My Letter to Stanford

Stanford was looking for comments on what an undergraduate education should look like.  My belated response is below.

Two questions that a high school senior should be asking their prospective colleges are “What will I be doing?” and “Will I be challenged?” Many assessments of the quality of an undergraduate education attempt to measure the particular skills, knowledge and attitudes that a graduating senior has acquired using some type of an exit test.  However no such test would be taken seriously by college students unless the results had a direct bearing on their grades or their graduation status and in any event the political realities of our educational system makes exit testing very unlikely.

As a second best alternative I would like to suggest that the undergraduate curriculum be built around the idea that by graduation a student will have done a series of complex activities.    A list of these activities or better yet a portfolio of evidence would be more impressive to employers and to professional and grad schools than a student’s overall GPA and a transcript of courses taken.  Of course each undergraduate institution would determine the acceptable quality of each endeavor and alternatives for people unable to perform a particular task.  I suggest the following.

By graduation, the student will have

Been a member of a team
Lead a team
Drawn conclusions from a complex set of data
Explored an entity or process using the tools of systems analysis
Designed and created something with their hands
Learned a coordinated physical activity
Spent one hundred hours doing community service
Lived in a foreign culture
Programmed a computer
Studied at least one particular field of study sufficiently to

Write a ten page paper relating themselves and their goals to the breadth of the field of study
Write a forty page paper investigating a specific aspect of the field of study
Written a work of fiction
Developed budgets for a 20 year old single person, a 40 year old married family and a 70 year old couple
Given a twenty minute speech
Debated a political point
Created and pursued a new idea
Applied the methods of the social science disciplines
Critiqued  a performance, a work of fiction, a work of nonfiction and a work of fine art
Conceived of a hypothesis and use the scientific method to prove or disprove it
Drawn conclusions from the financial statement of a company

This list is suggestive of the important aspects of an undergraduate education though it is certainly missing some important activities and is somewhat imprecise.  Students need a breadth of active experiences and they need to explore other aspects of the human endeavor other than the purely academic.  Most importantly an undergraduate education needs to ensure that students have done a set of challenging tasks and grown thereby.

There is a view that when our “best and brightest” get into an elite school like Stanford, they rest on their laurels and enjoy the benefits of grade inflation.  It is very important that Stanford challenge its students at a level commensurate with their abilities.

Jim Hatton

Southern Oregon University


About jrh794

I am a sixty-five year old math instructor at Southern Oregon University. I taught at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed California for twenty-six years. Prior to that I worked as a computer programmer, carpenter and in various other jobs. I graduated from Rice University in 1967 and have a MS in Operations Research from Stanford. In the past I have hand-built a stone house and taken long solo bicycle tours. Now I ride my mountain bike and play golf for recreation.
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