A proposal has surfaced to “punish” California state universities, including San Jose State where I teach, if they either (1) continue to raise tuition rates or (2) fail to raise their graduation rates. The punishment would take the form of reduced state support.
First of all, we taxpayers (including me; I’m a net tax payer) should rejoice at such “punishment” as it would lessen the burden on us. Taxpayers aside, how might the state universities respond to such punishment? On the fiscal side, they could recruit more out-of-state and foreign students who pay full freight. The UC campuses are already cutting admissions of in-state students in favor of out-of-state full payers – will UC eventually become UNC – University of Non-Californians? Furloughs are unlikely; they were tried once and didn’t work. They can’t cut salaries; there’s a faculty union. They’ll never cut out administrators. No, all bureaucracies, when forced to cut expenses, make cuts that are most painful to the public. Therefore, in addition to recruiting more full payers, they will cut classes.
What about graduation rates? They can’t raise admission standards because that would be “unfair” to racial minorities who are disproportionately ill-prepared for college work. They already have programs to try to coax students to study, with marginal results, and the obligatory special privileges for students with “learning disabilities.” It’s not clear what more could be done along those lines. No, I contend that the most humane policy for state universities would be to cut graduation rates. Here’s why.
It is indeed unfortunate that so many students, more than half at SJSU and other state universities, fail to graduate within six years. Those students have paid a big price in terms of money spent, debt incurred in many cases, and foregone income, with almost nothing to show for it. A bachelor’s degree from a state university, unless it’s in engineering, is worth little enough; two or three years of class work is worth nothing. Those who do make it all the way to the sheepskin gain a marginal advantage; their degree signals a certain amount of persistence. Their value to an employer remains uncertain; many, I fear, couldn’t be trusted with such simple tasks as reading with understanding, writing, doing simple calculations or, perish the thought, critical thinking.
All too many students who enter SJSU are ill-prepared and/or poorly motivated. Large numbers must take remedial math or English because they learned nothing in their public high schools. Many have little or no idea why they are there – some seem to view college as a way to delay their entry into responsible adulthood.
A good number surely have aptitudes for jobs that may require some specialized training, but not a college degree. I’m thinking of welders, hospitality workers (wait – you can get a B.A. in hospitality!), tile setters, carpenters, electricians, roofers, beauticians, nannies; the list goes on and on. What a tragedy that such students fall into the sinkhole (for them) that is a university campus.
Since admissions standards aren’t likely to be raised, the only humane thing to do is to get these students out the door as fast as possible. I expect to give a lot more D’s and F’s in my class this semester than I normally do, not because I’m pursuing any agenda but because they won’t have learned the material. Those students will be hurt, short term, but it’s the right thing for them, long term, especially if it hastens their exit from a university where they don’t belong.