Researchers have been agonising over how to improve America’s higher education system for years, but it turns out that the secret solution could be simply to teach its students to be nice.
Universities should focus greater attention on producing “a new generation of citizens who are committed to creating a more just and equitable society”, according to a paper on achieving equity in higher education published in the Journal of College and Character.
In a retrospective account of their scholarly work over the past 45 years, the authors Alexander and Helen Astin conclude that the structural barriers that stand in the way of achieving greater equity for students in America “show little sign of changing”. However, they say, progress can come about if universities focus on students’ character development.
The authors argue that the way in which students view issues of economic, racial and educational equity is what will eventually shape policies to address the structural problems with higher education and it is down to institutions to “help shape” their characters and leadership qualities.
“The greatest contribution that those who work in higher education can make to the cause of equity may well reside at the level of the individual student,” the authors claim.
“By working to enhance students’ spiritual and moral growth, we can help create a new generation who are more caring, more globally aware, and more committed to social justice than previous generations, while also enabling students to respond to the many stresses and tensions of our rapidly changing society with a greater sense of equanimity.”
The authors cite the hierarchical system of institutions, the continuing heavy reliance on standardised test scores and diminishing state support for public institutions as examples of the ways in which the American higher education system denies equal access to poor, black and minority ethnic students.
“It makes little sense to continue focusing our current energies on trying to change these structures,” the authors argue, adding that if policymakers “have their way”, a “disproportionate number of those who will be deprived of the unique benefits of a traditional liberal education will be poor students, first-generation students, under-prepared students and students from under-represented minority groups”.
The paper also cites the Higher Education Research Institute’s annual freshman survey, which reveals that “being very well off financially” was endorsed as a “very important or essential value” by 82 per cent of first-year students surveyed in 2014, while “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was endorsed by just 45 per cent of respondents – qualities that have swapped places in students’ hierarchy of values since the 1960s.