Friday, June 24, 2005

Choice of viewing 

I watched the dreadful NBA final Game 7 last night, and wish instead I had seen Declining by Degrees, a PBS documentary asking how good is higher education in America. Viewing the trailers we see it discusses the lack of preparedness of entering students, the size of classrooms, the lack of academic rigor, and the lack of rewards academia gives to good teachers. It has the kind of slant you might expect from PBS: It's about the money.
"Declining by Degrees" also highlights the impact of market forces in higher education today. The reality of the college experience today often depends on the bottom line: money. As one university president described it, "The state taxpayer support for public universities is eroding. That creates financial stress that we all understand and we just manage it. We just deal with it the best we can."

The two-hour documentary examines the public and government's decreasing financial commitment to higher education. Sixty years ago our country entered into what amounted to a social contract to ensure access to college for all despite family income. States supported public colleges and the federal government helped with money for the poor. Today, the funds and the support for the social contract are diminishing.

As Pat Callan, President of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, explains, "The federal Pell Grant program is the nation's largest program that focuses on the lowest income students who actually get to go to college. In the early 80's, that program had about 3 or 4 billion dollars in it, and it covered over 95 percent of the average tuition at a 4-year public college or university." Today it's about 57%.
But the documentary is making some schools nervous. The University of Arizona is one school the documentary focuses on, and they're not happy.
While UA administrators agreed that a comprehensive look at higher education was overdue, they don't agree with the way the 37,000-student UA campus is portrayed.

"It plays on the stereotypes of huge universities," said UA spokesman Paul Allvin, who has seen the documentary's first hour. "There is more to the UA than what these people have chosen to highlight."

Cade Bernsen, UA's student body president, agreed.

"I've had great professors who enjoy the time they get to have one on one," said Bernsen, 25, a political science major whose professors have invited him and his peers for coffee to discuss assignments. "You can go to any campus and find people who are disgruntled or skating through the system."
John Merrow, the documentarian, also has an article from the New York Times (but use this link rather than the one on the PBS webpage -- thanks to William Polley), which plays up a quote from UA President Peter Likins that the school's environment is "Darwinian".

The show is replaying here in the local market on Channel 17 Sunday at noon. Readers outside the Twin Cities area should check their listings.