Making the Undergrad Grade

The University of Arizona has been both beaten up and praised in the national press. To find out where the school stands, we talked to the real experts--the students.

On a recent monsoon day, two weeks before the start of classes, dense gray clouds splattered cooling rains onto the University of Arizona's nearly deserted mall. But the welcome drop in temperatures was not the only reason UA administrators were euphoric.

As the showers fell, marketing specialist Scott A. Cason hurried into the office of his boss, Patti Ota, vice president for enrollment management, clutching photocopied pages from the hot-off-the presses 2006 Fiske Guide to Colleges.

"Have you seen this?" he asked happily.

Looking over his photocopies, both Cason and Ota exulted over the lavish praise the national publication had heaped on the UA. Not only did the guide single out the university's "strong support for students with learning disabilities," long a UA strength; it positively salivated over many of its undergrad programs.

In language that could have been written by a perky UA publicist--though a grammatically challenged one--the independent guide proclaimed in a boldface headline that the UA's "well-devoted honors program attracts top students." It went on to cite "excellent programs in the sciences and engineering," declared the astronomy department "among the nation's best" and lauded the history and English departments as "standouts."

These sterling academic offerings, paired with the low in-state tuition of $4,498 (out-of-state students pay $13,682), helped put the UA on a list Fiske calls "Best Buys of 2006." The "Best Buy" ranking placed the budget-strapped UA in happy company with just 44 other colleges and universities--including powerhouses UC Berkeley and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It was no wonder that delighted UA administrators were getting giddy. In a year when the UA has been lambasted on the national stage, Fiske's high ratings were as welcome as the monsoon rains outside.

The woes began last spring. In an April 24 New York Times education supplement, writer John Merrow mercilessly slammed the quality of the UA's undergraduate education. He conjured up "numbing lecture halls" where 500 students at a time are jammed in together, where the "only instructor (students) may know is a teaching assistant."

He castigated the UA for its high freshman dropout rate of 23 percent, and its resulting low graduation rate of 57 percent. Recounting the mostly dismal case histories of five UA students, he gave prominent play to a boozer, a psych major who carefully plotted out his four years so he could do as little studying and as much drinking as possible. In this party student's universe, Tuesday became Boozeday and Thursday Thirstday.

For all five students, Merrow wrote, "Learning seems to be optional."

He took his allegations to the airwaves in June, in a PBS special called Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, and then published them in a book of the same name. It was the worst national publicity to hit the UA since the early '90s, when reporter Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes excoriated the place on national television for many of the same reasons.

The UA community was mortified by Merrow's characterizations--especially since at least some of them are true.

"We're embarrassed by our graduation rate," acknowledges President Peter Likins.

"The article was depressing," echoes math professor William G. McCallum, who recently won a national award from the National Science Foundation for Distinguished Teaching Scholars. "It was pretty brutal. We all ought to be embarrassed and try to do better."

Jerry Hogle, a distinguished university professor of English and current vice provost for instruction, agrees in part with Merrow's economic argument that declining public support for education is damaging state universities nationwide. Large classes reflect not only the large numbers of students land-grant universities are called upon to educate--about 28,000 undergrads will flood the UA campus next week--they also testify to the "shrinking state dollars" used to fund the whole enterprise, Hogle says.

That said, most UA officials rush to their school's defense. Likins points out that the UA is taking measures to improve graduation rates, most notably by raising admissions standards, starting with this fall's high school seniors, and by putting more money into student advising.

McCallum argues that you could find the failing students of Merrow's article "at any big institution. But there are some things that are only here that he didn't find."

Speaking in an office lined with blackboards filled with equations and other mathematical arcana, the math professor says that the range in quality of both professors and students at the UA is unusually broad. Besides the indifferent profs and the students who are here to party, the UA boasts MacArthur and Guggenheim fellows among its faculty, and National Merit and Flinn scholars among its students.

"You can find great teaching and people who care about education, and students who really care," McCallum said.

Hogle believes Merrow's reporting was skewed by a predetermined point of view.

"The information in the article was so selective and so designed to prove a particular point," Hogle says.

For instance, while Merrow lambasted the 500-student lecture classes, Hogle points out that there are only five such classes on campus. And three of those are the notorious Psychology 101.

