OP-ED: Have It Your Way: Students’ Learning Styles and Habits Shaping How Colleges Teach

By Dr. Mel Schiavelli
OP-ED: Have It Your Way: Students’ Learning Styles and Habits Shaping How Colleges Teach

Milton Bradley’s game LIFE® gives players two clear-cut choices by which to chart their future: college or career.

The popular 50-year-old board game draws distinct lines between these options—choosing college, for instance, places a player in debt from the very start, but also increases the likelihood of landing a better job and a higher salary.

Although the lines frequently cross and even merge in real life, the premise of LIFE translates well to 2011. College remains the primary path to success. More specifically, the successful higher education model, designed to make graduates workforce ready and equipped with the requisite science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills, not only places people in the jobs in their chosen field but also boosts the competitiveness of companies to thrive in the knowledge-based global economy of the 21st century.

In essence, the product colleges are offering is in greater demand than ever.

But the traditional road to college and its attendant liberation — living independently for the first time and growing into adulthood — is taking a detour, and learning institutions, if not already, need to be in charge of the construction.

Recent studies show that soon-to-be collegegoers are restless with traditional ways to learn and want to maximize the use of the technology that has become part and parcel of their lives.

It’s no secret that most higher-paying, career-oriented jobs increasingly require a college degree. So, although that seemingly makes it a “seller’s market,” colleges — not students — are facing, and will continue to face for the foreseeable future, the question that students  have asked historically ask: What is college? And why should I go?

Colleges are starting to redefine themselves in ways that meet their target audience’s needs — economically, educationally, and technologically.

Perhaps the biggest problem colleges face today is that they are pricing themselves out of the market. More and more people are unable to afford a post-high-school education without incurring substantial, often crippling, debt. In the past decade the rate of increase in college tuition has outpaced the rise in the cost of living and in family income. In fact, the rate of tuition increase at private colleges has, however, virtually mirrored the inflation rate.

The largest increases compared with inflation have occurred at public four-year institutions since most states have reduced their support for public institutions, all but forcing colleges’ financial hands.

This has led to significant discounting of tuition. According to the 2007 survey of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the average discount at a small private college is roughly 42 cents on the dollar. Working against this good bargain, though, is the widespread perception among many students and parents that high cost signals high quality.

So, if you truly get what you pay for, yet public anxiety over the cost of college is at its highest level ever, what does the future hold for the traditional business model of college?

Higher education at both private and public colleges needs to be more diversified and flexible, catering to a wider cross-section of students, who want classes online as well as hybrid class schedules with night and weekend meetings.

Educators are finding increasingly that students want to design their own curriculum--one that represents their learning style and interests. This is not a new concept. Facing skyrocketing costs, plunging enrollment, and a deficit, Bennington College in Vermont restructured itself in the mid-’90s. Among its changes, the private school let students put together their own courses of study. If they wanted to study a subject that was not offered, they were expected to arrange a tutorial with a faculty member.

The school, where one student enthused, “You’re constantly being asked, ‘What are you really interested in?’” is now solvent, experiencing high enrollment, finances, and morale.

Although not all are equipped, either historically or constitutionally, for the type of major shift that Bennington undertook, colleges must adapt to this new breed of student. No longer content with accepting what colleges offer, students are demanding an education on their terms. Convenience and personalization have become survival necessities, not luxuries. Students will look to attend classes online or take advantage of blended (part face-to-face and part online) learning, study part time, take courses from multiple universities, and jump in and out of colleges.

Technology is the key, reflecting students’ expectations to access classes from cellular phones and other portable computing devices, register to take a class in person and then opt to monitor class meetings online, and use “digital textbooks” to take quizzes and tests on their own or explore concepts through games and simulations.

Colleges are under immense pressure to change quickly because, one, of scrutiny of the cost of college, and, two, students’ growing demands around curricula and access to information. Sure, good teaching will always be at the heart of a good university. But as higher education evolves into a retail-based entity, it will become incumbent on colleges to change their business model in order to maintain enrollment, control costs, and satisfy their most important constituent—the student.



Dr. Mel Schiavelli is president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in PA.  Founded in 2001, Harrisburg University is the only STEM-focused comprehensive university between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

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