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What It Takes to Be a Great University

Professor Richard Light shares some secrets of university success and discusses what sets a great university apart from an OK one.
College campus in fall

Professor Richard Light has studied hundreds of colleges and universities to better understand what it takes to be great – something that doesn’t come easy. 

“Part of it is about the campus culture and it may take several years to change a campus culture,” Light said. “How does a campus leader of a university encourage their faculty members to try new ways of teaching? It seems like sort of an obvious question because anybody who works in almost any job should occasionally try, ‘How do I do my job better?’ It's sort of obvious. And yet at some universities, it is built into the culture. At other universities, it's hard to get faculty to try new things.”

Yet, there are many important reasons to change how things are done, as Light shares in this episode of the EdCast, and small, inexpensive changes can lead to huge rewards on the student experience.



Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson, and this is The Harvard EdCast. Harvard Professor Dick Light wants colleges to be able to transform from just good to great. He's visited 260 college campuses talking to administrators, faculty, and students to figure out what sets a great university apart from an okay one. He knows colleges are in a strange place right now with many struggling to stay alive and just an overarching criticism of higher education. The good news, he says, is colleges can make small changes for relatively low cost or no cost that can have a huge impact on the student experience. Knowing Dick has researched higher education for decades, I knew he'd have a lot to tell about universities and even advice for prospective students trying to figure out where to go to college. What does it actually mean to be great today as a college and university

Dick Light: I have several answers to that question. My first answer is I'd like to think every single student feels that they have  the chance to find something they fall in love with, falling in love with something that you might want to pursue the rest of your life. It could be history, it could be chemistry. It could be anything. The second is every student, I think, ought to be able to say, "I know that there are one or two faculty members or staff members or administrators, adults on campus who know I'm here, who care I'm here, who care that I should succeed, who have some idea who I am." The third and, for me, this maybe the biggest of all, it's that a great campus should have a culture of innovation where everyone feels they can contribute to making the campus better. That includes everybody from the president to deans to professors right on down to first year 18-year-old students. Everybody has something to contribute.

Jill Anderson: I have to ask out of the hundreds of colleges you visited, how many of them do you think have a good handle on those three things that you just mentioned?

Dick Light: A very modest fraction. I don't know if it's 25% or 45%, but it's not 95%. That's for sure. College and universities really do have an environment where most every student feels, "I can name two faculty members who know me at least a little bit."

And in fact, I'm going to share a super quick anecdote which is true without mentioning the name of the university. It's a pretty famous, large public university. It's not Harvard. It's a public university. I sat with the president and I asked him as I was finishing my visit to his campus, I said, "Tell me, you're a president of a great university, what keeps you up at night?" And he laughed. I mean, he looked at me with the biggest smile and he said, "Dick, do you know what really keeps me up at night? It's that I've got 41,000 students here on my campus. How do I organize this campus so that every one of those terrific young folks, men, women, everyone feels that someone cares about them, feels that someone knows they're here?" And he said, "That's my biggest challenge."

A small Liberal Arts college enrolled 1,800 is very fortunate. They can organize themselves and really make it that every student knows a couple of faculty, whereas a very large university, it's challenge.

Jill Anderson: When you said those first two, I thought, "Wow, it has to almost be impossible for some places to have that data or how to even collect that data on their students."

Dick Light: About seven or eight years ago, the dean of first year students here at Harvard College... By the way, numbers, there are 1,650 first year Harvard College students. The dean turned to not just me, but a team of colleagues I was working with, and he said, his first name's Tom, and Tom simply said, "I would love to get a sense of, do students feel cared about?" And it was a student who was working with us, an undergraduate like a 20-year-old young woman, named Doris. I remember her very well. Doris simply said, "Well, why don't you do this? Why don't you ask a sample of our first year students a simple question?"

It's a cold night in February. It's 20 degrees out. It's 2:00 in the morning on a random Tuesday night. A student's telephone rings. They're in their dorm room. They pick up the phone, half asleep, "Hello? Hello?" Someone is calling from their home. There's been something terrible that happened, maybe an accident, maybe someone got sick, maybe, God forbid, someone died, some terrible thing. And the point is the student has to go home for a few days, go home for a week. The question just is do you have a person on campus who you would call or get in touch with within a few hours to either, A, get advice or, B, get some consolation or, C, at a minimum, to just tell them you're leaving for a week? That means you're not going to be there for the Biology test next week. It means you're not going to have your English paper revised to hand in because you're going to be 50 miles away back home.

