Peer Review, Winter 2000

Vol. 2, 
No. 2
Peer Review

From the Editor

When they arrive on campus, college students are typically met with a tantalizing smorgasbord of classes and subjects and extra-curricular activities. But this intellectual bounty can easily leave them bewildered: How does it all fit together? How does one create a balanced intellectual meal out of so many individual courses and side dishes?

Over the last two decades, most of the nation's colleges and universities have taken steps to bring more coherence to the curriculum, especially the general education program. According to higher education's umbrella organization, the American Council on Education, roughly 80 to 90 percent of its member institutions reviewed and/or revised their curricula during the 1980s, and intellectual coherence has remained near the top of the reform agenda. Countless schools are now working to rethink their distribution requirements, to establish new core programs, and to design learning communities, capstone seminars, first-year programs, portfolio-based assessments, and other means of integrating the many parts of the undergraduate experience.

We should applaud these innovations; however we also need to recognize their limits. To date, most discussion of the curriculum (certainly at four-year campuses) has assumed the typical student to be enrolled full time at a single institution. Thus, reformers have focused their attention on the individual college or university, asking what each school might do to ensure that a student's time on campus adds up to a coherent whole. But the demographics of higher education are changing in profound ways, creating a radically different context for debates about curricular coherence. For example, a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education found that, by the 1980s, 54% of the nation's undergraduates had attended more than one college or university, up from 40% in the 1970s. This year, we can expect the figure to reach 60%, with many students having attended three or more institutions.

Given this dramatic rise in student mobility, fueled largely by a growing enrollment of adult and part-time students, we must begin to see curricular coherence as a systemic challenge. If we want to provide a meaningful undergraduate education for students who travel among several campuses (some of them virtual) and who spread their learning over several years, then we must learn to see the curriculum as a shared responsibility.

But collaboration is not just an educational necessity; it is also an ethical imperative. As James Palmer points out in this issue, the community college is a key point of entry to higher education (and too often the final stop) for low-income and minority students. Thus, to design better curricular integration among 2- and 4-year institutions is to help disadvantaged students transfer into upper-level programs, smoothing the way to the baccalaureate degree, which is fast becoming a minimum requirement for a well-paying job.

Moreover, if we fail to integrate our curricula, then others will do it for us, and probably not to our liking. Impatient for better transfer agreements, state legislatures are becoming more and more willing to intervene in matters that are most appropriately decided by educators. Already, many states have imposed lock-step articulation guidelines upon their public colleges and universities, and other legislatures threaten to follow.

And yet, although these issues scream for attention, they have received precious little notice from academic leaders, especially at the national level. AAC&U's own efforts in this area include our current General Education and Transfer initiative, as well as our Exploring Transfer project, which nurtured a number of innovative transfer agreements (such as the much-lauded partnership between LaGuardia Community College and Vassar College, supported also by the Ford Foundation). However, these efforts amount to only a fraction of the work that lies ahead.

In an age of student mobility, curricular coherence requires a broad commitment to debate and define our common educational goals. This issue of Peer Review aims to provoke some of that much-needed discussion.

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