A Wasted Educational Crisis

by Bruce Thornton

Pope Center Commentaries

As former White House Chief of Staff and now Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel famously said, “You never want to let a serious crisis to go to waste.” The economic Armageddon facing the country’s largest state university system, the 23-campus California State University, undoubtedly qualifies as a serious crisis.

This year’s budget for the system reduces funding by $750 million — assuming voters in November pass tax-hike initiatives. If they don’t pass them, Cal State will be hit with an additional $200 million reduction. Over the past four years, Cal State has seen its budget decrease 33%. That represents a loss of almost $1 billion and drops funding to the same level as 1996 — but with 90,000 more students.

The various solutions to this funding crisis include pay cuts for faculty and staff, tuition hikes for students, and reductions in admissions. Under current plans 20,000-25,000 fewer students will be admitted for the 2013-14 academic year. But those stopgap measures fail to consider the opportunity provided by this crisis — rethinking what we have allowed the university to become, and restoring it to its legitimate function.

For example, being compelled to reduce enrollments gives us an opportunity to restore higher standards for admission. Such an adjustment is desperately needed. Over the years, admission standards have dropped precipitously, creating a student body that on the whole is woefully unprepared for university level work.

At my university, Fresno State, a GPA of 3.00 is good enough for admission, but in an age of rampant high school grade inflation that excludes only the weakest of students. We also admit students with SAT scores as low as 1350, putting them in the 33rd percentile. With such low standards, it should not be surprising that over half of the incoming students require remedial courses in math and English. And these numbers don’t take into account transfer students, most of whom come from community colleges with very questionable degrees of rigor and quality.

Over the last few years of budget cutbacks, however, it is apparent in my classes that the university has not had restored higher standards, or met enrollment reductions by selecting more qualified students.

On the contrary, the average student is even less prepared for university work than those a decade ago, lacking the study skills or foundational knowledge necessary for making the transition from high school to university. Several factors account for this decline.

One is the culture-wide assumption that attendance at a university is a human right that should be available to all. This trend accounts for the obsession with increasing student populations evident across the country, which of course requires lowering standards, not to mention more money.
Second, “diversity” requirements put pressure on admissions officials to keep minority numbers high. In California, that means increasing the number of Hispanic students, which are now nearly half the student population at Fresno State. Of course, if there are insufficient numbers of qualified Hispanic applicants, admissions officials will not risk assault from the diversity police by allowing that cohort’s numbers drop. They will instead admit students whether they are qualified or not.

Another area where budget straits provide an opportunity for change is the romance with technology.

Having created the problem of underperforming students, high dropout rates, and excessive time taken to graduate, most American universities have invested in expensive technologies as the solution to these problems.

A whole division on my campus called Technology Innovations in Learning and Teaching (TILT) exists to “provide faculty with tools to help improve teaching and learning through technology. TILT provides faculty professional development, technology training, support and development of academic uses of technology,” according to its mission statement.

But the equipment needed to create so-called “smart classrooms,” with internet connections, “smart” blackboards, and overhead projectors, and the support services for faculty learning to use these and other technologies, costs a lot of money. Just the bulbs for the projectors — which frequently burn out because instructors forget to turn the projectors off — cost around $200 each. Fresno State spent over $2 million in 2011-2012 on TILT, even while classes were being cancelled, adjunct faculty laid off, and retiring faculty not replaced.

Yet there is no evidence that all this money improves student performance, which continues to decline. As the New York Times reported last year, “Schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.”

The reason why is obvious: students who can’t read or who lack thinking skills and fundamental knowledge will not be helped by any technology yet devised. Indeed, the foundations of the modern world were laid by people who had been educated the old-fashioned way, with nothing more than books, desks, blackboards, and chalk.

Finally, the transformation of the university into a social-welfare agency whose purpose is to promote “social justice” and suspect ideologies like “diversity” has diverted funds from the core mission of transmitting basic skills and information, creating critical thinkers, and exposing young citizens to the “best that has been said and thought” in Western civilization. Admitting unqualified students has required spending millions not just on remedial courses, but also on tutors, labs, and numerous programs to compensate for these students’ lack of preparation.

And don’t forget the millions spent on diversity compliance functionaries, sexual harassment police, and many other offices pursuing political and ideological aims that have little to do with a traditional university education. This metastasizing bureaucracy costs money that should be used on classroom instruction, but officials in California treat all that bureaucracy as a sacred cow.

With money for higher education becoming more and more scarce, universities — in California and elsewhere — could find adequate funding by restoring admissions standards, abandoning expensive but marginally useful pedagogical technology, and eliminating therapeutic social welfare programs that have nothing to do with educating students but merely promote a political agenda.

In other words, return university education to its traditional role, and money won’t be a problem even in economic hard times. But I’m afraid that the political power of the education industry will make sure that the current crisis does go to waste.

©2012 Bruce S. Thornton

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