Jul 5th, 2005 @ 8:27 am | Author: By Ellen-Earle Chaffee
The PBS program Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, aired last week, irresponsibly criticizes all of higher education primarily for these issues: large classes, lack of motivation among students, excessive student drinking, faculty who are rewarded for publishing not teaching, and limited teaching innovations. These issues are largely untrue for VCSU and probably a great many other institutions. Instead, critics should invite the public to measure their college of interest by these or other problem yardsticks and work together to resolve problems where they find them.

For the record, a "large" class at VCSU would have about 50 students. At some schools (few if any of them in North Dakota), classes of 100-500 are commonplace. Our classes are often limited to 15-25 students, depending on how much individual attention the subject matter requires. A composition class, for example, requires more individual attention from the professor than most history classes. Students here get personal attention not only from smaller class sizes but also, in nearly all cases, from full-time members of the faculty, not graduate students.

As for valuing publishing over teaching, the opposite is true here. Publishing is not required in faculty evaluation at VCSU, but teaching evaluations are significant factors. Furthermore, VCSU receives national awards for teaching innovations, so the charge of limited innovation also does not apply to us.

VCSU faculty and staff work hard to inspire student motivation and to help them with the transition to adulthood without excessive drinking. Nevertheless, whether it is fair to criticize colleges for too little student motivation and too much drinking is a matter of opinion. What would these students be like if they were not attending college? Would their families or employers be blamed for such behavior? If not, why should their colleges be held responsible?

On the plus side, small colleges provide more narrow pathways for students than many large colleges can provide. Faculty members notice and often address student absence from class or performance slippage because they know and care about students as individuals. It is hard to fall between the cracks here.

Criticisms of higher education in general rarely work because higher education is so wonderfully diverse. Higher education comes in hundreds of different forms, based on factors like size, control (public, private, for-profit), religious/secular, degree type (research, comprehensive, baccalaureate, and two-year, among others), selectivity, and geography. Painting the entire enterprise with the same brush simply does not work.

In the PBS program, some students are quoted as saying that their college experience is no more demanding than high school, while others complain about "sink or swim" conditions. The students have opposite opinions because they are at different institutions and very likely have different abilities. These are not blanket criticisms that apply to all 3,300 American campuses.

Moreover, the program press release states that large lecture classes have become the norm at "most" institutions. Given the large number of small campuses and the instructional innovations that are beginning to permeate all campuses, I would be astonished if they can document that their claim is true. Lecture mode has been systematically declining at VCSU for well over a decade.

The program, its associated book, and other materials are getting an astonishing level of attention nationally. While neither higher education nor any single institution is perfect, you can rest assured that your university is a shining example of exceptions to this program's "rules."