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Too little engagement at college

Photo Credit: Sara Schwartz Illustration

Alexander Heffner, of Jericho, is a junior at Harvard University.



The college admissions process is coming to a close for most high school seniors. Accepted applicants have met or surpassed the requirements for academic achievement and standardized test scores. Some will have already completed advanced placement courses for credit at their chosen universities.

What they probably haven't learned, however, is what it means to live and thrive in a community.

For students, college admissions is a self-involved process in which they are encouraged to distinguish themselves from the pack, sometimes at the expense of anyone but themselves. That inward focus needs to be adjusted in the university setting. But the overcrowding documented on many campuses across the country makes civic concerns difficult to address.

Larger classes mean less interpersonal exchange between faculty and students, which often leads to less depth in assignments (and therefore less student intellectual risk-taking) because of the decreased individual attention. It also encourages more reliance on mechanical systems for evaluation. What results is a departure from community that also harms academics.

According to New York University professor of sociology and education Richard Arum, 50 percent of recent college graduates had not completed a course that demanded 20 or more pages of writing. His co-authored book, "Academically Adrift," reports that only 4 percent of more than 2,300 undergraduates at 24 institutions showed improvement in skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing during their first two years at college. While he doesn't cover this territory specifically in his book, in an interview Arum agreed that the distance between faculty and students is one factor in the trend of anti-intellectualism.

This picture of academic detachment jibes with my own experience at Harvard. My peers at both public and private universities and I have seen a near extinction of quality interaction with faculty members. And such community disengagement can cause increasingly lackluster academic commitment among undergraduates. As columnist Bob Herbert wrote last month in The New York Times, "Perhaps more now than ever, the point of the college experience is to have a good time and walk away with a valuable credential after putting in the least effort possible."

As enrollment at large universities continues to grow, student detachment will become an even greater problem. Hiring more faculty in the face of growing student enrollment isn't always financially possible.

To restore community, universities need more than a fleeting crash course in civic engagement. First, university administrators and admissions officers must accept that student applicants and hired faculty, while perhaps impressive on paper, don't necessarily come to campus with any guaranteed community spirit.

Second, universities should conduct thorough intra-school evaluations, assessing personal engagement in the academic and civic realms. Such investigations would probably show that classes with less personal interaction with the professor lead to considerably worse performance. Let's face it: Lecture halls are not as effective for teaching or learning as smaller seminars, and discussion groups, often led by graduate-student assistants or adjuncts, don't make up for the lack of interaction with faculty scholars.

Third, tenure should be partly determined by qualitative assessments of interaction with students, rather than just the number of a faculty member's published articles.

Perhaps most important, civic orientation for freshmen -- as well as for returning students and faculty -- is essential. This would be most intensive in the first year, with regular interpersonal workshops throughout the school year, in which administrators, professors, students and staff interact. (This could include service projects, like environmental cleanups and scheduled informal discussion groups.)

All of these efforts may be easier said than done. But higher education must be transformed to place a greater premium on community. The lack of it will assure the demise of academic vigor as well as our continued civic collapse.