THE BLOG
05/11/2011 03:41 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2011

We Need Higher Ed Uncut

What the U.S. really needs is higher ed uncut -- not various public universities down another $500 million next year on top of previous rounds of similar cuts. For the twenty years that I have been at the University of California, the system has steadily squeezed undergraduate instruction -- with the effect of herding students into huge lectures and relying on the testing of passively acquired knowledge because it couldn't, or wouldn't, spend its usually shrinking resources on the small scale forms of active learning in the tutorials and seminars that the world associates with U.S. higher education, because that kind of active learning-to-create happens at Harvard and Reed and Occidental and Stanford.

UC's nominal student-faculty ratio of 17:1 or 20.7:1 or whatever it is in a given chopping-block year has meant, in actual practice offering, one seminar of 20.7:1 to each major over the course of four years. What students are largely getting instead are 35-student courses that now have 70-80 students in them, 400-person lectures with one T.A. for every 100 students instead of for 50 or 25, and the near total absence of individual mentoring by a regular faculty member.

This latter is a special tragedy for all those public universities that do not take their students exclusively from the ranks of the top few percent of test takers on the international scale. This is, after all, the point of public higher education -- educating the full range of a society's talents, and not just the few who are so great at school that they benefit less from education than everyone else. Any mediocre country can create great educational systems for the top one to two percent. The secret of the U.S. and other dynamic countries was giving the best to the most -- broad access to top quality, which means intense, individualized attention and feedback to each and every student, especially when the student didn't get a 790 on their verbal SAT.

To their great credit, University of California campuses are comprised of up to nearly 1/3 of Pell-eligible students from families with incomes of less than $45,000 a year (UCLA's 30 percent is triple the elite Ivy League norm). Most of the rest of the student body is broadly middle-class, from California public high schools that no longer have courses for special interests in math or art or music or journalism, no longer have courses for the cultivation of the specific genius of people who will create the next economies and the next cultures.

The broad mass of public university students did not get piano lessons and one-on-one tutoring in Spanish and Mandarin, they have not had four years of shop plus mechanical and architectural drawing. Again, this is what we have public education for -- to get everyone to the level where their interests and visions deserve to be. These students have enormous intelligence and energy, and yet we are neglecting them. We are not doing this willingly. We have no choice. We do not have the people and time and infrastructure to bring everyone online in the global economy and world culture able to do all that they can do.

I say this on the basis of direct experience. Over the past three years, I have met several times one-on-one with each of over 350 students from nine UC campuses. These are students who have studied in France through UC's Education Abroad Program. My goal has been to orient them to another country's university system, but also to help them develop an individual academic project. Our students are brilliant at checking the boxes of their requirements as required courses get added and subtracted. They need to be, since signing up for classes means hitting a moving and shrinking target. These students generally know what their overall topic of interest is. They are also, as a group, completely inspiring, the most multilingual, international, multiracial, spontaneously democratic, and transformationally-oriented generation I have seen.

But what about the individual academic project that expresses their specific interests and their unique profile? What about the individual project that would allow them to write a statement of purpose to get into grad school or stand out among the 480 other applicants for an internship at UNESCO, or to apply for a job that will develop their talents? In about three-quarters of cases, I am the first senior faculty member with whom these students have had a sustained conversation. I estimate that 90 percent have had no faculty advising on their course of study. With continuous, catastrophic budget cuts, they are increasingly unable to get the more focused and advanced courses that would allow them to develop a true expertise in something before they graduate. Because finding these courses is now so hard, they have no incentive to develop an individual and special program of study that depends on them.

The bitter irony is that this system of deindividualized education is less functional than ever before. Large public universities took on the obligation of mass quality -- high quality for mass enrollments -- at a time when corporate America would hire intelligent but generically-trained college grads by the hundreds of thousands. These grads staffed gigantic multidivisional organizations, which John Kenneth Galbraith once called the "technostructure." These jobs required varying ratios of conformity and creativity, and UC graduates were its prototypical members: bright, cooperative, motivated, possessed of strong foundations for further specialist training through their college combination of a specific major laid on top of general education.

But the technostructure for which State U was preparing its brainy masses has largely disappeared. Since the 1990s, the corporate world has been applying 'knowledge management" to its workforce under various names. The goal of this practice is to find niche geniuses that invent new products which directly impact the bottom line, on whom the company will lavish great working conditions and pay, while squeezing the positions and pay of the broader white collar workforce, those millions of smart graduates who nonetheless are not "unique." (see Thomas A. Stewart, or my Unmaking the Public University, chapter 8.)

For this, among other reasons, elite universities are individualizing undergraduate study even more than they already have. As just one simple example, several years ago M.I.T. "replaced the traditional large introductory [physics] lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning." In doing so, M.I.T. reduced the course's failure rate by 50 percent.

Unfortunately, State U near you is headed in the opposite direction, towards massification and deindividuation. Lack of financial resources is the number one reason why.

In California, we need UC Uncut, and CSU Uncut, and the community colleges uncut. Accepting the $500 million cut, as UC officials appear to have done, betrays our responsibility to the current generation of California students. In nearly every state, the same betrayal of the next generation is taking place. In every state, it needs to be stopped.