The Denver Post has a curious and lengthy front-page article today on the failure of higher ed in Colorado to serve and graduate Latino/a students. This is a serious concern, because more and more of our college-age population are Latino/a. To wit, “[s]tatistics show Latino students are less likely than any other group to graduate from high school, and at most Colorado four-year and community colleges, they are more likely to leave before finishing a degree than their white counterparts.” David Longanecker, the “executive director for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and former assistant education secretary under President Clinton, said the higher education system has to change. ‘In many respects, it’s provided a sieve to differentiate the able from the less-able students,’ he said. ‘We need to take students and teach them what they need to know rather than weed out the wheat from the chaff.’”
The curious part of the article is in the discussion of possible solutions to the problem. For the most part, universities tout special mentoring programs, but however well intended, we all know that those are “solutions” run on the cheap and that they have more PR value than actual value. (The effective pre-college mentoring programs the article discusses look good–but the people who run them admit that they can’t serve the tremendous need in the state.) The article claims–without any documentation, and apparently, without any actual research–that “[g]one are the days of 250-person lecture halls.” Oh really? Historiann’s lower-level surveys are capped at 123, and she has to make-do with only one graduate TA (and that, friends, is a very new development. Most of our survey courses have been taught by people without TAs or graders, and most often by adjuncts or “special faculty” who teach two or three sections of their surveys per semester, in addition perhaps to one or two upper-level courses for a total of 300-400 students per semester.) Does that sound much more hands-on and student-centered than 250-person lectures?
We all know what works, but I’m quite confident the people of my good state won’t want to pay for it. What works is what Amherst College and other elite liberal arts colleges have done for 200+ years–small classes where faculty and students can hold each other accountable for their work. Capping all classes at 30, especially lower-level introductory classes, centering courses more on reading, writing, and disucssion rather than on passive listening to lectures, and asking faculty to teach no more than 2 classes per semester, will ensure that students at all levels of the curriculum will get the attention and mentoring they need and deserve. No responsible faculty member ever said, “I think teaching works best when I’m in an auditorium on a stage where I can’t see past the third row of students, and where students are very confident that I don’t know them and won’t notice that they’re not attending class.” In my career, I’ve never heard someone make the argument that that style of teaching was their pedagogical ideal.
Education at large state universities is higher education on the cheap, and quite frankly, you get what you pay for. This system works acceptably well for middle-class and upper-class students who went to good high schools and whose parents attended college, because they have an educational background and parental expectations and resources to help them get through Freshman and Sophomore years when they’re in the large, impersonal General Education classes. (The system certainly isn’t ideal for them either, but they’ve got a cultural and material cushion that most first-generation college students don’t have.) And by the way–paying faculty a living wage for teaching two classes capped at 30 students each also means that universities would have to wean themselves of adjunct and “special” faculty who teach four or five classes per semester, plus the equivalent load over the summer. It goes without saying that faculty teaching four or five classes of thirty students each will be stretched too thin to offer the kind of support that their students need. Reading, thinking, writing, and discussing should be at the center of higher education, and they are activities that technology can enhance sometimes, but can never replace. And there’s no way to do it on the cheap unless you’re satisfied with Wal-Mart results.
The fact is that our current regime of higher education works for the wealthy, who can always pay $40,000-$50,000 a year for private colleges and elite universities for their children. In fact, by refusing to allow state universities to offer a comparable education and forcing them to operate on the cheap, the system enhances the value attached to a private college or university education. The privilege they’re paying for, in part, is the exclusivity of their degrees. Why should state governments enhance the caché of Amherst College or of Stanford University, instead of trying to offer the students at their state universities a comparable experience? Enough of this welfare for the wealthy! Enough!