I’ve only been teaching at my institution for a little more than two years (I’m in my third year). In that short time, I’ve seen a pretty significant shift in the students who are in my Freshman Writing classes (it does in fact help to teach the exact same course to the exact same student population, year after year as you get a pretty good representation every year of the incoming classes and how they compare). I’m starting to wonder if this is a good thing.
This year, we have admitted our largest Freshman class, ever, and possibly our most diverse. There are a number of reasons for this. Two years ago, our basketball team upset in-state “rival” Louisville in the first round of March Madness and had a player drafted to the NBA in the first round, all of which had a noticeable impact on the number of application as well as the demographics of the incoming class the following year . Because of continued cuts from the State, our institution has expanded their efforts to recruit out-of-state students. Finally, more and more students, both in-state and out-of-state, are looking at us because we are relatively affordable (an out-of-state Ohio student still pays less in tuition at our institution than at a comparable public institution in their home state, for example).
The ACT scores of our incoming students are higher than they have ever been. Heck, we even have hipsters wandering around campus (a demographic that I would imagine never would have even considered us in the past – As Mark Twain put it, “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Kentucky, because everything there happens 20 years after it happens anywhere else.” It’s been lowered to less than ten, but still). But I am beginning to wonder what the cost of this shift is for the students we have historically served.
We’ve increased the caps on our FYC classes, and we’ve increased the number of students per room in residence. It would seem that these two changes made to accommodate the large influx of new students would most negatively impact those who are most precariously positioned for college success: the students who are the first in their families to attend university and come from lower socio-economic homes. These students are at risk of getting lost in the larger (and academically stronger) classes, outcast in the res rooms that haven’t grown in size despite the added capacity.
Dr. Crazy alludes  to this issue that arises in the classroom; the stronger the group, the more you need to work to challenge them. This isn’t a bad problem to have if you have an entire class of honors students, but when the capabilities of the majority of a class shift upwards, those who you used to cater to inevitably get lost in the great surge upward. I could once reliably assume the majority of my students had ACT scores that were on the low side (while keeping them out of developmental writing). But, as Dr. Crazy is finding, what worked before no longer works with a stronger group of students. Except, they are inevitably not at the same level. With an increased number of students in each class (times five), it’s more and more difficult to differentiate instruction or spend extra time with those who may need it in class (convincing them to come to office hours is still a challenge). What we gain in over-all strength, do we then lose in helping those who need it most?
In our rush to chase a more diverse, out-of-state (and ultimately stronger) group of students, I hope that we don’t forget those students who have supported us over the years. And we must be doing something right, as we had the highest freshman-to-sophomore retention rate this fall as well. But as our number go up, I wonder if it’s because we’re entering a better crop of students rather than helping the students who need it the most and have historically served?
I know this isn’t a new problem and our institution isn’t turning people away. But as budgets keep shrinking, I can’t help but worry that we will find ourselves in a situation like the one happening in California, where qualified students can’t even get into the classes they need, adversely impacting those who rely on financial aid. I worry our university is essentially being gentrified, and in the excitement of better students and more money, but rather than pricing out the old residence, we’re spacing them out.