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Utopia College

By Marty Nemko

If I could build an undergraduate college from the ground up

Here is a brochure describing the fictitious Utopia College. Would you like to incorporate any of its features into your college?


A Distinctive Alternative

Here is why Utopia is a distinctive alternative:

§ We provide information that will help prospective students assess the quality of education offered at Utopia:

1. Results of the latest freshman-to-senior value-added assessment

2. Results of the annual student satisfaction survey

3. The four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates, disaggregated by high school grades and test score.

4. The average financial aid package for families with various incomes and assets. The amount of grant versus loan is reported.

You’ll see that Utopia’s does well on all four. Why?

§ Utopia is ideally sized: 4,500 undergraduates. The size of Princeton, Utopia is large enough to have critical mass, small enough to feel personal. Very few low-cost colleges are this size, but we can do it because of the many ways, described below, that we control cost without reducing quality.

§ Few of our faculty have PhDs—and we’re proud of it. A PhD prepares one primarily to do research, not teach undergraduates. And most PhDs are more interested in discovering new knowledge than in figuring out the optimal way to teach the basics—the opposite of what most undergraduates need.

So our faculty is drawn primarily from outstanding master’s and bachelor’s degree holders who, in addition to having mastered undergraduate-level content, have demonstrated they can consistently fascinate students. For practical courses such as journalism, nursing, and art, we use working professionals who also are superlative instructors. Not only are non-PhD faculty generally better, they are less expensive to hire and retain.

Before hiring, all faculty must complete a teaching boot camp. Most professions require specific training: doctors must take courses in how to diagnose and treat, lawyers in how to practice law. Only the professoriate is allowed to practice a core activity--teaching students--without being trained in how to teach.

Not at Utopia. Our teaching boot camp, which is required of all new faculty, includes master instructors modeling different types of excellent teaching plus extensive in-class evaluations of the prospective instructors’ teaching efforts.

After passing boot camp, some instructors, over time, may slip. So, any faculty member who, in a year, receives less than a 4.25 average student evaluation on the 5-point scale, must return to a refresher camp designed to enlighten and reenergize. If the following year, the instructor’s evaluations do not rise to at least 4.25, his or her employment is terminated.

§ There is no tenure at Utopia College. This ensures that you are not subjected to burned-out instructors. We, however, take great pains to ensure academic freedom, and make a point of ensuring that each department has instructors holding truly diverse views, spanning the full range of thought. America has, unfortunately become a nation of True Believers in-non-God-based religions: for example, environmentalism, socialism, or non-Eurocentric diversity. Such uncritical zealotry—whether from the Left or the Right—is inimical to rich discourse. Many colleges truncate discourse as it veers right of center. We do not—we believe that a college should offer a truly diverse and feisty marketplace of ideas.

§ As one of many ways we make Utopia affordable, faculty salaries are only moderate. We will not raise your tuition to pay a faculty “star” $150,000. Ironically, faculty usually become “stars” by shortchanging students in favor of their research and/or to marketing themselves. Despite the moderate salaries, few of our faculty leave Utopia, because we provide extraordinary opportunities to build camaraderie and for professional development. And our students love Utopia, so teaching here is a rewarding experience indeed.

§ For courses that are especially difficult to teach well, we create StarProf classes. For example, to create a calculus course, we identify a nation’s-best instructor, in part, by posting a job announcement in the magazine of the Mathematical Association of America (the professional association devoted to undergraduate math instruction). That job announcement invites math instructors around the nation to send Utopia a video of their teaching. When we find a truly extraordinary instructor, we pair that person with our online education development team and together, they craft a highly interactive, exciting course available to students online. Discussion sections exist both in online (with webcams) and in-person versions, recognizing that some students strongly prefer one over the other.

§ Students can test out of any course by passing a proctored final examination. We want to certify that our graduates have true bachelor’s level competency, not that they have logged X hours of seat time.

§ A Utopia degree actually certifies competence. Before graduation, students must pass an examination that assesses reading, writing, oral communication, information literacy, and critical thinking. This test certifies to future employers and graduate schools (and to the student) that the graduate has bachelor’s level competence in those crucial areas. Because all Utopia students take a parallel test at the beginning of their freshman year, this exam also helps Utopia measure its value-added.

§ The Utopia curriculum has only a few required courses (outside the major): practical writing, public speaking, information literacy, dating/marriage/parenting, career planning, and Essentials of Western Civilization. We are proud to have resisted the pressure to include other requirements for example, college-level mathematics. We are well aware of the argument that math is a building block of many careers. However, we also know that so many students who do not plan such careers, struggle mightily with higher math (often unsuccessfully) and will never need any of it. Ask most professionals the last time they used calculus derivatives or analysis of variance. And with regard to the argument that “math trains the mind,” so does Latin. That doesn’t mean we should require all students to take Latin. There are many routes to training the mind that do not require math. We offer an excellent math program for those who want it, but do not require it for graduation, except in majors such as physics and engineering.

