Towards Quality Higher Education: Barriers and Enablers

Introduction and Background

Over the years, there has been increasing recognition of the need and the importance of education beyond childhood. While an attainment of basic literacies once sufficed, it is now widely acknowledged that individuals need and benefit from a number of more demanding abilities and understandings: the ways of thinking associated with the major disciplines and beyond, the assumptions and values of other cultures as well as their own, and the nature of many changes that are occurring rapidly all over the world. Such an education should enable individuals to find a suitable occupation and to secure a decent life for themselves and their family. If we are to have citizens who are informed and who comport themselves in an ethical manner, higher education should also go well beyond vocational preparation.

To understand the forms of higher education that are not purely vocational, we and our colleagues have recently completed an ambitious study of higher education in the United States. Often these forms have been called “liberal arts” or “liberal arts and sciences.” As this phrase is often misunderstood, or not understood at all, we embrace the more neutral phrase with which this essay is titled.

Our research approach has been to conduct semi-structured interviews of about an hour with the various constituent groups in select institutions of higher education. The ten campuses were quite different from one another. At each institution, we have spoken to approximately 50 incoming students, 50 students who were expected to receive their bachelor’s degree, and a smaller number of faculty, senior administrators, alumni/ae, parents, trustees, and job recruiters (approximately 15–25 in each group). These interviews are wide-ranging; they touch on academic topics, campus issues and resources, social and extra-curricular activities, the overall purposes of higher education, as well as the factors that contribute to or impede the achievement of these goals (see section “Barriers to the Achievement of Goals”). All interview subjects received the same basic set of questions; however, small adjustments were made so that each question was appropriate for each of the several constituencies.

While participation in our study was voluntary, we endeavored to have a representative sample of each of these constituent groups. When we had smaller numbers than we would like from a given constituency (e.g., fewer athletes, fewer teachers of science), we usually succeeded in securing additional participants. All in all, we have conducted over 2000 interviews (approximately 200 per campus), recorded and transcribed these interviews, and are currently analyzing the accrued data in multiple ways.

To provide an accurate representation of higher education, the campuses included in our study vary widely in terms of size, selectivity, location, and mission. They are all located in the United States; most of them have a significant residential component, and all the campuses have a stated commitment to an education that is not purely vocational. We cannot assume, therefore, that our findings and recommendations will be applicable to institutions of higher education in Europe or in other regions of the world, nor are they necessarily applicable to institutions that are dedicated to vocational education. That said, we suspect that at least some of what we have learned and described in the following will prove applicable elsewhere. We hope that the picture of higher education that we are assembling will prove of use to the PLATO program, which, too, has adopted the ideal of academic education aimed at fostering holistic personal development (for a description of PLATO program, see Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia et al. 2018a).

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A Mellon Research Forum report by Howard E. Gardner and Wendy Fischman.