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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Why Duke Doesn't Matter

It's a question of numbers. All sorts of great people are part of the Duke community - no disrespect to them - but Duke's annual enrollment is a bit under 13,000 total, about half of whom are undergraduates.

If you are interested in putting those numbers in perspective, this article about selective college admissions is a good place to start. The authors looked at the country's "top" 146 schools, defined as those that are "most" or "highly" competitive in their admissions. There core finding was this:
74 percent of the students at the top 146 highly selective colleges came from families in the top quarter of the SES scale (as measured by combining family income and the education and occupations of the parents), just 3 percent came from the bottom SES quartile, and roughly 10 percent came from the bottom half of the SES scale.
This news shocked a lot of people when it was announced in 2003. It means that the great majority of the college-age population never goes near a highly selective college. It means that the country's "good schools" don't serve American society so much as they serve the top slice of it. It means that the people who could benefit the most from college - who don't have a parent who went to college (or finished high school), or who have low family incomes - are the least likely to get the most intensive college instruction (small classes with senior faculty as happens most often in the wealthy privates).

I have some experience on this last point. I went to Reed College in the late 1970s, where my largest class, a required organic chemistry course, had 40 students. My first job was at Rice University, where the largest course I taught was a British lit survey that had, again, 40 students. My second job was and is at UC Santa Barbara, where every year I teach 200-300 students in Detective Fiction and/or Global California - each. A UCSB English major has a senior seminar with 15 students - once in his or her college career. Many UC departments - at Santa Barbara and elsewhere - offer no courses that small, especially after the latest round of state funding cuts in the early 2000s. I regularly write letters of recommendation from students whom I have never met personally because they took one of my lecture courses, but who feel somehow like they know me better than any other of their professors. And UCSB is a very good public university with a faculty and administration that is trying very hard, day and day out, to deliver a high-quality undergraduate education.

The vast majority of American college students attend what we can call "factory schools" - the staff and students care a lot, and yet they all work under the conditions of mass production. Under the past 20-30 years of quasi-austerity for public higher education, everyone has shifted when they can towards factory-style savings, including standardized material, mechanized grading, and temporary faculty that teach more for less. 70 percent of college courses are taught by non-permanent instructors, which saves money and reduces quality at the same time.

But let's get clearer about the size of this "vast majority." The 2003 study notes that fewer than 10 percent of college students attend one of the most selective 146 schools. 90 percent go somewhere else. And only a handful of the 146 are actually "elite" schools like Duke: the 146 are those that accept fewer than half of their applicants, and includes students who were in the top 35 percent of their high school classes. For some perspective, remember that UC campuses limit their intake to the top 15 percent or so of high school classes. Cal State takes around the top 35%, so on this count (though not on others), Cal State resembles the very good colleges in the 146. In 2006, it enrolled 417,000 students. Since 1961, it has produced 2 million graduates. The top 146 may be selective, but they are not elite.

Each year, 1.2 million students are enrolled in 4 year colleges of all types nationwide. About 900,000 of those are in colleges that are essentially non-selective. That means that 3/4 of all college students exist outside the selection system. 3/4 of all college students study and graduate with no contact with schools like Duke and Stanford or, equally, with UC and Cal State Dominguez Hills. (Three UC campuses are in one selectivity list's top-20; two are above Duke, which comes in at 14. This whole ranking business, as an index of educational experience and output, is a crock.) Each year, Duke teaches 0.5 percent of all 4-year college students. It teaches about 3.5% of each year's students at the 146 most selective (about 170,000).

If your educational world consists entirely of highly selective colleges, or top-50 or top-25 schools, Duke matters - somewhat. If you think about the college population as a whole, Duke is a speck on the horizon, one tree in the forest. It hardly matters at all.

Things have only gotten worse since 2003: see a new study of Pell Grants that shows the same pattern of selective schools serving the already-affluent. Meanwhile, we distract ourselves with Harvard's tuition forgiveness program, Stanford's latest billion-dollar fundraising drive, or Duke's previously free iPods for new students.

In this context, the fixation on three falsely-indicted student athletes at one elite college is a case of terminal narcissism that illustrates why this country is having so much trouble addressing its basic problems.

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