Talk about a newspaper article that struck a nerve. Read: “At N.Y.U., Students Were Failing Organic Chemistry. Who Was to Blame?”
As the New York Times article explains, a former Princeton professor “defended his standards. But students started a petition and the university dismissed him.”
The article raises a lot of issues swirling around the more elite segments of higher education:
- Are academic standards diminishing?
- Are undergraduates becoming more demanding and even entitled?
- Are students’ study habits declining?
- Has a consumerist mentality among parents as well as students eroded professorial rigor and autonomy?
- Has the abolition of mandatory retirement resulted in faculty overstaying their welcome?
- Does the standard premed curriculum make sense?
- Is premed competitiveness out of hand?
- Are senior administrators more concerned about placating students and parents than defending rigor?
Read the comments and you’ll be struck by how this article functions as a kind of Rorschach test that reveals readers’ underlying views about universities and today’s college students.
Writes one reader, “This is part of the fallout of creating two generations of children that are told their success and self-worth is fully intertwined with their academic performance.”
One commenter, perhaps tongue in cheek, calls high standards “punitive, prejudiced and reactionary.”
More seriously, one reader writes:
“To those tempted to act like this is a problem of a younger generation: while you’re right to a degree, it’s not because Gen Z is ‘lazy’ or ‘entitled,’ but because they exist in an academic and professional pressure cooker—expensive educations, degrees that are increasingly meaningless, no prospects for those who drop out—which is very different than it once was.”
What striking in this case is how poorly NYU appears to have handled this matter. Why didn’t the university find a way to help the professor retire with dignity? But, then, this incident exposes something rotten in the academic class system. Because the chemistry professor wasn’t tenured and only “teaches” (gasp), it seemed easy enough to push him out—knowing that most faculty will not risk their own hides by running to defend him.
In the meantime, Harvard invited back a controversial faculty member (whom some faculty lauded … and then clawed back their outrage when it became clearer and clearer that something was indeed wrong.)
Of course, incidents at private universities where the total cost of attendance hovers around $90,000 a year says little about higher ed as a whole. If you’re interested in a more inclusive view, I’d like to bring some recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education to your attention.
These articles make claims that are widely embraced by faculty and advocacy groups but that I find somewhat misleading—and that, in my view, impede the kind of soul searching that institutions need to undergo if they are to truly tackle disparities in academic and postgraduation outcomes.
In essence, these articles assert that:
- That the states have “starved public colleges.”
- That “as students became more diverse, college became less accessible,” and that the shift in racial demographics is a major reason for this trend.
Let me be clear: I am certainly not claiming that states and the federal government adequately fund higher education. They don’t. Nor am I denying that this country’s highly stratified system of public higher education doesn’t discriminate against students from lower-income backgrounds. It does.
But hyperbole and an erroneous analysis won’t help us solve the challenges before us. Just as a medical misdiagnosis inevitably results in misguided treatments, so, too, a flawed analysis of higher ed’s problems discourages the kind of soul-searching and policy shifts that public colleges and universities need to undertake if they are to bring many more students from underrepresented backgrounds to success in high demand fields.
Here are the harsh realities:
- Have states significantly disinvested in higher education? Some, but not all, have. Most states have significantly increased public higher education funding over time. Determining whether a particular state has disinvested in its public colleges and universities largely hinges on the chosen start and end dates, the way that inflation is calculated and the extent to which enrollments have increased.
- Has college become increasingly inaccessible? No. Prior to the pandemic, there was a sharp increase in the proportion of students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds attending college including four-year institutions.
- Is race the primary variable behind disparities in higher education funding? Without a doubt, historically Black public universities have been severely underfunded. But in recent years, many states have adjusted funding formulas to the benefit of broad-access urban and regional campuses. That flagship and land-grant institutions are much more richly resourced has largely to do with endowments, fundraising capacity, funded research, money-making continuing education programs and state funding formulas that benefit graduate programs.
Let me not be misunderstood:
Irrespective of their ability or prior educational achievement, students from lower-income backgrounds are incentivized to attend institutions with fewer resources, which, in turn, reduces their chances for graduation and finding a good job.
- STEM fields graduate significantly fewer students from underrepresented backgrounds with similar qualifications as white males.
- Introductory STEM courses, far too often, serve weed-out functions that “disproportionately push underrepresented minority students out of the natural and applied sciences.”
- Limited, restricted and gated access majors are a major contributor to disparities in students’ academic and postgraduation outcomes.
The key question is simple and straightforward: What is to be done at the commuter institutions that serve a disproportionate share of working, caregiving and other nontraditional students?
Fewer than 15 percent of undergraduates live on campus. In fact, significantly more college students live with their parents than in a dorm. Yet, even in the pandemic’s wake, it’s still the case that most campus services and activities are designed for residential students.
If we are to better serve the “invisible majority” of students, we need to radically rethink staffing, programming, activities, delivery modes and hours.
