We all know what works–but who will pay for it?

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!

24 thoughts on “We all know what works–but who will pay for it?

  1. To my mind, there is also the issue of relevance in curriculum to Latino/a students. How many classes, such as history, include significant content on Latino/as in the U.S. (more than the casual reference to César Chávez (if even that))? How many departments have even one person who specializes in Latino/a studies, much less multiple perspectives?


  2. I agree entirely–my department has no Latino/a or Chicano/a historian, and a colleague and I were talking about hiring in this field in our upcoming meetings about future hires. This is a major concern. However, I think curricular issues are somewhat less important than making college affordable and accessible for all students. All kinds of students are dropping out for imposing material and structural reasons, which I think must be addressed first. (And, if we are successful in recruiting and retaining more Latino/a students, it will be a snap to argue for the importance of having scholarship on Latino/as/Chicano/as in the faculty mix.)


  3. It was for these very reasons that I encouraged my little sister who had struggled throughout high school to enroll in the local community college before entering the state university. Afraid that she would get lost in the shuffle and drop out, I thought that she would recieve more attention at the junior college—in addition to being less expensive, they almost always have better facilities and smaller classes. I think that more and more high school seniors are choosing this route as well. Still, this is only a useful option if a senior plans on staying in the state.


  4. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Roxie–and good news about Maryland’s new minor!

    Mary–community college is a good way to go for students who want to ease into college slowly, and who don’t necessarily have the confidence they’ll need to successfully negotiate the big 4-year state schools. But, community colleges in Colorado are even more poorly funded than state universities, and they’re being asked to bear much more of the burden of education than ever before! In my ideal scheme, we’d still have community colleges for those students (and they’d be much better funded)–but students wouldn’t HAVE to go to CCs if they were intimidated by the big universities.


  5. Oh my god, 120 students or more _without_ a TA to share the grading? At least here I get about 60 or 70 students to grade and the lecturer (like the one I just blogged about) only prepares the lectures and readings. I can’t imagine doing both.

    Dean Dad had an interesting post about community colleges where he made an aside that the general public does not understand why small class sizes are important; I for one would love to see more studies on this and what the “average joe” would think _is_ vital to a quality education, so that we can educate them (the taxpayers) on why smaller classes need to be funded.

    But I’m totally with you on all these points and want to remind any helpful legislators reading along that there is no shortage of qualified new PhDs to help you fill some new tenure-track slots! (fawning grin goes here)


  6. When you get a job, Sis, you may look forward to teaching even higher numbers of students than I do. (We do have GTAs to help with the grading, but only one, and most of us are humane and don’t make the TA do all of the grading.) Most of my friends have higher teaching loads than I do…


  7. GayProf makes a key point: we must examine the curriculum in history, as well as other subjects, to comprehend demographics of achievement. Consider American colonial history, for example, Francisco Coronado was led by Indian guides on a wild goose chase through the tall grasses of Colorado and Kansas two generations before the English began their efforts to colonize the east coast. Yet, after a few cursory words regarding Columbus, and maybe Cortés, the Spanish disappear from (and their Mestizo/a descendants never appear in) American history until the election of James K. Polk. This model of the American past is biased and inaccurate. Colonial American history must look to the Southwest as well as the Northeast (the Northeast also needs more attention to the French).

    Second, it has been eight years since I’ve taught classes of 200+, but also the same distance in time since I’ve worked at State U. Are these classes really gone? How many hundreds of adjuncts and graduate students have been hired to teach Core courses in World (i.e. Western) Civilization? Do any of them have the requisite knowledge base?


  8. Hi James–no, those courses are not gone, nor do I think reducing the size of those courses to 150 or 123 (as in my case) really makes a difference. Until you get in a class with fewer than 50 or 40 people, I think students feel invisible and it’s unlikely that profs. will learn their names or really get to know them unless they sit up front and answer a lot of questions.

