Are Texas college students getting their money's worth?

Photo by Todd Wiseman

As college students prepare to begin classes and football games this fall, consider the following: America does not produce college graduates who are ready for work, independence or advancing their community — in other words, life.

Sure, they are more intellectually advanced than their baby-boomer parents; after all, they studied subjects in middle school that were high-school subjects 40 years ago. But what once was a stepping-stone from late adolescence to independent adulthood, the college experience in the 21st century simply isn’t working: In a recent survey, an alarming number of university undergraduates — almost half — said they learned “nothing” after their first two years. Equally alarming is the price of a college education rising twice as fast as health care.

Job one for universities is to help in the maturation of students. We define a “mature” individual as one who displays independence, self-awareness, self-correction and responsibility for his or her own development in various areas of functioning. To be more specific, a mature individual has:

  • Intellectual maturity — or mastery of a broad body of knowledge
  • Required maturity — laying the groundwork for further study and professional roles (e.g., medical school)
  • Organizational maturity — the ability to engage and organize projects and people
  • Social maturity — a high “emotional quotient”

These are the domains that should drive university education.

To attain these elements of maturity, the curriculum should include four components, each fostering a different aspect of maturity: First is mastery of a certain body of knowledge. This knowledge must be determined by a body of experts who will define an “educated person” and see if there is evidence to support inclusion of that course. For example, what data underlie the need for “divisional” courses that many universities now require? These basic courses could be offered to students in high school or throughout college and lead to intellectual maturity.

Second, some of these courses are necessary for application to professional schools —required maturity. The great university then provides in-person experiences to deepen the student’s learning in one or more areas; some of these courses are elective, and some should be required (debate, innovation, personal journal with advisor, art/architecture, and great books). These deep-dive experiences would be taught in-person in groups with less than 20 students and graded 50 percent for content, and 50 percent on maturity, such as leadership in the group, followership, and communication.

The third component of the curriculum, intended to foster the student’s capacity to complete a large project, and learn and to organize others to help — in other words, organizational maturity — is a team “capstone experience” taking most of the last 2 years: an in-depth investigation of a relevant problem that provides useful knowledge, that has a written product.

Finally, students should also immerse themselves in the social activities that current universities offer, and the university advising system should be redesigned to help students to mature. This is the value of the residential experience that is one of the central arguments for higher education and forms the basis of social maturity.

We have little doubt that the university of the future will be far more intentional in developing all domains of the student. Onsite faculty will require broader skills and roles, excelling not only as teachers but also as overseers of student maturity throughout the college experience.

Such restructuring requires bold moves from one or more universities willing to test this hypothesis and pilot the blueprint. Students, parents and employers will get what they want, and what they need.

Arthur "Tim" Garson Jr.

Director, Health Policy Institute, Texas Medical Center

Robert C. Pianta

Dean, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia