By Laura Barlament
As the nation debates the value of college education, Wagner College and the university associations to which it belongs are continuing to develop educational quality while also expanding accessibility and vigorously defending the core principles of liberal education.
President Guarasci, for one, is worried about the state of the conversation in the public sphere. “Where is higher education going?” he asked rhetorically in an interview with Wagner Magazine. “We hear about online learning, people sitting around in their pajamas and never meeting anybody. Where will people learn about diversity? Where will they learn about citizenship, being an engaged citizen in a democracy? Where are all the social and affective pieces? How do you build a strong, vibrant democracy? How do you build teamwork? Where are students going to develop ethical values? That bothers me.”
Over the past year, we listened in on the conversation in a couple of venues: The annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) last January, and a Wagner College symposium held in October.
The discussions were challenging and exciting — just as you might hope and expect from the people who drive so much innovation and discovery and development of the next generation in our society.
An Efficiency Problem?
A giant hotel conference room gradually begins to fill at the opening session of the Association of American College & University’s annual conference.
I introduce myself to a woman sitting near me. “My name is Funke Fontenot,” she says. “I’m a dean at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia.”
Why is she here? I ask. “This is one of the major conferences on higher education,” she tells me. “It’s where the conversation is happening, and I want to be a part of the conversation.”
When Debra Humphreys, AAC&U’s vice president for policy and public engagement, kicks off the session by announcing, “This is the 100th meeting of the AAC&U,” a few “woots!” are heard from the audience. The attendees represent 45 states, she says, and the attendance may be the biggest on record.
Access to and affordability of high-quality education is the issue that haunts many of the conversations at this conference.
“We’re all here seeking to work together for a shared purpose, to make sure today’s college students get the quality college education they need,” she says, adding that the AAC&U recently expanded its mission to encompass extending the advantages of liberal education to all students, in all the sectors of higher education.
And it is this issue — i.e., access to and affordability of high-quality education — that haunts many of the conversations at this conference.
Introducing the opening panel, Scott Jaschik, editor of the widely read website Inside Higher Ed, asked the crowd, “How many here think that higher education has a quality problem?” Only a few people raised their hands. But when he asked, “How many here think that higher education has an efficiency problem?”, many more hands were raised.
The Way of the ‘Ugly Ducklings’
In a panel discussion the next day, I heard about an association of colleges that is working to preserve residential liberal education through a “provocative” (to use President Guarasci’s word) new model of collaboration.
Wagner is one of the 22 institutions in the New American Colleges & Universities (NAC&U), a national coalition of small-to-medium-sized schools dedicated to the “purposeful integration of liberal education, professional studies, and civic engagement.”
Once lovingly called “the ugly ducklings of higher education,” colleges and universities of this type started banding together 20 years ago. Now they are seriously starting to break down institutional walls and offer more opportunities to their students and faculty throughout the network, while preserving their individuality.
“This collaboration is a better response to the crisis facing colleges than increasing competition and stratification,” said Guarasci.
“We’re creating a new and innovative type of academic community,” said Thomas Kazee, president of the University of Evansville. He compared the association to a free trade zone, creating access to resources that one institution alone can’t provide.
Already, the association shares special programs for students, such as study abroad programs and also “study away” programs — a domestic version of experiencing a different campus with different resources, specialties, and opportunities.
“This collaboration is a better response to the crisis facing colleges than increasing competition and stratification,” said Guarasci.
The College of the Future
Next up, a thought experiment: It is 10 years in the future, January 2024. A generous alum has made it possible to restart Able College, a residential liberal arts college that has failed. You have free rein to design a new program to develop students’ critical thinking and problem-solving, communications, intercultural competence, and teamwork — but the tuition can’t exceed $60,000 for the entire program, and a four-year residential degree would cost a minimum of $104,000. What would you do? What is your new business plan?
In this “flipped session” led by Richard Holmgren, vice president for information services and planning at Allegheny College, everyone in attendance gathered into small groups around the tables in the room to form a mock leadership team for the new Able College.
My team brought together professors and administrators from real universities, both public and private, co-educational and single-sex, in Alabama, Rhode Island, and California. Despite this diversity of backgrounds, the conversation was soon bubbling with a plan for a three-year, intensive degree program. Three semesters’ worth of studies would be completed each year. A transformative first-year program should kick it off, they agreed, immersing the students in the local community. Next, all students would leave campus for internships or co-op programs, overseen by faculty. Finally, the students would return to campus for their capstone year and another culminating project serving the local community.
As all of the groups in the room presented their business plans, the idea of reducing the time spent completing the degree was a common thread, as was incorporating local service and work as a part of the educational experience.
I left the room thinking that, whether or not any of these business plans could work, the idea of “flipping” the conference room activities is great: problem-solving with a group is more fun and inspiring than listening to someone else give you the answers.
Responding to Disruption
Wagner College has long been a leader in developing new trends in undergraduate education that have become widely adopted across the higher education landscape. Now, the College is considering the next phase.
The faculty took one day of the College’s fall break in October for an Innovation Celebration — a symposium by and for Wagner professors to share the latest methods in teaching and learning.