"To say that that's the hallmark of the student experience is just untrue."

Virtually all UA freshmen--about 6,000 of them--must go through the English composition writing program, and those classes are capped at 25 students. Low-level math classes top out at 30 or 35. So do beginning language classes. And as students move out of their basic required classes and into the much smaller upper-division classes for majors, they can sometimes count their classmates on two hands.

"We can be big because we are small where it counts," as Cason puts it, in a snappy PR response to the Times. "Average class size at the UA stands at 29, and 94 percent of all course sections offered enroll fewer than 100 students."

Still, it's easy to play with statistics, as Professor McCallum would surely agree. Plenty of the mandatory General Education classes have 100, or 200, or 300 students, and some students feel just as at sea in those as in a class of 500. Small armies of grad students, not professors, teach freshmen their obligatory English, math and language classes. The Honors College may be "well-devoted," as Fiske mysteriously asserts, but honors classes are unevenly distributed across majors.

So which gives the truer picture of the UA: the encomiums enunciated by the enthusiastic Edward B. Fiske? Or the denunciations delivered by the dour John Merrow? (The question is of more than professional interest to me: My spouse teaches at the UA, and one of my kids is a student.) I set out to find out whether the UA is taking care of its basic business--undergrad ed--by questioning the experts: the students.

A National Merit Scholar and Honors College student, Nina Conrad is a Seattle resident who chose the UA over her own highly ranked state school, the University of Washington. If Merrow's drinking student plotted to learn as little as possible, Conrad's on the opposite track, double-majoring in art history and journalism, minoring in dance and sampling plenty of other disciplines, from Italian to astronomy.

Now entering her junior year, she originally came to the UA for its nationally recognized dance program.

"I came for the audition in February 2003, and I was here for less than a day," she says in her off-campus apartment, a few days before finishing up summer school. "I didn't know if I liked the UA. But after I got into the dance program, I came back in March. I got recruited by the Honors College. The people in the Honors College were really welcoming and cool."

A full-tuition scholarship and cash stipend sealed the deal. Conrad was pleased to find that, with a pile of college credits already under her belt from a community college program at her high school, she placed out of most of the gen eds, the introductory classes that students often complain about. She did need to take some science gen eds--nicknamed "nats" for natural sciences--but she was more than happy with her choices. She enrolled in "The Physical Universe" and "Cosmology," both in the acclaimed astronomy department, and taught by Professor Donald McCarthy.

"I really liked them," Conrad says. "The teacher was approachable." To get honors credit, Conrad did extra work in one of the classes, and McCarthy was "excited I wanted to do the project."

Conrad even had an intellectual awakening in a large art-history class. This past spring, supplementing her double major in dance and journalism, she casually enrolled in a course on American art with Professor Sarah Moore. Conrad estimates 100 students were in the class, and Moore handled the whole thing herself, without the help of grad student teaching assistants.

"I took it completely randomly. But I loved it! She's a great professor. So I started taking more classes."

Conrad was so excited about her new discipline, she even switched majors, downgrading dance to a minor. Armed with her new double major, and the copy editing experience she's getting at the Arizona Daily Wildcat student newspaper, she plans to become an editor at a publication or book publisher after graduation.

The unmotivated students in her classes "usually don't bother me," she says. She did notice that a professor in a summer art-history class had to "dumb down" the material for some indifferent students.

"That's frustrating. Some people don't want to be here; it makes it harder for the rest of us."

Conrad's experience may come close to the ideal, but attracting and keeping good students like her can be a challenge for the UA. Last year, it numbered just 286 National Merit Scholars among its 28,000-plus undergrads. Conrad's freshman year roommate, a Scholar from Chicago, was unhappy and left after one year, she says.

With soaring tuitions at top private schools, the UA's scholarship programs go a long way to help. Along with its National Merit grants, the university is generous with merit scholarships and tuition waivers for talented Arizona students. University High School, Tucson's high-scoring college prep school, routinely sends many of its top grads to the UA, where the big attraction is a free college education.

Likewise, the new admissions standards are aiming toward attracting--and keeping--a better-prepared student body.

Until this year, President Likins explains, all three state universities had to admit any Arizona applicants who had graduated in the top half of their high school class, provided they had taken the proper coursework. Under the new rules, the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University must still accept students in the top quarter of their high school class, but they have more leeway with the second quartile.

