Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Different Vision of the Bachelor’s Degree

Have you ever re-watched a movie, or re-read a book, years after the first time, only to realize that you see it entirely differently with some more life under your belt?  Sometimes it wears well, revealing new layers to experienced eyes.  Sometimes it just brings home how much difference experience makes, as what once seemed profound has come to seem ridiculous.  Either way, though, it’s humbling; judgments that seemed self-evidently correct at an early age just seem embarrassing later.  

Yet that’s not how we structure higher education.  We build degrees that move from the broad and general at the beginning -- the theory, the survey -- to the specific at the end.  That structure pretty much guarantees that initial encounters with large and sweeping theories will be shallow at best, since they lack both context and a sense of why they matter.  By the time students get to specifics, they’ve left the big questions behind.  If they return to the big questions later, it’s despite, rather than because of, the way we’ve organized degrees.  They rarely get the benefit of coming back to the big questions with the benefit of context, and that’s our failure.  

That’s why I’m so excited about the new report by Mary Alice McCarthy, Flipping the Paradigm.  It builds on the insight that many of us quietly know, but rarely use.  Starting with theories and working down to practice doesn’t fit how most students learn.  And it creates issues with transfer of credit that don’t need to exist.

Briefly -- and McCarthy’s report is well worth reading in its entirety -- she calls for “flipping” the bachelor’s degree.  Instead of starting with broad “gen ed” classes and working towards narrower applications, we should start with applications and work upwards towards theories.  Build theories on actual context, at a point when students have some sense of why they matter.  Theories may be deductive, but learning is inductive.  Teach for learning.

On a practical level, getting away from the model of front-loading gen eds would also allow community colleges to drop the distinction between “applied” and “transfer” degrees.  Right now, a student who gets an A.A.S. (associate’s of applied science) degree at a community college and later decides she wants a four-year degree often loses tremendous numbers of credits upon transfer.  A student who gets an A.A. intending to transfer, and then doesn’t, walks away with a credential of less market value than she probably expected.  If the gen eds were backloaded, or at least more evenly distributed among the four years, it would be easier for someone with a two-year degree in an applied, employable field to go on for a bachelor’s.

Some versions of that exist now.  The transition from RN to BSN is largely theory, with the clinical and applied piece handled at the associate’s level.  Some Hospitality degrees have the applied culinary part in the first two years, devoting most of the latter two to general business courses.  

I had the uncommon experience of seeing “applied bachelor’s” programs develop organically when I was at DeVry.  While I was there, the New Jersey campus gradually transitioned from offering only two-year degrees to offering both two- and four-year degrees.  That meant building four-year degrees on top of the two-year degrees that already existed.  But the two-year grads had to be employable in their own right (rights?), so the application courses were front-loaded and the gen eds back-loaded.  Students would get the hands-on part of, say, telecom in the first two years, and would spend the last two working largely on soft skills through gen ed classes.  The idea was to teach the entry-level skills upfront, and to apply the “finishing school” sheen later on.

DeVry had other issues, but the backloaded gen ed structure had its virtues.  By the time the students got to the more theoretical classes, they had a bit more time in school under their belts, so they weren’t as easily overwhelmed.  The end was in sight, so they tended to stick around.  And the focus on ‘soft skills’ was, uh -- how to say this delicately -- worth the effort.  

Right now, students have to decide upfront whether they want employability or transferability, and they have to jump through unwanted classes before they get to what they actually want.  We know that people don’t learn that way, and the “exploration” that the first two years are supposed to allow is largely defeated by distribution requirements.  The system works reasonably well for students who get it right the first time and never deviate from the plan, but that will never be everybody.  Lives change, people discover callings, markets shift.  Why not move to a structure that allows students to jump more quickly into what they actually want, to stop out and come back more easily if they have to, and to transfer without losing credits?

Flipping the bachelor’s won’t solve everything, but it’s one of the smarter ideas I’ve seen in a while, and McCarthy gets the details right.  Well done.