Over the last couple of years, the state government in Connecticut has sent a clear set of messages to the various sectors of higher education. It has poured unprecedented money into the flagship research university, UConn, while forcing austerity on community and state colleges. It even took the unprecedented step of legislating a statewide remediation policy for the community colleges, going so far as to ignore the recommendations of the people on whose research the change was allegedly based.It might be a mistake for Connecticut to limit community college transfers. The institutional research I'm aware of out of Northern Illinois is that transfer students outperform continuing students as juniors and seniors -- there are probably as many explanations as there are reviewers of the evidence -- and that might generalize to Connecticut.
Apparently, the lesson UConn learned from these moves is that it’s special. It’s acting to pull up the drawbridge and separate itself from the community and state colleges, while taking a few swift kicks at them for good measure.
The planning the university is doing, however, is pretty standard. Connecticut has rounded up the usual suspects as peer institutions for comparison. Some of those institutions appeared in a Northern Illinois internal review of the economics department. There's nothing wrong with a northeastern state flagship institution wanting to compare itself with Rutgers or Iowa State or Ohio State. In these plans and reviews, it's customary to identify institutions that it would be good to be spoken of in the same sentence with. That choice, however, troubles our colleague in Pioneer Valley.
[T]he chief academic officer at UConn issued a memo advocating a new, much lower cap on transfer credits for UConn students. (The five top feeder colleges for transfer credits to UConn are all community colleges within Connecticut.) The memo goes out of its way to label community college courses as “easier and cheaper” than the UConn courses for which students substitute them. The same memo refers, revealingly, to “aspirant institutions” for comparison, naming Northwestern and Duke specifically, and making the point that those “aspirant institutions” allow fewer transfer credits than UConn.The ownership shouldn't matter. Connecticut is in the same business as Northwestern and Duke; it recruits athletic coaches against Northwestern and Duke and those coaches recruit athletes against Northwestern and Duke.
The memo does not mention that Northwestern and Duke are private, and UConn is public.
Don't Connecticut students deserve the same intellectual challenges as those at Northwestern and Duke? Don't faculty members deserve the same working conditions? Perhaps the transfer policy is the wrong place to begin strengthening the academics, but let's not fall into the trap of we-can't-compete-with-Northwestern-so-let's-not-bother. I'm not sure what the current state of Connecticut's economics department is, but building one comparable with Ohio State or Minnesota is little different from building one comparable with Northwestern or Duke.
Perhaps doing so will solve some of the problems of retention and completion that trouble too many college administrators, and it has the potential to improve faculty morale. In the comments to Dean Dad's post is link to a recent Pro Publica interview with recently retired Miami of Ohio president James Garland. Miami took steps to raise its profile, which involved making tradeoffs.
The fact that we did have selective admissions with high-ability students meant we were not burdened with the problems of having many poorly prepared students. That steered us more in the direction of the mission of a private university.I'm not sure when the function of a state-funded university became institution of last resort for anybody. Years ago, the state university systems of Wisconsin provided sufficient space somewhere for any Wisconsin resident who finished in the top half of his or her high school class. The universities made their entrance requirements clear, and if freshman courses functioned as weeders, so be it. The president notes that competition in amenities might be an arms race that erodes academic standards. Fine. Be selective and don't worry so much about the amenities. At the margin, does the presence of a climbing wall in the exercise center affect enrollments at MIT or Caltech or Chicago?
We were able to focus more on students who had a fairly narrow range of academic qualifications, and so that meant that we didn’t have to have remedial programs or have a lot of courses at different levels for students with different backgrounds or levels of preparation. That was much more private-like than public-like in terms of mission.
In his concluding observations, though, Mr Garland fails to get to the root causes of the public universities' difficulties. First, he notes the tension between serving an upscale population and achieving diversity, as it is currently understood.
The problem that we had was we had this reputation as a tony, upper-middle class school. Part of the problem we had was the sense that there would be a kind of socio-cultural mismatch -- that low-income students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds would come and would feel uncomfortable because it was all upper-middle class kids from the suburbs. We spent a lot of money trying to make ourselves more hospitable for students from minority backgrounds or disadvantaged backgrounds. Our challenge was more of a cultural challenge than an economic challenge.There's a hodge-podge of points for you. A private university with more money to spend polishing diamonds in the rough gets a more diverse campus. The student who benefits from the additional resources might have a better life. A Miami that tries to be just like every other mid-major produces neither, as he notes.
The other problem we had was that we had selective admissions. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds tended to have low SAT scores and come from second- and third-tier high schools and they lacked the rigorous high-school training. There was a general feeling that the really well qualified minority students or the disadvantaged students who had competitive academic credentials would basically get picked off by private universities that had more money to spend.
I think there’s a crisis in higher education. I think it’s a very severe crisis.Yes, and the Miami model, or an optimistic interpretation of what Connecticut is doing, is that additional capacity that matches the academic profiles of the most selective publics produces additional opportunities -- and bargains -- for those segments of the population, and it might improve faculty morale. In 35 years in this calling, I do not recall a colleague ever griping about a bright student or chastising a class for working too hard.
I see a large majority of public universities, the non-flagships, are sort of living hand-to-mouth right now. And they live off their meager state appropriations and their physical plants are getting run down and their faculty are discouraged. I don’t think they’re fulfilling the kind of opportunities that Americans expect from their colleges and universities.
At the other end of public spectrum, the selective publics are just getting more and more and more expensive. And they’re pricing out large segments of the American population.