Monday, May 20, 2013

Graduation Rates and the Bottleneck Myth

One of the main questions presented at the last UC regents meeting was why do only 60% of UC students graduate in four years. While President Yudof celebrated this rate, Governor Brown was not very pleased, and both men indicated that online education may be the solution to the problem. However, what should be clear is that the university needs to do a comprehensive study to determine the main causes for the different graduation rates on the various campuses.

In my interviews with students, I have found that the biggest reasons for a delay in graduation is that students switch majors, they fail out of courses, they cannot get required courses, they do not qualify for their intended majors, they have to work to pay for their living expenses, they do not think there are any jobs for them after graduation, they pursue double majors, they do not receive adequate advising, they have medical problems and personal issues. Students also complain about the number of requirements for certain majors and their dislike of large lecture classes. A comprehensive survey of the UC system would help to determine what is really happening on a local level.

Another important aspect of this problem is the question of how much money individual campuses dedicate to undergraduate instruction. UCOP has reported on the increase in classes and the decrease in faculty relative to the number of students, but it is still unclear what has caused these changes. After all, during the last five years, while the state did reduce the UC budget by $1 billion, total tuition revenue went up by over $1.2 billion. It would seem that as students pay more for their education, they would get more support and smaller classes instead of less support and larger classes, but as this blog has stressed, the university continues to use undergraduate funds to subsidize many other university functions.

Since President Yudof claims that tuition increases have only covered 38% of state reductions, he has opened the door for the state to argue that tuition can be frozen for the next four years. Once again manipulated budget numbers are coming back to bite the UC. If the UC had instead stated the truth that tuition dollars have outpaced state reductions, it would have been much harder for the governor and the legislature to simply tell the UC to stop raising tuition. While I am not calling for a tuition increase, I am arguing that false and misleading budgetary numbers always seem to backfire on the UC.

38 comments:

  1. So true--let's simplify the problem to death and then use that to ram through the cuts we want to justify.
    I wonder whether the biannual UC Undergrad Experience Survey addresses the questions you raise about reasons for graduation "delays"--it does student satisfaction:
    http://studentsurvey.universityofcalifornia.edu/.
    It is possible to get new question put into that survey.

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  2. I agree with your post but not your headline. It is absolutely true that we don't have definitive data on bottleneck courses and that, like many other aspects of university health and performance, it makes a lot of sense to put more effort into getting better data (hard though it may be). But it doesn't follow that bottleneck courses are a myth--and that's not really what you say in your post.

    I'd like to see some consensus-building on all sides that time-to-graduation is a topic that deserves some focus, urgency, funding, and re-prioritization. Sure, it's true that some students take longer to graduate because they choose to, or because of personal reasons that the university can do nothing about. But to the degree that students are taking longer because they can't get into bottleneck courses, are getting inadequate advising, or some other preventable cause, all sides should be motivated to come together on this. How best to do it is a subject of legitimate debate. And it's fair to demand an effort to get hard data. But this is not just a numbers issue. Students who are admitted to California colleges and universities should have a right to access to the education that they pay for and that they have been promised.

    Framing the issue as a right has far-reaching implications that can push both governments and schools into accountability. For an example, look into the history of the lawsuit Robinson v Cahill in the state of New Jersey. Granted, nobody is talking about a state constitutional amendment in California at the moment, but I think the precedent is still instructive in terms of how focusing on student rights can have far-reaching implications and change incentives across the board.

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