ASU and NAU are sticking with the old program, but the UA is becoming more selective about which students in the second quartile it will admit. UA recruiters are even traveling the country and talking up the sunny-state school to high-achieving students, an unheard-of activity in the past.

But the change in the student body won't happen overnight.

"We will gradually elevate our criteria," says Likins, who plans to retire at the end of this school year. "In five years, the UA will be more selective than it used to be."

What can the UA offer its best students?

Officials proudly point to the Honors College, which claims to be among the most selective in the nation. It doled out only about 900 slots to freshmen in this year's incoming class. Once honors students are in, they benefit from early registration for classes, no small perk at such a big school. But to get that honors degree, they must take at least 10 honors courses, maintain a GPA of 3.5 and write a senior thesis. It's not easy.

"They have to be creative and motivated and really want to do it," says Patricia MacCorquodale, dean of the Honors College. The standards are so high that in recent years fewer than a third of Honors College seniors end up getting the honors degree.

"Those who do graduate with honors tend to be those going on to Ph.D. programs, medical school, law school," MacCorquodale says. "Other students feel it's not necessary for their career goals. They're going into teaching or engineering or business."

The Honors College also has an unusual structure. It's not a stand-alone college like ASU's Barrett Honors College. Rather, it's an administrative set-up that coordinates honors-level courses in departments around campus. Academic departments offer some 230 stand-alone honors courses, but honors students can make any class into an honors class by forging a contract with the professor to do an extra project.

"Our strength is that our courses are university-wide," MacCorquodale says.

But that strength can translate into a weakness. In theory, the honors student is supposed to do enriched work, not extra work. Christina Cichra, an honors senior from Florida double-majoring in anthropology and dance, has had some excellent stand-alone honors classes. But she says the honors contracts in regular classes sometimes simply mean into busy work.

"It's hard if the professor has a set syllabus," says Cichra, sitting in the Student Union food court after lunch. "It's hard for the professor to come up with something extra, or maybe they don't want to do it."

MacCorquodale agrees the contracts can pose problems, but adds, "I'm sympathetic to the faculty workload. On the one hand, the UA is committed to having top faculty in gen ed--there aren't many adjunct faculty or grad students teaching those--and then on the other hand, professors have a commitment to their graduate program. It's hard to meet all these demands.

"The total faculty numbers have gone down over the last five years. Trying to do more with less is hard."

Cichra also complains that stand-alone honors classes are unevenly distributed across majors. A friend enjoyed a smorgasbord of honors class in his computer science major, she says, while her major, anthropology, offers few.

MacCorquodale notes that departments that do a lot of gen ed teaching for students from all over the university simply don't have the faculty to offer small honors classes in their own majors. Conversely, departments that don't contribute teachers to gen ed have the luxury of teaching plenty of honors courses to their own students.

"In SBS (School of Behavioral Sciences), they're teaching a lot of courses that serve the gen ed curriculum," she explains. "So in anthropology there are not as many honors classes."

MacCorquodale would love to rectify the disparities. The administration recently gave her college a modest $150,000 to help "move in the direction of more honors classes," she says. And this spring, a committee that looked at overhauling the gen ed curriculum suggested instituting an honors track.

"We're doing the best job we can," MacCorquodale says. "Getting the new money shows that the UA recognizes there has been a problem."

Conrad may have sailed through the much-maligned gen eds, but they're a hot topic on campus. Most students have to slog their way through 33 credits in gen ed before they get to the smaller classes in their major, and many hate them.

"They're terrible," says David Rutherford, a 21-year-old history major from Houston. "Some gen ed classes have 400 people, with very little interaction. I learn more when I'm friends with my teachers. I took Psych 101. ... There were 300-plus kids. The teacher was a little speck on the stage."

Designed to give UA students a broad grounding in the liberal arts and sciences, the dizzyingly nicknamed gen eds have students study science ("nats"), humanities ("trads" for traditions and culture) and social sciences ("indivs" for individuals and cultures). Professors teach the large lecture classes, and TAs lead discussions in small sections. Some top faculty teach gen eds with good results--Steve Johnstone, a history professor who last year won a prestigious Guggenheim, regularly gets good teaching evaluations for his gen ed class--but others turn out to be a waste of everyone's time.