So the question is, can you name someone? 86% of the students on one campus, happens to be my campus, were. Yes, they were able to name a person they would call and talk to. So that raises the question, is 86% a happy result or is that a sad result? And it was very interesting. I thought it was a pretty happy result. I mean, 86% is a big fraction. But it was interesting, our dean of the first year students said, "Nope, we've got to get it up to 95% or 96%." So instead of now having one first year adviser, the university, Harvard University, changed its policy. Every first year student has three advisers. And it's pretty hard to imagine that a student would not like at least one out of the three. End of story.

Jill Anderson: How hard is it for colleges and universities to embrace change and continuous self-improvement?

Dick Light: Well, I have a very blunt answer that not every listener will love, but it's my honest answer, and that is it is hard for many campuses. Again, part of it is about the campus culture and it may take several years to change a campus culture. Let me give an incredibly straightforward example that everyone will understand no matter what their background, and that is how does a campus leader of a university encourage their faculty members to try new ways of teaching? It seems like sort of an obvious question because anybody who works in almost any job should occasionally try, "How do I do my job better?" It's sort of obvious. And yet at some universities, it is built into the culture. At other universities, it's hard to get faculty to try new things.

And again, I'm a big fan of examples. Allow me to give a personal example. It's short. A few years ago, I taught a seminar for first year undergraduates, the 19-year-olds, basically, mostly. It was half men, half women. It was a pleasure. It was a small class and I enjoyed it enormously. The next year, because the person in charge of these first year seminars encouraged not just me, but 120 faculty, I'm just one of 120, this woman encouraged us and said, "Try a slightly different way of teaching. See if it's even better." So I did. And instead of teaching three hours once a week like Thursday afternoon, 3:00 to 6:00 PM... I taught a first year seminar. It was about higher education colleges in America. And I changed just one thing. Instead of teaching for three hours, I taught for two and a half hours. And every week with advanced notice, couple weeks advanced notice, I asked two of the students, two of the 19-year-olds to lead the class discussion for the final half hour.

Well, what happened? The first thing that happened is I've never seen such a transformation. All the students always came unbelievably well prepared, and the reason they all were laughing as they explained it to me, they said, "Professor Light, I'm not leading the discussion this week, but I'm very well prepared for Sally and Joe, they're leading it, because my turn will come in two weeks. I want them to be well prepared. So we want to always come well prepared." They worked hard. They spoke up because they knew how they wanted everyone to behave when they were leading the class. Something that simple. Much more learning took place when the students themselves were able to lead even just a small fraction of the class discussion.

And I will give a second example, which is even shorter, way shorter, and that is I've learned that cold calling, meaning, "So Jill, you haven't spoken up yet today. What do you think?" It's not a test. It's just a way of getting someone, who may be a bit hesitant for whatever reason, to speak up and especially in smaller classes. You can't do this with a class of 500, but you can do it with a class of 20. And now, most people on most campuses are increasingly doing that.

Here's a piece of data 22 years ago in the year 2000. What fraction of all college courses across America, in all universities, from the strongest to the weakest, were taught using lectures? The answer is 74%.

Jill Anderson: Wow.

Dick Light: [crosstalk 00:10:25] were? Lectures, where some guy droned on for an hour or whatever it is. What fraction now in the year 2022 are lecture? 49%. Call it about half. So it's dropped from three quarters down to a half. It's not dropped to zero, but that's a dramatic change and it's across all of America. And it means that students are now being forced to speak up. So they argue, debate. Isn't that the whole point of having a diverse student body to have people discuss always cordially, always civilly, but to disagree once in a while?

Jill Anderson: What did you find out about this resistance to changing the way a faculty member might instruct? Because I would suspect with the pandemic, a lot of people were forced into doing things differently.

