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Posted at 8:52 AM ET, 02/24/2011

Guest post: Student engagement is the key 'fix'

By Daniel de Vise

Here is a guest post from Karen R. Lawrence, president of Sarah Lawrence College. She writes in response to the story on fixing higher education that was published in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine.

The Cost of Getting Higher Education Into Shape

In his Sunday, February 20th article, "Eight ways to get higher education into shape," Daniel de Vise underscores that higher education isn't broken but could nonetheless benefit from fixes in areas ranging from measuring student learning to rethinking remediation. lawrence.jpg

Few college presidents would disagree, especially when elite liberal arts colleges and research universities - long considered immune from criticism - are being asked challenging questions about educational value and teaching effectiveness, as posed by reputable critics such as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

At Sarah Lawrence College, we're familiar with criticism--not because of deficiencies on the educational side, but because for several years we've topped the list of America's most expensive colleges and universities. As a result, the media and bloggers have had a field day decrying our price point, without ever asking why that's the case, and certainly without mentioning that our average financial aid package is over $35,000. In a larger sense, what many of the critics and the public fail to grasp is that the "'high effort' practices across the curriculum" the Post article cites as one important solution to our educational problems simply can't be accomplished on the cheap.

Why not? As de Vise and others point out, a major key to student learning is student engagement. And a primary key to student engagement is faculty contact. Not faculty contact as in a 400-person lecture, and not faculty contact via a graduate assistant proxy. At Sarah Lawrence, faculty contact means that over 90 percent of our classes are seminars capped at 15 and with an average attendance of 11. It means that every one of those seminars has a required "conference" component, a biweekly one-on-one between professor and student. It means that every student is assigned a don in the Oxford-Cambridge tradition, who serves as his or her adviser, curricular guide, mentor, and career navigator. And it means a 9:1 student-faculty ratio. All told, what we offer students is twice the individual faculty contact as other liberal arts colleges. That's a costly model, to be sure, but one that yields very significant dividends.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that the Post article references measures key academic, intellectual, and student experience at both first and senior years, then compares the target college's scores with those of peers and those in its Carnegie classification. While Sarah Lawrence is by no means at the top of the class in every single category, when we last administered NSSE we found that the results in critical areas appear to validate the huge amount of individual student-faculty contact we mandate. For example:

87 percent of first-year Sarah Lawrence students read more than 10 assigned books, compared to 59 percent of peers and 36 percent of all students represented in the NSSE study. What's more, 61 percent of our students discussed ideas from classes with faculty outside of class - which compares to only 18 percent of students at peer colleges and 18 percent among the NSSE sample.

By the time our students are seniors, the results are even more impressive, with 95 percent discussing ideas from readings or classes with other students outside class, compared to 65 percent of peers and 63 percent among the NSSE sample. And 71 percent of seniors talked about career plans with a faculty member or don, versus 47 percent at peer colleges and 41 percent in the NSSE group.

(Here is a chart showing the school's NSSE scores.)

Because NSSE correlates closely with positive learning outcomes, and equally closely with our alumni career data and alumni qualitative assessments of their education, we're confident that the faculty-intensive and student engagement-intensive work we do leads to outcomes that not only improve over four years, but express the best of what a liberal arts education can be. In other words, we successfully practice as well as preach the "best practices" de Vise recommends. To confirm that we're staying the course, Sarah Lawrence is again administering NSSE to our students this year, and plans to continue doing so in future years.

There are obviously myriad ways to get a degree. Getting a transformational liberal arts education along with that degree is an entirely different thing. What the public may need to understand is that if the latter is desired -- if we want to graduate men and women able to compete and thrive in an era when traditional careers are disappearing or being outsourced, who possess the thinking, creativity, imagination, and communications skills necessary to be successful and contributing citizens -- American education can fully deliver on that promise. But the investment will be a significant one for both students and their families as well as for the colleges and universities who must ensure that qualified students, regardless of financial resources, will be able to benefit.

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By Daniel de Vise  | February 24, 2011; 8:52 AM ET
Categories:  Administration, Liberal Arts, Pedagogy, Students  | Tags:  NSSE, Sarah Lawrence College, Washington Post fixing higher ed, fixing higher education  
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