Institutions devoted to student learning provide courses of study, innovative programs, and co-curricular experiences known to be successful in producing critical thinking skills and other habits of mind that engage students deeply and ensure good liberal learning outcomes. At the same time, colleges validate students’ obvious need to “connect the dots” in their post-graduate life by providing job and graduate school training, and by maintaining academic centers across a range of academic skills and interdisciplinary topics. Most institutions also spend significant resources generating internships, global learning experiences, and mentored research opportunities. But how well do students actually “connect the dots” between their curricular and co-curricular learning? Not only do we want to integrate and deepen student learning, but also help students articulate how their college experience in totality leads them to success with their post-baccalaureate goals.
Liberal arts institutions continue to communicate their relevance for today’s undergraduates by honing the ways in which students connect their in-class and out-of-class educational experiences, and learn to articulate how the skills they acquire translate to the career landscape. This article explores the planning and implementation efforts at two liberal arts colleges working to integrate curricular and co-curricular experiences. DePauw University and Agnes Scott College have embarked on substantial organizational changes focused on equipping students to make these connections and be successful in their post-undergraduate careers. Both institutions saw the need for a more seamless student experience and wanted to coordinate and valorize high-impact practice opportunities into an integrated whole.
Innovation Processes at Two Institutions
DePauw University developed and recently implemented the Gold Commitment, which creates a personalized co-curricular trajectory for all students, integrated through a holistic advising framework. SUMMIT is Agnes Scott College’s global learning and leadership development initiative for all students supported by a team-based advising model and integrated through a capstone digital portfolio. Each of these initiatives required rethinking resource utilization from the strategic 30,000-foot level down to the detailed on-the-ground implementation level. But there is also an element of continuity in these innovation processes: each builds from existing strengths and an assessment of what the institution already does well.
Faculty and staff collaboration is essential for any innovation process, and it is critical to generate, highlight, and discuss evidence that buoys this collaborative work. At DePauw, information gathered from alumni and employers supported the idea that co-curricular experiences were impactful and could be combined with skills developed intentionally in coursework and in co-curricular settings. By listening to students and young alumni, it became clear that they would appreciate more guidance from a career advisor that would be available throughout a student’s four years on campus, and that they welcomed additional structure in developing a plan for their time after graduation. Evidence like this can be communicated to students, faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees so that the case for the initiative springs from the evidence. It’s not possible to over-communicate this kind of evidence. Having members of each constituency who know the evidence well means that they can champion the key ideas underlying the initiative.
Faculty oversight of the curriculum and guidance on co-curricular programs is critical to this innovation process. After the initial outlines of the initiative were developed, Agnes Scott’s faculty leadership created “pop up” taskforces to further develop detailed pieces of the initiative within a few weeks, and then propose those ideas at the next faculty meeting. This rapid pace of creating the components of the initiative meant faculty leaders had to be nimble and adapt as they fit new ideas together to create a cohesive set of curricular and co-curricular learning experiences for students.
DePauw University: Gold Commitment
DePauw’s Gold Commitment enhances the college’s liberal arts curriculum by explicitly connecting a student’s coursework to their co-curricular experiences and guaranteeing opportunities beyond the four-year baccalaureate for those who need it. Through the DePauw Leadership Portfolio and technology-enhanced faculty advising, students have access to skills-based training at eight centers across campus with a range of foci, from civic engagement to media and ethics. Technology enhancements designed to support this initiative include advising software with an integrated co-curricular transcript and a smartphone app that provides up-to-date information and check-in capability for a range of campus events that contribute to the program. At the same time, the University commits to the post-graduation success of each student, while students commit to program goals and a personalized set of co-curricular experiences and related activities.
Agnes Scott College: SUMMIT
The SUMMIT initiative began several years ago with a discussion across all campus constituencies about what would make a liberal arts education compelling for 21st century students. After three years of market research and intensive initiative development, Agnes Scott College launched SUMMIT, a global learning and leadership development curriculum combined with a related set of co-curricular learning experiences throughout a students’ four-year undergraduate program. This process created a new general education program that includes teamwork and digital literacy embedded in intellectual breadth requirements. Professional advisors are at the heart of the reflective team-based advising model that ensures greater coordination in a student’s academic plan.
In thinking about these two cases of residential liberal arts colleges promoting institutional change by expanding and integrating curricular and co-curricular experiences for all students, there are some key takeaways in terms of ideas and processes that might help other institutions as they consider going down a similar path.
Develop ideas for innovation out of existing strengths or longstanding goals of connecting the campus to career outcomes, and make sure there’s plenty of evidence from a variety of sources to reinforce central tenets of the initiative. The push to integrate students’ learning experiences is one that resonates well with most educators, but institutions naturally resist change.
Building support for innovation among constituencies is critical, but complete consensus is not required. The process can become paralyzed if expectations of unity are too high, or if the response to every proposal is a call for further study. Starting with smaller pieces of an initiative, ensuring key people are at the table, and setting firm deadlines for completion will keep the process moving in a productive direction.
These two institutions adapted resources to promote integration in their specific contexts. DePauw focused on leveraging existing resources embedded in interdisciplinary centers, while Agnes Scott’s SUMMIT was a comprehensive curricular and co-curricular strategic plan that fundamentally changed general education requirements. Advisors turn out to be critical in the success of these initiatives. Both institutions reformed their advising models to support integration and students’ understanding of career development. They also used technology to enhance advising and coordination between various parts of these initiatives.
Agnes Scott College and DePauw University both tackled the question of how best to integrate curricular and co-curricular learning experiences by creating named initiatives designed for all students, and then made sure that these initiatives were clearly communicated to current and prospective students. Admittedly, this communication process is under constant revision, requiring attention to the details as the initiative itself adapts to the needs of the curriculum and the new organizational structure. A marketing professional might call the development of a communication strategy “branding,” but the idea is to develop a cohesive communication plan alongside the implementation of the innovative new model. The overarching goal is to encourage all students to imagine their education as a cohesive whole as they engage in the development of their intellectual identities.
DePauw University (in the early stages of the Gold Commitment) and Agnes Scott (preparing to graduate its first SUMMIT class) continue to be deeply engaged in the integration of curricular and co-curricular experiences that support students’ paths from campus to career, and that adaptive process will continue for the foreseeable future.
This article is based on a presentation for AAC&U in Atlanta, Georgia, by DePauw University and Agnes Scott College in January 2019.