Monday, July 20, 2009

Is the college experience built backwards?

Today's Inside Higher Ed features an article titled "Bucking Conventional Wisdom on College Costs," by Dennis Jones, president of NCHEMS and Jane Wellman from the Delta Project on Higher Education Costs. It is a good piece--attentive to cost savings that come from efficiencies, aware that current educational models ensure ever-increasing costs, but determined to find ways to maintain quality while reducing costs.

The article lists a series of pieces of "conventional wisdom" on cost. Number 5 caught my eye. Jones and Wellman argue that the agreed-upon truth is that:

"Instructional costs rise by the level of the student taught – e.g., lower-division students are cheaper than upper-division students, graduate students are more expensive than undergraduates, and doctoral students who have been advanced to candidacy are the most expensive of all."

They suggest that this is not the case--that once you consider recruitment and other expenses, first-year students might actually cost the institution money. And, of course, there is lost revenue when first-year students quit after their first two semesters in college.

But where it is the case it is because first-year students require relatively little faculty time while upper-division and graduate students require much more. Consider class size--freshman classes are almost universally larger than upper division classes. (Freshmen seminars being the exception that proves the rule.) And junior faculty teach more first-year courses than do their more senior colleagues.

This arrangement--big first-year classes, small upper-division classes--is the classic "lower cost, lower quality" set-up. It is also educationally and developmentally incorrect. First-year students need closer contact with faculty and staff support. As they move through the curriculum, they need to become more independent, and can think and act at higher levels.

The problem suggests a solution. Switch ratios so that upper-division faculty are responsible for more, not fewer, students.

Of course, nothing good will come of this if upper-division faculty try to lecture their way through their courses. But if a campus is committed to students working cooperatively, then interesting things happen. Let's say faculty teaching first-year students are each responsible for 20 students. They form into four groups, and get close supervision, lots of feedback, good guidance on content, and strong mentoring. As students move through the curriculum, they stay in small groups, but their faculty supervise more of the groups. Let's say it is eight groups in the second year, twelve in the third, and sixteen in the fourth.

In this process, two things happen. First, faculty oversee more students, driving down costs to the institution, and potentially to the students. Second, those students are working more independently, judging the quality of content, making their own conclusions, etc--all prerequisites for work (and life) outside the halls of college.

Lest you think this is crazy, consider Aalborg University in Denmark--an institution that does much of what I suggest.


Peter said...

I am wondering about this and saying to myself that the costs are the same... Lets say it takes one junior faculty to teach 3 upper division courses and one senior faculty to teach 3 lower division courses. If this is the same relationship we used to have (but the faculty are in reverse) then we may end with more "quality" for the first year students. But wouldn't the overall cost remain the same?
The only savings I see might come about from retention rates increasing as a result of the senior faculty interacting (hopefully more effectively) with the first year students.
I am just not sure this addresses the cost issue.

gary said...

you are right, it only addresses the cost issue if it allows there to be fewer senior faculty (whose salaries are higher), or more students per faculty in the upper division, or a quicker passage through higher ed. Otherwise, the benefit would only be about learning and development. Not insignificant by themselves...