Over thirty years ago, Barbara Jacoby, who was then the University of Maryland’s director of commuter affairs and community service and remains today perhaps the premiere authority on commuting students, offered practical, actionable advice about how institutions could better serve those undergraduates who don’t reside on campus.
As she and other experts point out, contrary to outdated and erroneous myths and misconceptions, commuting students are not less committed or less prepared academically. They are, however, more likely to attend school part-time and are more likely to interrupt their education. A much larger proportion are re-entering higher education after an interruption. And commuter students are significantly less satisfied with their college experience than their residential counterparts.
In a series of articles, Jacoby identified a series of common problems that commuting students face:
- Transportation: The challenges aren’t a mystery—these include cost; traffic; remote and expensive parking; accidents, bottlenecks and congestion; car maintenance; bus schedules; and, often, the lack of alternative ways to reach campus.
- Conflicting responsibilities: Unlike those who live on campus, whose primary identity is student, commuting students have multiple identities as full-time employees, household managers and family caregivers.
- Limited time on campus: Because of onerous commutes (which averaged two hours a day for Hunter College undergraduates) and competing demands on their time, these students have little flexibility in scheduling their time on campus, making it very difficult to participate in co- and extracurricular activities or other outside the classroom events.
- A lack of a sense of belonging: Many commuting students, Jacoby reported, think of the campus like a “filling station,” where they stop in briefly and then exit.
- Misguided faculty expectations: I am almost certainly not alone in possessing unrealistic expectations about my students. I expect them to be totally immersed in their education and am sorely disappointed when they seem less than totally engaged in their studies or resist participating in outside the classroom lectures and other enhancement activities. But given their job and family responsibilities, such a view is surely unrealistic.
So what should campuses do? Here are suggestions that Jacoby and others have advanced.
1. Educate faculty and staff about the prevalence of commuter students and their special needs.
A campus self-assessment will reveal the percentage of students who commute to campus, time spent commuting, modes of transportation, the competing demands on their time and the percentage that attend part-time.
2. Audit the campus’s institutional environment.
See if commuter students have the same access to support services and activities as residential (and near-residential) students.
3. Make the campus an oasis for commuters.
Provide lockers, dedicated lounges (equipped with refrigerators and microwaves), quiet study spaces and computer labs. Ensure that commuting students can access recreation facilities at times that meet their schedules. Build a sense of community among commuting students, for instance, by establishing special interest groups for veterans, single mothers, first-generation students and others.
4. Serve commuter students better.
- Make the new student orientation more accessible to commuting students by holding sessions in the evening or on weekends.
- Work with local authorities to enhance transportation options.
- Provide dedicated assistance to help commuting students with their housing, childcare, transportation and employment needs.
- Make sure that commuter students are familiar with the campus’s support services and can access these services seamlessly.
- Institute block scheduling that concentrates classes in morning, afternoon or evening blocks and only requires students to be on campus two days a week.
- Offer designated support services for particular groups of students including first-generation students, women, single parents, veterans and individuals experiencing major life transitions.
- Expand on-campus employment and internship opportunities.
- Make emergency childcare a campus priority.
- Offer emergency grants to address commuting-related issues such as car repairs.
5. Offer classes and active and experiential learning opportunities that are commuter friendly.
- Integrate study skills training and major and career identification into existing classes.
- Dedicate in-class time for students to collaborate on group projects.
- Develop internships, service learning opportunities, fieldwork, action research, practicums and clinical experiences that commuter students can take advantage of, for example, by providing flexible ways to undertake these activities near their place of residence during their nonwork hours.
- Expand opportunities for commuting students to interact with faculty, for instance, by dedicating particular class sessions to engage in informal discussions with their instructor and by funding faculty-student lunches or coffees.
- Offer for-credit mentored research experiences that fulfill major requirements.
- Embed enriching educational experiences, like guest lectures, into existing classes or make them accessible online, either live or recorded.
6. Reimagine and redesign the student experience around a commuter lens.
- Make sure that the institution’s programs, services, facilities and resources are equally available to commuting students.
- Disseminate information about campus programming and activities far in advance so that commuting students can “rearrange their family, work and transportation schedules to attend.”
- Schedule programs activities at times that are accessible to commuting students, including on weekends or evenings.
- To the extent possible, ensure that programs and activities welcome families. Jacoby urges campuses to consider movie nights or parallel programming for children (such as art classes held simultaneously with a lecture).
- Consider establishing off-campus centers where commuting students can study, receive academic and nonacademic advising, get tutoring support, and access computers.
None of this is rocket science. It’s common sense. Yet as we know all too well, common sense is surprisingly uncommon, and this is particularly true when the casualties of neglect are wrongly regarded as anomalies and exceptions to the norm.
So recognize that commuting students are the norm and realize, too, that if we fail to serve these students better, our pretenses to inclusion and equity are a sham.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.