By Amy Quinde

It’s no secret that there is a crisis today in higher education.  The culprits of the crisis are many, and they’re getting away with heinous infractions.  

Some blame the high cost of a college degree that saddles graduates with burgeoning debt.  Others blame the lack of jobs available to match impractical degrees and unprepared graduates that spew from today’s colleges.  Many blame the overemphasis on a college degree in the first place in a society where today’s B.A. is the high school diploma of yesteryear.  The reasons are plentiful, but as a saying goes: “It is in the roots, not the branches, that a tree’s greatest strength lies.”  The roots are rotting, and the leaves are browning and falling.  So what gives?

The Backstory: 

A large part of the answer lies in the K-12 policies that influenced today’s college students: the K-12 schools.  Let’s rewind to 2002, the birth of the No Child Left Behind Act and the resurgence of school-based high-stakes testing.  Both teachers and students lost much of their autonomy and creativity, and teaching to the test became the norm.  Fast forward 10 years to the Common Core Standards Initiative, when fiction, extensive reading, and student voice were stripped from classrooms and the methodology focus became dissecting texts to death and “evidence-based” learning.  Academic rigor and over-academization of children as young as PreK became the educational mantra, which research has shown to have damaging and often contradictory long-term effects.   Art, music, and many subjects and techniques that made learning fun now came second to drilling core abstract subjects like math and English in the most tedious way possible.  There was also an overemphasis on a Higher Ed degree as being the only vehicle to a decent job in life.  Top it with screens used inappropriately, serving more as an unhealthy addiction than an addition to the classroom, and high schools are churning out students who are not used to feeling like empowered and active agents in their learning process.  

The Result: 

Indeed, the K-12 schools are failing to prepare students for both the Higher Ed environment and the real world, creating passive and checked out learners.  It’s no surprise, then, that many colleges are becoming campuses where the classrooms are filled with unengaged students, spending increasingly less time on studying, learning, and other activities that would enhance their academic and professional skills.  Sadly, many more of today’s professors are equally uninvested in their institutions, often unavailable and underpaid due to the rise in cheaper adjunct hiring.  They’re also typically not skilled teachersa phenomenon not foreign to Higher Ed.  Another issue is that many colleges, especially the less prestigious private ones that are suffering from funding deficits, are shifting towards providing easy-route degrees to those willing to pay.  Students become “customers first” to be pleased, often at the expense of academic rigor.  There are obviously pluses and minus to this trend, but similar to the K-12 setting, no true learning for its intrinsic value ends up taking place.  Even in college classrooms, screens and technology can pose more as a distraction than a learning tool.  These are only a few breeding conditions that produce a national harvest of disengaged learners.

In the 2011 book, “Academically Adrift,” it claims that 45 percent of students in the study made no gains in their writing, complex reasoning, or critical-thinking skills during their first two years of college.  By the time students enter college, they become victims to the rigorous demands and unbridled freedom of their new environment.  Colleges are forced to lower their standards or offer remedial courses in reading and writing that the high schools should have provided them.  This costs students more money and takes them longer to graduate, or they simply fail to finish. 

In another ironic twist, many of today’s employers now expect recent graduates to have the skills and knowledge for the job immediately, instead of offering paid on-the-job training and apprenticeships as in the past.  They increasingly support the “depth and breadth” modelwanting college graduates to have a “deep” skill in one academic subject, while also being well-rounded and balanced with other knowledge.  At the same time, graduates are less and less prepared for the workforce.  Employers complain that recent grads often lack oral communication, written, and critical thinking skills essential skills required for innovation in the Knowledge Economy of the 21st Century.  They further claim that work ethic and professionalism is dwindling and that these grads have a “sense of entitlement.”  As a result, the best job candidates for hire are becoming rarer, and a larger proportion are from the best and most desirable institutions.  This, in addition, contributes to the overall growing inequality between the haves and have-nots in higher education and in society as a whole. 

The Solution:

The solution is clear: more K-12 and Higher Ed institutions should be adequately preparing more students for college and the future workplace.  They need to provide them practical and industry-specific skills, as well as teach them how to think in ways that make them well-rounded individuals capable of adapting to any professional environment.  And, most importantly, they should be restoring in students that intrinsic spark to learn autonomously that’s been robbed of them for years.  Engaging students and finding ways to empower them to recognize how they learn best can help break this passive, disinterested cycle.  Clearly, student engagement should be at the forefront of our priorities in education.   

There are many ways to enhance student engagement.  Implementing robust and frequent questioning techniques, making curriculum accessible and comprehensible to meet students where they are, collaborative and communicative learning, and student-centered learning are among many.  Every class is different within the same school and every school is different within the same district and region.  It’s essential to adapt curriculum topics and modes of delivery to make them uniquely relevant to students’ diverse lives and cultural experiences.  Student voice and choice, largely left out of discussions on educational reform, is another engagement bolster.   Given our current crisis in education, now is the time to give it credence.

For most of educational history, and these days are no exception, students have had little say over what and how they are learning until college.  While curricular choices are often dictated by higher-ups in education and often carry a political agenda, there are still limitless ways to entrust students with more voice.  HOW the curriculum is delivered, as long as learning continues to take place, can be manipulated by not only the instructor, but by the students themselves.  Who knows how one learns best or prefers to learn better than ourselves?  Even elementary school age children have this intrinsic sense of educational preference.  

Students, in addition to teachers, should be encouraged to choose which aspects of a required curriculum receive more time and attention, and which activities are utilized to deliver information and practice key skills (e.g. through writing, group work, presentations, videos, reading out loud, etc.)- all according to their interests, learning preferences, and unique contexts.  When students have more autonomy over what and how they learn, they will be more engaged, and this will transfer to being more proactive and prepared for college and career.

Since the K-12 institutions have been sliding down an impossibly steep mountain for some time now, unfortunately, Higher Ed is not immune to this educational avalanche.  Thankfully, by addressing the aforementioned problems in K12 and prioritizing student engagement and voice, Higher Ed will similarly follow suit, for the benefits of students, economy, and our society as a whole.

Amy Quinde is the owner and founder of Head & Heart International, a unique educational consulting & curriculum company with an overarching goal of preparing students successfully and authentically for their future.  They aim to enhance students’ social-emotional, life, & language skills through creative and purpose development endeavors with a cross-cultural emphasis.  In doing so, they strive to fill the many gaps left by our traditional education system.  Head & Heart International currently offers enrichment curriculum programming for K-12 schools as well as consulting services focused on career and college readiness for high school students and their families.