College can represent the best years of a young life, a time of intellectual exhilaration and social growth, an expanding bridge from tremulous adolescence to independent adulthood. The undergraduate experience does not always measure up, however, according to a new report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
"College: The Undergraduate Experience in America" will add substantially to the rigorous and constructive national debate about the essential mission of the four-year college. It should be required reading on every campus.
On many campuses the narrow path leads not to intellectual maturity but only to a regular paycheck. Undergraduates in search of a substantive, integrated and useful education lose out to prized students in graduate and professional schools. Faculty members best known for exciting teaching lose tenure battles to lecture-hall drones who perform admirably only as researchers who publish often. Those priorities must change.
Balance is required, according to the thought-provoking Carnegie report, between excessive, narrow careerism and a broad, general education; between specialized credentials and an enriched major that addresses historical, economical, ethical, social and aesthetical implications; between brilliant teaching and dogged research. That equilibrium will produce intellectually and socially competent individuals who are ready not only for jobs but also for life.
The Carnegie report also recommends a smoother transition from high school to higher education. Students and parents need to know what questions to ask: What represents excellence? What will best meet their needs? How big a campus is too big for a particular student? Those insights will help families avoid the mismatches that sometimes occur when a college is selected solely on the basis of a winning football team, proximity to the beach, national prestige or the most attractive financial aid package.
Once they reach college, freshmen can also benefit from more specific counseling and more opportunities to interact with faculty members. Most students can benefit from greater proficiency in thinking, speaking and writing--an urgent recommendation that is worth repeating.
The Carnegie Foundation, headed by former U.S. Commissioner of Education Ernest L. Boyer, based its 83 recommendations on visits to 30 public and private campuses and on three years of surveying academic deans, faculty members, undergraduates, high-school students and parents.
More than 5.7 million undergraduates attend the nation's public and private four-year colleges. If higher education prepares them for professional and civic obligations, they and the public will benefit. If the undergraduate experience transforms them into well-informed, creative, inquisitive, vibrant, open-minded, self-directed adults, then their college years will indeed have been the best years of their young lives.