“If You Were the Czar…”: Answers from College Stakeholders

by Christina Smiraglia

If you were the czar—a figure with absolute power—what changes would you make to your college’s academic program? 

This weighty question was a standard part of the interview protocol for the approximately 2000 participants—first-year and graduating students, faculty, administrators, parents, and alumni—in our study of American higher education. Some immediately said that they would abdicate, while others relished the power.  Responses varied widely, but what stood out is that most stakeholders actually want more added to the academic program. Specifically, many participants were in alignment about desiring more content addressing social issues, while there was little consensus on other additions.

The responses to this question were some of the most difficult to analyze because of the great variety of topics raised by participants. Indeed, at times, the question seemed to provoke respondents to discuss any gripes or visions they had about their campus, or even about higher education as a whole.  While participants’ suggestions ranged from minute tweaks to sweeping overhauls, the former were more common.  The areas that participants wanted to change included:

  • The overall curricular structure
  • Specific content additions and subtractions
  • Teaching & course design
  • Academic support services like advising or writing centers
  • Experiential learning
  • Access to courses
  • Faculty affairs
  • Other academic issues
  • Non-academic issues

Among the broad variety of suggestions, there are some lessons to glean from what participants more commonly said they would change as czar…

The Common Denominator: Everyone Wants More!

Looking across the kinds of improvements that stakeholders suggested, one of the only commonly mentioned general changes was the addition of specific content to the academic program.  Faculty, administrators, and trustees suggested this the most; nearly half (46%) of each of these school-affiliated adults wanted content added.  More than one-third (38%) of alumni wanted additional academic content, followed by 23% of students and 16% of parents.  Within these responses, participants were usually referring to a desire for additional, non-required courses or new content within existing courses. 

In particular, participants in every group frequently suggested adding content about social issues (e.g. race, gender, religion, politics).  Here are a few examples:

I think a really important addition would be classes, or one class, at the beginning of the freshman year where students are forced to take a class on one of these issues. Racial diversity, or social diversity, or religious diversity. […This school] has a lot of resources to do that already. But it’s very much voluntarily for the students to enroll in them. And so, when you have discussions on the LGBTQ community, or sexual awareness, or how to be a bystander, to not be a bystander in the instance of sexual assault, you only have the people who are already aware of those issues that show up

Student

…With the different movements like Black Lives Matter, and some of the stuff that happened at Yale, or maybe down at Missouri, I think it’s really important that colleges figure out how to have really hard conversations, and I think that that’s not happening right now. But I think our society really needs to figure out how to have those conversations, and college is as good a place as any to have them. It’s a really better place than a lot of other places to have them. And I feel like that discourse has been shut down right now. Colleges don’t know how to handle it.

Parent

I think there’re a lot of issues that come up in the world, for example racism. We don’t talk about that here. Social equality, we’re not talking about that here. Criminal justice system, what’s wrong with it here? We incarcerate so many people, why is that? We incarcerate more people than anywhere else in the entire world. So, there are, I guess, these social justice issues, that just never find a place at [this school] in my view.

Faculty member

This focus on social issues aligns with our holistic analyses of interviews: a majority of respondents across all groups organically discussed such topics, particularly race and gender. We observed a clear appreciation for demographic diversity and related initiatives on campus as well as a stated need for increased tolerance, more information about and exposure to the experiences of those from different backgrounds, and strategies for productive dialogue.  Given this broader data context coupled with the relevance of these issues in American society today, we were not surprised that participants recommended enhancing the academic program with additional opportunities to engage with social issues.

The Complication: Misalignments in Desired Content

While participants across constituency groups generally called for adding content about social issues to the academic program, they were not as aligned on the other kinds of content they sought.  Specifically, different stakeholders had different views about adding content related to job skills, professional fields, and life skills—all areas outside of a traditional academic curriculum.  Students and off-campus adults (alumni, parents, and trustees) were generally aligned in wanting to see more of these future-oriented areas added to the academic program, with some variation as discussed below.  This alignment of students and off-campus adults, and their collective misalignment with on-campus adults (faculty and administrators), who actually structure the college experience, has arisen in other analyses of our data as well, suggesting a potentially more fundamental difference in priorities between these sets of constituencies.

First, the most frequently suggested addition for off-campus adults was job-related skills, such as software training, resume writing, interviewing strategies, and professional internships. For example, one trustee noted:

I think everybody ought to take a sales and marketing course. And in that course should be, “How do you interview?” There should be a whole back and forth on how do you interview, and what sort of questions are employers asking. […] Our children should never go to a job interview without being totally prepared for that interview. How do you prepare? What do you do? How do you dress?

