Even though a recent report indicated that college students today don’t study as much as previous generations, it’s still pretty common to hear students complain that they have too much school work and that their college courses are too hard. Some of these complaints can be melodramatic-one of my favorite recent tweets from a student is “let us pray for our professors/teachers that they may realize the unbearable suffering that they bring to us.”
But lately some education experts have claimed that such basic elements of the college curriculum as algebra are irrelevant to students’ future lives and careers, and even prevent students from finishing their degrees. They advocate dumping such courses and refocusing college curricula on more “useful” numeric skills. Such radical propositions are why those of us who believe that a college degree should represent the substantial development of skill and knowledge are heartened by the recent decision of the University of California, Los Angeles to raise academic standards and increase degree requirements.
The UCLA decision seems to buck the current trends in higher education, which have become focused on the alleged failures of American colleges and universities. As reported in The New York Times,
“Many college students are not completing college in six years, let alone four, according to a government survey in 2009 that found that nearly two of every three students who started college did not graduate from that same college in four years, and that more than 40 percent did not graduate in six. A critical factor cited by some of those who dropped out was the distraction of a part-time job, which was necessary for them in order to afford their education.”
These declining graduation rates have led to a concerted effort to streamline programs and design options for students to graduate more quickly, including year-round online degree programs, the elimination of remedial courses for under-prepared students, and more personalized learning.
Can a Capstone Program Make College More Challenging?
In the wrong hands, some of the above program changes can sacrifice rigor, the hallmark of advanced education. At UCLA, declining rigor-not declining graduation rates-became a concern of vice provost for undergraduate education Judith L. Smith, who told The Chronicle of Higher Education that most UCLA students graduated without ever having conducted sustained or in-depth research. The way that UCLA degree programs were structured, she said, created a situation in which “students could be pedestrians and walk through the major.” Her assertion was bolstered in July by a new report from the Center for American Progress that argued that most students are not challenged by their schoolwork, though there has been some disagreement over whether or not the study is valid.
To address this deficiency in their academic programming, the university added a capstone requirement to its undergraduate programs. A capstone program can take many forms, but in general it is a substantive cumulative project, rooted in extensive research, that students complete to represent not only the accumulation of knowledge in their field of study, but also demonstrate that they understand how to apply their skills and knowledge in a larger context than limited individual coursework.
In addition, advocates of capstone projects such as Roger C. Moore argue that they allow students to exhibit a mastery of program goals and to break down the compartmentalization of higher education by merging the knowledge they have gained in their entire academic program. Moore further points out that capstone projects also allow for “interdisciplinary partnerships among university departments and help(s) cultivate industry alliances and cooperation.”
Will Capstone Programs Make a Difference?
UCLA’s new Capstone requirement is an important response to some of the most aggressive criticisms of higher education today. For example, last year a Pew Research Center study found that “57 percent of Americans say higher education in the U.S. fails to provide students good value for the money they and their families spend.” They argue that the cost of college is not worth the investment. Capstone projects, however, provide students with individual attention from faculty, and result in a project that can be used effectively as part of a new graduate’s employment portfolio.
Proof of this is evident in the work of master’s degree students at the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas. Dean Skip Rutherford points out that “the Capstone is the culminating project of the students’ experiences here…each project reflects on the individual skills and passions of our students. Capstone projects often lead students into jobs following graduation.” Recent student projects include:
- an attempt to develop a green space at the site of abandoned railway lines
- analysis of the causes of college student drop-outs to aid retention efforts
- the creation of an anti-bullying program for Arkansas public schools
- holding a start-up competition to encourage the development of local business
All of these projects not only contribute to our society, they also allow students to develop practical experience that they can put on their resumes. Though these students were enrolled in the master’s degree program, the principle remains the same for undergraduates: ultimately, a capstone project presents students with the chance to unite all aspects of their college education into a practical yet still intellectual exercise that can also function as a valuable substitute for a time-consuming post-graduate internship. UCLA’s initiative can fulfill multiple goals of higher education reform by creating an individual path for its students to enhance their academic experience, exercise greater intellectual depth, and develop applicable work experiences. All of this will certainly make a UCLA degree worth the cost.
Have you completed a capstone project? How did it help you? Share your experiences here!