Economics Lesson for Higher Ed

When budget woes threatened access to Robert Reich's large lecture class at Berkeley, the former labor secretary proposed a less expensive model.
September 10, 2009

On Sunday talk shows of late, Robert Reich has been a vocal advocate of expanding access to health care for all Americans. It is perhaps fitting then that Reich, the former U.S. Labor Secretary turned public policy professor, has been advocating access of a different kind at the University of California at Berkeley.

Reich is one of Berkeley’s more widely known faculty members, and his “Wealth and Poverty” course quickly fills to capacity – and that’s a problem in California where capacity is rapidly shrinking. Indeed, as the Goldman School of Public Policy analyzed its budget this year, officials surmised that enrollment in Reich’s large lecture class would need to be reduced by 140 students -- or about 32 percent -- this spring.

Photo: University of California at Berkeley

Robert Reich was concerned students would lose access to his popular course because of budget constraints.

“He said 'I’d really hate to do that; I don’t want to close people out,' ” recalls Henry Brady, the school’s dean.

Given budgetary constraints, the school was only going to be able to provide six teaching assistants for Reich’s class. When Reich previously taught a class of 440 students, he needed nine TA’s to help grade papers and run weekly break-out discussions of 25 students each. With just six TA’s, there would only be enough support to enroll 300 students, Brady said.

Call it third way politics if you like, but Reich, the former Clinton Cabinet member, suggested another option no one else had previously considered. What if the school could offer two different options for students, giving them some access to the popular class while still reducing the need for TA’s? In one class, worth four units, students would have the traditional lectures with Reich and break-out discussion groups with TA’s. In a second class, worth only two units, students would attend the Reich lectures without the additional break-out sessions or the same level of coursework. Students in the lecture-only class will still receive exams, which will be graded by less expensive readers, but they won't write essays graded by TA's.

Reich concedes the option is "not ideal," but says "I wouldn't be offering it to students lecture-only if I didn't think they would get a lot out of it. And it seems to me we've hit on a reasonable compromise."

Brady agrees.

“I think it’s a model for making sure we still give students access to lecturers like Bob Reich without breaking the bank,” he said.

Brady anticipates the newly offered courses will produce a net savings of $15,000 to $17,000. Those savings are in part attributable to a decision by the College of Letters and Science to fund a seventh TA for the course. The college will now list “Wealth and Poverty” as one of its “Discovery Courses,” which are used to help students fulfill seven breadth requirements needed for graduation. The breadth requirements are designed to give students exposure to broad disciplines.

While Reich’s proposal may expand access to the lectures, there will now be 175 students in his class without access to the small group discussions that have been considered vital to the large lecture format. The lower credit option may appeal to some students, but Brady concedes it was a stopgap measure to address a difficult situation.

“We’ve got terrible problems,” he said, “but we’re trying to find creative ways to solve them and meet the students’ needs.”

Even though some students will be in lecture-only classes, Reich says he's tried to keep students engaged even when they number well into the hundreds.

"It's never a lecture," he said. "I wonder around the aisles, I talk to students. We do not only Socratic dialogues but also various scenarios, and I try also not to make it a static lecture."

Reich also closes each two-hour session with something he calls "the salon," where students can opt to hang around for an additional 30 minutes for a smaller group discussion. In a class that typically enrolls about 425, Reich says about 30 or 40 stay for the salon.

Reich's course, "Wealth and Poverty," is an examination of the widening gap of income inequality and wealth in the United States and elsewhere. The course blends a variety of disciplines, including sociology, economics, ethics, political science and social psychology. In short, it offers something for just about everyone. But one wonders if Reich's own celebrity drives the numbers as well.

"I've done it for a number of years and the course keeps growing dramatically," he said. "I would prefer to think that the reason it's growing is not name recognition, because I had the same name recognition at the start."


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