When Destiny Caldwell started at Agnes Scott College near Atlanta in 2016, she planned to study nursing. Then, in the spring of her first year, she traveled to central Europe with a group of classmates…
When Destiny Caldwell started at Agnes Scott College near Atlanta in 2016, she planned to study nursing. Then, in the spring of her first year, she traveled to central Europe with a group of classmates as part of the school’s required Global Journeys course, which is designed to develop international awareness and involves a weeklong immersion trip.
Her course and trip focused on the region’s changing politics, but Caldwell found herself thinking a lot about why it was safe to drink the water in only some of the countries she visited.
After the students returned to campus, they reflected on their experiences. “We asked ourselves questions like ‘How do you want to change things?’ and ‘How do you want to change yourself?'” she recalls. Caldwell’s own answers led her in a new direction: She switched her major to public health, hoping to explore some of the economic, social and political dimensions of health in addition to the clinical ones.
Agnes Scott is one of many schools across the country that are increasingly turning to more in-depth, experiential forms of learning and other “high-impact practices” aimed at helping students feel intellectually engaged and connected to their college from the minute they set foot on campus.
These opportunities, worth looking for during a college search, include first-year seminars; learning communities, in which small groups of students take a class or classes together, for example ; undergraduate research ; service learning , in which part of the course syllabus involves service out in the community ; and studying abroad.
All can “pay dividends in a number of ways,” says Alexander McCormick, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University–Bloomington and director of the annual National Survey of Student Engagement, which asks students about their participation in activities linked to learning and personal development.
Research suggests participation in high-impact practices is tied to greater engagement, perceived gains in learning and overall satisfaction, as well as a higher likelihood of sticking with a school beyond the first year. And these experiences also are preparation for postgraduate life in a way that traditional classes alone are not.
The 2018 NSSE survey of more than 275,000 college freshmen and seniors at nearly 500 schools in the U.S. showed that 60 percent of seniors had participated in at least two high-impact practices. That’s McCormick’s recommendation: one experience in the first year and at least one more tied to a student’s major, such as a senior capstone project.
Easing the transition. Many schools focus on freshman year, which can be a big adjustment both academically and socially for incoming students. First-year experiences might include intensive orientation programs, short bonding trips with a small group of peers, and freshman seminars or other academic experiences intended to accustom new students to more rigorous classes than they had in high school.
At Butler University in Indianapolis, all 1,000-plus incoming freshmen take a two-semester seminar with the same cohort , usually capped at 18 students , to sharpen their speaking, reading and writing skills within the context of a cross-disciplinary topic like “Gettysburg in History and Memory” or “Classical Music and the Self.”
“It’s a way to get students to engage in critical thinking with a group of peers they’re comfortable with,” says Angela Hofstetter, co-director of Butler’s first-year seminar program. “We place them together during the Welcome Week, so from the moment that class begins, students have formed a bond.”
SJ Baker, a junior at Butler majoring in economics and history, says her first-year seminar, “Identity, Community and Social Justice,” helped her learn to interact with students with diverse viewpoints, a skill she says she’s already used in and out of the classroom. “It’s not only about standing up for your opinions, but considering the possibility that you’re wrong, or that your thoughts aren’t complete,” she says.
Learning communities, another common first-year approach, can also help build bonds between students, typically through a common group of classes and sometimes shared housing. At Iowa State University, there are some 90 learning community options primarily for first-year students, organized by academic topic or other affinities.
Emily Gilbertson, a sophomore from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, considering a food science major, was attracted to her freshman Food Science and Human Nutrition community because it “would make a big school smaller.” She took a handful of core classes with about a dozen people from the group, some of whom became close friends; around Thanksgiving last year, the community gathered to cook dinner with their professors.
Not all learning communities operate the same way, and they’re not all limited to first years. At Evergreen State College in Washington state, most of the school’s 3,400-plus undergrads take a single cross-disciplinary “program” each academic quarter. Earth Dynamics, for example, could encompass courses in economics, geology and world history.
