Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk

Kay M. McClenney
Frank Deford

Lara K. Couturier
Lee Shulman
Patrick M. Callan
Richard H. Hersh
Director, Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE)

A few more interesting comments from George Kuh, excerpted from his interview.

Q: Everybody is talking about NSSE, but outside of a small group of people who speak that language it sounds like a sea monster. What is it?

KUH: NSSE [National Survey of Student Engagement] is a short, highly focused survey that asks students to report their behaviors and activities over the course of the academic year. So, first-year and senior students answer questions about how often they talk to faculty members outside the classroom, how often they work on problems inside the classroom. How much reading and writing they do. And how often they get feedback from faculty. All of these activities and a host of other important behaviors we know matter to their learning. They also tell us how much they've gained from college in key areas.

Q: Someone said NSSE was started to be an antidote to the US News rankings. Why does US News need an antidote?
KUH: Well, if an antidote is in order it's because US News rankings don't really tell you anything about the student experience. Rankings tell you what a school has, and who it selects or admits. But rankings don't tell you anything about the nature of the student experience there. Just take a close look at the variables. In fact you can replicate the US News rankings by knowing one number, and that's a school's average SAT score.

Q: US News is not reliable?
KUH: Oh, it's very reliable -- if you want to predict SAT scores. But it's not very reliable if you want to know how students are spending their time, whether they're interacting with faculty. It's not very reliable if you want to know the numbers of students who are doing research projects with a faculty member who are studying abroad, who interact in meaningful ways with people from different backgrounds. The rankings don't tell you anything about that.

Q: What does it tell you?
KUH: It tells you essentially how selective the institution is. Period.

Q: Why does US News and some other rankings have so much power and influence?
KUH: In American society we like to know who's on top, and we want to know why what used to be number one isn't today. And then we make up all sorts of interesting explanations for why that is so. It's part of our culture, John. And so we rank every thing. If we can grab it, we rank it. If can assign a number to it, we will rank it. And this is why at the National Service Student Engagement [NSSE} we do not report or use only a single number to characterize a school. Our view is that the college experience is pretty complicated, and there are lots of different ways of looking at it. We can measure and estimate different aspects of it. But when you reduce the experience to a single number, ooh, that's tragic. The number doesn't tell you anything about the writing intensive experience the student's had. Doesn't tell you anything about whether they're actually talking with people from different countries, or socio-economic background. What does that number tell you? It turns out, we know now, it tells you what the average SAT score is at the institution.

Q: So what are you measuring with NSSE?
KUH: We argue we're measuring collegiate quality based upon what researchers have said over the years makes for really good learning experiences. The NSSE items posed to students represent what we know from lots of work translates into positive learning outcomes.

Q: I can go to US News, and I can find out who's the best research university in the country, or who's the best liberal arts college in the Northeast. Can I go to you, to NSSE and ask "Who's the best ... "
KUH: You mean the most engaging school in the Northeast? No. It's not part of our agreement. Our primary responsibility is to the institutions we work with. And our mission is to give them information that they can use immediately to improve practice. We have other missions. We want people to question other indices of quality and ask what's the basis on which institutional reputation for example is important. What's the basis on which it rests? So we have an educative function, to inform the public. And we also want to find out what works better in certain circumstances. We're about institutional improvement. We're not about creating another ranking system, because rankings don't help institutions in any way. In fact there's plenty of evidence so suggest that schools spend a lot of time and energy trying to �game� the rankings, and they spend money doing that that they could be investing into things that actually matter to student learning.

Q: So is US News part of the quality vs. prestige issue in higher education?
KUH: No, US News itself is not an obstacle to quality. It may have been a deterrent in terms of institutions trying to figure out what to do that might actually make a difference in students' lives. And there is a small segment of the population that needs US News to affirm the kinds of decisions their kids are making. Ironically, most students don't read US News. For 90+ percent of college students US News rankings are irrelevant. They're going to stay within their home state and choose among three or four places that they have access to. So it's not a big part of the problem. But what is needed is an alternative perspective. And that's what NSSE and some other projects are offering. There are different ways of thinking about this, but if you really want to know what's happening on a campus, go and ask NSSE-like questions. Don't rely on this one number � the ranking -- to be an indicator that something meaningful is happening. And by the way, many of the places that are ranked high are probably doing some pretty good work with their students. We just don't have much evidence of it.

