Matthew Kahn is the first to admit his blog post was poorly crafted, insufficiently researched and offensive.
The University of California at Los Angeles economics professor suggested on his personal blog that UCLA’s transfer students were often less committed to the institution than their peers who spent four years in Westwood. He added that the university should admit more of those students as 18-year-olds instead of sending them to two-year colleges where academics might be a “watering down" of UCLA coursework.
The Christian Science Monitor, which has an agreement to publish some of Kahn’s blogs, picked up the post and changed the headline from “Raising revenue at elite public universities” to “How student transfers hurt public universities.” Before long, the article had spread back to California and drawn the ire of administrators and transfer students – who make up 40 percent of each UCLA entering class and 30 percent of the student body. The issue is particularly fraught with tension in California because the state lacks enough room in its universities and as a matter of policy expects many who will graduate from four-year institutions to start at community colleges.
Since word of the blog spread, Kahn has spent much of his time saying sorry. He rewrote his post, asked the Monitor to change the headline (editors obliged ) and met with about 15 transfers who staged a sit-in in a classroom on Monday. He even had to explain himself to his mother-in-law, who attended a community college before transferring to a California university.
“I owe everyone an apology for creating a firekeg,” he said. “The point I was trying to make in my piece was that when you’re at UCLA, you make more connections to the community and you learn more.”
The real tragedy, he said, is that his poor word choice overshadowed what should have been a serious but unemotional argument. He proposes that UCLA admit more out-of-state students and use the profits from their pricier tuition to provide financial aid to California residents who are academically prepared for UCLA but would otherwise attend a community college because of cost. In addition to learning more, he said, those students would be more connected to the college and would be more likely to donate later.
“If I had just said that,” he said, “none of this would’ve happened.”
But he did. And now Kahn -- who insists he likes transfer students and wants them to take his environmental economics courses – has started a national conversation about whether faculty are biased against transfers and whether students who spend up to half their undergraduate careers at community colleges can learn as much as their fellow students who spend four years at a university.
Janet Marling, executive director of the University of North Texas’s National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students, said such reservations about transfers are rooted in mistruths but troublingly common at universities of all types.
“The old adage is that the reason the students didn’t come and start with us as freshmen is they weren’t prepared to join us,” Marling said. “We know that this is completely erroneous in many situations.”
Finances and family responsibilities are among the reasons students choose community colleges when they’re qualified to attend a university, Marling said. Others, of course, attend two-year institutions because their test scores or high school transcripts need work before transferring somewhere like UCLA, which accepts less than a quarter of its 57,000 undergraduate applicants each year.
Marling agrees that subsidizing highly qualified California students with the out-of-state tuition others pay might make economic sense, but wonders whether reducing the number of seats available to in-state students is sound policy at a public university.
She also takes issue with Kahn’s suggestion that transfer students are less likely to donate in future years. A 2009 study found that transfers at North Texas were more likely to join the alumni association and more likely to give than others.
The root problem, Kahn said, is that his post was published before it was ready. It contained typos, relied heavily on under-researched ideas and made him sound prejudiced against transfer students. He’s published 2,400 posts over the years. The blog, which he said has about 200 regular readers, contains the thoughts of “a smart, funny guy who sometimes shoots from the hip.”
His latest hip shot somehow struck his foot and, Kahn said, gave him a new understanding of and appreciation for UCLA’s transfer population.
He said he was unaware that Los Angeles has a strong community college system, or that state policy requires the university admit a certain percentage of transfers.
He appreciates that some students need extra time to grow – like one young man who met with him at Monday’s protest and told him small community college classes gave him the maturity to handle UCLA. But he suspects there are others who could benefit from four years at UCLA, and wishes the university would do more to bring them in as freshmen.
Kahn has offered to be a faculty liaison for the transfer student organization, and said the administration has treated him fairly. Provost Judith Smith issued a lengthy statement that doesn’t name Kahn but says his comments were “a disservice to our student body and to the university.” The student government offered a similar rebuke.
Kahn isn’t fighting back, saying “the students have every right to protest” but adding that he has a “deep concern that I’m viewed as a transferist.”
“The strong statement in the piece is whether spending your first two years at UCLA, you learn more than at a community college,” he said. “It was my assumption that that’s true.”
And, he said, it should be true. If UCLA is charging higher tuition and offering classes on par with the local community college -- no matter how good that community college is -- something is wrong, Kahn said.
Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, questions Kahn’s logic. “I don’t think there’s evidence that what a student learns is proportional to what they’re paying,” he said.
Bailey suspects faculty prejudice against transfer students is fairly widespread, though he isn’t aware of any evidence to back his hunch. “In general, faculty at four-years, especially selective four-years, I would guess have a bias against them,” Bailey said. “Most people think that students getting into community colleges are weaker students. I think that’s too simplistic.”
Kahn insists that he does not fit that description, and said he hasn’t observed a prejudice among his UCLA colleagues.
“The transfer students here at UCLA are furious with me, thinking I don’t respect them,” he said. “That isn’t true."
He said he has no way of knowing which students in his classes are transfers, but realizes that many are and some are among his best. By the time they transfer, Kahn acknowledges, transfer students have already proved they can achieve at the college level and are often more determined and persistent in their students.
Kahn now hopes to teach during UCLA’s special summer session for new transfers, and encouraged those who protested his blog post to enroll in one of his environmental economics courses.
“I’d be really upset if they stop taking my classes,” he said. “I want these students in my classes.”
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