Experiential Learning in an Inter-Disciplinary, Multiple University Collaboration

By J. Wesley Leckrone, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Political Science, Widener University

Widener_John Wesley LeckroneLoyd Bastin, Widener’s Coordinator of Undergraduate Research, contacted me in early December 2012 concerning involvement in the NAC&U Costs of Higher Education Project. I was chosen because I teach public policy courses in the Political Science Department. However, as luck would have it I had just created a higher education “SuperPAC” with students in an Honors American Government class. Students chose the topic and proceeded to create College Students Concerned by College Costs (CSCubed) as an advocacy organization. We set up a website (knowyourcollegecosts.org) and the requisite social media platforms.

As the semester wound down Widener’s Provost Stephen Wilhite gathered all interested parties together for a conference call with NAC&U President Nancy Hensel and representatives from other member universities. After the call ended the Provost surveyed interest in participating. Having already discussed the possibility with my class, I offered to teach a new course related to the NAC&U Higher Education Project in Spring 2013. The Provost said yes, and within a week the course was open for registration.

Nine out of fourteen charter members of CSCubed were joined by two new students in the Politics, Policy and Higher Education Costs class.  The syllabus included readings on higher education policy and interest group advocacy. However, the students designed the remaining curriculum to achieve our course objectives. Our task for the semester was to research two questions that Widener adopted from the NAC&U Costs of Higher Education Project proposal document:  1) Why do costs keep rising at private non-profit institutions?; and 2) what are the true costs of a college education? Students addressed these questions by forming three subcommittees examining Student Loan Debt, The Real Costs of Education, and the Ways to Cut Costs in Higher Education. The groups produced content for the CSCubed website, Twitter and Facebook as well as a final “white paper” outlining a statement of their problem, the causes and potential solutions. CSCubed ended the semester with a “Lobby Day” in Harrisburg where we met with Pennsylvania state legislators to advocate for the “Middle Income Student Debt Reduction Act.”

WidenerCampusSign1Participation in the NAC&U Costs of Higher Education Project was advantageous for three primary reasons. First, it gave the students a larger sense of purpose. Rather than undertaking their research and advocacy in a vacuum, they were fully cognizant that they were working with a national organization, multiple universities and a number of Widener faculty members. Second, as a consequence of the project the class had interactions with students from other disciplines in the University. Professor Tim Sullivan, head of graduate programs in higher education, spoke to the class several times and facilitated conversations between our class and two of his graduate students. We also met with Professor Rick Goeke’s business students. This provided interesting interactions between students working with “Big Data” and our class which focused on summarizing existing research and packaging it for advocacy. Finally, there were a number of corollary benefits to the collaboration that enabled students to exhibit their knowledge of higher education policy outside of the classroom. One student published a guest editorial in the Delaware County Times, two students advocated for student loan reform at a Project Pericles conference, a group gave a presentation on our project during Honors Week, and several stories about our activities were written up in University publications. In sum, the NAC&U Costs of Higher Education Project was a success and I look forward to contributing to expanded projects in the future.