The signs of a fundamental shift in the attitudes, motivations, and learning expectations of students deciding where to attend college or university are well established. Due to rising costs (e.g., tuition, textbooks, and room and board) and the heavy, long-term debt burden that often comes with an education, many students and parents are choosing less expensive institutions, online institutions, community colleges, trade schools, and certificate offerings for their postsecondary education. In the next few years, midrange public universities and colleges—as well as many underendowed small private institution—will face increasing pressures to sustain their historical enrollments. Because students increasingly prefer to learn in diverse environments, many small private institutions in rural and small-town settings will have to merge, close, or go online. Changes in student preparation, moreover, will increase pressures on budgets necessary for remedial education, psychiatric and healthcare services, and the high-quality dorms and sports facilities that students demand.

The importance of creating efficiencies in student learning

Supporting student learning today requires tight planning to effectively integrate teachers committed to student learning outcomes, create classrooms that engage students actively in their learning, and offer courses that fit their perceptions of valued learning. This is the triangular nature of effective student learning. The term describes the linkages between the following:

  • Faculty who value student learning more than research and professional prestige
  • Enrolled students who are motivated more by active and engaged teaching than by traditional lectures, PowerPoint presentations, and whole-class discussions
  • A modern curriculum that communicates the relevance of the learning to enrolled students, accommodates different student motivations, and requires fewer credit hours for almost all degree programs

If any one part of the triangular relationship fails, learning will become less effective, students will show less commitment to completing their degrees, and parents and students will be less willing to pay for education (Fink, 2003). Left unchecked, today’s excess of educational choices will lead to declining enrollments and fiscal crises for institutions and leaders that do not create efficiencies in the triangular relationship necessary for 21st-century student learning to be most effective and engaging.

Begin with faculty recruitment and development

Because most faculty outside of major research institutions teach only undergraduates, academic leaders should recruit faculty who are more committed to teaching than to research. Doing so will require increasing the emphasis on teaching interests in interviews. It will require more use of videotaped lectures and discussions during campus visits (an uncommon practice but one I strongly recommend). It will require increased roles for the most accomplished faculty to weigh in regarding candidates’ teaching effectiveness and commitment and understanding of the level of students they would teach and the challenges those students present.

The new faculty should be welcomed into a well-funded, nurturing, and supportive work environment and paired with a teaching colleague in an area related to their discipline as well as with a faculty member noted for strong student endorsements through a mix of student and peer evaluations. Leadership should support attendance at teaching and learning conferences as well as opportunities, such as seminars and faculty development programs, for exposure to the best teaching faculty’s work on campus. Tenure and promotion policies as well as policies for long-term employment through successive three- to five-year contracts should be fair and transparent, focusing on excellence and teaching evaluations (constructed to measure learning, not popularity).

Continue with student recruitment and retention to graduation

Academic leaders should engage in active conversations and reach consensus with academic affairs, student affairs, and enrollment management leaders. These professional groups and classroom teachers have different experiences with the same students. They bring different theories and explanations of learning from their professional literature. Institutions should build up their research base on student outcomes and post-graduation success to more effectively recruit students and offer them financial aid.

Enrollment management should find student ambassadors who have succeeded at the institution to help in the recruitment process. Also, more attention must be given to pairing students with individuals similar backgrounds and interests in housing assignments and extracurricular activities. Not to be neglected in these efforts is working with coaches and institutions’ athletic departments to make sure they recruit student athletes who can likely graduate with the aid of established academic support systems readily available to all other students. Student affairs must develop sophisticated tools for measuring changes in students’ interests for extracurricular activities and dormitory living. Students must be more involved in planning their campus living arrangements and entertainment rather than count on student professional staff to plan for them.

Complete the triangle with curriculum reform

The third, most critical part of the triangular student learning system is the curriculum. Institutions should reduce credit hours associated with survey courses in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and fine arts. These courses often lead to low grades for disinterested students. They are taught often as introductory courses for students’ majoring in that subject matter, not the general student body; they are also often taught by new or inexperienced faculty as senior faculty avoid teaching them. Instead, institutions should offer more interdisciplinary and two-credit courses.

In addition to reducing the number of required credits for general education, institutions should enhance the clustering of credits from related disciplines to enhance the education of all majors. Business programs, for instance, which frequently avoid covering the fundamentals of human behavior and underestimate the value of fundamental mathematical models in approaching business problem situations, should include more psychology, sociology offerings, and enhanced mathematics offerings. All programs should include field experiences, internships, or cooperative education and work options (or both).

Faculty should address the following questions: (1) What should the accepted canon of learning for general education for the 21st century be? (2) What is the minimal number of intradisciplinary credits that will constitute a major? To answer these questions in a responsible manner, there must be increased use of interdisciplinary offerings and a reduction in Western civilization–related offerings to be more inclusive of the emerging global culture of the 21st century.

Finally, educational offerings should parallel changes in student use and expectations for technology in instruction as well as desires for more group focused education. Educational technologies and applications should become a focus for faculty development. Classrooms should be developed to accommodate connections with outside events and nations using satellites and visual technologies. Finally, institutions should provide spaces for faculty practice and training in the use of best practices in their disciplines for student learning.

Building a successful student learning experience

If academic leaders articulate, plan, and actively promote the triangular student learning experience, their institutions will not only survive but thrive in the emerging competitive environment. If they do not, they will be challenged, losing market share depending on their competitive environment.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on November 4, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.



Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Henry W. Smorynski, PhD, earned his doctorate in government from Georgetown University. He has 40 years of teaching and administrative experience, having served 10 higher education institutions in five states. He also has led academic administrative teams as dean, vice president for academic affairs, and provost for 22 years at five different institutions.