By Joshua Wyner
Visiting half a dozen colleges and universities in North Africa as part of a PNB-NAPEO higher education delegation earlier this summer, it was clear that the American system of higher education is much envied in that part of the world. Students seem hungry for the kind of high quality teaching they associate with U.S. colleges, fueled by their admiration for the limited number of North African professors who received advanced education at state flagship and elite private American institutions.
Many North African professors admire the U.S. system as well, envying the freedom of their American counterparts to change the curriculum they teach rather than having to seek approval from their ministry of education to implement new ideas. And, leaders in higher education, economic development and industry are seeking to replicate the entrepreneurial energy of U.S. college graduates by establishing new business schools – often taught in English – and business incubators for students.
But what is most striking about the differences between our system of higher education and theirs – especially in light of American struggles with low graduation rates and high costs/prices – relates to student choice and curricular breadth.
In the “French” system used in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, what students have an opportunity to study is dictated narrowly by what scores they got at the end of their K-12 education. The best students go into engineering (and other hard science fields), with less prepared students studying the humanities or social sciences. Sure, students can express preferences, but rigid guidelines and limited slots in each program effectively assign most students to a narrow set of possible majors.
Programs themselves offer students little-to-no course choice. Curricula are lockstep, approved by the ministries of education with variation allowed only with government approval. Professors have discretion within their classrooms in regards to how to teach, but the courses themselves are set based on ministry-approved course sequences for each major.
After entering a program, students in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia cannot easily change. This is in part because programs are much more focused in particular disciplines. If, for example, a student starts as a business major in North Africa, social sciences and humanities are unlikely to be a significant part of the curriculum, if present at all. As a result, credits do not transfer from one program to another, and slots are rarely available to continuing students who might wish to switch majors.
To American students and their parents, this must sound like a parade of horribles. In the U.S., students are accustomed to incredible program and course choice, and colleges and faculty vary offerings and teaching substantially, engendering a diversity and richness to the American college experience.
But, as the U.S. struggles with low college completion rates and ever-escalating college costs, it is worth asking whether there are any lessons for us to learn from the French system.
Creating clearly defined programs with sequenced courses might help students graduate at higher rates. We see, for example, higher graduation rates in technical programs at community colleges in the U.S., many of which strictly sequence courses in block program formatting – such as Aspen Prize finalist-with-distinction Lake Area Technical Institute.
The limited amount of interdisciplinary focus in North African college programs certainly limits student mobility and – while this is just speculation – may well curtail student learning in critical thinking skills that come from a multidisciplinary approach. But does our system of extraordinary choice better guarantee exceptional outcomes? Do we think that humanities majors choosing from among 10 or 20 widely varied introductory science courses are all getting the kind of critical thinking skills those courses would ideally impart? Might narrowing the curriculum allow us to better focus on and ensure such critical thinking outcomes?
Without having the federal or a state department of education dictating lockstep course sequences, might we not still find ways to reduce the number of courses offered? Do we need so many course offerings when, for example, students in California community colleges cannot enroll in courses required for graduation?
Finally, the narrow set of course choices offered students in North Africa seems to allow for better institutional planning. Conversations with institutional leaders in Algeria and Tunisia revealed that they know -- well before the academic year begins -- precisely how many professors they would need and for what courses. Compare that to the ritual scramble so many U.S. colleges engage in every fall semester as they seek to find professors for classes that attract larger numbers of students than expected.
Few would suggest that the U.S. adopt wholesale the French system of limited choice and rigid program structure now employed in North Africa. But real change is needed to improve graduation rates and control costs in the United States. And even if we are today on the right side of the continuum of choice, it seems clear that some narrowing of options might help improve outcomes and control costs without compromising quality.