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In our opinion: More colleges should consider the BYU-I model and put education first

BYU-Idaho Graduation, Spring Semester, July 2017
BYU-Idaho Graduation, Spring Semester, July 2017
Ericka Sanders, BYU-Idaho

In a hypercompetitive, knowledge-based economy, higher education must equip students to thrive.

Increasingly, however, institutions of higher learning are using public funds, student fees and tuition dollars to be too many things to too many people: research institutions, safe houses for intellectuals and thought leaders, farm leagues for professional football and basketball teams, vehicles for social mobility and, of course, places where people pay money to receive an education, cultivate critical thinking, develop skills and gain mastery over certain intellectual disciplines and vocations.

Brigham Young University-Idaho’s new messaging campaign makes it abundantly clear that the institution — sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper — remains focused first and foremost on students and their education.

That’s a refreshing message, one that undoubtedly resonates with those writing tuition checks and taking out loans.

The school’s sports program is intramural; lab research is designed to teach and train students; professors are retained based on their ability to teach, rather than to publish.

A recent survey of current students at the religious-based school captured four important factors in choosing a BYU-Idaho education: “teaching focus of faculty, the power of gathering with students who share their values, a focus on real-world preparation, and the affordability/value of a BYU-Idaho education.”

Some will contend that taking a “narrow” student-focused approach to higher education neglects other important intellectual aspects of the academy that are vital to a free, self-governed society. That’s true. Not every school should adopt the BYU-Idaho model, especially America’s renowned research institutions and intellectual incubators such as Harvard, Yale or Stanford, among others.

The problem is that many of America’s schools — even some state flagships — are simply overly focused on becoming mini-Harvards when their students and stakeholders would be better served if the institution allocated a greater share of resources to student success. When schools strapped for cash try to produce world-class research and a superb educational experience, more often they fail to succeed at either.

There’s no question research plays an irreplaceable role in the modern economy, and America needs more of it. Not only does it generate new information and innovation, but it also is a strong mechanism for maintaining the United States’ influential role in world affairs. This must not be lost.

The solution may be for research institutions to take on more research and teaching schools to become better at teaching. For institutions in the messy middle — schools that fall between top-tier research schools and strictly vocational colleges — leaders would do well to pause the seemingly never-ending quest for greater prestige and simply ask if increased scholarly production is really worth the price to students who are leaving with little education and, in many cases, diplomas of debt.