US Colleges Seek to Change the Shape of Higher Education

23 November, 2019

Wofford College president Nayef Samhat knows the future of his school is at risk. The 1,600-student school based in Spartanburg, South Carolina is similar to many small, private colleges that have closed in recent years.

The closures are closely linked to issues like increasing competition among colleges and universities for a smaller traditional student population. In United States, that group is mainly young people coming right out of high school.

But Samhat told VOA he is not worried. He says his school and many others are working to find new and different ways of providing higher education.

At Wofford, that means meeting the needs of a very specific group of students, Samhat says. He notes that a strength of American higher education is that there are many institutions to choose from. Some students want the experience of a large school, while others want a smaller, more personal environment.

That is exactly what Wofford offers, with about 95 percent of its students living on the school grounds throughout their four-year program.

However, Samhat suggests it is not just life in a closely connected community that makes Wofford different. The school has a strong international study program with help from outside investment. The Institute of International Education reports that Wofford has one of the highest percentages of students spending at least some time at a foreign university during their studies.

"In a rapidly changing local community, we are a pathway to the global for our students," said Samhat.

He says Wofford supports international education to teach students about cultural differences. It also teaches them to look at the world's problems in different ways.

Students walk across the Spartanburg, South Carolina campus of Wofford College.
Students walk across the Spartanburg, South Carolina campus of Wofford College.

Samhat says the school's international study programs are not just about having fun in a foreign country. Students must seek special permission to join the programs, explaining how the experience connects to their main field of study. For example, an environmental science student might want to learn about how water shortages affect farming in Africa. Students are also expected to share their experiences when they return to Wofford in ways that are helpful to other students.

For other colleges and universities, offering a unique education does not necessarily mean leaving the United States.

Mark Roosevelt is the president of St. John's College, a small private liberal arts college in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He says it means finding the one thing your school does better than anyone else. He notes that schools are feeling pressure to demonstrate how the education they offer directly links to a strong career path.

In many cases, this has led students to believe the best programs are ones that deal with very specific fields of study, or majors. But St. John's has always believed in the opposite, Roosevelt says.

"Life doesn't have majors, and knowledge doesn't have majors. And the problems you face in the workforce ... and ... in life aren't reflected by majors. So we don't have majors," he said.

The school offers just one degree: Bachelor of Liberal Arts. St. John's students take all the same classes. They all learn some mathematics, some literature and some philosophy, along with other subjects.

Roosevelt argues this teaches students to see how different issues and areas of life are connected. He says it improves their critical thinking, the kind of skills that businesses are looking for in employees today.

At Miami University in the state of Ohio, Nik Money says the college's Western Program helps students who have not chosen a major. The program helps students identify their interests and choose related classes related to those interests at the public research university. Some past examples include the effects of opening a small business in a poor community and sex discrimination in competitive gaming.

Students walk across the Oxford, Ohio campus of Miami University.
Students walk across the Oxford, Ohio campus of Miami University.

Money says the program helps them through this process, but students must produce a major project connecting everything they have learned in the end.

"We're actually asking a lot of the students in ... asking them to take responsibility ... for determining their own educational path," he said.

He adds that this will prepare students for the likely changes in their careers in the future.

Other school leaders are worried about the increase of the non-traditional student population in American higher education. This includes older adults and students with fewer financial resources, meaning their need for support from their institution is greater.

Mike Summers helps run the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Meyerhoff Scholars Program. The public research university's program offers financial assistance to high performing minority high school students interested in science.

The program forces students to work together on special projects, helps them get research experience in real laboratories and even requires them to come to classes early.

Summers says there are a lot of students who dream of becoming scientists but never do. The Meyerhoff program works to ensure that minority students are given a chance to enter those fields. He adds that it is one of the main purposes of higher education.

"Whether it's medical research or technology or math, or even just inspiring students ... there is ... desire to do what's right," said Summers.

I'm Dorothy Gundy.
And I'm Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor. We want to hear from you. What unique things are universities in your country doing? Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

specificadj. clearly and exactly presented or stated

institution(s) – n. an established organization

rapidlyadv. happening in a short amount of time

globaladj. involving the entire world

uniqueadj. used to say that something or someone is unlike anything or anyone else

liberal arts n. areas of study, such as history, language, and literature, that are meant to give you general knowledge rather than to develop specific skills needed for a profession

reflect(ed) – v. to show something official document and title that is given to someone who has successfully completed a series of classes at a college or university

determiningv. making a decision

inspiringv. making someone want to do something