First, a brief disclaimer: I am very strong proponent of true liberal arts. As a former student in diverse school systems in several countries on three continents, I am strongly convinced that America's emphasis on interdisciplinary cross-fertilization is a special feature that should be kept intact and even expanded. However, this successful American ideal has, for many students, become reduced to remedial high / middle school material. To add financial insult to intellectual injury, this is taking place in the expensive college classroom, taught by the far more expensive college instructor, and quite often in a stadium-like environment. Many schools are discovering that it is far too expensive to conduct remedial coursework in the traditional classroom environment; hence, vast structural changes are forced upon us.
Central to many of the financial challenges that we now see in American higher education is the “prep problem” which delivers students to our campuses for remedial high school coursework. It astounds me that some consider introductory Algebra, History, or English etc, taken in college, to constitute a liberal arts education. Hardly. A course in the historical and cultural development of algebra… that is a better example of the inspiring, synthetic material that an in-person college education should deliver.
Because of the prep problem, a “two-lane” structure is clearly emerging in American higher education. In the fast lane are students who arrive with the benefits of more diligent preparation. These students typically arrive with substantial advanced placement credit and can bypass the large introductory courses. These fast-lane students quickly complete core material and have enough time to pursue double or even triple majors. (When I double-majored in physics and German literature and philosophy, it was rather exotic, but this is no longer the case) The fast-lane students reach smaller classes quite early in their college careers and thus benefit the most from direct faculty interaction. Because of this, the fast-lane students will have the ability to pursue true liberal arts material and benefit from all of what college can offer. They will also receive the most substantial boost upon graduation, because they will have distinguishing advanced coursework and are more likely to have recommendation letters filled with prose about their unique contributions. It is no surprise that these students typically find better placement after college.
Meanwhile, underprepared students languish in the slow lane... expending considerable time and investment on remedial material, thereby increasing costs to college as well as the student. Unfortunately, the introductory curriculum designed to serve these students is often a tedious insult to the world-class faculty called upon to teach it. Naturally, there is much dispute among the faculty regarding who will be “stuck” with these courses. In other words, there is not a tremendous amount of enthusiasm associated with them- not on the student side, nor the faculty side. Hence the underprepared students are those most likely to experience "stadium courses"- and now perhaps online curriculum. Underprepared students will typically spend the full four years completing a basic degree with no additional distinguishing features such as research or study abroad.
On the whole, underprepared students receive a college education that is ultimately worth far less than that of their fast-lane peers. I hope that more immediate attention will be given to the prep problem and the wide divergence in outcomes that it has brought to the American campus. Many of America's students lack the preparation that would enable them to get the most out of a college education.