Seniors, choose your college wisely
Class sizes, cost should make students rethink UCs
By Todd Borden | Guest Opinion | November 7, 2011
I have two daughters, ages 9 and 7 and we already talk about where they are going to college. Well, not exactly where they are going, but where they are not going—any campus of the University of California. And why is this? Because these “research universities” have very little interest in actually educating 18-22-year-olds.
At the University of California the teaching of undergraduates is an inconvenience that gets in the way of the real business of the university–professors’ research. It is an open secret that the more luminary a professor becomes through his/her research, the less he/she will be asked to teach. So who does the actual teaching? Graduate students and part-time faculty members with no job security and continuity at the school. These people might be great instructors (or not), but they are not the people you expect to be your mentors when you sign a contract that pays the university $25,000 a year.
Another problem is that at the University of California classes are large. How large? At UC Santa Barbara their largest lecture hall, Campbell Hall, holds 880 students. The good part about having very large classes is that you might actually get to enroll in a class with one of those big name UC professors—I had a class from Walter Capps in Campbell Hall—but you won’t be able to interact with them; what kind of interaction can a professor have with 880 students? And lecture halls with capacities of 100-400 are legion on these campuses.
The University of California undoubtedly has a great reputation. But where did they get this reputation? They justly received it for two reasons. First they do have great faculties and these faculties provide wonderful graduate educations (Master’s degrees and PhDs). I recognize this fact, and tell my daughters that if they want to earn a graduate degree they should definitely consider the University of California. Why this contradiction in my message? Because graduate students have direct contact with the faculty members and are actually mentored by them in meaningful ways. The second reason the UCs have a great reputation is that UCs used to be cheap. When I went there, (last century) I paid about $1300 a year in “registration fees.” The UCs prided themselves on not having tuition, they just had “fees.” Well now the “fees” are $13,200 a year. And with the university facing a billion dollar budget-gap, “fees” are expected to increase to more than $20,000 within the next few years; when “fees” go north of $10,000 they are no longer “fees,” they are tuition. And when you add $1200 a month for room and board, as Senator Dirksen famously said: “you’re talking real money!”
What is my advice on choosing a college? Start by looking at Santa Barbara City College. The instructors there are paid to teach and not for research. You can get to know your professors there, and they can assist you in ways that UC professors simply can’t. And if you want a particularly good education, sign up for their honors program; in my opinion you will not find a better freshman/sophomore education anywhere in California (Pomona College perhaps being the exception). And all of this for about $1000 a year in fees. If SBCC doesn’t interest you, explore private colleges. It is true that they are more expensive than UCs, but they offer financial aid packages that can reduce the cost, and, in some cases, make their cost comparable to UCs. It is true they might not have any Noble Laureates on staff like the UC, but their instructors might actually know your name.
My god-children in San Diego recently went on a college tour. The family had a great time, and were impressed by many colleges. But when I asked about what the tours guides had to say, I was told that the tour centered around the holy trinity of a college student’s life: dorm rooms, dining commons, and recreation facilities (if the school has Division I athletics the trinity grows to include football and basketball). When harder questions were posed, such as: what is the average size of lower-division classes?, how many courses are graded by teaching assistants?, and what is the availability of professors for consultation?, I was told that the answers became rather vague. This amounts to a kind of bait-and-switch—entice you with creature comforts while ignoring the real purpose of college. When my kids are seniors, and I am about to break out my checkbook for college, I am going to know the answers to those harder questions because I want my money to actually go to my kids’ education, and not to gourmet dining commons, luxurious dorm rooms, and paying the professors to write another book.
Does this mean that UCs are terrible? Not at all, and I have seen some students thrive there. However, when you get a group of UC graduates together, it is remarkable how often the conversation turns to the factory-like education that is received. When I enrolled in my graduate program, at Middlebury College, and heard the Middlebury undergraduates speak about their educations, it stunned me—and really hammered home how much I had missed out on my education by attending a UC.
So when it comes to college, look around, go against conventional-wisdom, think outside-the-box in order to decide what is best for you and your future.
Todd Borden is the English Department Chair at Dos Pueblos High School