As I have been reflecting on general aspects of the undergraduate education experience, I have been struck by how many of our policies and assumptions emerged under very different conditions. Many of these institutional structures have become “canon” as to what an undergraduate education “must be,” and yet the structures themselves are not necessarily fundamental. More fundamental are our goals for our students!

The undergraduate experience is often framed as a meritocracy where a student’s outcomes are based entirely on what they earn. Though this is an appealing ideal, under closer scrutiny it fails to hold up. Yes, a student’s effort is a key component of success, but the system and structures matter at least as much. As a physicist thinking about these issues, I realized an understanding of classic transfer functions is a great way to appreciate the important role played by institutional structures.

In short, a transfer function takes an input (in this case a high school student or transfer student) and produces an output (a graduate of a university). The transfer function consists of all the experiences the undergraduate has during their time at the university, with the core elements being the courses, the instruction during the course, the exams, and ultimately the grades they get. Notice that the transfer function of a university is fundamentally producing two different broad categories of outputs: students that graduate and students that do not. Within this, we also sort the students that graduate into different levels of performance that are hopefully correlated with levels of achievement and learning. 

With this analogy, the ideal university takes students with a certain level of achievement as its inputs and transforms them through education (the instructors, courses, and students’ efforts) into a higher level of achievement. An initial analogy I immediately considered is a stereo system which amplifies and filters sound. One might equate the ideal meritocracy to an “amplifier,” a very simple form of transfer function that takes audio inputs and makes it louder. 

In reality, I would argue that the university is closer to a more complex transfer function—the classic graphic equalizer on a stereo that takes certain elements of the sound (the bass, the treble, etc.) and amplifies them by different amounts, enhancing some and reducing others. In this context, the structures of the university often act as a filter, allowing certain features of the input to pass through while blocking others. We must be aware of when structures that at one time served to support or evaluate student success have actually become barriers to success due to changing circumstances. As I have said before, if we want to make our institutions more equitable and inclusive, we need to evaluate our standards and broaden them.

As I thought more about amplifiers, graphic equalizers, and filters, another analogy that particularly stuck with me is that of a telescope. A critical difference between a filter and a telescope is the fact that the parts of a telescope are specifically designed to transform an input into the required output, and the parts are flexible enough that as the inputs change, you can still get the outputs you want by changing the structure of the telescope.

For a telescope to work, it must produce the right type of outputs. Generally, this requires two steps: (1) processing the light with lenses and mirrors and (2) measuring the light with detectors. The astronomer uses the measurements from the detectors to determine if the outputs are achieving their desired goals.

The analogous description of a course of study for an undergraduate also has two steps: (1) “processing” each student by requiring them to take major-specific courses and (2) “measuring” each student with exams, papers, projects, and so on. As with the astronomer, we generally focus on the results of the assessments to determine if student outcomes meet our goals.

What is most interesting about this analogy is the fact that when an astronomer determines that an output is problematic, they change the processing elements or the detector elements of the telescope. They do not declare the incoming light to be unprepared! Instead, they might adjust the telescope’s lenses and mirrors to bring the image into focus. In fact, a significant amount of time and effort is spent designing the structural elements of the telescope to ensure that the broadest range of inputs can be used to produce good outputs.

I would suggest that it is our responsibility to design an undergraduate experience that positively impacts the broadest range of students possible—instead of one that simply confirms whether they do or do not have a specific set of attributes. This must include intentional evaluation of our processes (what is the structure and intention of the courses and pedagogies we send students through?) and assessments (are we evaluating the right things in our examinations?).

It is too easy to assume, incorrectly, that the students who are not successful in college were not sufficiently prepared. But the reality is that the applicants we are admitting are all strong students—they just have different strengths, needs, and experiences that influence their ability to thrive within the traditional college and university structures.

Just as astronomers have to adjust their telescopes to successfully process a diverse array of light sources, it is incumbent on us to do the same with traditional university systems. We must identify which structures need changing and determine how we can change them so that we can leverage the benefits of our diverse student community. 

We can no longer be complacent and blindly accept the systems and structures informed by the narrow definitions of the past. We must reevaluate, redesign, and reinvent the higher education system to fit the needs of modern students and the demands of the modern world.

Is bringing about change hard? Yes. Will change be met with resistance? Undoubtedly. 

But this does not diminish the fact that change is also essential. If colleges and universities wish to remain legitimate avenues for opportunity and advancement, then it’s time to start thinking in terms of the telescope model.