    For the most part, colonial American history has changed, at least in the way it’s taught by people trained in the 1990s and 2000s. Atlantic World history, Native American history, and the rage for comparative history mean that the old regional approach to Anglo-America (New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake, the Lower South, and the Caribbean) is dead in my world, and I think it’s on its way out in most other classrooms. This offers other benefits, besides blowing up the teleological imposition of the nation-state narrative on 16th-18th C history. For example, for those of us who are interested in questions about gender, sexuality, and family formation, looking at Mexico, New France, and Brazil offers us a much greater variety of ways in which those things worked in colonial societies than if we looked only at the relatively same-looking English colonies.

    What did you think of teaching those big 200-person sections? Was that your ideal? (This post and thread are already making me dread teaching the survey again, which won’t happen for nearly 2 more years! Ugh.)


  9. So, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 is a core text in your colonial America? Bravo!

    I told people that I never planned on becoming effective at entertaining/teaching lecture classes of 100-200+, but that I had. Lots of pop quizzes, lecture-based test questions, learning 25+ names because of some discussion, and I had fairly good attendance in my largest classes. Teaching a literature class to five non-majors was more problematic. When five have not read the text, or read well, and discussion is the learning media, it is less effective than making deposits through lecture (see Paulo Friere) in the heads of many dozens of passive receptacles. These divergent teaching experiences have taught me that several different class structures and instructive media are preferable to a single dominant mode. Even those I once despised might have their place.

    When I was at State U., the central classroom building was redesigned to accommodate technology, and I was furious that some of my classrooms no longer had movable desks that we could form into a circle. Now, I use PowerPoint in history classes of six to twenty-five students. This change in perspective gives me an appreciation of James Axtell’s comment, “Welcome to the cyber domain of a former Luddite!”


  10. Somewhere recently I read that a study had found that the single biggest predictor of student success in intro courses was that the course was taught by a full-time employee of the university. (That included FT lecturers, not just TT faculty.) It turns out that people employed full time are more likely to be available to students outside of class. Imagine that!

    I think you’re absolutely right on class size and learning. Like so much of education, we know what the solution is, but no one wants to pay for it. (We know what works in k-12 too.) Even if you capped intro classes at 40 — where you can still get to know people — it would make a huge difference.

    Of course we can say “you get what you pay for” about a lot of things — your experience of air travel, the quality of children’s toys, infrastructure, etc. We seem to have been seduced by the bargain hunter’s approach to life, and then get surprised when things don’t work.

    Oh, and just a reminder about curriculum. Some of us DO NOT teach about the US or the Americas. There is a world outside….


  11. Susan–thanks for the link! I love it! And I agree completely with Rust Belt Intellectual, as well as with you about the “bargain hunter’s approach to life.” If I can borrow a phrase from Wal-Mart: “Always poor results. Always.”


  12. Well, I’m sorry to be so late to post here. I was swamped last week and missed historiann. A few thoughts…yes on more Latino/a content — should be woven regularly into Amstuds and Latinamstuds. Latinostuds may be the way to weave together the artificial division of the Americas, especially in those places or moments when the North/South divide wasn’t pronounced.

    As far as elite education, I would caution young Latinos/as from attending liberal arts colleges and certain larger private universities. Most of those places were created to educate the white elite (as you point out) and they don’t respond well to fluid subjectivities. Usually, the choice is between buying the program or being unhappy. So, I agree, the goal should be to bring down class sizes at the large public univs.

    Thanks for taking up an important topic which doesn’t receive as much attention as it should.


  13. Thanks, Rad–and thanks for checking in again at Historiann.com! Interesting thoughts on SLACs. As a graduate of an earnestly liberal and well-meaning historically white SLAC, I got the impression that non-white students who enrolled there were actually performing more of a service to the institution than the institution was necessarily doing for them. Others have written about this more eloquently than I have, but in sum, the institution could then boast about its diversity, without really having to change the way it did business. I think many SLACs are better than they used to be 20 years ago about giving more than just lip service to ethnic studies and hiring a more diverse faculty, but when I was in college, in the History department I studied in, everything (including even boring, mainstream American history!) was subordinated to Western (European) Civilization.

    And, as Gandhi once said when asked about Western Civilization, “I think it would be a very good idea!”

    (Rim shot.)


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