The Arizona Desert Lamp

Happy Monday; or, “School? Again?”

Posted in Campus, Education Policy by Evan Lisull on 24 August 2009


They‘re here, schedules in one hand and iPhones in the other. While this year’s freshman Horde will no doubt be fawned over even more than last year’s, all is not well at the UA. Some long-term trends to keep an eye on.

1. 38,800 students and rising. It’s weird to hear a university President gush over the “record number” of attendees, as though he were describing a concert or a store opening. The problems that the ever-growing mob brings is the angle taken by KVOA ‘s article, which raises the issues of housing, parking, and classroom space; the respective answers are “we’re building more,” “we’re building more,” and “we’re innovating more.”

(Actually, UA Housing Director Jim Van Arsdel’s quote on dorm shortages is hilarious enough to bear repeating:

“We have filled every single permanent space we have in our system,” said Arsdel. “We’ve assigned 290 students to spaces that we call temporary.”

Uh – what else would you call them?)

Within this state, the UA’s comparative advantage is definitely not in quantity, but rather in quality. Don’t tell that to Arizona’s leaders of higher education, though:

“Pursuing a college degree is one of the very best investments you can make.  I am delighted to know that record numbers of Arizona families are staking their futures on a UA degree,” said UA President Robert N. Shelton. “More enrolled students mean brighter futures for Arizona. On behalf of the entire UA community, we welcome this freshman class and our transfer students with a great deal of pride and anticipation.”

Arizona Board of Regents President Ernest Calderón noted, “I applaud the UA’s efforts in achieving this positive result. Offering more students higher education is what it is all about.”

Is that what it’s all about – pushing units and making cash money? Actually, according to the beloved 2020 plan from ABOR, it is:

The Mission

• To increase the educational attainment of Arizona citizens by producing enough high-quality university degrees for the state to be nationally competitive by the year 2020.

• To increase the prominence of the system’s research enterprise so that it can contribute to the knowledge economy and improve the quality of life in Arizona.

• To provide the educated workforce needed to fill shortages and to stimulate demand for higher paying jobs in Arizona.

In other words: increased production, increased ‘knowledge economy’ gains, increased job training. Perhaps this sort of education is seen as necessary in the eyes of the state, but there is nothing ‘higher’ about it.

2. Short Quickening Painful Decline of the Liberal Arts Education. Given the “job creation” fetishists that run the university system now, it’s not surprising to see that the future of the UA ultimately relies on relegating the humanities and other liberal arts to a superfluous position:

The incoming class of University of Arizona students has boosted enrollments in science and engineering while also contributing to the largest class the Honors College has ever seen.

Preliminary data indicates that between 150 and 180 more freshmen have declared majors in the College of Science while the enrollment in engineering has jumped by about 60 students.

This is encouraging, as science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM fields – are being promoted at the UA and nationally.

. . .

Patricia MacCorquodale, the Honors College dean, said the college was keen on admitting first generation students, those interested in STEM fields and also students from underrepresented states.

This emphasis on “STEM” fields, however, received no mention at all in the transformation plan, which emphasized “synergies” and “reassessments.” MacCorquodale’s report is rather telling in this context. The UA, among other schools, uses “holistic” admissions, a sort of New Age bullshit free-for-all which allows the schools to use effectively any justification for their admissions. Typically, these admissions support certain groups in the name of “diversity” – her examples of underrepresented states and first generation students are common. Yet including “interested in STEM fields” indicates that these students are receiving admissions preference as well.

Yet as this article makes clear, there’s a reason for this:

ASU’s war room, in the fight for stimulus money, is in high gear. Three or four times a week, officials gather here for meetings and plot strategies for grabbing as much stimulus money as possible. They file weekly reports to ASU President Michael Crow.

. . .

Similar scenarios are playing out at universities across the country, although not all have war rooms. Many universities have set up internal Web sites that help faculty track grant opportunities. At the University of Arizona, a 12-member group helps researchers with their grant applications for stimulus aid.

Researchers are rushing to submit proposals in hopes of getting more money for either existing or new research projects.

If, on a day like today, you’re feeling rosy about “higher education” and the comfort of the ivory tower, the article serves as a useful palliative; well worth reading.

3. Still dumber than a brick. OK, that might better fit our neighbors to the north. But for all the cheerleading from President Shelton’s office (Actual lede: “The University of Arizona student body is about to get bigger, smarter and more diverse, as the UA makes final preparations to open its fall semester with big gains in enrollment, diversity and academic quality of its students.” It’s like Brawndo – for your brain!), SAT scores are once again stagnant. Checking it at 1102, we’re back at the average from Fall 2007, but still below the heights achieved by the freshman class of ’06. Ditto for GPA .

Interestingly enough, ACT scores ticked up from years’ past, although I had always written it off as a predominantly Midwestern phenomenon. Any Arizona kids out there that can attest to it’s use in this state?

4. Losing the grads. This site has been vocal in encouraging the university to seek more funds outside of the traditional state sources (a position that seems to have vindicated by Budget Battle, a summer flick that turned into Masterpiece Theatre mini-series). This, from an article on the US News rankings, is not good news:

UA’s rank may have slipped a bit because it reported a drop in the percentage of full-time tenured faculty. Also, average alumni donations declined slightly, from 7 percent to 6 percent. Alumni donations are used as one measure of how satisfied graduates are with their education and make up 5 percent of a college’s score. Other measures, such as graduation rates and freshmen retention, stayed the same or improved at the UA.

So everyone’s broke and only ritually sacrificing Corvettes can help us – I get that – but this is not a great trend-line to ride. While there have been moderate pushes towards alternative sources of funding, the President has involved himself more in the ins-and-outs of legislative action than with doubling down on Campaign Arizona.


2 Responses

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  1. Dave said, on 24 August 2009 at 11:33 am

    Knowing ResLife I’m just glad Jimmy VA didn’t call them “exclusive spaces”.

    Want your son or daughter to stay out of trouble? Why not have them live with an RA! They’ll love babysitting them!

    Worried that your child isn’t going to prepare for class? Fret not, they can live in a study room!

  2. Laura Donovan said, on 24 August 2009 at 7:59 pm

    As a freshman, living with an RA would be horrible! But at least the residents have temporary living assignments. They’re supposedly going to be moved out as soon as other spots open up.

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