mathematics, sciences and technology
4-6 courses in self-management, personal finance and career exploration

The program would be roughly 75 credits, so that it could be completed in three years while working close part-time or in two years if a student takes classes year-round or if college credit has been received in high school. Community colleges would be engrafted in to state universities as regional/satellite campuses. The bachelor-level program would be flexible but primarily residential, offering the college experience for 2-3 years but kicking young adults out before they find themselves in the sixth year of their undergraduate degree at age 24, in debt from transferring between highly-specialized programs and overweight from dorm food. When I was at the University of Missouri, I changed my major from biochemistry to microbiology, and it cost me two courses–six credits I had taken as a requirement for one department but were outside the curriculum for the second. Because there was no room for general electives in my degree, these six credits represented a loss of roughly $2,000 in tuition–that would have been over $6,000 at a private university. Why do universities do this? Because it better provides a well-rounded education for a young adult, or because the contemporary university system exists to exploit the indecisiveness of a 19-year old kid?

Only two degrees would exist: the B.A. and the Bachelor of Science. The B.S. would decrease the first three categories above to three classes each and increase the fourth category to 8-10 classes. But even with the B.S., there’d still be a broad education across science disciplines, including statistics, psychology, chemistry, and so on. The only major curriculum decision an incoming freshman would make would be between a B.A. and a B.S., which most 17-18 year olds could make pretty easily, and if a student changed directions during their second or third year, they would graduate once they hit the credit limit (75), with either a B.A. or a B.S., whichever area she had more credits in. Thus, there wouldn’t be a ridiculous demand on them to choose a career path that requires specialization of knowledge that early in life. (Also, because in this scenario I’m the Education Czar and all my rules are nationally-recognized, all U.S. colleges and universities would have similar curricula and thus transferring, often to be closer to family or take a better job, would be seamless, rather than lowering a young adult’s chance of graduating.)

Self-management courses would include basic instruction on nutrition and fitness, reducing obesity and rising health care costs in the community, and job-related skills like creating a resume, interviewing for a job and not wearing sweat pants before 10pm. Personal finance, another required course or two, would teach on topics like budgeting, taxes, insurance, investing, buying a home and planning. Career exploration classes would provide exposure to practicing professionals in fields like journalism, business and health care, and personal advising/coaching (with community leaders, not just university-employed advisors) would provide encouragement and support. Most of the well-established community leaders I know would be happy to give up a few hours each month to give a presentation on their area of expertise and mentor a few interested students. I’m sure some universities offer these types of courses at the student center or as electives, but how many kids take those when they have 120+ other credits to worry about? They must be required, for Pete’s and everyone else’s sake.

Many students will not need additional, more specialized training to make a valuable contribution to society, and if they are still undecided on a career path, they get out of college a year or two earlier, with much less debt and several new professional connections.

3.

Graduate School would focus on specialized training and skills for working in the real world, normally lasting another two years, with built-in internships at corporations, non-profits and schools. This is where university departments would come in: Life Sciences, Engineering, Creative Writing, etc. But even here, there wouldn’t be the hyper-specialization that exists in most colleges. Students would choose from categories like Life Science, Physical Science, Humanities, Social Studies, Engineering, Journalism, Art, Business, Nursing and Education.

This would be a step along the way for some students: an M.S. in Life Science would be required for medical school and an M.A. in Humanities would be required for a Ph.D. in Philosophy. And yet again many students would be completing their education here—with an M.A. in Education or an M.S. in Nursing. During these two years, internships and workplace training would be built into each program, giving students more hands-on experience, a better feel for their chosen career path and organizations the opportunity to select future employees.

4.

Professional School would be a cooperative program between the university and various organizations, business and schools, and would largely be paid for by the employer. So medical school would still be four years, but med school committees would have a broader education and more work feedback on which to evaluate a candidate, and then a hospital or health system would cover the student’s professional tuition, either as a tax-deductible donation or in return for future employment (like with the military).

Law school, specialized health careers (dentistry, physical therapy, etc) and Ph.D. programs would function largely the same way. So overall, a student might spend an extra year in school (unless she does the B.A./B.S. in two years) but her education will be both more broadly focused and more career focused, while giving students more opportunities to graduate and move into the workforce with a broad education and essential skills (like personal finance) all along the way.

__

I’m sure this system isn’t perfect and I’m sure there are a thousand flaws here. I know that because I’ve never actually read an entire book on higher education. But I think most of the challenges would be on the side of the institutions of higher education, and if they complain, it may only be because their true goal is not the holistic education of young adults but the perpetuation of their own brand and the sake of intellectual nostalgia. For employers, I believe this is an appealing system. For young adults, I believe this would save years of vocational uncertainty, unrealistic expectations and financial crisis. I believe in this, and that’s why I’m putting my name on it: The JS Linneman Higher Education System. Any takers?

Post Script

If my ministry friends are wondering how The JSLHES would work for pastoral training, a student would ideally earn a B.A. or B.S. from their state college, gaining valuable education across multiple disciplines in a secular environment, then earn a M.A. in Bible & Theology from a biblical seminary in two years. There wouldn’t be a huge amount of pastoral training in the M.A., since each student would be required to be receiving that heart and skill in his local church. However, the biblical and theological training would be much more practical than most seminaries require. So an M.A. student wouldn’t take Greek and Hebrew but would work through real case studies in Hermeneutics. (How would you describe the message of the Old Testament prophecies to the needs of a man who’s just lost his wife to cancer? A Catholic visitor asks you to explain the difference between how her priests and you understand the authority of the Bible–how do you respond?) The M.A. program would consist of 3-4 courses in each category: Biblical Studies, Theology, Church History and Spiritual Formation. As with the public B.A./B.S. programs, the theological M.A. wouldn’t be so highly specialized as to take financial advantage of students who change programs or emphases within the same institution!

The M.A. would be the standard degree expected of pastors, and then established, salaried pastors in their thirties and forties would have the option of doing additional training through a Doctor of Ministry. For example, with a D.Min. in emphasis in preaching, there’d be coursework in the original languages; in a pastoral care doctorate, classes on dynamics of spiritual renewal and human psychology. D.Min.’s would typically be paid for by the pastor’s local church, and they’d only be allowed to take place at retreat centers in places like San Diego, coastal Maine and the western range of Colorado!

Specialized Ph.D.’s (historical theology, New Testament studies, etc.) would still exist to further the depth of theological study and training, but acceptance would be based on past ministry experience and writing (not as much on the B.A. or M.A. GPA or GRE score). The seminary would pay for Ph.D. student’s tuition and basic living expenses (like a university does with its Ph.D. students in life sciences) in exchange for an established pastor’s help with the educational load. Seminaries would naturally be led only by Ph.D.’s who had previously spent 10-20 years in full-time pastoral ministry (since there wasn’t an option of getting a ministry doctorate any sooner). And as with the general system above, there wouldn’t be 35-year old fathers of four kids grinding out the eighth year of a Greek and Hebrew based, 105-credit hour M.Div. for a preaching job that doesn’t exist and for which they aren’t actually called.

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