Redesigning Higher Education

A few days ago, President Obama promised to reveal a new plan for “significant reform in higher education”, with an emphasis on the rising costs. Reading his comments on higher education, which occurred in the middle of a speech focused mainly on the economy and middle class, got me thinking—if I were going to design a higher-ed overhaul, what would I do?

It’s a big question, of course, and people spend their entire lives trying to answer it, trying to do something about this question. But here are (some of) my humble choices—some possible solutions, of thousands that have been dreamed up, proposed, and acted upon.

  1. More space for the interdisciplinary. When I tell people that I’m double-majoring in Biology and Environmental Studies, they get it. They see a pretty clear connection there and don’t question my motives. But when they find out that I’m also pursuing a minor in Sociology, and that I don’t want to go to medical school and probably want to spend some time volunteering after school, it throws them for a loop. “But why? That isn’t biology,” they say, confused. No, it isn’t. But it shouldn’t be confusing, either. I’m a biology major because I genuinely love taking science classes and am inspired by the science, particularly the ecological side. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to pursue other interests, or that I have a crystal-clear map in my head of how I’m going to use my biology in my future. I love taking sociology classes, so I do it. The way I see it, the more I expand my education, the more experiences I gather, the more I expose myself to—whether it’s directly related to my major or not—the better. I think people should have access to classes and experiences outside of their own discipline, that doing so will enrich everyone’s learning. The world is an interdisciplinary place, after all.
  2. More emphasis on practical experience. Maybe this is a given, considering in what context I’m writing this, but it still merits recognition here. Many of us college kids don’t really know what we want to do professionally, regardless of our chosen majors. Or, if we do have a certain career path in mind, we might not actually know what it’s like—only hold ideas of it in our minds, which creates its own kind of confusion. Gaining practical, real-world experience really is the answer to this, be it through research, volunteering, internships, or jobs. Developing well-rounded professional skill sets, trying new things, and realizing all of the possibilities out there should be crucial to everyone’s college years.
  3. Cost. President Obama is right in calling higher education an “undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up”. Tuition at both public and private institutions is upped yearly, significantly enough that what one pays their third of fourth year of college can be substantially more than what they paid their first year—leading to even more debt. And that’s just for a bachelor’s degree—for those who are looking to pursue graduate studies, the facts are even scarier. And tuition alone isn’t the sole cost of college, of course—there’s housing, food, textbooks, and other expenses, which all together make for a daunting package. It has to be more affordable, so hopefully President Obama’s plan will get some changes in action.

Education is important, and, when effective, it’s transformative. That’s why it’s so important that whatever you perceive the problems with education to be, you spend time thinking about how they might be solved.

By Jen Kelso

Jen Kelso is earning bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Environmental Studies, while simultaneously exercising her creative side. She loves a great story, environmental sustainability innovations, spending time in bookstores, the smell and feel of good earthy dirt, writing, exploring new places, learning about ecology, staying up all night, and any way that she can connect these interests. Though she is still in the process of figuring out how she’s going to combine all of this to make the world a better place, she has a feeling she’s getting closer to the answer.