Thursday, May 29, 2014

UCSB, Tragedy, and College Culture

I have had a hard time writing on this blog because I do not want to strike the wrong tone or appear insensitive.  The recent deaths of several students has created a strange vibe on campus: people do not know if they should return to business as usual or mourn and think through a radical break in normalcy.  As an educator, my first inclination is try to turn this “senseless” act into a learning moment; however, people are saying that it is too soon to learn anything, and we should take some time to respect the dead. 

Throughout the quarter, I have been discussing with my Social Science Writing courses the relation between higher education and popular culture.  One theme has been how media depictions of class, race, and sexuality affect the lives of students inside and outside of the classroom.  We have looked at the social science findings in the book Paying for the Party, and students have done on the ground research on why students do not graduate in four years and what students think about online education.  We have found that most students think they will graduate on time until something unexpected happens.  These unanticipated events range from failing a course in their intended major or a loss of family finances or a personal health issue or a romantic breakup.  Moreover, students report that they would like to try taking an online course, but they do not want to lose the experience of sitting in a classroom together, and they do not think that online classes will help people graduate at a faster rate.  Also, students are willing to experiment with online classes for convenience sake, but they still desire a sense of classroom community.

After the murder of six fellow students, all UCSB students are dealing with the unanticipated, and many are having a hard time focusing on their studies.  Several students have also protested the role of the media in feeding off of human tragedy and giving the killer more exposure.  There is also a debate going on of whether Roger’s views were just the product of a psychotic mind or did his ideas reflect some truths about sexuality inside and outside of college.  Since my class has been discussing the role of sexual hierarchies and stereotypes in contemporary media, it is hard to escape the observation that many college going males and females have bought into a sexual hierarchy that victimizes women, even if women “freely” chose to participate in the culture. 

During a time when the responses of colleges and universities to sexual assault has become a national issue, we have to ask what role our institutions of higher education have in the social lives of their students.  We also need to have more courses that deal directly with the relation between higher education, peer culture, and the media. 

Let’s hope we can learn something from this senseless tragedy.   

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

UC Bait and Switch Part Two

In my last post, I discussed how UC was fulfilling its obligation to accept every eligible Californian student by admitting them to Merced instead of Berkeley and UCLA. I also pointed out that some campuses are cashing in on the new policy that allows schools to keep all of the tuition dollars they generate.  The end result of this system is that some campuses have a huge incentive to accept a high number of non-resident and international students and reject a great number of students from California.
During recent meetings with state officials, I warned that we will see a backlash from Californian residents who feel that their deserving children are being shut out of an institution the parents have helped to support, and in fact, there has been a constant stream of editorials and letters voicing this concern.  In one recent article, we are told the following:   “As more California high school seniors fight for spaces at popular UC campuses, the universities have flung open their doors to students from other states and countries, more than tripling the ranks of out-of-state freshmen in the past five years. Freshmen from outside the Golden State now make up almost 30 percent of their class at UC Berkeley and UCLA, up from just over 10 percent four years earlier.”
When I presented these statistics to state officials, I was told that the implicit arrangement was that UC had to maintain its current number of in-state students even though the governor has removed enrollment targets from his recent budgets. However, recent statistics so that it is unclear if this deal is being upheld: “The UC system enrolled about 700 more California freshmen in 2013 than in 2009, a 2 percent increase, and nearly 5,000 more freshmen from other states and countries -- a 273 percent increase. About 57 percent of the added spots went to international students, and 30 percent to students from other states, while about 12 percent went to Californians. UC Berkeley enrolled 800 fewer California freshmen this academic year than in 2009, but it accepted about 580 more from other states and about 500 more from other countries.” Although we still do not know about actual enrollments, it should be clear that UC has changed its admission priorities.
Some will argue that the increase in high-paying non-resident and international students is the price the state should pay for its divestment in higher education, and while this is partially true, we have ask how is this change in the student body going to affect the campuses.  In particular, as UC accepts more non-resident students, it brings in more students who come from wealthy families.  According to the book, Paying for the Party, one effect of state schools increasing their number of wealthy out-of-state students is that the entire campus culture is reshaped by class hierarchies.  In this type of transition, all students have to decide if they want to pursue the party pathway controlled mostly by rich students or focus on the mobility and professional pathways that are still influenced by wealth and  social sorting.  Moreover, in order to attract these out-of-state wealthy students, schools have to feed the party pathway by providing easy majors and a vast array of expensive facilities and activities. 
The reputation of some universities as party schools then is not an unfortunate side-effect of contemporary college life; rather, it is in part a response to decreased state funds and the need for public universities to attract wealthy non-resident students.  Furthermore, universities have convinced themselves that it is easier to please students outside of the classroom than inside, and so they have an incentive to recruit wealthy out-of-state students who are attracted by a school’s reputation for partying and spending on extracurricular activities.  
Another side effect of catering to wealthy non-resident students is that all of the students have to pay more and often go into debt to finance the increased costs of housing, dining, and extracurricular activities.  An increase in rich non-resident students may also help to fuel the need for expensive athletic programs and a problematic Greek system, which enhances issues related to binge drinking and sexual assault.   
The irony is that in order to compete for more wealthy non-resident students, campuses have to increase their spending on non-instructional activities in order to turn their schools into country clubs.  The end result is that instruction and learning become a low priority, and thus institutions of higher education are no longer mainly about education; rather, they become systems to enhance wealth and class inequality.