Campus Citizens, Not Just Customers

06/09/2015 05:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

Given the exorbitant cost of a higher education, students are often viewed as consumers, seeking tangible payoff for their sizeable investment. Students do need to be careful and calculating in how they choose their educational path. And they need to be savvy in how they navigate the incredible array of choices in the academic marketplace of institutions and programs. But this focus on consumerism - understandable, considering the dollars at stake - is myopic if not misguided.

Students are producers, as much as consumers. They play a major role in the ultimate value of their academic experience. They validate their choices through their contribution and commitment to their own education.

As a teacher and former administrator, I've noted a hierarchy in the ways students engage in learning. At its most basic, students choose how best to comply: what needs to be done to get a decent grade, accumulate credits, fulfill requirements, and eventually graduate. This relationship is a transactional social contract. College here is simply a means to other ends, often force-fed to young people as a necessary rite of passage. At this level, the best teachers are charismatic lecturers; and their best students observe, absorb, and dutifully respond.

While this stage in the relationship between student and school is efficient, it is hardly motivating. Faculty can appear as remote, even apathetic adversaries - the gatekeepers who stand in the way of those students trying to get through college as effortlessly as possible. At its darker moments, students rationalize cutting classes in favor of fun, cheating as a short-cut to better grades, and misbehaving as an antidote for their boredom.

If compliance were the end in itself, then we could contain tuition costs simply by offering ever larger course sections, and leveraging as much technology as possible to maximize faculty bandwidth over the greatest number of students. But this is credentialing - not education. The secret sauce of the American academic system -why it is not only expensive but universally admired - is its participatory nature, where students are major actors in their own education. They potentially control their academic fate and the nature of the learning that occurs. Through laboratories, case discussions, field assignments, writing and other creative projects, students play an intimate, active role in the quality of their educational experience.

At this second level, faculty judge students not just by their passive compliance but by their active contribution. Grading becomes an individualized, thoughtful exercise in assessing performance. These best teachers inspire, guide, and get to know their students; and their best students reciprocate through visible engagement.

A third, even higher aspiration is for students to become true citizens in their courses - and help to determine the success of these classes by taking responsibility for much of their content and quality. Here, the best teachers lead; but the best students also lead. Professors find clever ways of motivating students to exercise their imagination and explore their own interests. They don't so much relinquish responsibility as inspire students to assume much of this responsibility themselves.

But this entails a very different social contract, nurtured by the institution and the willingness of professors and students to elevate the learning experience.

The initial task for prospective students should be to find the right fit at the right cost. Students, though, need to think beyond a narrow purchasing decision to what is inevitably a major life commitment. Higher education is not a simple economic transaction but a complex and potentially transformational experience.

The best institutions stress their commitment to the full student experience and provide valuable opportunities for personalized learning. These schools demonstrate their expectations and ideals in exciting, engaging courses taught by star faculty - in classes where students cannot hide, but are encouraged to contribute. These professors resist or at least minimize lecturing. They know their students as individuals and inspire their involvement and imagination. They base their assessments not on what is mechanically measurable and convenient but on what reveals important learning outcomes. These institutions and their faculty provide the freedom and support for students to create their own paths.

Ultimately, the best institutions and faculty demonstrate to their public that graduation recognizes more than a test of endurance. A degree celebrates an intrinsically meaningful phase in students' lives that graduates will carry forward, along with the credential they earn.

Jay A. Halfond is a Professor of the Practice at Boston University, and former dean of BU's Metropolitan College.