A Funder Backs a New Tool to Help College Students Choose Their Courses

Algorithms are a central part of modern life. Let's face it, they're everywhere. Online dating sites such as Match use them to identify potential partners. Netflix uses algorithms to recommend movies and television shows you might like (some people say Netflix knows them better than their spouses do!).

Now a new project funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations aims to employ this technology to help college students select courses based on personal interests, career goals, and intellectual passions.

This idea is easy to relate to, since just about every college student has had the experience of sifting through a large array of course offerings at the start of the semester, scratching their heads over the many options. And every student, too, has had the experience of wasting time in a dud course that really missed the mark for them in terms of their interests and goals. 

The Florida-based funder recently awarded the University of Miami a $200,000 grant to develop a personalized search engine to help students with academic planning and advising. If it goes well, U. of Miami students will be able to say this search engine knows them better than their academic advisors do. (And who knows? Maybe schools won't need so many academic advisors, who are an example of the kind of heavy staffing in higher ed institutions that helps drive up tuition costs.) 

This new Davis-funded project complements a new general education structure at Miami that is built around cognates, which are sequences of three courses linked by a particular subject, academic discipline, issue, geographic region, or time period. Examples of cognates include archaeology, national security, African studies, or the Renaissance. Through a cognate approach, students can fulfill academic requirements by choosing courses from multiple disciplines, united by a particular area of interest.

University of Miami requires its students to fulfill the university's Areas of Knowledge requirement to complete three cognates, one from each of the following areas: Arts and Humanities; People and Society; and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). The grant from Davis will help Miami maximize the academic potential offered by this new cognate requirement by creating a search engine to spark students' thoughts and imaginations by showing where their interests may lead them. It plans to incorporate video clips, student testimonials, course syllabi, course evaluations, and samples of student work to aid in course selections.

An academic advising tool such as this aligns with Davis' higher education funding interests, which include projects that tout the value of a broad liberal arts education. The cognate requirement at Miami outlines such an approach to undergraduate education, and the planned search engine will help students select courses from the humanities, natural sciences, and the social sciences in such a way as to fulfill specific academic and career interests.

This all sounds smart, and we wouldn't be surprised to see other funders in this space. Students who choose the right courses are more likely to be maximally engaged and complete their degrees. They're also less likely to waste scarce tuition funds on the wrong courses or incur unnecessary student debt. 

One caveat in all this: A search engine to help students choose courses sounds like the kind of thing that a private company could develop and profitably market to schools, if one isn't doing this already. Is Arthur Vining trying to solve a problem that the market can handle on its own? 

Related - Arthur Vining Davis Foundations: Grants for Higher Education