Paine: Higher Ed Is About More Than Information Delivery

Paine: Higher Ed is About More Than Information Delivery

This piece originally ran in the Austin American Statesman on Jan. 11, 2014.

Let me start by admitting my bias. I have been a university administrator for more than 30 years and I can tell you story after story about the transformative value of higher education. While getting a good job may be the primary reason for many going to college (and is certainly a valid reason), the college experience needs to do more than help students find that first job. With the rapid pace of change, more and more students will soon have careers that haven’t even been created yet. That’s why graduates must be prepared to do more than just pass tests. They need to learn to be successful in many different ways throughout their lifetimes, which is the true value of the traditional college experience.

As is the case with so many aspects of life, the people who get the most out of higher education are the ones who put the most into it, both inside and outside of the classroom. Today’s discussion about higher education tends to focus exclusively on information delivery whether through technology or traditional methods. I think most of us know it is not that simple, but in this intense debate, we can forget that the best education combines information and experience.

It’s certainly possible to learn something about tried and true techniques from a book on management. Taking a class from a professor who has a deep understanding of the field takes that learning to another level. Being able to ask questions, work with a study group and debate, argue and test out ideas adds even more depth and richness. But we still haven’t moved beyond information delivery.

One of my favorite stories is about a student taking a management class while serving as vice president of the campus student government association. She had been frustrated with the group, but in that day’s class discussion about the importance of an organizational mission, she had an ‘aha’ moment. She now had the knowledge to analyze what was hindering her student organization. Her out-of-class leadership position gave her the opportunity to put that information into practice. As a result she had a deeper understanding of the information discussed in class and real world experience that would help her get that first job and be more effective throughout her career.

Interacting and working with people who have different beliefs, backgrounds and perspectives helps students prepare for the increasingly diverse work places of our world. The University of Texas at Austin has a particularly rich tradition of student engagement with more than 1,100 student organizations in which students can gain experience in leadership and working with others to accomplish shared goals. Recreation centers are often derided as unnecessary but intramural sports help students learn to work in teams and serving as a referee is a great place to learn to manage conflict. All of these opportunities and more are part of the full breadth and depth of the educational experience at the university.

As we struggle to find ways to manage the increasing costs of education, some call for students to narrow their focus. While not ignoring the issue of costs, students need to maximize, not limit, the opportunities higher education provides and still graduate on time. Data shows that undergraduates who live on campus have higher GPAs and students involved in healthy activities outside the classroom have both higher GPAs and are more likely to graduate in four years. Additionally, students who are engaged in their classes, involved in campus life and connected to friends and campus support structures are more likely to cope successfully with the challenges and adversity that might undermine a successful college career.

Student after student, year after year, I have the privilege to work with individuals who come to college to make a difference in their lives. Through that experience they transform their families, their futures and often the world around them. Education transforms all of us and as a community it is our obligation to find ways, including the use of technology and other tools, for as many people as possible to have the richest educational opportunity possible both inside and outside of the classroom.

Dr. Gage E. Paine is vice president for Student Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.

Photo courtesy UT Division of Student Affairs.


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