Serious students complain of zoo-like arenas filled with cell-phone-talking airheads, while poor students complain of gen ed professors dispensing too many assignments.

Part of the problem, Likins says, is that "the quality of the freshman class is so wide-ranging. That influences the learning environment. Faculty must do their very best to teach all the students in the classes."

So if a professor aims for broad comedy to reach everybody, high achievers roll their eyes and bemoan their bad education. But if a professor aims for rigor, others whine. One student's gen ed fun is another's student's fluff.

Literally. Take a class about pop culture in Japan. Breonna Tavenner, a senior who expects to graduate in December with a bachelor's degree in molecular and cellular biology, and minors in chemistry and religious studies, found the course "fluffy." Brandon Toussaint, 19, a Phoenix sophomore majoring in microbiology, called it "awesome, very good."

But the two students have different expectations of the gen ed curriculum.

Stealing a few minutes from her job at the Arizona Respiratory Center, Tucson native Tavenner praises the gen ed writing requirements.

"I learned how to write a really good research paper in a history gen ed," she says. What's more, "The gen eds exposed me to things I didn't know about." A class she took with Professor Robert Burns, head of religious studies, in comparative religions was "one of my favorite gen eds. It was in a huge auditorium, but Dr. Burns made it interesting to me. That class is the reason that I have the minor that I have."

But Toussaint criticizes professors who insist on taking the program seriously.

He enjoyed a gen ed in gay and lesbian studies, calling it "really great, a lot of fun," but he thinks the classes should "just be taken as an interest course. The workload's high in some, and it interferes with other classes. It'll be, 'I've gotta study for a final,' but then I have to do something for the gen ed."

Will Harris, 25, an MBA student in entrepreneurship at the Eller College of Management, got a double degree in history and Spanish at the UA in 2002. He says he got his lowest undergrad grades in gen eds.

"It was tough to study what I wasn't interested in," says Harris, while waiting to take a final for a summer business class. Nevertheless, during his sophomore year, he had an experience as transforming as Conrad's in art history.

"There are times when a student's brain turns on," he says. "All of a sudden, you light up, and learn how to think. That happened to me in a class called 'Intellectual History of 19th Century Germany,'" taught by Professor Steven Martinson. "I really learned how to think in that class. Because of that, I became a supporter of gen ed."

Freshmen must enroll in small classes of two semesters of English composition, offsetting the experience of large lecture halls in gen ed. Only those like Conrad who show up at the UA with plenty of college credits can opt out.

Professor Thomas Miller oversees the giant program, which teaches at least 6,000 students a year. A small army of 160 teachers, most of them grad students, are deployed into some 500 small sections, where they teach writing at seven different levels. The program even publishes its own comp book each year.

"We have won awards for our research, as well as for our teaching innovations," Miller says. "We talk about writing in terms of 'craft.' They learn to read as writers, and write as readers."

Students tend to give the program high marks.

"I learned how to write a good paper," says Tavenner, who was in honors English. "You get a lot of feedback. The small classes are very participatory. You have to be there."

But Elizabeth Easley, an aspiring lawyer who graduated in May with a double major in psych and political science, says that she had learned a different way of writing at Tucson's Salpointe High. The comp teacher was always criticizing her techniques.

"It didn't help me much--and sometimes, I went back to the Salpointe way," Easley says.

Miller says the grad students who do the bulk of the teaching are carefully trained and monitored by faculty advisors.

"We have 10 faculty who do nothing but train and supervise the comp teachers," he says.

The grad students are "overworked and underpaid," he adds, but with the realities of declining state support for the university, the department has no choice but to hire them and work them hard. After all, no one is coming to the English department with money to hire 160 new professors to teach freshman comp.

The undergrads don't seem to mind the fledging profs at the front of the class.

"Most of the teachers are grad students, but that can be a good thing," Tavenner says. "They're more on your level."

Toussaint was so inspired by the grad student he had second semester that he plans to delve into creative-writing classes after he gets some of his science requirements and gen eds out of the way.

"He was really awesome. I learned a lot. He helped me as a writer."

Over at the math department, the situation is the same. New students have to pass a test to place out of math, and hordes of them land in either the most basic class, "Math in Modern Society," or college algebra. Students who don't place into college algebra are sent off to Pima Community College for remedial math, a practice known as "swirling."

