Scott Martindale’s article “UCI faculty: Quality eroding as class sizes swell,” in The Orange County Register does a good job at showing how recent budget cuts are hurting the instructional quality in the UC and CSU systems. The central claim made is that as students pay more, they end up getting less: “Tuition has soared at the University of California and Cal State systems in recent years, but not by enough to offset deep state cuts. The universities have responded with some creative ideas, but the solutions haven’t staved off fundamental changes in how students are educated and in the quality they can expect from their ever-pricier education.’’
In order to explore how educational quality is being affected by budget cuts, this article focused on specific classes and professors. For example, it points out that, “Instead of two teaching assistants for a class of about 50 students, UC Irvine professor Mark LeVine now gets one.” The article continues by pointing out that not only are there now more students per graduate student assistant, but many small, interactive classes have disappeared: “Instead of being able to lead intimate seminar classes of just a dozen or so, LeVine is under pressure to teach more large, lecture-style classes.” In the push to get professors to teach more students for less money, students are paying more to get a reduced educational experience.
In fact, the move to larger classes staffed with fewer graduate assistants means that, “Instead of assigning multiple, full-length research papers throughout the quarter, the history professor has modified class assignments for his students so they're easier and quicker to grade.” These changes have a profound effect on how and what students are taught, and they also work to diminish important critical thinking and communication skills. According to LeVine, "We're forced to really lower our demands so that we can actually get through all the work in terms of grading.” This statement is a profound indictment of how educational quality is being downgraded as undergraduate students pay more and go into greater debt to fund their education.
For LeVine, this sacrifice of educational quality defines the fundamental crisis at our nation’s universities: "The whole idea in the humanities is to take seminars of 12 or 14 students, where we teach them to think critically, where we really create the scholars and doctors and lawyers. We can't do nearly as many seminars because even 20 students isn't cutting it anymore. ... We're talking about a university that is undergoing a profound crisis." As I have previously pointed out, the only reason why universities are able to charge more as they deliver an inferior educational experience is that no one seems to monitor the quality of undergraduate instruction at American research universities.
While most students and parents rely on U.S. News & World Report to determine the quality of our universities, this ranking system does not even attempt to judge the level of student learning or the quality of teaching at these institutions. The result is that universities, like UCI, can continue to claim that they are excellent institutions, while they essentially rob their undergraduate instructional budgets to subsidize professional schools, administration, and non-departmental research. Moreover, accreditors turn a blind eye to questions of educational quality as many administrators refuse to hold university budgets accountable to the undergraduate instructional mission.
My research has shown that while universities know that small classes are often the key to effective education, they have moved to large classes in order to save money. However, large classes can end up being more expensive than small classes once you factor in the full cost of having graduate students teach the small sections attached to the large lecture classes. Of course universities never realize or admit this point, and instead, the OC Register tells us that professors are agreeing to teach large classes now so that they can fund their graduate students: “And tenured professors are increasingly agreeing to teach the classes. It's the only way to financially justify the continued existence of some of the university's smaller but respected academic programs and departments, professors say, and the only way to get desperately needed TAs.” According to this logic, professors accept the expansion of class sizes and the downgrading of educational quality because they want to provide jobs for their graduate students. In turn, the use of graduate students increases the cost of the large classes, and so we must ask, why do professors accept this crazy situation.
Of course, professors need to attract graduate students and give them jobs as section leaders in order to insure that their graduate programs stay alive and there are students for the small graduate seminars that professors prefer to teach. However, these same programs must realize that half of their doctoral students will never earn their degrees, and half of the graduate students who do get doctorates in the humanities and social sciences will never get tenure-track jobs, and half of the one’s who will get tenurable positions will not end up at a research university. In other words, the vast majority of graduate student instructors are actually low-paid, part-time faculty who help to drive up the cost of undergraduate education as they unknowingly participate in their own future unemployment.
As the OC article documents, many of these graduate instructors are now forced to teach more students, and this increase in class size results in cutting corners and delivering an inferior education: “Tetsuro Namba, an UC Irvine undergraduate writing TA for the past three years, has watched student-to-TA ratios go up in many academic departments. In his writing classes, capped at 21 the first quarter and 23 afterward, he's fearful of the same trend. His classes are already too large for him to be as effective as he could be, he says. "I definitely know I have shortchanged giving my students feedback just because I didn't have time," said Namba, 28, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in comparative literature. "I really wish the classes were smaller. As class sizes get bigger, the quality of education goes down because the instructor can't help them as much."” Once again, students are paying more and getting less, as graduate students have to work more to provide decreased instructional quality.
Meanwhile, services related to helping students succeed in their classes have been reduced: “Students also lament that library hours were temporarily shortened in 2009 because of budget cuts, and that a campus peer tutoring program – the Learning and Academic Resource Center, which provides help to students in small group settings – was pared down dramatically, offering help in fewer courses.” This reduction in library hours and peer support has been going on for years, but recently, the speed of service reduction has increased.
It should be clear from the picture of education drawn here that something is radically wrong with the priorities of our research universities.