Are freshman students just money for universities?

“Cannon Fodder” from Right Wing Nation looks at the dropping of SATs as an admit requirement and has some thought provoking ideas.

It begins with this:

Dropping SAT scores as an admission requirement is distinctly different from lowering standards. Dropping the SAT is not in any way comparable to “education gaps” in the public schools. Finally, it makes no difference how well the SAT predicts student performance at the university.

Then it fills in the blanks while you are asking the question of, why not?

Underprepared students drop out, and do not complete degrees.

So why, if it doesn’t matter, are schools doing it?

It’s a win-win because the university wins on two fronts: PR (and latte liberal feel-good-ism), and financial.

The school gets kudos for dropping the SAT, since it restricts some students, and gets money for larger freshman classes without having to enlarge the university, because those students are not there the next year. That’s interesting.

It doesn’t matter that a handful of qualified students will not be accepted in order to make room for “more diverse” students, because elite universities, with few exceptions, don’t make their reputations or most of their income from undergraduate education, but from graduate education and research. [Bold in original.]

I think it might matter if they get sued. But this quote does show a couple of things.

1. Diverse admissions doesn’t mean diverse graduation. (And if it did then we’d have even worse grade inflation for minorities.)

2. Undergrad only matters in that it builds the core of the graduate programs. (An interesting and alarming fact, to me as a teaching prof –as opposed to a researcher.)

Then there’s this:

[T]he undergraduate program takes a back seat to graduate programs, and here’s why.

Why do people desperately want to get into Harvard, say, or MIT? Because they’re top universities. And why are they top universities?

Not because of the quality of their undergraduate programs, but because of their reputations. And they have those reputations precisely because of their faculty who are big names in their fields and win things like Nobel Prizes and the PhD students they turn out who go on to become big names in their fields and win things like Nobel Prizes (as as anyone who has ever been in a PhD program knows, much of the time, the research that got Professor Smith that Nobel Prize is done at least in part by his PhD students).

My sons aren’t going to Harvard or MIT, even if they could get in, because they don’t have their majors. BUT I know first hand that the reputation of the school might help in grad school, but it doesn’t mean that the teachers a freshman gets are any good.

At a research school there are big graduate programs. Those graduate students need jobs. The faculty needs time to research. So the graduate students become TAs teaching the freshman and sophomore service courses while the faculty do research.

Freshman and sophomores at big research colleges often get brand new practicing teachers. Sure there is mentoring. But no mentor grades the papers or writes the lectures.

At Purdue the math department elicited groans on a regular basis because most of the TAs had English as a second language. Certainly the students were brilliant, but they were hard to understand especially for rural Indiana students. (Remind me to tell you about the joke an English TA pulled on her class.)

So it’s an interesting and thought provoking piece. I wondered, though, if it were true.

Why I thought it might not be

I thought that, since US News and World Report ranks colleges with information–including graduation rates of freshman cohorts, that this might not be true.

However, it is only one factor among many. And just because colleges and some students/parents look at it, that doesn’t mean the reputation of the school relies on it.

I know that colleges that get on celebrate, because one of my alma mater’s sent out a flyer/brochure when it got on the rankings list. But I don’t know if it is really important.

So while this gave me food for thought, I’m not totally sold on the arguments. But I buy them more than I did when I started.

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