Dick Light: What a great question. The answer is, yes, during the pandemic, it made a big difference. I've had this impression, but it's only an impression for a long time, but I've done a few small but rigorous well done surveys because I'm a statistician, my background, my training. It's clear that many faculty were surprised on how much they enjoyed trying new ways of teaching. It gave them pleasure when they knew they were trying something new to become better at their work. I don't know, Jill, a single faculty member who wants to stand in front of a class and make a fool of themself. I mean, if I'm going to teach a class, I'd like to be as good as I can possibly be. And I think the pandemic, with some online learning mixed in with in-person learning, it resulted in a new willingness to consider new ways of teaching.

Jill Anderson: When you think about that model of higher education with a lecturer at the front and just a huge room of students and very little interaction, it's hard to imagine that. And I'm glad to hear that number is changing.

Dick Light: It is. And your point illustrates, at least for me, the importance. This is a big deal about what makes a university great, which is one of your very first questions. What makes a great university great is a lot of thought is given about what good advising means for students, for undergrads. What does it mean to be a good adviser? Every good adviser I know on many, many campuses conveys to students that there's overwhelming evidence, research evidence and impressionistic evidence taking a minimum of one small class every semester. We could argue about what small means. I'll just say fewer than 20 students, but who knows, it could be 18 students, it could be 23.

But take one small class every semester. If you take four, that's even better than one. But even if you take a couple of large classes, take one or two small ones. Why? Because number one, you'll get to know the professor. Number two, the professor will get to know you. Serve as a job reference, write a recommendation for graduate school or your future or a fellowship, or whatever it is. You'll also get to know your fellow students because it's a small class and everyone has to speak up. So therefore, even if you don't like half the students, well, you do like the other half. You've got 10 friends. So if you go to a big university and you're a first term, first semester, first year student, a month or two into your first year, you already have a couple of small classes. In each of those classes, you have eight friends. Even if you don't like all the others, suddenly you feel part of the community. Who could be not happy about that?

Now, may I just say, I think any campus that does not advise students to do that is they're missing an opportunity to enhance their undergraduate experience.

Jill Anderson: So to shift gears a little bit into testing and assessment and how do we figure out what our students have actually learned, I want to hear more about ways that faculty can better assess what students are learning.

Dick Light: First of all, I know most of my faculty, friends, and colleagues dislike intensely the word, assessment, and that's because they assume it means standardized testing. It's just nonstop test, test, test. There are three quite different definitions of assessment that have nothing to do with standardized testing. One of them is to pose a question that any college or university can pose about its students, what do our students know now? A second question they can pose is, how much are they improving? I mean, that's why they came to college. Like for example, to improve the quality of their writing, we can ask, "Are they succeeding? Are we succeeding in helping students to improve their writing?" And the third question we can ask is, what ideas can the students suggest based on the experiences they're having to help us improve our college or university?

I've got a lot of examples of that actually. There are fun examples where students came up with ideas that never occurred to any dean or president, and it was a fabulous change. A very famous Ivy League university, it's not Harvard, some other place, I won't say the name, the president of this university asked 10 faculty members from 10 other campuses to spend one day there. And I was one of the 10. So I go there and nine other people went there from... So we're from 10 different campuses.

And the president met with us and said, "I would like you to just sit one on one, each of you, just one at a time with 15 seniors. But one at a time, each senior gets their 15 or 20 minutes and just to ask them a few questions." And I remember I asked the president, "What would be a couple of examples of questions," and he said, "Well, our faculty came up with these questions because we want to get a sense of what our students are learning." So I said, "What's the question," and the president said, "Just say, 'Who was Sigmund Freud?'" That's it. That was the question. And then I said, "Give me another example," and he said, "All right, 'What is the Human Genome Project?'" And the president of this university explained our faculty at our wonderful campus decided that these 15 questions capture some basic ideas, do our students, do they read widely, how do they think, and so on.

The end of my story is just I did that and I sat one on one. My first person who I was talking with was a sweet, young woman. She was a graduating senior. And I asked my question, "So, Sally, do you know who Sigmund Freud is? Can you convey that you know anything about him?" So she said, "Oh, Sigmund Freud. Well, I'm not an expert, but wasn't he a Austrian-German psychiatrist, Oedipus complex?" And I immediately said, "Great. That's it. You obviously have some idea who he is." And I said, "All right, Human Genome Project, just say anything you'd like for one minute." She blushed a little bit and she said, "Professor Light, I'm an English major." As if to say, "How would I know about the Human Genome Project?" And I said, "No awkwardness. I'm just curious. Do you know what it is?" She said, "Not really. I know I should know, but I don't."