Q: What surprises you when freshmen and seniors answer the NSSE questions?
KUH: What surprises most people is the small number of hours students spend preparing for class. The faculty mantra is that students ought to spend at least two hours preparing for class for every hour inside the classroom. But they don't. The good news is, students actually spend more time preparing for class in college than they did in high school. The bad news is they only spend about four or five hours a week studying in high school. And they spend on average, 10, 11, 12, maybe 13 hours studying in college � it varies of course by discipline. But the 12-13 average is nowhere near the 30 or so that would be the amount a full time undergraduate student ought to spend by faculty asserted standards. The worst part about this is, the faculty members themselves, when they estimate how much time students are spending studying, estimate a much lower number than they say students should be studying to do well. But while this is happening students are still getting pretty good grades � A's and B's � essentially for spending about half as much time as faculty members say is important.

Q: What's causing this?
KUH: Many students today are coming to college with an entitlement mentality, which says I have been an A student in high � and about 45% of them have been � so now I'm in college and I know it's going to be harder so I'm willing to study twice as many hours as I did in high school! And if I do, then you as a faculty member should give me the grade I deserve � an A, maybe a B. I will put in what I consider to be reasonable effort and in return expect a good grade. Your job as a teacher is to honor that.

And students are more assertive today. It's not unusual for faculty to get an e-mail from students, during pre registration, asking how many papers are required. And how long are they? And what was the grade distribution the past few terms, which now are public in many institutions? Oh yes, and by the way, is it okay if I miss the week before spring break, and the week after, because I've got a family wedding, and I've got another event with my roommate that I have to attend to? If I miss class, will my grade be affected? I don't want to be disadvantaged, you see. And of course if the student gets the wrong answers, she will just shop and find another course. Not every undergraduate does that, but it's part of the undergraduate culture today.

On the faculty side, they're being asked to do more research and to teach more students which usually translates into larger classes, which means they have more work to do. As faculty are pressed to do more in various areas it is easier to give good grades than hold students to a higher standard. And this has led to what I call a disengagement compact. It's been building for 20 years or more. On the faculty member's side it is, �I won't require too much from you, if you don't expect too much from me back.� If I write notes in the margin of your paper, the chances increase that you're going to want come and know what my comments meant, especially if I give you a C grade. So, I'll give you a little less feedback. I'll shave the grade in your favor, because I won't have to explain to you what it is you need to do to raise that grade. Now, I'm not saying that that characterizes the American professorate, but it's there. It's real. It's problematic. We don't like it as faculty. And students are getting short changed in the bargain, ultimately.

Q: You call it disengagement. Someone else called it a non-aggression pact. Don't ask too much of me, I won't ask too much of you.
KUH: I prefer the disengagement term, because aggression makes it appear that one group is the victim of an unwanted, hostile act. The disengagement pact serves both students and faculty interests, though it is not really what each wants out of the relationship. The student goes to college to get a good learning experience. Now I may not want to put as much time and energy in it as I probably could, and should, to benefit maximally. On the faculty side, it's trading the satisfaction of seeing students blossom against how to do that effectively with two hundred or more students in a given academic term. How many students can a faculty member authentically attend to in a meaningful way, especially for a writing intensive class, for example? It's problematic.

Q: Talk to me a little bit about whether perhaps college is too easy.
KUH: Well, it's too easy for many. And for most, college is not as rewarding academically or intellectually as it could be. Most disappointing is that when you ask students before they start college, what they think college will be like, they expect to read and write more and spend more time with faculty than they actually do by the end of that first year of college. And these expectations are not way out of line in terms of what faculty think students should do. Many students can get through their first year of college at large institutions without writing a single paper, which probably also means they have not received any feedback on their writing.

Q: Some of your studies have talked about many students being disengaged. Tell me a little bit about those who just aren't involved.
KUH: If you want to point to a tragedy in American higher education, it's the 20% of the students who anchor the bottom of the time and energy distribution, who spend almost no time at all on the things that matter to their learning. The tragedy is that a lot of these folks are sleep walking through college and will be awarded the same degree as other students. But they've not sampled the curriculum or taken advantage of the cultural events on campus. They put very little time and energy into their own studies. And yet they are there. Who are they? How do they survive academically? And they are not flunking out. There's really no excuse for not knowing who these folks are. There are ways of identifying them. In fact, there are probably ways of identifying them before they even start class, by asking some simple questions about how much time they expect to spend and so forth. And there's a high correlation between how much time you expect to spend, and how much time you actually do spend.

