Lost at the U

Most college students attend large, impersonal state universities that let them sink, drink or swim. In Survival of the Fittest, the New York Times profiles four students and one ex-student at University of Arizona. The “Boozeday” boy will get the most attention, but I was struck by the girl who got a “C” in a class even though she’d stopped attending in mid-semester and never took the final.

Students say it’s easy to pass without doing much work, yet only 55 percent of University of Arizona students earn a degree in six years; the national average is 54 percent.

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  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    “Most college students attend large, impersonal state universities that let them sink, drink or swim.” How large does a college have to be to count as impersonal?

    The cited NY Times article says that more than five million undergraduates attend an institution with over 15,000 students. According to the US Census, in 2000 there were over sixteen million college students, so that leaves over two-thirds who don’t attend colleges with over 15,000 students.

  2. I’m a graduate of a large Midwestern university and I’d say college is exactly as personal as you make it. If you want to hang out in the back row and avoid personal contact, you can. If you want to show up for the Prof’s office hours a few times to get to know him or her, you can do that too.

    There are no impersonal universities, only impersonal students.

  3. “There are no impersonal universities, only impersonal students.”

    I agree, but it also depends on the department you’re in. I went to the U. of Michigan and got two masters degrees in engineering. One department was sterile with little student/professor interaction and the other one was quite different. We had a central study/work area surrounded by the professors’ offices. It was quite nice. We would have cookouts and lots of interaction – socially and technically. They did not let the students sink or swim; they did what they could to help.

    Also, college towns that aren’t dominated by the college are nice in that you can meet people and develop interests outside of the college. This is important if you are planning to live there all year.

    In later years, I had the opportunity to teach at a small private college where most everyone went home on weekends. I had plenty of office hours and was willing to spend time to help students. Very few came. Students sank. Student support works both ways and the best support is local (in the department), not global (in some administrative office).

    Pick your college and department carefully, but what you get out depends on what you put in.

  4. “In a recent survey, education policy makers in 27 states said that financial support for higher education should be tied in some way to a university’s ability to keep and graduate its freshmen.”
    So we should dumb down courses further so that more people can pass them?

  5. Michelle Dulak Thomson says:

    Chris, I agree with you. I’d add that most professors I’ve known are thrilled when students seek them out after class or at office hours.

    Of course, they’re thrilled at least partly because it doesn’t happen very often. If every student in a large lecture course did the same, I imagine it would become a chore rather rapidly.

  6. Tom West says:

    I certainly prefer the “let them sink or swim” to the alternative, which is “only allow known swimmers on board”.

    Lots of students mature a little later, and quite frankly, “a good HS student” != “a good university student” (although there’s pretty good correlation).

    Besides, isn’t this just what’s being recommended for high schools now? Now it’s supposed to be if you don’t do the work, you don’t get the degree.

  7. Did anyone notice this line in the article? It’s a quote by the girl who somehow got a C:

    “at Pima I was in the majority, but here, walking around and seeing so many blue-eyed, blond-haired people was a huge shock … It made it hard to be comfortable.”

    That’s a new one: ethnodiscomfort as an excuse for poor performance.

    I’ve been in her shoes. I’ve freaked at being surrounded by SO MANY white people at a new school (my old school was majority-Asian). But I didn’t let that get me down.

    She eventually got her act together, but her current homework load sounds a bit too easy:

    “… she says that no matter how many courses she has on her schedule – or how many hours she spends at her part-time job at Pima County Community Services (now 8 a week, down from 25) – she has spent only an hour a night on homework.”

    What do you think?

  8. “What do you think?”

    I think that graduation rate needs to be somewhat lower for this population of students.

  9. “Somewhat”? How about a whole lot?

    Martinez would have flunked under my policies when I was a professor:


    And I consider myself an easy grader. Lots of my students got As. But quite a few also flunked or got other poor grades. Not many performed somewhere in between.

  10. For KimJ: One of the horrible, Hobson’s choices we are dealing with in my department are two adminstrative mandates:

    first, up the retention percentage

    second, make the courses more rigorous, so the assessment test scores come up.

    Most of the folks (myself included) tend to come down on the “more rigorous” end. But it’s hard to know what to do when you’re kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. (The real problem is that they pretty much let anyone in here who has a pulse and either the ability to pay or the ability to get student aid.)

    I don’t know. I do think that university tends to be what the student makes it. I teach at a very small school and know the names of all my students (well, at least the ones who come to class). The ones I know WELL are the ones who speak up in class or who come to my office. It’s not my job to track down (stalk?) the reticent or shy or unconcerned students and engage them in conversation outside of class. (I suspect if faculty started doing that – calling students at home, or grabbing them after class and making them come to their offices just to chat, there’d be some kind of privacy-invasion hue and cry).

    Also, I’m kind of shocked that a student was able to get a C without taking the final. I’ve had even A students tank because they skipped my final…I guess it’s all in how you weight the various components of the class.

  11. My father taught for thirty years at a community college, which got a lot of kids with high school records that would keep them out of any college with actual entrance standards. He maintained high grading standards, and he never flunked a student that was willing to work and willing to ask for help. But he spent a lot of time working with students outside of class hours.


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