What can a student get from an SCU education that he or she is unlikely to get at another institution of higher education? Small classes, a 12-to-1 student/faculty ratio, and some of the best graduation and retention rates in the country are reasons why SCU is ranked so highly every year by U.S. News and World Report. However, the numbers tell only part of the story. They speak to resources and opportunities but not to whether students actually take advantage of them. Positive student outcomes are the true measures of the value of higher education for a student.
SCU students have far better access than their peers at other universities to required courses, not only as freshmen and sophomores, but also as upperclassmen who need courses in their majors to graduate.
SCU has avoided some of the worst problems that confront college students in public universities. Budget pressures in California and the nation are crunching public institutions and their students. Still, SCU students have far better access than their peers at other universities to required courses, not only as freshmen and sophomores, but also as upperclassmen who need courses in their majors to graduate. SCU students are graduating on time. Graduating earlier usually means entering the job market sooner, which compensates for some of the higher upfront costs associated with private universities.
In the classroom and beyond
SCU students are not taught by graduate assistants, and class sizes are small (the average class size is 25 students). SCU students have unusual access to faculty, cutting-edge facilities, and research opportunities. Many undergraduates participate in intensive research programs during the academic year and over the summer, receiving individual instruction from their faculty mentors.
Take the example of Assistant Professor Michael Carrasco, who works with chemistry majors on research projects. “One of the things that Santa Clara offers, and which is hard to get in a research university, is the ability for anyone who wants research experience to get it,” Carrasco says. “If you’re a chemistry major here, there is lab space for you, there is lab time available to you, and there is the opportunity to work one-on-one with faculty.”
The intentional structuring of the learning environment engages chemistry students. Carrasco recently worked with chemistry majors to study the effects of attached molecules on peptide structure and function. Someday, their research could aid in the discovery of simple derivatives to be added to protein pharmaceuticals to better control the digestion or activation of a drug. The students were not engaged in hypotheticals or busywork. They were engaged in real-world research that matters. This is evident in publication of two papers on their research in scholarly journals by Carrasco and his students.
At the same time Carrasco is engaging his students in important bio-organic chemical research, he is also creating for them a learning experience that transcends the specific project. “Undergraduate research is … a great way to learn all kinds of things that you can’t learn in the classroom…. When you learn how to problem-solve on your feet and find out things independently, those skills translate to anything you do,” Carrasco says.
Student life and learning
SCU’s commitment to Residential Learning Communities (RLCs) is another example of designing an environment that fosters outstanding experiences for students. All entering freshmen join one of the nine RLCs. These communities have common elements, including courses specific to the community, a shared living environment, and opportunities to gather informally with faculty. And yet each RLC maintains its own thematic focus-from Loyola RLC, where the emphasis is on the Jesuit tradition of faith and justice, to Education for a Sustainable Future RLC, which emphasizes balancing environmental and social needs.
In the fall of 2002, Lecturer Doug Sweet (English) and Assistant Professor Robert Brancatelli (religious studies) linked their English composition and beginning religious studies classes for the same roster of first-term freshmen from Xavier RLC. The basis of their linked courses was their shared immersion trip to El Salvador. The two instructors planned their syllabi, readings, and schedules together.
The students read and discussed some difficult academic texts from a novel set during the Salvadoran Civil War, Oscar Romero’s pastoral letters, and a complex treatise on the relationship between liberation theology and economic globalization. Sophomore Meredith Swinehart, who was in the linked classes, says, “Each of the two linked courses was taught within the context of El Salvador. However, the material and relevant areas of exploration differed greatly for each course-one was taught from a religious standpoint, and the other focused on an examination of ideologies. Thus, our professors challenged us from every possible angle. We gained … knowledge that applies far beyond El Salvador. “
The students learned to examine the connections between what they learned and what they came into the classes already believing. Brancatelli says, “Many changed their political opinions and even worldviews during the 10 weeks we spent together.”
Beyond presenting material from an array of perspectives and even beyond fostering an appreciation for social justice, the instructors created an environment in which the students were encouraged to continue their conversations beyond the classroom. The students became so engaged with the material that they shared it with other RLC members not enrolled in the classes.
“Because we not only learn but also live together, students in the linked courses discussed in the dorm the issues raised by our classes,” Swinehart says. “We did so, not in working on an assignment, but because we felt the issues to be important. In doing so, we bonded as scholars and reinforced what we were learning in class.”
Brancatelli says that outside the classroom is, perhaps “where most of the real learning occurred. And perhaps this is the professor’s role in this situation: to spark, ignite and inspire ‘after-hours’ learning.”
Brancatelli is planning a program to enable undergraduates from various disciplines and graduate students in pastoral ministries to travel to El Salvador. Together they will conduct research on topics such as the relationship between church and society and the impact of economic globalization on marginalized members of society. The students will collaboratively examine the issues involved in faith and commitment to social justice.
And so we return to the question, “What can a student get from his SCU education that he is unlikely to get at most institutions of higher education?” It is more than the ability to graduate in four years; more than anything that can be ranked in U.S. News. The real answer is the creative design of opportunities that merge and enhance academic, residential, and spiritual experiences for students. It is an education that prepares students for a lifetime of intellectual flexibility. It is an education that touches, engages, and transforms.