Sunday, March 15, 2015

Making the Most of January

There is no doubt in my mind that the best thing about winter this year was the 2015 January term at the University of Rhode Island.  Given how miserable this winter has been, one could argue that it presented a pretty low bar for achieving the “best” status.  However, in my view, our January term was so outstanding this year that it would qualify as best even if you spent the winter in Florida.  Here’s why. 
Over 600 students participated in J-term 2015, a 50% increase over last year – and this is only its second year. The term included 29 “in-person” classes on campus, and 17 travel courses.  The top reasons cited by students for taking a J-term course this year: to catch up or get ahead on progress to their degree; interest in a specific course being offered; looking for a opportunity to challenge themselves; and to develop new skills. All of these are great reasons. I am especially pleased by the desire of students to use J-term in order to stay on course to graduate in four years. This was one of our principal motivations for establishing J-term and is one of our top priorities.
It is also noteworthy that so many URI students took advantage of the many opportunities to study and learn away from Kingston.  U.S. travel courses took students to Hawaii, Tampa, Washington DC, around Rhode Island and to Connecticut and New York City. International travel courses included trips to Belize, Bonaire. Chile, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Korea, and the Philippines.  Two of the domestic trips were focused on career exploration and networking and included visits to companies in RI, CT, and New York City.  These trips, in particular, received rave reviews from the students who participated, although students evaluated all the off-campus courses very positively.
Indeed, one of most encouraging and rewarding outcomes of J-term has been the student experience. How do we know? Here are some quotes from students (some comments were edited to preserve confidentiality):
“I liked everything about the course. It was fantastic in every way imaginable. Visiting the different work settings gave me some serious insight as to where I would like to take my career. I was very unhappy when this course came to an end."      
“It was fantastic to focus on just one class and really give it my all.”
“I enjoyed 2015 URI Winter J Term, it was well planned and the communication with the professor and my classmates was amazing. I truly enjoyed my class during J Term.”

It was a priceless experience and essentially important to my education.”

“The 2015 Winter J Term was phenomenal. It did a fine job compressing a full semester course into a few weeks. More importantly, course is a class that should be promoted at lot more. I feel like it can operate as a prerequisite and preparation for URI students seeking internship opportunities in the following Spring semester. The class was beyond informative and offered enough online homework that kept my classmates and I engaged and busy.”

“The condensed workload and tight time frame were ideal. It lends itself to staying on track and becoming more involved in the class.”

“I liked that J Term gave me the opportunity to catch up on credits and also prepare me better for the spring semester.”

“The J Term class I was enrolled in was the most beneficial class I have ever taken at URI. I learned more about how to better prepare myself for after graduation in those 2 weeks more than I have in my 4 years at URI. Everyone should have to take this course. I wouldn't change a thing."

“I really enjoy the J term classes because, while challenging, I believe they offer a concentrated curriculum that is interesting and understandable. I find my experiences thus far taking J-term classes to be rewarding and informative. I will certainly recommend the J term semester to other students wishing to earn some extra credits during the break.”

The most significant part of my trip was finding out that there is so much that I can do with my degree in Communications. Every new place we went and new person we heard from opened my eyes to what possible jobs I could have in my future, and some jobs that I never knew existed.”

There is now no doubt that the University of Rhode Island January Term offers unique and tremendously beneficial opportunities for our students. There is a lot more we can do, however.  Many more students would benefit from J-term classes, so let’s set a goal of doubling enrollment for January 2016.  Given the extremely strong positive response from students, we should create one career/networking course for every college or school. Also, it will be very important to create J-term courses in high-demand areas, especially laboratories in the sciences.  This should be a top priority for the university.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Value of College

As I write this, it is snowing again in Rhode Island, to absolutely no one’s surprise, and to Rhody’s continuing delight.  In short, a good time to read and write, something University of Rhode Island students do a lot.  Two articles appeared within a few days of each other in February that caught my attention: “The Rich Man’s Dropout Club”, by Beth McMurtrie in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and “Bachelor’s degrees lead to employment and more training”, by Paul Fain, in Inside Higher Education.  Both articles are worth reading, if you have not already read them. And both contribute to the ongoing conversation about the value of higher education in America today.
The article by Fain begins with the assertion: “Doubts about the labor-market returns of bachelor’s degrees, while never serious, can be put to rest.”  That is probably comforting to the students who have recently received, or are working towards, a bachelor’s degree, as well as to their families.  The data and analyses described in the article are consistent with numerous previous studies and the experiences shared with me by innumerable graduates of the institutions I have served – Amherst College, Montana State University, and the University of Rhode Island.  Personally, it is certainly true that I graduated from UCSD with far more knowledge, with new and essential skills, and with greater wisdom than when I entered.  It would have been simply impossible for me to succeed without what I learned and experienced in those four years.
However, I certainly agree with the statement that: “college is not for everyone”.  That is self-evident.  The article by McMurtrie chronicles the experiences of several members of the inaugural class of Thiel Fellows.  You may recall that these fellowships were established by billionaire Peter Thiel to provide $100,000 to talented young people so they could forgo higher education and pursue their ambitions immediately.  It generated a lot of attention at the time.  One interpretation of the results (based on the CHE article): generously funded fellowships with the freedom to pursue your own ideas are not for everyone either (even those chosen in a highly selective process).
Here is what resonated with me from the accounts in the McMurtrie story: “The most valuable part of the fellowship for many wasn’t the freedom or the money but the network they were plugged into. Although less structured in its early days, the fellowship now offers retreats, internships, summer housing, and teams of advisors who work in and around the industries to which the fellows aspire.”  Hmmm, at the University of Rhode Island, and many, many other institutions of higher education, we would call that experiential learning.  And it has been around for a while.
We know that experiential learning, whether via internships or in laboratories, or the field, or in many other contexts, is a powerful educational strategy.  Research, creative work, and experiential learning provide unique opportunities for learning that cannot be replicated in standard classrooms. That is why these activities are a key part of our Academic Strategic Plan, and why we created the Center for Career and Experiential Education and the Business Engagement Center. This is one reason why we brought the Small Business Development Center and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership under the URI umbrella. It is why we are connecting our private-sector partners and alumni with our students. One of the most impressive and exciting outcomes of URI’s new January term is the additional opportunity it provides for rich and rewarding experiential learning (more on this in the next post).

The final point I would like to make after reflecting on these articles is this. It is true that college is not for everyone. Very few things are good for everyone. But the opportunity to go to college should be provided to everyone.  The challenges of the 21st century are difficult, vast, and complicated. The more we know, the more we can learn, the better equipped we collectively will be to meet them.