§ We know that forcing students to take a course too often results in minimal learning—often just enough to get a decent grade, with little important learning retained even a week after the final. We believe in the concept of just-in-time learning: teach students what, at that time, they are motivated to learn. To that end, we have extensively surveyed our students to learn what they are most eager to study. As a result, we offer outstanding courses in social activism, health, photography, career exploration, job searching, practical writing, public speaking, dating, marriage, parenting, and financial planning. These courses are as rigorous as an undergraduate course should be. Readings and assignments are substantive but are relevant to students’ current lives. We know--from our freshman-to-senior value-added assessment--that students grow more in the unquestionably crucial abilities of oral and written communication, reading, leadership, information literacy, and connoisseurship because our students acquire them in the context of subjects they are highly motivated to learn.

§ We encourage instructors to center their courses around real-life situations or simulations. So, for example, a course might focus on how to reduce AIDS in the local community.

§ We encourage instructors to avoid the tyranny of content. Professors at other colleges frequently require students to read 1,000 or more pages for a three-unit course. Too often students read just enough to be able to pass a test. Such reading is unlikely to result in enduring learning. In contrast, a Utopia course in literature, might, for example, only require students to read the 100 pages of Hamlet plus a few essays of analysis. A government course might only require students to read the U.S. Constitution and a few diverse articles of commentary. Class meetings and assignments explore that limited content in depth, so students come away with richer and more enduring learning than from the typical college course.

§ Our campus is small and spartan, and we’re proud of that because it allows us to dramatically reduce the cost of your education while minimally affecting its quality:

1. Most colleges spend a fortune on fancy buildings, swimming pools, expensive landscaping, etc. Those entice prospective students but the cost must be added to tuition—and we do not believe that is a wise investment of your money. Instead of building our own veritable country club, we have a basic gym and a cooperative arrangement with a nearby YMCA, which enables students to have access to a swimming pool for a modest fee.

2. The classrooms are surprisingly few for a college of 4,500 undergraduates, and you’ll wonder why there usually are so few students on campus. We’re proud of both. Here’s why. Faculty has the option to teach classes in their own homes. With most Utopia classes having 15 or fewer students (That’s what we invest our money in), this is feasible. Instructors enjoy teaching at home because they have a zero-minute commute and receive a small classroom rental fee. Students enjoy it because it feels homier than a typical classroom. Plus, the college saves money in not having to build many classroom buildings. That means lower tuition and smaller classes for you.

3. Utopia’s residence halls are clean and designed by a top architect, but are not plush. We do, however, invest heavily in our co-curricular program so that the out-of-classroom experience delights our students. With an innovative array of activities and programs, we do everything possible to facilitate students developing enriching relationships with other students and with faculty.

Our cost-effective campus is key to our being able to make Utopia one of the most affordable selective four-year colleges in the nation.

§ Our competitive sports program maximizes benefits to the entire student body. Even schools with Division III (minimally competitive) intercollegiate athletics such as Williams and Amherst, admit large percentages of their class, in part, based on whether they can play an intercollegiate sport. This doesn’t create an optimal student body. Instead, at Utopia, athletic ability is not considered in admissions.

In addition, Utopia’s sports teams, like those at some Australian colleges, compete in the local city leagues. All of our students, of course, are encouraged to attend games. This saves Utopia the enormous sums colleges spend on intercollegiate athletics while allowing our student athletes to play competitively for their college team and for other students to cheer them on.

§ Financial aid packages at Utopia are strictly non-negotiable unless there is important new information not reflected in the financial aid application, for example, that the student’s parent has just lost his or her job. This ensures that the student-aid pie is distributed based on need and merit, without regard to how well a parent negotiates.

§ Another way we keep costs down while keeping quality up is that Utopia has among the nation’s leanest administrations. We don’t believe that faculty need chairpersons, deans, assistant deans, and other administrators. Utopia has a president, an academic vice president, and a vice president for non-academic affairs. That’s it. By taking extraordinary care in hiring our faculty and staff, we know they can do a great job without much supervision.

§ Utopia spends a tiny fraction of what most colleges spend on marketing. We’ve found that by making Utopia the best undergraduate program possible at a truly affordable price, and clearly documenting our student outcomes (beauty marks and warts) on our website, students and parents will find us. And because of the college’s quality and refusal to spend much on marketing, Utopia gets significant free publicity in all the college guides, and Utopia is the darling of the media, which provides marketing benefits no money could buy. We pour the mammoth sums most colleges spend in recruitment directly into student programs.

And now dear reader of this article, as you contemplate how to improve your campus, is there anything about Utopia College you’d like to incorporate? Anyone want to actually create Utopia College?

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