President Richard Guarasci kicked off the day by noting, “We’re at an interesting point in higher education. We’re at a moment of what the business folks would call disruption.”
Technological change and economic uncertainty is driving colleges to reconsider and adapt what they do.
"How do we take this [Wagner Plan] model and tweak it or reform it? … We’re at that point again.”
But at Wagner, innovation and adaptation — around a core set of principles embodied in the College’s signature curriculum, the Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts — is a way of life.
“In my time here,” Guarasci said, “we’ve always risen as a faculty and staff to say, ‘OK, what do we need to do next? How do we take this [Wagner Plan] model and tweak it or reform it?’ And we’re at that point again.”
The core principles, according to Guarasci, are “active learning, experiential learning, collaborative learning, and interdisciplinary learning.”
Throughout the day, more than 40 faculty, staff, and even a few students, presented posters, videos, discussions, and talks about classroom projects, avenues of collaboration, assessment studies, effective use of teaching technologies, and other aspects of their teaching and scholarly work.
Many of the projects presented at Wagner’s Innovation Celebration encompassed an amazingly broad range of constituencies and communities to create rich learning experiences.
Take, for example, the chemistry research summer program for Port Richmond High School students presented by Nicholas Richardson, associate professor of chemistry and department chair.
It started with a chemistry major of long ago: Clarence A. Faires ’46, who worked for Exxon for many years. He and his wife, Anna R. Faires, designated a portion of their estate for the improvement of Wagner’s chemistry department. That endowment fund now provides about $20,000 per year for the department to use for special projects.
For the past several years, Richardson has been thinking about involving the department more in the Port Richmond Partnership, the college-community collaboration focused on a single Staten Island neighborhood with great economic, educational, and health needs. He envisioned a summer program that would expose high school students to advanced laboratory research and give Wagner students valuable mentoring experience.
In 2014, he launched the program. For three weeks, four students from Port Richmond High School lived on campus and worked every day in the lab under the supervision of Mohammad Alauddin, professor of chemistry and an internationally known expert in the field of environmental pollution.
Their focus was on Alauddin’s specialty: the problem of water contamination in Bangladesh. The high school students analyzed water samples collected by Alauddin’s research team, using advanced tests and instrumentation. To bring their learning back home, they also did field tests on water samples in Staten Island.
Two senior chemistry majors guided the high school students in the lab. Another Wagner student, who is a member of the Bonner Leaders program, provided co-curricular activities and supervision.
This past summer, Wagner College also launched another summer program for Port Richmond students: a leadership academy for potential first-generation college students, which combined a community-focused internship with instruction in writing and math. Integration of the summer chemistry research program with this leadership academy is under discussion, Richardson said.
In summary, Richardson said, the summer chemistry research program provided invaluable mentoring experience for Wagner students, critical research experience for Port Richmond High School students, and engagement with the Port Richmond Partnership for the chemistry department. “And it exposed more people to science,” he concluded — not as an abstraction, but as a hands-on, real-world, problem-solving experience.
The one non-Wagner speaker at the symposium was Carol Geary Schneider, president of Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). She admitted at the outset of her keynote speech that much of what she and her organization have learned and are promoting as the best model of college education came from Wagner College.
And, she said, “the next frontier in higher education” is also to be found at Wagner College.
The AAC&U promotes the ideal of “liberal education” — an education that provides broad knowledge, cultivates the “power of the mind,” and promotes civic, social, and ethical responsibility. “These goals are worth fighting for, in a moment when higher education is besieged by a narrow, reductionist, instrumentalist conception of why people go to college,” she emphasized.
Added to those goals is another essential learning outcome of the 21st century: integrative and applied learning. “It’s what students can do with their knowledge that makes it an empowering education,” Schneider said.
The AAC&U has also studied and defined techniques for achieving these liberal education outcomes: “High-impact educational practices” such as the first-year seminars, learning communities, service learning, and internships that are hallmarks of the Wagner Plan.
“These goals are worth fighting for, in a moment when higher education is besieged by a narrow, reductionist, instrumentalist conception of why people go to college.”
But now, Schneider said, a new vision is emerging that ties together all of these learning outcomes and high-impact practices: “an intelligent redesign of the undergraduate experience,” she said. “And it’s all here — you were pioneers in it — it’s a notion of a cornerstone to capstone form to the curriculum.”
In other words, the new thrust of liberal education is to help students better tie together all that they are learning, to provide themes that thread throughout all parts of the students’ educational journey, and to promote student involvement in answering the big, real-world questions that they want to solve.
Specifically, this new frontier requires rethinking the general education portion of the curriculum and making it as vital and meaningful to the students as their major.
In a reflective session that concluded the day, the Wagner faculty started thinking creatively about ways that the whole educational experience could be redesigned to make it even more meaningful for students. Ideas included having students from different disciplines write on a common theme, holding a senior conference on a common topic, and threading themes into the general education curriculum.
“Great ideas to further explore, discuss, and pursue,” said Mary Lo Re, a business professor who has been named Wagner’s new dean of adult education and extension programs, and who organized the symposium.
The symposium grew out of the work of a faculty committee on teaching, learning, value and cost; that group as well as a special committee on general education requirements will keep the conversations going on these important topics.