Anyway, in the end, this university learned that 94%, putting all the data together, 94% of their graduating seniors could say something about Sigmund Freud, 48%, call it half, roughly half, had the slightest clue what the Human Genome Project is. And the faculty, the professors got very upset. They just said, "Well, it's the 21st century. How can we be graduating students who have no clue what it is? We don't expect experts, but they at least be able to say in three sentences something about it." So that university, which is a well-known university, made some changes in its curriculum. That's an example of the value of assessment.

Jill Anderson: That's really an interesting and different way to think about it.

Dick Light: Yup.

Jill Anderson: I want to touch back on something that you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, which is that students need to find something to fall in love with, something to pursue in life, or something that they're passionate about. I feel like we haven't touched upon how to do that or what colleges and universities could do because we know there's tons of students who come in and leave and don't finish, and we don't want students getting to the end of college necessarily and not really knowing what they feel strongly about or have any direction in life. So what can you tell me about figuring out, finding love for something at college?

Dick Light: Your question is another example of the importance of good advising. By good advising, I mean good advising by faculty or staff, it could be either one, of students. In other words, who's going to advise students well? It turns out that many students come to college and they decide that in their first year at college, which of course matters a lot, it sets the tone for their whole experience, they often think, "I should get the requirements out of the way, so I'll choose my classes. I know I have a math requirement so I'll take a math course. I know I have a foreign language requirement so I'll take one of those courses. I know I have a history requirement, I'll take that." And their whole first year is, or at least much of it, is spent getting the requirements out of the way.

Who gives them that advice, in general, more than anyone else? I mean, I can just tell you, we actually got the data on it. My mother, my father, my friend, my roommate. It turns out that's terrible advice, and that the best advice any student can get regardless of who they are or what their background is, what their race is, what their interests are substantively, what their politics are, is, yes, do get a couple of requirements out of the way, but choose a couple of courses that are exciting for you, that are a turn on for you, that are new for you.

I know with my own advisees, undergraduates, I'll often say, "What classes are you planning to take in your first year," and student says, "History, Chemistry, English, and Math." And then, I say to them, "What courses did you take last year when you were still in high school?" "History, Chemistry, English, and Math." And I'm thinking as I'm listening to the student, "Are you just trying to repeat your high school experience?" The student usually smiles when I say that. And I say, "Can't you find one thing that's new? Find one thing. You choose it." Southeast Asian studies, the history of fish, that's a real course. I mean, I just... That's not what turns me on, but if a student wants it, great.

Jill Anderson: After going to all of these colleges and assessing and talking to students and faculty and finding out all the different things that's happening, what would you say is the biggest bang for your buck move that colleges aren't doing?

Dick Light: I would say the single biggest bang for the buck that either a college could do or, in some cases, are not doing right now is working with faculty and staff to help them build personal relationships. And by that, I mean, of course, in the healthy, constructive sense of those words. There are certain personal relationships not so good, but I mean, constructive relationships because those are the kinds of relationships where a student really feels part of a community. Almost every faculty member I've spoken with on 200 campuses say the most impact I ever had on a student was when a student knew me well enough that they could confide a little bit like, "My mother is very sick. She's at home. She has leukemia and she's getting treated. We're optimistic. It might work, but we're not sure. So it's hard for me to concentrate." You have to know someone pretty well. I mean, if you're a 19-year-old or 21-year-old undergraduate, you have to feel like you know someone reasonably well to confide that sort of thing, that your mother's sick.

More and more campuses are working so hard, so, so hard, and I salute them, to make it possible for students to share that information. It could be they're stressed, it could be, "I broke up with my boyfriend or girlfriend," whatever it may be. It could be a million different things or, "I arrived underprepared for my science major," that sort of thing. In other words, a student who's struggling and they say, "Gee, my high school didn't prepare me very well. Everybody else knows more than I do." You need somebody to tell that to. And to go to the mental health service could be very helpful. But best of all is if you have a faculty member or a staff member who you, by you, I mean if you're a student, who knows you and who you can confide in. I think that's really big bang for the buck.

Jill Anderson: But that must be so hard to do. It's sounds so easy. When you think of some of these huge universities, I wonder how do you make that headway?

