Letter from the Director

Donald W. Harward, Project Director, Bringing Theory to Practice and President Emeritus, Bates College

In considering just the right topic for my contribution to this issue of the BTtoP Newsletter, I leaned toward capturing the major messages and accomplishments of the past year (the 2008 Report is now online, and does describe those messages and achievements as well as foreshadows the major work of the Project for 2009). However, it seemed more timely to address remarks to a population that has a particularly important (but often unaddressed) role in whether higher education, particularly liberal education, provides the context and incentive for the full potential of students. That population is the parents and families of students.

So what follows is the open letter I’d like parents to receive this spring as they help with the choices and decisions their student must make:

Open Letter to Parents
“What You Should Expect from your Student’s College or University”

If you are a parent of a current student or the parent of a student who will be attending college soon, I want to encourage you to take a particular approach—one of agreeing on a set of clear expectations—expectations that you not only would like to see, but would insist on seeing met by your student and by the institution.

Each of the following expectations gets at the very core of what higher education is about and what it must deliver. Each can be satisfied by documentable outcomes that the institution can help to identify and measure. Colleges and universities will respond to yours and your student’s expectations that the institution’s priority be that of satisfying its historic core mission—to make available the resources, the opportunities, and the particular academic experiences of fully engaging students—with the result of affecting their learning, their emotional and behavioral development, and their civic awareness.

National projects and their partnering organizations (Bringing Theory to Practice and the Association of American Colleges and Universities) reveal how such expectations are now validated by relevant research and by the practices of those colleges and universities where experiences of a particular academic sort make a difference in the full life and development of a student.

Rather than the current prevalent ranking criteria, the more meaningful criteria for the educational excellence of the institution and the excellence of the “fit” for your student is whether the following expectations, held by you and your student, are fulfilled. If they are, the confirmation of excellence is deserved. If these expectations are not filled, your student should consider transferring!

1. Expect your student to be surprised, to be pulled in new directions and to discover new interests. If he or she is finding what they anticipated finding out about themselves, they have been cheated.

2. Expect your student to be engaged—fully engaged in various and different contexts and styles of learning. Engaged learning takes the student out of the classroom and out of the mode of receiving only information. Engaged learning requires the student to encounter their own privilege and preconceptions. It challenges set ideas and demands intensity, rigor, clarity, openness to alternatives, and good will.

3. Expect that your student’s engagement in learning will bring with it self-affirmation and growth in behavior and healthy choices. The evidence is available, and the best institutions can document the link between engaged learning and students’ intellectual, civic, and personal growth. They have the faculty, the designed programs, the opportunities and expectations for students, and the campus culture that prizes the linkage of engaged learning to students’ well-being and to their civic development.

4. Expect the institution to provide the evidence of such outcomes. Their excellence should be determined by the evidence. So instead of asking for “notification” of illegal drinking, expect your student to be engaged; expect his or her institution to not only provide the opportunities for academic, social, and civic engagement, but require students and faculty to be so involved—not busy but earnestly engaged—that your student squawks—and as the late President Thomas Healy of Georgetown University would say, “…if they don’t squawk, transfer!”

The metaphor is apt. “Squawking” by your student is a better mark of excellence than any criterion in an arbitrary ranking. An excellent college for your student is one which takes him or her seriously as a whole and developing individual—engaging students from day one; challenging them; supporting them; guiding them; encouraging them to emancipate themselves from prejudice and presumption. This means educating them in the broadest and best sense.

Many colleges and universities have not heard recently from you and your student that they, the student and the institution, be held to these basic expectations.

Taking your student seriously as a whole and developing individual—intellectually, socially, morally, and civically—is not beyond the institution’s capacity or its core purpose. It is at the heart of its purpose. Colleges and universities can align resources to meet genuine expectations. Students can “go to college” for profoundly holistic as well as practical purposes. But the aim of education (and the core purpose of our educational institutions) is not to be a “service provider.” Education must not be viewed as a commodity or a service industry. Challenging, getting participants to squawk is not “customer friendly.” Higher education has as much or more to do with the full development of students as it does with being an important step on an economic and social ladder. This is not to say that higher education and its institutions should not be accountable. In fact, accountability is basic to excellence. But accountability should not be misdirected.  Accountability should have all to do with meeting these (yours, your student’s, and the institution’s) core expectations for the learning and development of students.

As parents, don’t hover; but do have, and insist that your student has, the expectations of full engagement and access to the documentable outcomes that flow from it. Your student is up to it. And in many ways, students crave to be taken, wholly and seriously, as individuals for whom not failure but low aim is a sin. Colleges and universities can and should deliver on those expectations!

I send best wishes and support for your having these expectations of higher education and insisting that higher education institutions have these expectations of their students.