Blending a traditional liberal-arts education with practical real-world projects can make students more valuable contributors to the organizations they will work for when they graduate, says David P. Angel, Clark University’s president. The approach, he said in a recent conversation, has also helped his institution sharply increase its applications.
DAN BERRETT: Thank you for joining us. We're here at The Chronicle of Higher Education with David Angel, president of Clark University, in Worcester, Mass. Thank you for being here.
DAVID ANGEL: Good morning.
DAN BERRETT: Clark describes itself as a liberal-arts research university. And it has a model of curriculum called liberal education and effective practice, which marries liberal education with practical and applied education. And there are other similar liberal-arts institutions that are trying to marry these two facets of education. What makes Clark's approach different?
DAVID ANGEL: Yes, well, thank you, Dan. Glad to be here. The difference begins, I think, with the level of commitment we have to advancing liberal education in this country. You know, we're in the midst of a big debate in the United States about the ways in which education serves young people in our country. And we believe both that liberal education remains a powerful platform for life and career and citizenship, but at the same time, we believe that liberal education has to very significantly advance in this country.
The pieces of liberal education that I think have been the great strength in this country—and as someone who was educated outside of the United States, I'm very appreciative of liberal education today. The pieces that I think have been tremendously valuable are what I would call classic liberal education. So things like critical thinking, good writing skills, rigor of analysis in the major. All the things you would associate with great liberal-arts colleges and research universities.
The piece that we believe needs enhanced attention, on the part of colleges and universities, is enhancing the capability of our students to put the knowledge to work in the world. So I think most colleges and universities would say that their students are well educated at the point of graduation. Question is, do they have the skills that are needed to take that education and add value to the organizations that they're going to join after graduation?
And that's the piece that really fascinates us, is how do you ensure the students are not just well educated, but they can add value to organizations, whether it's for profit or nonprofit?
DAN BERRETT: So what are some of the ways that your students do that?
DAVID ANGEL: Well, the lesson I think we've learned in higher education is that the skills and capabilities to mobilize your knowledge are really cultivated in authentic problem-solving situations. So, for example, if a student really needs to build up the capability to be resilient in the face of challenges—almost any new hire in an organization is going to, at some point, hit a bump in the road.
And for many new hires, new employees, they may find that they get knocked off the train track by hitting that obstacle. So what happens if part of what we're trying to do in college is to build up the resilience of students and the creative problem-solving abilities, so that when they hit an obstacle, they actually come up with new creative solutions?
And what we have found then, and I think the evidence from the learning sciences supports this, is that you build those skills most effectively when you place students in real problem-solving situations. So the cutting edge of what we're trying to do is to really allow our students to both build and demonstrate the skills they need in the world that they will move into after college, through a set of experiences while they're actually enrolled at college.
So that might be, for example, placing students on project teams, where they have real responsibility to address an issue or a problem. And it really matters that they bring absolutely their best skills, their best capabilities to that problem. It's not an exercise, this is actually a real problem that they are responsible for moving forward.
DAN BERRETT: So they're authentic, real-world projects?
DAVID ANGEL: Yes.
DAN BERRETT: Have we reached a point where liberal education, the value proposition of a liberal education, can no longer stand on its own? It needs this practical piece.
DAVID ANGEL: I think we've reached a point where there's growing consensus that what we're looking for, if you like, is liberal education 2.0. I think there's actually broad agreement that liberal education is both of enduring value, as an educational platform, but it needs to evolve in a way that is responsive to the world that our students are going to graduate into. And I mean by that the labor market, the economy. But also the society, the global society that we're moving into. I think that's the consensus. The challenge for us is, well, how do you reinvent traditional education practice at a college to live up to that new expectation?
DAN BERRETT: And what's been the response among parents, students?
DAVID ANGEL: Well, Clark has received tremendous attention for the work we're doing. Our applications for undergraduate enrollment at Clark are up 70 percent over the last two years. Up 30 percent this past year. So we're receiving a lot of interest on the part of particular parents and obviously new undergraduate students.
I think that if you can say to parents with evidence and authenticity that … the result, the value, of attending college will be not only that your son or your daughter is well educated—they learn how to write well, to communicate effectively, to develop their analytical skills—but they're also launched. And they're launched whether that is into a career, into graduate school, into a year of service. If you can actually demonstrate to parents that the value of attending college has advanced in that way, I think that resonates very, very powerfully with families today.
DAN BERRETT: Well, great. Well, David Angel, thank you very much for joining us.
DAVID ANGEL: My great pleasure. Thank you, Dan.