Exploring instead of scoring: Restoring the mission of college starts in high school

Exploring instead of scoring: Restoring the mission of college starts in high school
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Founded to develop leaders and thinkers, American higher education started in 1636 as a liberal arts education, a greenhouse for civic leadership and classical learning. It evolved, however, to include career preparation as early as 1862, when the Land-Grant College Act created “schools of agriculture and mechanic arts.” Since then, universities have tried to strike a balance between fulfilling their intellectual mission and offering professional preparation.

This balance tipped because of the demand for colleges to be more career-centered. For several reasons, one can be sympathetic to favoring career preparation, but it should not be the core or dominant pursuit. If the majority of education is about techniques, we will lose the most effective means of developing thinkers, the means that democracy counts on.

Many argue the reason for the “reverse liberal arts trend” is unprecedented increases in college tuition. In-state tuition and fees at public universities have increased 237 percent from 20 years ago. With costs so high, many students — and their parents — see themselves not as scholars in search of knowledge but as customers due a return on investment. This mindset has pressed higher education to accommodate “customer” expectations.


We would argue that the greater force moving students away from a “thinker’s” education starts in high school, where the growing focus is on admission to college or compliance with government program requirements rather than development of curiosity and exploration. In turn, colleges increasingly rely on scores to manage the admissions process, despite holistic reviews of applications to identify the intellectually curious and innovative minds that colleges seek. A dramatic increase in applications has driven colleges to scale up assessment efficiency, relying more and more on quantified parameters such as the GPA and standardized test scores.

The score-centric mindset pushes students, high-achieving or struggling, to pursue quantifiable results rather than to explore widely, listen broadly, examine assumptions, debate ideas and extend horizons. The potential challenge and joy of intellectual discovery is suffocated by the studying-for-grades mentality. So when students carrying such mentality move on to colleges, they lack an appreciation for the liberal arts way of learning which they deem impractical.

What’s the solution? The change must start in high schools, but how can they create a system of measuring students without putting brakes on the desire to explore? One solution is to change what is being measured. Mastery Transcript Consortium was founded in 2017 by a group of private high schools to transform transcripts to totally evidence-based demonstrations of skill and character, as opposed to test scores.

If that solution is too radical and futuristic, high schools can think about how to balance test-required courses with project-based or interest-based learning. High schools need to construct a safe environment in which students are free to take on extra challenge, explore, and make mistakes. In fact, students should be evaluated on and rewarded for doing so. Schools can offer orientations for families to help identify student interests and provide resources to explore those interests, outside of the school as well.

Utilizing technology can be an option. Some creative teachers get connected on social media across schools, or even across countries, through online sharing. Students excellent in certain areas are invited by their teachers to teach students of other teachers in their online community. By linking peers with animated discussion about common intellectual interests, academic exploration becomes far more infectious than fulfilling grade requirements.

Why don’t high schools and districts investigate forming learning communities for students and teachers respectively or jointly? In so doing, the sparks of student enthusiasm can ignite interest among a wider community. But of course, the prerequisite is to free the students from being ruled mercilessly by their scores, at least to some extent.

Many secondary school students are more than ready to take on college level courses, and districts have successfully partnered with community colleges to make that possible. Introducing such stimulating material, often outside the bounds of secondary curriculum, even to middle-schoolers, fosters a genuine interest in learning.

Independent study programs at the college level are another route to academic exploration for its own sake. Exceptional high school students participating in the Pioneer Research Program, for example, devote three months on average to produce college-level research papers in subjects that interest them. A survey of these students shows that 92 percent expressed deep pleasure in their studies because they were quite challenged. Since their Pioneer studies are not part of the schoolwork that is included in their transcripts, they felt safe and free to explore and take risks. Their response suggests that it is not difficulty that curbs student enthusiasm, but rather grades.

In short, it is in high school that the seeds of real liberal arts thinking should be planted, and colleges can nurture and graft onto that start. The rift between high school and college can be lessened or closed.

Surely Franklin D. Roosevelt had liberal arts education in mind when he said: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Our society relies on generations of thinkers, and thinking is what liberal arts education is most efficient in shaping. Secondary education and higher education need to work on connecting educational values instead of connecting grades. When students leave college, they will recognize that becoming stronger thinkers was clearly a return on their investment.

Matthew Jaskol and Amy Li are co-founders of Pioneer Academics, a program that created the online structured research mentorship system for outstanding high school students around the globe in STEM, social sciences, and humanities.