Where Do Those Poor Kids Go?

SDSU classes get bigger and easier

Near SDSU bell tower
  • Near SDSU bell tower

Nobody at SDSU will deny the school is changing. My question is -- are the changes for better or worse? Dr. Sandra Cook, one of the university's policy makers, says, "When I came here ten years ago, anybody who met the basic CSU admission standards could get in. Since then, everything about admissions has changed. We're more selective, so we've got better academically prepared students."

Raymond Starr: "Now, the faculty is under such pressure to publish that they don't even come to campus."

Raymond Starr: "Now, the faculty is under such pressure to publish that they don't even come to campus."

San Diego State is considered "impacted" -- which means that, because of the high number of applications at San Diego State, the chancellor's office allows the school to raise its admission standards above the basic CSU requirements. Each freshman applicant is given an eligibility index determined by this formula: grade point average times 800 plus SAT score. For fall 2004, applicants to nonimpacted schools need 2900, while SDSU applicants need 3715. Ten years ago, before impaction, applicants to SDSU only needed a score of 2900.

Aztec Center, SDSU. "Go to the Commons. Look at the students. They're rarely interacting about anything academic."

Aztec Center, SDSU. "Go to the Commons. Look at the students. They're rarely interacting about anything academic."

"And," Dr. Cook continues, "we require entering freshmen to take certain foundational courses in their first year: composition, critical thinking, oral communication, and mathematics.

"It's crucial that people realize this isn't the San Diego State of ten years ago, where anybody could come and drop in and out. I know some people miss those days. They want it to be a regional teaching college that takes all the poor kids and lets them have an opportunity to fail or succeed, but I don't think we're going to be that."

"And where," I ask, "do those poor kids you mentioned go?"

"That's one of the beauties of California's master plan; there's always the community college. And the local high school students get in if they meet the CSU requirements. We do our best to accommodate local students, but we can improve. I want to do better for our students who need to work. Not just the poor kids, but adult students with families. With time constraints, it can be difficult for them to get the classes they need. Some majors don't offer classes at night. And there's the price structure. Students pay a big chunk for one through six units, and then for seven units and up they pay twice as much."

In fall 2004, California resident students will pay $979 for six or fewer units, $1468 for over six units, compared to $568 for part-time and $871 for full-time in 1994. "Because of the fee structure," Dr. Cook explains, "some people end up working full-time and going to school full-time, and that doesn't give anybody a quality education." As an SDSU undergraduate during the '60s, when the registration fee was $25 per semester, I took two history classes from Dr. Raymond Starr. I considered him one of my best professors. Lately he's been an advisor.

"From the time I arrived until 1965," Starr recalls, "my department had a policy for the lower-division survey courses, a cap of 35 students. The courses used a large book of readings and were discussion oriented, not lecture oriented. And our other courses had size limits. We had department policies mandating that the overwhelming bulk of testing had to be essay exams, not Scantron [punch cards]. We had a policy that the lower-division courses were taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty members. And because the classes were small and teaching was the faculty member's main responsibility, there was an interaction between the faculty and students. It was common to see a faculty member come out of class and wander across to the West Commons with five or six students and have coffee and a discussion.

"Now, the faculty is under such pressure to publish that they don't even come to campus. Most of them try to teach a schedule of two days a week. I could go over to the history offices and walk through that whole part of the building and not find a single faculty member in an office with the door open. Not one. Faculty members don't have time to talk to students.

"During the 1970s, we began using part-time faculty. In the beginning of that era, they taught lower-division classes only, but about ten years ago the history department started hiring part-timers to teach many of the upper-division courses."

I look at my notes and say, "According to the catalogs, in spring 1994 the school enrolled 26,288 students, and there were over a thousand full-time faculty members. By last year, the number of students had increased to 30,060, and the full-time faculty was down below 900."

"Given what I saw in my department, that sounds about right," Dr. Starr says. "And now, the administration has decided we're going to be like Berkeley, and they're building huge lecture halls as fast as they possibly can. Last year they converted a portion of the exercise and nutritional sciences building to a 500-seat lecture hall. The new arts and letters building, when it's completed, will have another 500-seat lecture hall. So what used to be a class of 35 taught by a tenured faculty member will soon be a class of 500 where the faculty member lectures two days a week, and graduate students lead discussions one day a week.

"Sure," Starr says, "I can dispense information to 500 as effectively as I can to 30. What is missing is the interaction, the asking of questions, the weighing of things, the realization that issues can be complex, and conversation such as, 'Well, that's a good point, but you're assuming so and so, and without that assumption, maybe what you're saying doesn't work.' Those things don't happen when you've got 500 students.

"Go to the Commons," he says, pointing for emphasis. "Look at the students. They're rarely interacting about anything academic. I think our students come to campus, go to class, and leave, just like they do to a job. Also, because of the emphasis on the large courses, you're eroding the diversity of the curriculum. If you have large classes, you obviously aren't going to have as many classes. And you can't offer the course that maybe routinely drew 15 or 20 people — but if you're going to be a real university, maybe you need a course on the history of India that only draws 15 or 20 people every other semester. That's going to disappear. They're not going to fund a class of 15 or 20 students anymore."

Dr. Starr knows my son, Cody, who graduated from SDSU last summer. "Cody hardly had to write any papers," I say, "and he was an English major."

Starr isn't surprised. "Of course. One of the losses is in the writing instruction. For several reasons. It takes a tremendous amount of time to grade long papers, and faculty members aren't going to get promoted because they grade long essays. They're going to assign short papers, if any. And in a lot of disciplines, students don't write a word beyond their name on the Scantron.

"The world we live in is changing. People like you and I are due for extinction. Students don't read much anymore. I've known liberal studies students in their senior year to admit that the first book they ever read from cover to cover was something they had just read last semester. They don't read much at all as entertainment, and I find a great decline in what they read in many of their courses. And I suspect that ultimately people's writing skills are more a result of their reading than of writing instruction.

"I have always assigned my upper-division history classes five, six, or seven books. Few of my colleagues assign more than three now. The amount of reading assigned has dropped immensely."

"In favor of what?" I ask.

"Nothing. One of the things I've found in advising -- many students take 18 or more units and really do well. If you pin them down, you find that what is demanded of a student at San Diego State is not much. No one short of a true genius could've taken 18 units of history classes in 1965. Impossible.

"No doubt graduate programs and professional programs are better. It's just a matter of -- what's San Diego State supposed to be? A research university or a regional university serving the needs of the local population? Once you answer that question, then you can decide whether what's happening is good or bad. And I think some of us answer that question differently than the people in the administration building do.

"I'm still philosophically attached to the old California master plan, which saw a state university as serving a regional need as general university and with applied and professional programs. The emphasis on research and publication was left to the UCs. I don't think there's a place in the U.S. where you have a research/publishing/Ph.D.-oriented university that also has the attachment to undergraduate education. They're simply two different worlds.

"But now the university is committed to becoming a university of the first national order. As a matter of policy, if I were running the state of California, I would start talking about the need to establish a real CSU campus in San Diego. We don't have one now, and I think we need one more than ever, because with the immigrants coming in, the number of first-generation college students and students that may have language and other difficulties is growing daily, and we need a university that addresses their needs and that provides the teaching orientation to help those people make the entry into the mainstream. Education in America, at least since the middle of the 19th Century, has been the primary mechanism whereby new immigrants work their way into the system," Starr concludes. "We need that desperately, and San Diego State isn't meeting the requirement."

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