Professor McCallum says he disapproves.

"We used to teach lower-level courses, but the UA decided we should not teach remedial courses. It was not a math department decision. If we're admitting them, we should teach them."

The beginning students who do make it into UA math are, like the English comp students, taught by heavily supervised grad students. The fledgling teachers teach college algebra, following a standardized curriculum. If they turn out to be any good at it, they go on to teach calculus.

Like the English department, the math department couldn't possibly handle its hordes of undergrads without the grad students.

"We teach 50 to 60 sections of college algebra," McCallum says, with no more than 30 or 35 students per class. "We teach 30 sections of calculus. We have thousands of students a year in these classes. Grad students do a lot of teaching, but it's not a bad thing."

McCallum likens the program to the training of interns, who begin seeing patients under the supervision of a full-fledged doctor. You wouldn't want a new medical school grad to start practicing without ever having seen a patient before, he notes; nor would you want a new math teacher to get out of grad school without every having explained a cosine to a class. "People have to learn how to teach."

Not surprisingly, for a department that teaches such a tough subject, the student evaluations vary widely.

"I'm sorry, but the math department is terrible," declares Toussaint, who was stung by a low grade in a precalculus/trigonometry class. "They have better teachers at Pima."

Tavenner also resorted to Pima after a calculus calamity, taking part two at the community college. But Cichra was happy with her statistics class. Taught by a regular professor, she says it was helpful with her anthro major.

"It was a good class," she says.

Easley, the newly minted UA grad, is sitting at an outdoor table at her alma mater, studying hard for the law boards. But she has a problem, a big one: She needs recommendations from profs for her law-school application, but she spent most of her undergrad years in giant--and anonymous--psych classes.

"I didn't get to know the professors, and I'm having problems getting letters of recommendation," she laments. "The professors are telling me, 'I didn't know you.'"

Psych 101 is famously huge, but Easley also found that even the upper-division psych classes are "still pretty big." Not only that, but with psychology one of the most popular majors, she was closed out of classes she wanted to take in child abuse, terrorism, sexuality and divorce.

"I never could get in."

Easley's grades are good, she says, but she apparently never learned to work the UA system to her advantage. Tavenner did, getting advice from an "excellent adviser," Roxie Catts, in the molecular and cellular biology department, and tips about classes from the scientists and post-docs she worked for. So did Harris, who forged close relationships with his history professors. So did Conrad, who gets to know professors through her honors contracts. And Cichra, who did an archaeology program abroad with a UA professor. And Rutherford, who learned early on how to get into classes that were listed as full.

"The Internet will say the class is full, but there are almost always a few available seats," Rutherford explains. "Usually, the professor will let you in if you go to class the first day. At orientation, they told us, 'The drop-add form is your best friend.'"

The students who learn such tricks early are the students most likely to succeed at a university as big as the UA. If they're assertive enough, they can get a great education there, especially in the fine majors lauded by Fiske--once they navigate the shoals of gen ed and the other elementary classes. Asked what recommendations they'd make to the university's administrators, these savvy students variously clamored for more honors classes, better funding for some science-lab classes, fewer students and smaller classes.

They'd like to see the UA take better care of its basic business--undergrad ed--instead of expanding into new and costly ventures.

Rutherford wondered why the university puts buildings over people, forging ahead with construction projects while faculty numbers decline and gen ed classes burst at the seams. Right now, the UA is building a new science building and planning a $100 million science museum downtown. Why not use the money to hire more professors instead?

Patti Ota, the vice president for enrollment management, says construction money comes from a different pot. But she insists new buildings also serve the basic mission -- at least in the sciences.

"To attract top faculty, we need to have top-notch facilities for research," she says. "These are the faculty that provide the education for the students."

And the declining number of professors?

"These are issues at all large public institutions," she says. "Professors always want smaller classes. And not all the gen ed classes are large."

McCallum, the math professor, says, "One day I sat down to figure out: How many more (math) faculty do we need to do everything correctly? It came out to seven positions. That was around 1999-2000. Since then, we've lost other faculty positions. I think it's not going to get better."

He comes to same conclusion that the students have about their UA education.

"We just have to do the best we can."

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