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What Is A "No-Frills" College Education? The Debate Goes On

An opinion piece in yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed, by Lee Burdette Williams and Elizabeth A. Beaulieu, does an outstanding job of explaining that calls for a “no-frills education” by the president of Southern New Hampshire University and the Pennsylvania State Board of Education–among others–do not actually pare down education to its essentials.

Rather, the call to strip higher education of its non-essential elements ignites debate about what is essential.

For example, which of the following elements of a higher education are essential, in your mind?

Residence life?
A required core curriculum?
Proficiency in a foreign language?
A salad bar?
A fine athletics program?
A writing center?
Academic support and tutoring centers?
Programs for students with learning differences?

As the authors point out, one person’s frill is another’s essential element.

The problem, as I see it, is that most colleges (and their faculties who govern them) are unwilling to make hard decisions about their identity.  Today’s colleges and universities are all trying to do it all.  They expand the curriculum, expand student services, expand remedial academic programs, try to recruit a more diverse student body, expand financial aid, expand, expand, expand.  Everyone wants to do it all.

Actually, the genius of the American higher education system (if it could be called a system) is its infinite variety.  Or at least its potential for variety.

I think if colleges (and again, the faculties who governed them) were able to make some solid decisions about their core mission–and then stick to those decisions–we might see more colleges in better financial health.  We might also see more colleges that specialize in serving particular populations who share their institutional vision of what is essential.  We’d see greater variety.

Especially in public higher education, I think state systems need to end this idea that each of its institutions need to  be all things to all people.  Does a relatively small state, like Colorado, really need to support Bachelor’s degrees of mechanical engineering at five different universities?  Or could we, as taxpayers, benefit from economies of scale by reducing that number to four, or even three?

Well, perhaps engineers are super-important to our economy here in Colorado.  But how about music teachers?  We have eight different four-year institutions that churn out students with music education degrees?  Last I heard, the number of public school music programs was contracting, not expanding?  Do we really need so many? Couldn’t we consolidate?

One more example…just for fun.  Seven of our public institutions in Colorado offer Bachelors degrees in Physical Education and/or Exercise & Sport Science.  Honest…it’s true.  While there a few lucky individuals who graduate with this sort of degree who become highly paid physical trainers for the Broncos, I’m not sure our state benefits all that much from having so many graduates in this particular field.  It’s a popular major, to be sure.  But is is “essential”?  And is it “essential” at seven different state institutions.

Universities in the US are all trying too hard to do it all.  I think this fact is what lies behind the call for a “no-frills” education. It’s not that we have to pare down education to  its bare minimums:  a room, some chairs, a teacher, and a book.  Rather, each institution needs to make some tough, but essential decisions about how it will focus its energies and resources.


Mark Montgomery
Educational Planner in Colorado

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