|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, June 28, 2004
Chronicle of Higher Education 7-2-04
Opinion: Today, Even B Students Are Getting Squeezed Out
A new wave of students moving through the nation's high schools promises to place unprecedented stress on America's colleges and universities. We have seen other periods of rapid growth since World War II -- with the GI Bill and the baby boom -- but this is not just another surge, it's a tsunami.
The number of high-school graduates expected in 2007 will be the largest in the nation's history. Based on current participation rates, 2.6 million more undergraduate students -- a total of about 16 million -- will be enrolled in college by 2015. If immigration continues to rise, if public-school reform and the No Child Left Behind legislation help more students prepare for college, and if college is made more affordable for low-income families, the number of students seeking college degrees could be higher still.
This tsunami will pit a lot of well-prepared students against one another as they vie for acceptance by selective public universities that can't increase their enrollments because of cutbacks in state support. Already, in states like Washington and Virginia, high-school graduates with solid B averages are hard pressed to get into most public universities. The University of California has had to turn away more than 5,700 students who normally would have been eligible to start next fall; they will instead have to wait to transfer after attending community colleges. That is a radical departure from California's master plan, which has guaranteed admission to any university in the state system to the top one-eighth of the state's high-school graduates.
In the past, with each enrollment surge, college officials complained that they couldn't afford to expand enrollments and that, without more state support, greater numbers of students would dilute a poorly defined attribute called "quality." Nevertheless public universities reluctantly accommodated more students.
But that response has changed. In 1997 the Council for Aid to Education called attention to a "time bomb ticking under the nation's social and economic foundations." The council's report, "Breaking the Social Contract," put the problem in stark terms: "At a time when the level of education needed for productive employment is increasing, the opportunity to go to college will be denied to millions of Americans unless sweeping changes are made to control costs, halt sharp increases in tuition, and increase other sources of revenue." The report got it right, but, unfortunately, few people were listening.
If anything, the situation has worsened. State governments must now cope with revenue shortfalls or historic deficits brought about by tax cuts, a recession, and nonfinanced mandates passed down from Washington. Even though the economy appears to be recovering, states have far fewer resources than even seven years ago to support higher education and expand capacity. So more high-school students with good records are competing for the same number of slots at public flagship universities. In a recent article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, William D. Marler, president of Washington State University's Board of Regents, said, "We are headed into a situation where we're using the blunt instrument of GPA's and SAT's to deny admissions at a time when more people are wanting in and more need more education."
The financially poor and educationally disadvantaged probably will be the major victims. But the real political train wreck will occur as well-prepared, solid but unspectacular middle-income students increasingly discover that there's no room for them at selective public institutions. Their parents vote and contribute to political campaigns. They have invested time, money, and emotional energy to ensure that their kids have a shot at their state's flagship university. They're going to be angry.
Mary Chapman, head of college counseling at St. Catherine's School, an elite preparatory school for girls in Richmond, Va., already sees the results of the collision between demand and capacity. "We have parents who say, 'Our daughter is getting top grades in all the right courses at a prestigious school. She plays sports and is involved in the right extracurricular activities. Her SAT's are 1350. What do you mean she might not get into the University of Virginia?'" Wonders Chapman: "Where will the 'B' students go?"
Moreover, as it becomes harder to get into prestigious colleges, other institutions are ratcheting up their standards of admission. Colleges belong to one of the few industries (along with country clubs and fancy restaurants) in which a key measure of quality is how many customers they turn away. The ripples from the competition for spaces in the elites affect admission decisions at almost all colleges.
Growing numbers of out-of-state students heighten the competition. One university business officer tells of going to his board with a budget and being sent back to come up with revised revenue figures that included many more students from other states. Why? Because out-of-state students pay about three times the tuition that in-state students pay. The logic is impeccable -- and disastrous for in-state students.
The middle class has figured out what's going on before the poor -- not surprisingly because they are better educated and informed. As the capacity crunch intensifies, pressure from middle-income families will continue to build, and those families will become even more competitive for slots. The result: Politicians and academic administrators will overlook many bright, but poor and less well-prepared, young people -- the ones who don't know how to get into college or even why they should bother.
Those students need opportunities to acquire marketable skills and knowledge, and we need them in the work force. Yet given the current economic scenario, what can colleges and universities do?
In testimony before Congress, William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, sought to dispel the mistaken notion that public institutions have made up their losses in state revenue by huge increases in tuition. "We had a $200-million hole in our budget," Kirwan said. "We covered $75-million of that with tuition. We ate $125-million. Our faculty and staff haven't had a raise in two and a half years."
Of course, Kirwan is right: Most colleges have not made up losses in state appropriations through increased tuition. Most are trying just to stay afloat and, as they now operate, can't cut much more.
But colleges could cut costs substantially by changing the way they do their work. They could focus their spending on providing access and helping students complete programs of study. How? By considering different approaches that, while offering educational benefits, also increase institutional capacity and faculty productivity, and allow students to take the courses they need to obtain their degrees faster and at less expense. Those approaches include:
Three terms in the annual calendar. Colleges should require students to enroll in at least two summer terms to obtain their degrees -- an idea that is being tried by several campuses of the California State University System, the nation's largest. They should also encourage students to spend at least one term abroad or in an internship relevant to their majors.
Three-year baccalaureate degrees. Many British colleges successfully offer three-year degrees, and we should follow that example in the United States. Improvements in high-school curricula and performance standards could permit the 12th grade to be used to prepare students for the transition to postsecondary education. For example, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner has proposed letting high-school seniors earn a full semester's worth of college credit toward a degree.
A more-standardized curriculum. More than half of all college freshmen and sophomores are enrolled in the same 25 or 30 courses, like introductory math, English, and psychology. Individual colleges or entire systems should standardize those courses -- their design, teaching, tutoring, and student assessment -- freeing faculty members to serve as mentors and advisers.
More computer-based teaching and learning. Initiatives like the "Math Emporium" at Virginia Tech have shown that student learning can improve using self-paced, computer-based courses. That approach doesn't work for every subject and does not solve the problem of poor and place-bound students in underserved regions of a state. High tech must be accompanied by high touch. But it does work when students have good computer access, support, and motivation. It is particularly helpful for older students who have clear educational objectives. Kentucky's Virtual University, which opened in 1999 with 235 students, now has more than 16,000.
Resource sharing and collaboration. Common storage facilities for library materials with limited circulation can relieve pressure on crowded buildings. Purchasing pools for library books and periodicals, janitorial supplies, communication networks, and other services can increase colleges' buying power in the marketplace -- making more money available for faculty salaries, instructional and research equipment, and other student needs. Shared faculty appointments, fairly common at private colleges but more rare at public institutions, can make it possible to teach specialized subjects for which demand is low (some graduate and advanced physics courses, for instance). There are many other examples of how pooling resources can help colleges offer greater access to more students.
At a workshop last year sponsored by the National Governors Association, Jorge Klor de Alva, chairman of Apollo International, expressed alarm about the plight of the nation's public universities. Pointing to his alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, he said he was distressed by the institution's perceived loss of standing as a major research university as a result of declining public support for its operations. "This is an American tragedy," he said.
Berkeley's slippage, if real, is unfortunate. But the real tragedy is not the decline of institutions, even great ones. The real tragedy may be the failure of America to provide the educational opportunities all its citizens need to flourish. Ironically, the anger of middle-class parents over their privileged children's lack of access to the college they want to attend may be the only political force that can trigger change within higher education.
Gordon Davies is a senior adviser to the Education Commission of the States. He has been president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and executive director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
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