When I was a student in college, I was fortunate to randomly find my way into what George Kuh and his team at Indiana University have come to call “high-impact practices,” or, in other words, learning experiences that are particularly transformative, such as study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, and community-engaged or service learning. For example, in the beginning of the second semester of my freshman year, I stumbled into an opportunity to work with center-city New Haven school children, helping them improve their English composition skills. I thought I would do it for a semester and then try another experience. But by the end of that first semester, I was hooked. It turned out this was what was beginning to be called “service learning,” something that over the years has been transformed into “community-engaged learning,” a critical component for many institutions, especially those with the Carnegie designation of “community engaged institutions.”
As I look at colleges and universities today, I find that: some require one or another of these high-impact experiences; many provide all of them to those students who find their ways to the relevant offices; some programs discourage students from participating in one or more of the experiences because they conflict with the rigorous curriculum that leaves no time for students to explore them.
I also see that while I, a student from a family with some affluence, had privilege to explore these opportunities, while some classmates from less fortunate backgrounds did not have the financial foundation to consider them. Some colleges and universities today allocate funds to help students with demonstrated financial need (and corresponding financial aid) to subsidize or pay in whole the costs associated with these transformative experiences.
What I see more broadly is that few institutions systematically count the numbers of students participating in these experiences; few institutions regularly check in with students, faculty, and staff about the non-financial impediments to broader participation in these opportunities. And few institutions celebrate student success based on these experiences; even fewer draw the connections between success after college with a transformative (or “high impact”) learning experience in college. Few institutions have a system to encourage students to consider one or more of these opportunities and to plan accordingly to make it happen.
If we are to redesign the institution of higher education in the 21st century, it would be, I propose, not at all a bad idea to examine the institutions from the perspective of our learners and our alumni and to consider what experiences had the greatest impact on the early post-bachelor’s degree years of their lives. If we were to find, as I believe, that the transformative experiences were truly transformative, then we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to invest carefully in enhancing those experiences and broadening access to them.