Trustee

In contrast, on-campus adults and—perhaps surprisingly—students rarely suggested adding job-focused content.

Second, on-campus adults rarely mentioned adding professional fields—like business, engineering, or education—to the academic program, while these were relatively common suggestions from students and off-campus adults.  Comments included:

Offer more application-type of classes. For example, [the School] really didn’t have an accounting program, or a finance program. I think to really broaden out the program, [the School] would do well at adding some accounting classes, some finance classes and other application-type classes.

Alumnus

…It’s not to say that what we offer isn’t good, or any of those sorts of things, but, you know, engineering is such an enormous part of the world today, and we don’t have an engineering school, and I would love for us to be able to.

Trustee

Finally, students, alumni, and parents frequently suggested adding future-oriented content related to life skills—such as personal finance or mindfulness—and other applied content relevant to the ‘real world’ that was not framed in terms of a career.  Such personally applicable content was actually students’ top recommended addition to the academic program.  Suggestions included:

…Individual personal finance. […] it’s very helpful personally as well as almost any job you’re in, you’re going to end up looking at financial statements to measure performance at some level for most of the people sometime. Or even to monitor their own income.

Parent

…More life learning classes. As part of maybe a pre-requisite or something mandatory, not optional, ’cause as much as I appreciate my college education, none of it really prepared me to become the adult that I am today […] I had to learn how to cook on my own. Nobody really taught me how to learn how to build up credit. […] it’s a goal of mine to purchase a property, and I have no idea anything about the housing markets

Alumnus

In contrast, adults in campus leadership roles—trustees, administrators, and faculty—rarely suggested such life skills in their responses, highlighting another misalignment between the higher education consumers and producers.

Although it is not clear that we would have predicted these profiles, they prove straightforward to explain after the fact when considering different constituencies’ contexts.  It is not surprising, for example, that students and off-campus adults want more job-related skill development or pre-professional education. Parents are often looking for a return on investment that will help launch their child into financial stability; alumni have encountered the realities of the job market; trustees likely desire favorable job placement rates for their institution, and students are looking to secure their future after graduation.  The focus on life skills among students, parents, and alumni is related; these groups are all understandably concerned about students’ personal flourishing once they leave the sometimes insulated college community; they want to make sure students are equipped to deal with the challenges of starting a household amid the complexities of contemporary society. 

With the exception of some administrators who also mention job-related skills, on-campus adults do not identify the same needs—or at least do not feel they need to be added to college offerings.  This misalignment seems to speak to the larger conversations across the United States—and in our study—about the mission of higher education in our time.

Implications & Recommendations

Given most respondents’ broad and varied discussion of changes, schools seem to have a fair amount of discretion in designing curricula and shaping academic experiences.  Our initial suggestions are aimed at helping colleges capitalize on the perhaps surprising alignment around social issues that we observed.  We realize that some of these elements may already be in place, but they may benefit from review, reframing, or better intertwining with the academic program to ensure an effective and integrated experience for students.

  • Review academic and extracurricular offerings related to social issues and consider addressing gaps by adding new opportunities for students to engage about and across differences.
  • Highlight existing courses, centers, clubs, and activities that feature social issues.  Some disciplines that may explore these topics, such as sociology or anthropology, may be unfamiliar to entering students, so introducing students explicitly and vividly to a wide variety of disciplinary lenses may be useful in this regard.
  • Offer training for faculty and staff on issues of diversity, and encourage faculty to tackle challenging social issues in courses as appropriate as well as to mention any covered social issues in their course catalog listing.

Other recommendations target the misalignments among different stakeholders on other desired content:

  • Better advertise career services and opportunities, like internships, to parents and students.
  • Encourage faculty to tie theoretical concepts in their courses to vivid and timely real-world examples so that students may better understand the applicability of the content to the world around them.
  • Be explicit in identifying skills developed in college—such as critical thinking, writing, and perspective-taking—and noting their transferability to professional and personal contexts beyond the academy.
  • Although life skills may not be a natural addition to the formal academic curriculum, consider offering extracurricular or non-credit opportunities for students to build such skills, or highlight existing offerings.  These should not require new initiatives or large inputs of funding but rather could take the form of student-run workshops, guest speakers, or student life programming.
  • Ensure that key information about academic, professional, as well as personal development is included in onboarding for entering students.  In this way, everyone can take full advantage of the experience, and publicize these offerings to key stakeholders.

The ‘czar question’ highlighted a widespread hunger among college stakeholders for more engagement with social issues.  However, the wide variety of responses overall indicates that institutions have a fair amount of leeway in designing and implementing the curriculum, allowing for different campuses to tailor their academic program to their particular context.

© Christina Smiraglia 2020

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