Cherwitz: How can we help undergraduates navigate education?

Rick Cherwitz, Local Contributor
January 28 2010

With tuition rising, many are concerned with containing the cost of higher education. As important as this is, shouldn't we focus on ways to maximize the benefits of college education capitalizing on knowledge purchased with tuition dollars?

How can students better negotiate the undergraduate curriculum, choosing what to study from the wide array of opportunities? How might students fully understand connections between academic knowledge and desired careers?

Many undergraduates are uncertain about academic disciplines; hundreds of specialized possibilities often make little sense, appearing to have limited connection to students' interests and professional goals. How can freshmen make thoughtful choices when they don't fully understand items on the academic menu?

Professional development comes too late in the game, at the back end when soon-to-be graduates seek employment. These career services are not only separate from academic work but frequently tend to be viewed as secondary to scholarship and study.

Hence, many students leave school not fully tapping their interests and aptitudes. They graduate not completely appreciating the potential contribution of academic knowledge to their future and to solving society's serious problems.

What is needed is an entrepreneurial laboratory where students discover how their interests might serve as a compass for navigating the university, as well how academic knowledge equips them to make a difference.

There is hope. Consider the University of Texas' Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Graduate School Internship. More than 800 students have had the chance to work with veteran graduate students to determine whether they should pursue advanced study, becoming empowered to own their education and to leverage knowledge for social good -- to be "citizen scholars."

Interns -- most of whom are upperclassmen -- continually ask why the Pre-Grad Internship was one of their first student-centered experiences, often their only chance in college to assess the value and usefulness of what they were learning.

So why not provide a similar incubator -- an IE academic/community mentorship -- to students at the beginning of their college tenure, permitting them to discover the relevance of academic disciplines and devise a thoughtful plan of academic study?

The mentor program could extend the already successful Pre-Graduate School Internship. With graduate student mentors and community sponsors, freshmen and sophomores would work simultaneously inside and outside the university, ascertaining the unique perspectives of different fields of study and unearthing tangible links between academic concentrations and their passions and career aspirations.

This would be a rigorous exercise; students would study and reflect upon their discipline. Rather than defaulting to a particular major, they would learn about the many available options. Exploration would culminate in students designing an entrepreneurial plan for their academic and post-academic career. They then could meaningfully pick a specialized major and weave together a tapestry of courses across the curriculum, defining and linking their academic and professional identities.

The mentors program might reduce the time and cost of earning a degree. By providing students greater agency in their education, the program could shift the model of education from one of apprenticeship to certification to entitlement to one of discovery to ownership to accountability. Instead of simply offering students more courses, the mentor program would equip underclassmen to take advantage of the already extensive catalog of courses, majors, minors and concentrations.

By demystifying education and forging connections between academe and society, the program also would significantly enhance the education of first-generation and underrepresented minority students, an effect already well-documented by the IE educational philosophy and Pre-Grad Internship (which since 2003 has enrolled a disproportionately higher percentage of underrepresented and first-generation students).

Rising tuition is inevitable. So let's maximize the enormous value of college education. Why not boldly re-envision the undergraduate experience, permitting students to become intellectual entrepreneurs -- to study themselves, their disciplines and the ways scholarship can transform lives for the benefit of society?

The IE academic/community mentorship would be a modest first step.

Cherwitz is a professor of communication and the founder and director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium at the University of Texas.