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What Would an Ideal College Look Like?

Is anyone else an avid reader of The Atlantic? If you’re anything like me, you peruse its front page every day, looking to be challenged in your thinking and expand your worldview. A particularly interesting article came on their feed recently titled “What Would an Ideal College Look Like?” It may be no surprise to you that, given my background in higher education and educational technology, I was immediately intrigued. In this article, author John Tierney asks “If you could design your ideal college from scratch, what would it look like?”

The conclusion he reached was the unique combination between traditional liberal arts courses, life-skills programs, and career training. He goes into detail about Champlain College in Burlington, VA, where students and faculty are active learners together, students’ cultural awareness and community stewardship is heightened through volunteerism, and a “palpable energy and enthusiasm” is evident every day. Sounds idyllic, right?

But as I read, a few questions came to mind: why did this work? If your campus doesn’t already engage in these activities, how can you begin the change process to achieve this ideal? How do we provide this same experience for non-traditional students (the increasing majority on college campuses) who may not be able to be on campus to take advantage of these services?

Let’s break those questions down a bit.

1)   Why does this work?

The short answer is investing in the student as a whole person. You’ve certainly heard the phrase “mind, body, and soul.” For the purposes on this post, let’s consider the liberal arts education as your “mind,” the work training as your “body,” and the life skills program as your “soul.” You must have balance in all of them to graduate a well-rounded student who is ready to succeed in the world.

When I was a student at Westminster College, we were often taught about the “Wellness Wheel.” Whenever our lives seemed particularly stressful, someone would inevitably say “how is your wheel?” The wheel emphasizes a variety of areas that are important for a balanced life, including relationships, finance, work, education, and more. If we cut out or underinvest in certain areas (whether in terms of time or resources), we are bound to feel unbalanced. This model of education – the “ideal college” – works well because it is balanced and focused on a student’s whole development.

2)   How do we do it?

This means institutions must allocate resources appropriately to foster all three; life skills (such as mentoring programs and service learning), for example, often fall to the wayside when budgets get tight.

There will be no one-size-fits all approach for every institution. But the first step is having the conversation and getting a commitment from senior leadership to educate the whole student. This requires a targeted and intentional conversation with key stakeholders (read: get actual students in the conversation!) to determine what priorities fall into the ideal buckets, what qualities are most important to a students’ development, and how we can realistically invest in each of them appropriately to provide a good experience for students.

Too often, I have seen these types of decisions be shot down because they wouldn’t be revenue-generating fast enough to offset the cost. “The risk isn’t worth the potential reward,” they say. Champlain College, and indeed other examples around the United States, show that the reward is very much worthwhile: increased enrollment, increased tuition, and ultimately increased sustainability for the institution.

3)   How do we scale it?

This journey becomes increasingly difficult when students are not staying on campus to work, study, or even attend class. So how do you provide a whole-student education for online or distance learners?

I believe the answer starts with faculty. Hire faculty who care about teaching the whole student. Train faculty (both new and existing) on ways to engage students electronically. Invest in options that brings face-to-face communication to distance learning (not a surprise on the ConexED blog, right?)

And most importantly, make all the student services – whether it’s admissions, classroom lectures, office hours for faculty, or your school’s diversity center – accessible to students where they are and when they need them.

When I read Tierney’s article, his conclusions about what made Champlain the ideal school rang true for me and my experience. The times when I felt most engaged in college were the times when the college invested back in me as a person, when they cared more than just about my grade in the classroom. In order to make our institutions sustainable and graduate students who are ready for the world, we must intentionally focus on not only providing a stellar classroom experience, but also investing in their life skills and professional readiness.

Lexie Banks

Lexie Banks

Director of Communications at Cranium Cafe
I believe in the power of individual relationships to change the direction of a student's education. My role at Cranium Cafe? To get you connected with the Cafe through engaging content and social media outreach. Check out our blog for my latest musings on higher education, academic advising, and the role of education for the modern student.
Lexie Banks
About the author: Lexie Banks
I believe in the power of individual relationships to change the direction of a student's education. My role at Cranium Cafe? To get you connected with the Cafe through engaging content and social media outreach. Check out our blog for my latest musings on higher education, academic advising, and the role of education for the modern student.