High tuition and the resulting loan debt, along with low completion rates and concerns about how much students are actually learning in college, have led critics to call for the unbundling of higher education. Unbundling higher education involves creating learning opportunities that are shorter than traditional undergraduate degrees, and more focused on the development of a particular skill or acquisition of knowledge. Unbundling, advocates claim, delivers higher education in smaller parts so that people can learn what they need to learn, when they need to learn it.
Authors like Ryan Craig (College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education) and Kevin Carey (The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere) are leaders in the unbundling movement. Chris W. Gallagher, vice provost for curriculum advancement and professor of English at Northeastern University, thinks calls for unbundling, such as those made by Craig and Carey, are misguided.
His book, College Made Whole: Integrative Learning for a Divided World, critiques arguments made for unbundling, advocates for the value of integrative learning, and provides advice on how higher ed can achieve integration across the student experience.
Gallagher considers Carey and Craig his interlocutors and seeks to address many of their arguments. Some of the major themes he advances include the premise that unbundling will not benefit most students, especially students like first generation students or those who do not have a strong academic foundation from high school. Gallagher also proposes that higher education is a public good, a fact that he thinks Carey and Craig ignore.
He also suggests that employers value the broad education that degrees offer, which means that unbundling actually hinders the achievement of better employment outcomes that Carey and Craig seek to produce. Finally, Gallagher thinks the argument that you have to choose between liberal education and professional education is a false dilemma. Students can receive both and, in fact, this is more beneficial for students and for employers.
To illustrate the benefits of integrative learning, Gallagher begins each chapter with the story of a student. In the preface, he compares his college experience with that of Danielle Murad Waiss. While there are many similarities between their experiences, the key difference is that Waiss’ experience developed her into an integrative learner while Gallagher’s experience did not.
By integrative learner, Gallagher means a learner who can “connect and synthesize ideas, knowledge, and skills across learning experiences in different contexts.”
He contends that one who develops into an integrative learner is much better off because they are able to leverage all of what they learned (in and out of the classroom). Although the book is primarily a critical response to those who call for unbundling higher education, Gallagher is also critical of higher education. “Colleges and universities are not designed to promote integrative learning,” he writes. “That’s because they are not themselves integrated.”
In discussing the need for an integrated curriculum, Gallagher appeals to the complexity and fast pace of change that graduates will face. He writes that, “effectively addressing complex problems in rapidly changing contexts requires something more: the integration of specialized expertise and generalized understanding.” He suggests that the current curricular approach that employs majors, general education, and electives does not prepare students to “connect and synthesize ideas, skills and knowledge.”
These different components of the curriculum, Gallagher argues, must be integrated. He provides examples of how this can be done, and as he does in other chapters, he provides advice for institutions and faculty at the end of the chapter — which includes providing incentives for faculty to learn about integrative learning and collaborate with other faculty members, and incorporating integrative learning into processes to assess student learning.
Given that Gallagher is vice provost at Northeastern University, it is not surprising that he considers experiential learning an effective approach to promote integrative learning. He describes a student who first learns about social entrepreneurship in a business course, and then applies what she learned while working in a nonprofit organization. This experience leads her to discover similarities and differences between theory and practice. When she returns to the classroom, she brings together her previous classroom learning with what she learned from her co-op experience.
The importance of connecting learning across the college experience, whether it occurs in the classroom, online, or off campus, is a theme that runs throughout the book. Gallagher encourages institutions to strengthen ties to employers and communities, and develop appropriate technological infrastructures to support integrative learning for students.
Preparing Students for the Workforce
One of the most frequent criticisms of undergraduate education is that it does not prepare students for employment. Many critics suggest that students complete professional education and avoid learning that involves the liberal arts. Gallagher rejects this argument as a false dilemma, suggesting that students benefit when they complete both professional and liberal learning, but these two must be integrated. “Professions don’t exist in vacuums and because they involve human and technological knowledge skills, both the liberal arts and STEM disciplines contribute to professional learning.”
It is up to institutions and faculty to be deliberate about providing students opportunities to make these connections. It is models like those provided by Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, in Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, or by Olin College, an engineering college that integrates the arts and humanities across its curriculum, that offer this type of integration.
Technology and Lifelong Learning
Gallagher also addresses two topics that are often used by unbundling advocates to suggest alternatives to traditional higher education: technology and lifelong learning opportunities. Instead of replacing faculty, Gallagher argues that technology should be employed to enhance how they teach and serve students. He also writes that, “The heart of higher education is the relationship between a faculty member like Farrell and her students. Those relationships are powerful and lasting precisely because of the integrated nature of her role as a faculty member.”
In terms of lifelong learning, he admits that the shorter opportunities that often result in obtaining credentials are helpful. The goal, however, should not be to turn people away from degrees; instead, “The goal should be to radically expand access to degrees and to alternative credentials — and to help as many people as possible to integrate learning across a variety of experiences over their lifetime.” Traditional, nonprofit, accredited — not alternative — providers are best suited to achieve this goal, according to Gallagher.
Conclusion: The Future of Higher Education
On the last few pages, Gallagher directs his attention not to Craig and Carey but to higher education as a whole. He admits that colleges and universities have issues that need to be addressed when he writes, “What ails U.S. higher education is not too much bundling but too little integration,” and suggests that “Integration will not be easy for most colleges and universities.”
Throughout the book, however, he has made the case on why integration is important and has offered helpful advice for institutions and for faculty. He ends the book by referencing one of the many students who he has featured as a case study and asks, regarding his preference for integrated education, “Can we afford not to educate Esther this way?”
About the author
Chris Mayer is Associate Dean for Strategy and Initiatives and an Associate Professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point). He teaches courses in the areas of moral philosophy, the ethics of war, political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion, and his research focuses on ethical theory, the ethics of war, and higher education. He serves as an evaluator and workshop leader for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and was a Teagle Assessment Scholar with the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College from 2011-2018. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia, an M.A. in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and a B.S from the United States Military Academy.