Students have the same classmates for the entire program, so “you have this network of friendships that tie you to the experience, which assures you that you can get through difficult moments, stay here and graduate,” says George Bridges, president of the college. Some schools, including Iowa State, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, include common housing in some of their communities.
At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, all 1,600 freshmen live in one of 10 houses of the Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, a first-year residential college system. That’s where students have their first meetings with faculty, who help them understand academic expectations.
The idea is to have easy access to resources that help with the transition to college, says Vanessa Beasley, associate provost and dean of residential faculty, as well as an associate professor of communication studies. Ten faculty “heads of house” live in the residences alongside students. Vanderbilt is expanding the system to upperclassmen.
Breaking the campus bubble. While study abroad programs have been around for years, these days there’s no longer an assumption that constructive learning will happen automatically.
As a result, more schools have tweaked their approach so that “there’s more intentionality in what students are learning while abroad,” says Joy Phaphouvaninh, director of Illinois Abroad & Global Exchange at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign. That means plenty of time for reflection and identifying learning outcomes, she says.
And the trip itself may come in the context of a larger required course on global education, a semester-length study abroad program or, as with Agnes Scott, both.
Going beyond the classroom to learn in the real world also happens closer to home. Service learning, which integrates community field work into the academic curriculum, is the most popular of the high-impact practices, with 62 percent of seniors reporting participation, according to the NSSE data.
The University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, for instance, offers 80-plus service-learning courses, covering topics like local journalism and integrating philosophy into primary and secondary schools. “We want students to be thinking deeply about what it means to be part of a community of people who were here before they came and will be here after,” says Ryan Nilsen, a program officer with UNC’s Carolina Center for Public Service.
For UNC senior Justin Williford that meant a three-credit class combined with a paid internship at Chapel Hill-based Theater Delta, which uses interactive theater to promote social change in communities around the world. “It gives you space to apply whatever you learn,” says Williford, a math and statistics major, who did quantitative analysis for the group.
Gettinghands-on experience. Internships and co-op programs continue to be popular with undergrads, who see them as a way to build skills and on-the-job experience at a real company or organization — and maybe even help land them a job.
At the Georgia Institute of Technology, 60 to 75 percent of students do either a paid, part-time internship or a full-fledged co-op, which consists of three semesters of paid, full-time work, says Michelle Tullier, executive director of the school’s Center for Career Discovery and Development.
At Kettering University in Michigan, students alternate terms in class and in a professional setting, for a total of two and a half years of workplace experience. “It creates this wonderful virtuous circle between what they’re learning in the classroom and applying in the field,” says Robert McMahan, Kettering’s president. Plus, many students get postgrad job offers in their junior year, he says.
Alyssa Gilliland interviewed for her first co-op, at Dow Automotive Systems in Auburn Hills, Michigan, even before she arrived at Kettering, as a high school senior. She stayed with the company through all eight of her co-op terms at the university, where she majored in chemical engineering.
“The transition was really refreshing,” she says. “Just when you started feeling drained from school, you were back to work.” She learned how to interact and collaborate with her co-workers, who she says helped her sharpen her resume and other skills. After graduating in 2017, Gilliland took a job as an analyzer systems engineer with the Dow Chemical Company in Freeport, Texas.
Opportunities for undergrads to pursue their own research are also expanding. At SUNY–Geneseo, 40 percent of students work with faculty on research; classes are canceled for one day each spring to give those who have done substantial creative or scientific inquiry the chance to make presentations and exhibit their work.
Jimmy Feng, a 2018 grad in geography, credits the research he did on anti-Chinese prejudice in Australia and public access to transportation in Shenzhen, China, with preparing him for the Ph.D. program in geography he is starting at the University of Tennessee. “It was something I was fully invested in, rather than a topic assigned by a professor,” he says.
Many schools are also working to open and encourage research for students pursuing nonscientific fields. At Clemson University in South Carolina, the Creative Inquiry program attracts plenty of students in the humanities, social sciences and education, as well as the sciences, engineering and agriculture, says Barbara Speziale, director of the program.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2019” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.