Q: So how are they getting through?
KUH: Many of these under-engaged students have figured out how to game the system. Some probably did the same thing through high school. And some of them are maze bright. The maze bright learn how the system works and, with the advice of their peers, they pick out courses that won't require much effort from them. This is particularly true at larger universities, where one can be anonymous, essentially. Many students go to large universities for that reason. They want to be anonymous, and we know that anonymity is anathema to a rich learning experience. Anonymity allows students to avoid taking responsibility for their learning and other actions. Faculty don't hold students accountable for devoting the necessary effort to reach one's potential or for what the student contributes to the class. So they'll pick large classes where they can get by. I'm not saying that this is true of every disengaged or under-engaged student but it is of too many. They tend then to hang together, so you've got this mass of people kind of sleepwalking, if you will, through college. How can they do it? It really is unacceptable that institutions do not identify them and find some way of reaching them. These are not bad people, by the way. Many have enormous untapped potential and talent. And there are ways of reaching them. We just need to figure out how to do it.

Q: We saw a learning community in action at Western Kentucky. Tell me about learning communities.
KUH: Learning communities are defined and organized in different ways. One popular version is where the same students are enrolled in two or more courses. Now why is this important? At large universities students could be living on the same floor of a residence hall and not have anyone else on that floor who is in one of their classes. What do students have to talk about when they go back to their residence hall? Students are only in class three or four hours a day. The bulk of their time is spent outside the classroom. What do they talk about? What they have in common, and for too many students, particularly at large institutions, it's not the classroom. They have nothing intellectual in common. So they talk about what they do have in common � sports, TV shows, whatever.

Learning communities � co-enrolling the same students in two or more of the same classes � creates a social community as well, and when you embed that in a residence hall, these people end up walking to and from classes together. When you see notes posted on their door it's not, "Let's go downtown and hang out at X." It's, "Let's go downtown, hang out at X, and talk about that English assignment." You create a very different kind of culture, a different kind of environment where people get to know one another as individuals and there's a greater sense of shared interest and responsibility for others.

Learning communities work best when faculty members teaching the courses design assignments that require students to draw from the other courses. So now we get an integrative kind of experience where students are making connections, not just with heir lives outside the class through their friends, but to other sources of intellectual material. The experience is really powerful in that, if a student has been in a learning community, they show a variety of desirable effects after the first year of college. They have more interactions with students from different backgrounds, they have more contact with faculty, they've talked with their peers more about problems and issues, and so forth. And these positive effects persist well into the senior year. So when you look at what seniors are like, if they've been in a learning community you see the same pattern of positive behavior. It sticks! Very powerful.

Q: You said anonymity is anathema. So a learning community contradicts anonymity?
KUH: One of the things that learning communities do when they're done well is to shrink the psychological size of a campus. We assume residence halls or small classes do that naturally, but when students don't have anything academic or intellectual in common, what happens in residence halls can become antithetical to what we are trying to accomplish. The learning community compels people to come to grips with who they are, and what they're studying, but more importantly, it gives them opportunities to use what they are learning in their out-of-class life. So learning communities are one way a large institution can shrink its psychological size. Students who don't have any classes with peers with whom they live or with whom they see on a daily basis now do. What they talk about, how they spend their time, is more focused. A social network is created. We know that a lot of students stay in college not necessarily because they have discovered their intellectual bliss. They're in college because this is the best place for them to be right now. This is where their friends are and something meaningful is happening.

Q: I've heard you use the term, "intentionality." Tell me a little bit more about this concept of intentionality.
KUH: What I mean by intentionality is institutions using what we know works to create powerful learning environments. We know that students do better when they have clear expectations, for example, of what college will be like, meaning how much time and energy successful students here spend studying. We know that students do better when faculty members organize classes in ways that teach students what to pay attention to, tell them what's most important and what isn't, and when faculty members give students prompt, meaningful feedback on their work. We know that learning communities work in that students who have experienced them are more likely to stay in school, and they're more likely to be satisfied. We know that if a student does research with a faculty member they're more likely to interact with faculty over the course of their time in school and make connections between what they're learning and their life outside the classroom. There is no small number of things that if we did them systematically across large numbers of students more students would find college a much more meaningful, much more vibrant experience.

