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Board of Contributors: Cost of college has increased, but so has the quality

Today’s college students probably have heard their parents talking about what school was like “back in the day.” Mostly, these are wistful reminiscences about undergraduate life, including how much worse the food on campus was. No doubt you are also aware about how much more expensive a college education has become.

What you may hear less about is how much better a college education is today than at any time in the past. Discussions about changes in higher education tend to focus on almost everything except how much these changes have improved higher education. This is a shame because without understanding why today’s college experience is so much better than yesterday’s it is difficult to have a meaningful conversation about the higher education challenges we face.

How has the college experience improved since I graduated in 1991? Students and their parents may come up with their own lists (again, see campus food), but I’ll offer three ways college today is much better than in the past:

The classes are better

Who hasn’t heard someone from my generation talk about the professor who changed our lives, the class that helped us discover our passions and set us on a new path? All that is true, but we also had many mediocre classes and professors. We just remember the really good ones.

Today, most colleges make a concerted effort to provide enough resources so that every class will be excellent. These resources range from teaching and learning materials (often digital materials) for professors to non-faculty educators who work with professors to utilize these materials in class. These non-faculty educators may be a learning designer or a librarian who works with a professor to design assignments or to provide assistance in developing online materials.

When I was an undergraduate, these sorts of resources hardly existed. Yes, we had great teachers, but there was never a campus-wide discussion about what made for great teaching and learning, and resources that faculty could draw on were limited. Today, we have an array of organizational structures and campus experts devoted to partnering with our faculty to improve learning. This shift has resulted in both better courses and better courses across the curriculum.

Learning spaces are better

When we talk today about learning spaces, we are not just talking about classrooms. Yes, many classrooms today look different. They are sometimes more flexible learning spaces, allowing for more discussion, interaction and group work. They often have more technology and audiovisual options.

But what is really different is that the learning spaces have now also moved outside of the classrooms. Learning today is collaborative. Students work more often with each other on projects and problem sets. They share information, exchange ideas and create things together. This is different from when I was an undergraduate. We always had some group work, but the bulk of our academic endeavors were solitary. While today’s students still write plenty of papers and take plenty of tests, much of the way they prepare for these tasks is with other students. And we know that students who study together are better able to learn and retain the material.

Our learning spaces have evolved to reflect this trend in collaborative learning.

This trend is most evident in how our library spaces have evolved to have much more room for group work. While we still have individual study carrels, we have many more collaborative work spaces. This change in the design of learning spaces has mimicked the change in workplaces. Creative and successful employers – and not just in the technology world – have built workspaces designed to facilitate collaboration, so students’ first jobs may be in places that look a lot like their campuses.

The students are better

My last point is that however we measure it, students today are better than students yesterday. Today’s students are more diverse, more accomplished, more intellectually well-rounded and more prepared for college than any previous generation.

Over the past 30 years, the U.S. population of college-age people has increased by more than one million, and is just now leveling off. The percentage of people who go to college after graduating high school has increased from about 60 percent in 1990 to more than 70 percent today.

During this time, the most selective institutions did not expand much, which has resulted in college becoming much harder to get into, especially highly selective places. One of the big reasons why today’s college experience is better than mine, and why students will learn more, is that they are experiencing college with a better set of fellow students.

We still have many hurdles to overcome to improve our higher education system, especially in terms of affordability. But we should also recognize and build upon the many advances in liberal arts education in recent decades.

(Joshua Kim is director of digital learning initiatives at Dartmouth College’s Center for the Advancement of Learning.)

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