Modern College: Part 3

A Year of Essays: January 13, 2022

Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, was quoted in a Washington Post article on the 6.6% decline in enrollments at colleges and universities since the start of the pandemic. Two things he said stand out: “Students are questioning the value of college” and “We have to get students back on track, re-engage them.”

With the latter comment, I sure hope Shapiro doesn’t mean for colleges to return to the traditional model. If he does, he’s not paying attention to the former comment.

I’m on my university’s program review committee. We are facing enrollment declines greater than the national average. We are also facing a $4M deficit over the next two years. We implemented a new general education program this year that allows students to explore areas of interest in-depth to make their educational experience more meaningful and useful.

We face an impasse: higher education is changing based on what it markets, and if we don’t shift to a market mentality — what students consider a meaningful and useful learning experience for the price — enrollments will continue to decline.

I’ve always considered myself an innovative educator. Few find riveting sitting in rows and listening to lectures on how to use a comma correctly. I throw formality out the window and ask students to “get real,” to own their own learning. Students ask me how to do something, and I always respond with “there are many avenues to the same destination.” Zen-like, of course, yet true. And frustrating to students who just want to know HOW TO DO IT.

I haven’t taught my “unclass” recently. I’d walk into the room on Day One and say, “The University requires this for this course, so what are we going to do?” Crickets. I’m sure many thought I’d lost my marbles. The idea was for the class, as a whole, devise a project that would include research, writing, some collective out-of-class activities, and self-evaluation. I’d identify pros and cons to project proposals, but the decision of what to study would rest with them.

In Fall 1999, after some confounded questions, Brad suggested we build a boat, take it to Key West in late December, and sail into 2000. Inwardly smiling because someone got it, I laid out what that project would entail, and we deemed it impractical. (Brad and I are still friends.) The course, and others like it through the years, have been wildly successful. Students learned how to develop, implement, and evaluate their ideas, worked through obstacles (and were there ever some), and mostly have fun along the way. Students have told me the project changed how they learned — by being an active participant in learning.

Good educators know what I mean, and colleges don’t have to change too much to start re-engaging students. Constructivist education models are plentiful. Class sizes can be reduced. Sit around a table so everyone can see each other. Make learning active and relevant and meaningful and useful for our students’ lives and futures.

Douglas-Gabriel, Danielle. “Colleges lost 465,000 students this fall. The erosion of enrollment is raising alarms.” Washington Post, January 13, 2022.



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David Russell Beach

David Russell Beach


David Beach is playwright/writer, director, dramaturg, and educator. He holds a PhD in education and an MFA in playwriting, and is a professor at Radford U.