Q: Should society be holding higher education accountable in the way that it tries to hold K-12 accountable?
KUH: Higher education should and is being held more accountable. You and others characterize graduation rates as �miserable.� Well, they're about where they've always been and there's some evidence that they may be higher than we've thought all along. Keep in mind that we are attracting, today, students who are much more mobile and who are attending two and sometimes three institutions at the same time. The federal government recently reported that 59% of the class of 2000 attended two or more institutions. Who's responsible for educating those students? Which institution do we hold accountable for what students know or don't know?

And we are admitting and educating a much wider, deeper, diverse pool and more of them than at any point in history. It's really a modern miracle, frankly, that our graduation rates have not gone down given how wide open the door is. Think about it. Think about the fact that these students come from so many diverse backgrounds. On some campuses English is the second language for 60, 70 percent.

Q: Isn't that a classic higher ed rationalization? You're not sending us as good a student, so therefore we can't do as good a job?
KUH: No, I'm simply challenging the characterization of miserable graduation rates. I believe we can do better by virtually every student, and there are great examples of institutions that have changed the way in which they think and do business. The University of Texas at El Paso, the California State University at Monterrey Bay -- state institutions where the demographics around them have simply shifted overnight and they've had to figure out a way of responding to their students. I'm not taking the onus off higher education. I'm simply saying that given the wave of students that we're dealing with, there are also a lot of positive things happening. Now could we do better? Absolutely. Do we know how to do better? You bet. Does it cost so much more to do the right things in an intentional, systematic way than doing things the way we do now? Not necessarily. But some of the effective educational practices are labor intensive, and this brings us back to the disengagement compact. How many student papers can a faculty member provide meaningful feedback on? How many hours in a day are there to meet with students? We can be more creative. We can use student preceptors to help and make better use of technology.

Q: I've heard you and others talk about deep learning. Can you explain what you mean by that?
KUH: Explaining deep learning is probably best illustrated by using a contrast. Think of deep learning as being on the other end of the continuum from memorization. Memorization, some people say, requires a relatively low level of cognitive functioning. That is, I'm staring at a list of words long enough where I can repeat them to you, probably in the order in which they appear. Memorization may be good for some things, but how do you generalize that particular exercise to what's going to happen to you when you leave the classroom or on your next job? Deep learning, in contrast, is when a student can begin to construct their own understanding of what a given issue or exercise is, and they can actually explain it in their own terms. Moreover, they can see applications for that idea, or sets of ideas in their everyday life. They can apply it, they can figure out what aspect of it works with their parents, what aspects might be meaningful with their peers, friends outside the classroom, what aspects have relevance for a job. Deep learning is the ability to connect different kinds of ideas, different bodies of information, if you will, to synthesize the information so it makes sense so the student can explain it and actually use it. Deep learning changes the way in which a person thinks, and ultimately who a person is.

Q: Is there one kind of teaching that is more likely to produce deep learning?
KUH: When we ask students to talk about ideas together, when we give them problems and ask them to analyze them from two or three different points of view, when we ask students to weigh conflicting views and the merits of an argument � all this contributes to the ability of a student to take an idea and turn it around, figure out what's really relevant, what's real, what's accurate, the validity of the information. We talk a lot about information literacy. But you don't get there without deep learning. So, the instructor assigns a writing assignment that asks you to bring into the Capstone Seminar ideas from a biology class, from a physics class, from a sociology class. This is not a routine act, but by the time of a capstone in the senior year students ought to be ready to do this. We can lead up to that, however, by feeding them examples of how to do this in class assignments even in the first year of college.

Q: Can a large lecture class produce deep learning?
KUH: A lecture can engage students in deep learning, but if the emphasis is put on lecture it's a problem. A lecture is an active and potentially deep learning activity for a very narrow slice of students � those for whom a lecture is a fascinating expression of ideas. There are some students who can do this, but most students have not yet developed the intellectual capacity to make these connections, and then to construct them in their own language, in their own kind of frameworks of thinking so that they can apply them in different settings. That's what deep learning looks like. It enlarges one's capacity to make meaning of very complex issues and, of course, that's the nature of the world in which we live. That's why deep learning, and trying to cultivate these integrative abilities in people, is so important today.