Dick Light: I will name a university because I'm going to praise it, a university that gets this right. I'm going to choose Georgetown University. They have, for some of their students who come from modest backgrounds... They may be the first generation in their family to attend any college, no less a terrific place like Georgetown, they may be from very low income, they may be from a very rural area, whatever it is, maybe a student of color who feels like they haven't had some opportunity, something like that. Anyway, Georgetown makes an effort, and the result is that they succeed big time.

Every first generation student who's a first year student at Georgetown, in the middle of their first year, their cell phone rings, and here's the conversation. The caller says, "Hello? Am I speaking to Sally," and Sally says, "Yes. Speaking?" And the caller says, "Well, my name is Joanne and I graduated from Georgetown two years ago. I'm a proud Georgetown alum. And I was a first generation in my family to attend Georgetown. May I ask you, am I correct that someone had mentioned you're first generation?" And the student says, "Yes, that's right." And then the caller says, "May I encourage you if you have any questions, if you ever want to just talk through an issue, I am here. I'm available." I mean, it could be on the phone, it could be on Zoom, it could be in person if the alum lives in the area. "But whatever it is, give me a call. I am available. I can be helpful."

And a number of the Georgetown graduates say that one phone call, how much did that cost Georgetown? It cost them nothing. They just simply had to advise an alum to make the call and offer their time if the alumnus is willing, and many are willing. They love to give back. Many recent graduates cannot write a check for $100 million, but they can make a phone call. And one of these young alum, a woman, she's like 24 years old, said, "I had the best conversation with my first year Georgetown student who called me and said, 'How should I dress for my job interview for a summer internship?'" There's a simple example.

It cost Georgetown nothing. Some people are interested in what are the different graduation rates at different colleges and universities. Many campuses are criticized because they have low graduation rates. Only a small fraction of the students finish. At Georgetown, the overall graduation rate for all students is about 92%. That's really great. Do you know what it is for the first generation low income students where every place else sits way lower? It's 97%, and that's because Georgetown makes an effort. And it may cost them a teeny bit, but it's not millions and millions.

Jill Anderson: I know that you focus a lot on helping college administrators and those working in higher ed to make improvements, but I couldn't help but wonder we have all these families right now and young people who are trying to figure out where to go to college. Is there a way for these perspective students to figure out if they're actually looking at a great college?

Dick Light: Assuming a student has the capacity, has the resources to visit a few campuses before they apply because you just said, "How do we know what we're looking for? How do I know if I'm finding the right university or a great university?" There are a few very simple questions I would ask. First thing is when any student visits any campus, it doesn't matter what, public, private, large, small, urban, rural, look at some bulletin boards and look at the postings of the different activities. Some campuses will have 200 posters that describe women's groups this, women's groups that, women's performance this. My point just is that's the tone of the place.

Other campuses will have heavily scientific emphasis like come to a certain scientific talk given by the professor who invented the Human Genome Analysis or some such thing. Still, other campuses are very heavy on performance art, drama, acapella groups. Many colleges these days have like 9 and 10 acapella groups. Different campuses are best suited for different students. And the final point I'd make is a little bit delicate, but I'm just going to say it, and that is some campuses encourage vigorous disagreement and debate about current affairs. Whereas others, the goal almost seems to be among student leaders and sometimes the faculty leaders to get everybody to think the right way however they define. It could be left wing, it could be righ t wing, it could be anything. But the goal is to try to say, "Here's the way we think on this campus," as opposed to welcoming different perspectives.

There are some campuses where if you see a sign on a posting, you meaning the high school senior who's trying to think, "Where do I go to college," and one poster says, "Meeting tomorrow evening, young Democrats," and right next to it, there's another poster, "Meeting the next evening, young Republicans," you already know something about the campus, and that's whoever you are, whatever you think, you'll find a place. Whereas some campuses have only one or the other. In which case, maybe that's what you want. Fine. But how much does it cost the student to invest 15 minutes and look at postings on a bulletin board?

Jill Anderson: Great tip. Lots of great tips in here. Thank you so much, Dick.

Dick Light: It is a pleasure, Jill.

Jill Anderson: Dick Light is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book, Becoming Great Universities, Small Steps for Sustained Excellence. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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