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3 Ways To Build A Better University


There are three major goals of highly selective colleges, according to Jonathan R. Cole, author of “Toward a More Perfect University.” They are to transmit knowledge, to research and discover scientific breakthroughs and to build an educated citizenry to participate in democracy.

These goals, however, are being threatened by disruptions in the industry. Tuition costs are rising. Sports programs are cutting into funding. Students are seeing degrees as a means to a high-paying job, rather than an education to be valued in its own right. 

Elite universities are oft-imitated, and their changes tend to trickle down to the nation’s other colleges. As part of KERA's American Graduate series, Cole spoke with Krys Boyd on Tuesday about three major ways these elite institutions can better serve students and provide examples for schools nationwide.

1. Consider letting in students who are less well-rounded.

“The United States has witnessed the tyranny of high-stakes testing and the belief that you can measure all forms of ability by simply looking at people’s SAT scores or their grade point averages,” Cole says.

The effect, he says, has been a more homogeneous student body at elite universities, where students are generally very good at taking tests and memorizing but have very little specialization or “quirkiness.”

“We know that there are very few people who are good at everything,” he says. “If we’re good at one thing in our life, we’re fortunate. Why do we require that everybody go down a straight beaten path, do the same things, never deviate, never have an off year, never be passionate about one subject, and therefore exclude oneself from getting into these highly selective colleges?”

2. Bring faculty back into the process of selecting their undergraduates.

“The faculty would never, never turn the job over to 24-year-old, hard-working, well-meaning individuals the right to choose new faculty members,” Cole says. “Nor would they allow those 24-year-olds to choose the best graduate students. Yet what we do is we turn the job of selecting undergraduates over to hard-working, well-meaning, 24-year-olds [working in the admissions office] — many of whom aren’t as able or as talented as thousands of the applicants, without ever turning to the faculty who will teach them.”

Instead, he advocates that schools make it harder to apply for multiple schools at once by ending the Common Application. This means that ideally fewer applications get sent to each school’s admissions office, who will winnow the application pool from say, 30,000 to 4,000 before bringing in a panel of distinguished professors as "truffle dogs” to “sniff out talent and potential.”

3. Utilize technology to transition from lectures to learning by doing.

Schools must be nimble in adapting new technologies. Cole says that rather than sitting in lecture halls and scribbling notes, students should be able to listen to the lesson online and then appear in class ready to discuss their questions.

“It won’t necessarily solve the cost problem of higher education, but it could change the quality of education by inverting the way we teach people,” he says. “There will no longer be a thousand students in Memorial Hall at Harvard listening stoically to a professor dictate what his ideas are. I think those days are virtually gone.”

Listen to the full conversation on "Think".