Monday, March 04, 2013

"College for All"

My thoughts on this topic are not fully formed and I may add to it over the next couple of days.

The "college for all" push has been in place for a number of years. I think part of the problem is that a high school diploma tends, by and large, not to represent what it once represented. College has become the de facto high school diploma in many fields that it never formerly was.

There are problems with this, of course.

First off: I do think access SHOULD be made available to every qualified person. Back in the bad old days, African-American people, or sometimes women, or sometimes even Jewish people, were closed out of attending certain colleges because of who they were. That's wrong and that's not how it should be. It does not matter a whit to me what faith (if any) my students are, nor what sex (or gender) they are, or what their ethnic background is. If they are willing to work, if they have the necessary smarts and background (or are willing to do the work to make up lacking background), and they are not disruptive in class, they are more than welcome.

However, the push for college-for-all means that we get a lot of students who don't have the background - they either came from very small schools in very small towns where the teaching wasn't that great. Or they slacked off in high school (and in some cases, still graduated near the top of their classes, which is sad). And so we get a lot of students coming in who are just missing so much background, or who have not formed good work habits in their younger days. And it's frustrating for them, and also frustrating for us.

Not everyone should have to go to college. Unfortunately, that's kind of what it's become, with some high schools apparently being willing to graduate students who can't do what a high school graduate should be able to do. So colleges are tapped to "fix" the "problem."

But now, some colleges are facing pressures. The current thing we are dealing with is DFW percentages. (That stands for Ds, Fs, Withdraws - not the North Texas megaplex city). The problem is, DFW as it's calculated currently is a very coarse measurement. For one thing, it does not separate out "genuine" Fs (as in: came to class, could not hack the material, failed) from "no basis for a grade" Fs (as in: missed so much class and so many assignments that not enough points were earned by the student for a passing grade).

A faculty member with a very high number of that first kind of F might be cause for concern; however, lumping the "no basis for a grade" Fs in artificially inflates the numbers.

Also, with Withdrawals- some withdrawals, while they are sad situations, are really the student doing the best thing at the time. In my fifteen or so years of teaching as a professor, I have seen students withdraw from a semester because of ugly divorces, a parent dying (and them having to take care of younger siblings), identity theft, serious illness, complicated pregnancy, more job pressures than they anticipated, family troubles, and on, and on - and it seems that the talk about DFW percentages have been largely to blame the faculty member for all of these, when most of the withdrawals I've seen have been things beyond the student's control, and they have withdrawn for what are actually very good reasons.

So I don't know. I don't like being blamed for things that I did not cause, and I especially do not like being blamed in a situation where I would argue the student is doing the "right" thing by withdrawing to take care of life (or ensure they have a healthy baby, or be with their loved one at the end of his or her life). But that is how it looks like it may be.

I guess what I am saying here is that "college for all" does not mean "SUCCESS in college for all." Stuff happens. Sometimes even good students have life get in the way, and if you're pushing people who are already at their limits of coping to go to college, you are going to have people dropping out or failing.

I'm wary that there may be subtle pressure to depress our DFW numbers.....the easiest way to do that is by making classes easier. There's also been talk of "removing" faculty from classes in which they have high DFW numbers (or, rather, numbers higher than other faculty in comparable classes). That bothers me. (Though not as much as it might, I flippantly add: the class in which my DFW numbers are highest - and are higher than other faculty teaching the same class - is the non-majors class, which is my least favorite class, for all the reasons that faculty typically dislike non-majors classes: students from many different disciplines having different expectations and skill levels, students lacking investment in the class (science can be a really hard sell), people lacking background in the field and requiring more remediation than should be given in a non-remedial class).

My DFW numbers run about 15% in the upper division majors classes I teach. That's really pretty good, and in some cases, those are inflated a bit by some unfortunate Ws where it wasn't my "fault." But by the time I get those students, they understand the expectations of the department. They have learned that even though this "isn't an English class," you have to be able to read and write reasonably standard English to survive. And they've learned that fifteen minutes of skimming the class handouts before an exam is not "enough" studying. And most of them take notes.

But here's the thing: pressuring us to make the intro level classes "easier" because it weeds people out otherwise? Will only inflate future DFW values in the upper division courses, until then we get pressured to dumb them down too.

And here's the thing: We're a STEM department. We sent people to med school, pharmacy school, grad school in chemistry.....we have to be tough on the students to teach them what they need to know. I think our "stakeholders" (an educational jargon term I hate) are the medical and professional schools, and also the public who need medical professionals. Saying that the students are our "stakeholders" and we should cater to them to the point of making our classes easier is a bad, bad idea.

The other challenging thing? We're pretty much open enrollment. We're not QUITE as bad as some schools, where I've heard faculty claim the admission test is "ability to fog a mirror, and ability to get a student loan" but we're not a selective school. And I'm mostly okay with that, but I'm not okay with us not being selective and then being told we have to graduate "most" of the students who come through with a bachelor's degree. Ain't gonna happen, not if we plan to keep any rigor.

I don't know. I realize a certain amount of this is panic-flailing on the part of the administration, because of things that are being said in the legislature, and also because our regular "site visit" for continued accreditation is coming up very soon. But I don't like the sense that we may be being subtly pitted against each other in terms of how much we "hurt" or "help" retention. I don't think that would lead to internecine fighting (and anyway, there are too many of us who thing that higher DFWs are not necessarily a problem) but I can see pressure from outside the department falling on some of us.

The thing that really makes me sad in the light of these new changes and these new pressures? By and large, I'm really enjoying my classes this semester. My students are sane, mature, and hard-working. So to look at things handed down from the legislature or the administration and be asking myself, "Can I survive another 15 years in academia, or are things going to get too ugly to keep going?" makes me really sad. (I can retire in about 15 years and get my full pension. I probably have about 10 years of "F you money" (as my dad calls it) still, even given investments tanking - I inherited a lot of stock from one set of grandparents - but I don't want to try living on my "F you money" and I don't want, really, to contemplate alternative careers.

The best case scenario? When the accreditation renewal happens, it goes off without a hitch and we are once again left alone until the next instance of panic flailing. The worst? Lots of people get lots of bees in their bonnet about "remaking" education, and we're forced to do things we hate and that we know are bad for our students.

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