Q: What about students who are working full time and trying to go to school full time. Is deep learning in their future?
KUH: The work issue is important because of the large number of faculty members who continue to summarily dismiss it as an unfortunate distraction from the real business of higher education, which is to learn what I know and to be like me. So when you poll faculty my age and older and ask them how many worked while they were in college, well, they might have worked, but it might have been ten hours a week their senior year. Or maybe they did an internship or something. Today, 80-85 percent of seniors are working, and many work many, many hours. Now how do you get to deep learning? One way you get to deep learning with people who work is to legitimate and hold up work as a meaningful educational opportunity and experience. So you have a place like the University of Maine-Farmington, where 50 percent of their students are Pell eligible. They've got to work to afford college. Most of them have never been out of the state of Maine. And so that place says, "Look, uh, we want to validate the importance of work. Students are coming here, frankly, to get a job. A better job to make a better life."

The great downside of working during college is when students work off campus they are less likely to persist for a variety of reasons. But we also know that students who work on campus are more likely to stay in school. They're going to make more social connections. They're going to be around people who will validate them as learners, help them make connections between what they're doing inside the class and outside the class.

Today, 50 percent of the students at University of Maine-Farmington work on campus. And these are not �made up� jobs. This campus can't afford sometimes to staff certain functions. It doesn't have as many professional and support staff as a campus that size usually has. But it has intentionally created work opportunities for students that are meaningful work experiences. The students are in the company of educated adults, if you will, faculty and staff who are supervising them. The larger point here, though, is that because so many students work today, how do you harness the educational opportunity and benefits of work and make it a meaningful part of an undergraduate experience, as opposed to trying to ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist? So you design assignments that ask students to apply or to use the work setting as an illustration of how this particular concept or principle works out. This is probably easier to do in the humanities and the social sciences and the applied and the professional fields than it is in the sciences. But I remember talking with a chemistry professor one day and he said, "You mean I ought to be asking my students to, uh, to analyze the chemical content in the deep fat fryer at McDonald's?" And I said, "It's a start." It's a start. So you make the bridge, you legitimate the work experience, but moreover, you use the work experience as a reservoir, a source of good ideas and application.

Q: What can you tell me about part time faculty?
KUH: We can say several things from our data. For example, by their own report, they expect students to spend a little less time preparing for class, relative to their fulltime faculty counterparts. We can say that they spend less time outside the classroom talking with students about their career plans or giving them feedback on their writing assignments and so forth. So what others have argued, that part-time faculty are potentially a drag on quality, may well be true, but there's much more to learn before drawing that conclusion. It may not be the part-timer's fault. There are systemic and structural obstacles at work. Where do I go and talk with this student? How much time do I have to talk to the student? I've got a full time gig here, as an accountant, or as a butcher, or whatever is my full time job. The time that a faculty member might spend talking with students in an advising capacity just isn't there. So we have made an unfortunate trade. Do we hold colleges and universities accountable or responsible for this? Or state legislatures?

One of the reasons we have more part-timers is colleges and universities don't have as much money as they used to � especially state-supported institutions � and they're being asked to educate more people. Another reason is this thing we call tenure. There was a big scare back in the '80s, when we hired a large number of faculty to teach computer science, for example, and student demand for the field never materialized as projected. Hiring part-timers gives the institutions flexibility but there is a trade. And it's a rare place that can get as much out of their part-timers as they can full time faculty.

Q: What is the most important thing that the public needs to understand about what higher education needs to do?
KUH: We need to more consistently use what we know works to promote student success. We're at a moment in time where we have lots more knowledge about what really works inside and outside the classroom. If we can sew together these good practices in an intentional way � learning communities, study abroad, doing research with the faculty members, getting students to work together to solve problems inside and outside the classroom, and so on. There are a wide range of activities and approaches that work better than others. A little bit of lecture is fine, but a steady diet of lecture is a straight line to brain atrophy.

Many institutions have demonstrated that they can intentionally use effective educational practices more of the time. Some of the work we're doing now at my Center is spreading these ideas to get other people to realize that if they systematically adopted a number of policies and practices, they in fact can turn this thing "around". Can we graduate more students without lowering standards? Yes. We've done it. It can be done. Why aren't more institutions doing it? In some instances I want to say it's ignorance. You know, most businesses and industries would not survive with as little evidence American higher education has about how well it's performing. And we're trying to fix that, too, along with a lot of other people. Every faculty member I know wants to be a better teacher. Now they may not get incentives or rewards to do it, but that, too, can be changed. And there are enough examples of institutions that have done it to make me bullish on the future. We're at a moment in time when more people know more about how to do better by their students, and we're learning more and more every day.
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