One Nudge at a Time 1

Goucher College President José Antonio Bowen Discusses the 3Cs

José Antonio Bowen loves data. When he became president of Goucher College, the small liberal arts school in Towson, in 2014, he wanted to quantify the student experience as much as possible and use behavioral science to make sure students were happy and successful.

 

He wanted to be thorough, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows him. As an undergrad at Stanford, he changed his major seven times. Finally settling on chemistry, Bowen stayed at the university to earn a master’s in music composition, a master’s in humanities and a joint Ph.D. in musicology and humanities. Goucher’s resident polymath went on to become the dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, a world-renowned jazz musician, and the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and two nonfiction books: Teaching Naked and Teaching Naked Techniques, which argue for moving technology out of the classroom to improve learning.

 

So, when he wanted to quantify the Goucher experience, he looked at everything: the way dorms are built, students’ eating habits, links between hydration and learning (drink a glass of water first thing in the morning to stay sharp) and anything else that could help. And he looked to the future, where more industry disruptions and technological advancements are inevitable. Bowen contends that students must leave Goucher “prepared for the jobs of the future—some of which haven’t even been invented yet.”

To do that, he says, they must become lifelong learners who can think critically. Bowen, who earlier this year was honored with the Boyer Award from the New American Colleges & Universities consortium for his significant contributions to American higher education, points to three areas vital to cultivating those skills: curriculum, community and career, or, as he has branded them, the 3Cs. On a recent afternoon, from his office overlooking the Goucher woods, Bowen discusses the importance of each one.

 

Curriculum

Goucher launched a new curriculum, the Goucher Commons, in 2017, with the idea of encouraging more interdisciplinary study and collaboration. Students are required to take writing, data analytics and a foreign language, and they must study abroad. First-years take an exploration seminar, where they draw on a number of disciplines to solve complex problems together. They can take a course like Disease and Discrimination, which examines disease through the lens of pathology, politics and public interest, drawing on hard sciences as well as gender and race theory.

 

Bowen thinks of the seminars as a toolbox.

 

“If a hammer is physics and a screwdriver is poetry, you don’t know what tool you’re going to need for a problem that hasn’t yet been invented,” he says.

 

Community

“This is the first generation in history to bring all their high school friends with them to college—on their cellphone,” Bowen says.

 

That means today’s college students feel a less pressing need to make friends on campus, which can lead to feelings of isolation and disengagement, increasing their risk of dropping out. And many colleges are building fancy new dorms with singles and private bathrooms, which students say they want. But it’s not what they need.

 

According to Bowen, “Singles are the loneliest place on campus, and they have the lowest graduation rates.”

 

That’s why Goucher used nudge-theory behavioral science when building its new First-Year Village. The residence halls contain doubles that are on the smaller side, with huge lounges and kitchens on every floor to encourage students to socialize.

 

It seems to be working. So far, “the students who live there appear to be more successful,” Bowen says.

 

The college used the same approach when designing its new dining hall. Students increasingly want to-go options so they can eat in their rooms, alone with their computers, so the college put the eat-in dining hall in the center of campus, and is considering how to nudge students to eat a certain number of meals there.

 

As Bowen points out, “What’s the point of having a diverse campus with students from over 30 different countries and many different states if you’re not going to help them interact?”

 

The personal touch matters, too. Bowen, who lives on campus with his wife, Kimberly, and their two dogs and cat, organizes weekly soccer games that anyone can join. Students can also sign out one of their dogs for walks—as long as they don’t feed them. (One dog came home covered in Doritos dust.)

 

Career

Every college has a career center, but most students avoid them. Goucher decided it needed not only a career center but also a career program. Called the Goucher Advantage, it will debut next year and students will be required to take four years of its programming. They will be eased in, however.

 

“We don’t want to scare students by saying, ‘Hi, welcome to college, let’s talk about your job,’” Bowen says. “Instead, let’s talk about self-discovery. Let’s talk about who you are as a person, what motivates you.”

 

First-years will do writing assignments around these questions, and, in their sophomore year, they will start writing cover letters, build an e-portfolio and apply for internships.

 

They will also join a career community, loosely based on their interests, consisting of six to eight students, alumni and possibly college staff and faculty members, as well. The groups will meet regularly to talk and ask questions.

 

Hands-on experience and networking are essential. Goucher’s Community-Based Learning Office supports students working in the Towson community with local elementary schools, senior centers and neighborhood associations. The Goucher College Business Circle also brings local business and education leaders together, giving students the opportunity to meet and hear from top executives in their fields. The idea is to expose students to different types of jobs and careers—all it takes is a little nudge, and maybe a glass of water, too.