the diploma mill

7 March 2011

In case you've ever felt that undergraduate education, even at top-tier, not-for-profit universities is a bit of a factory turning money into diploma'd citizens, here's a tidbit from the UCLA budget implementation report.

The Challenge 45 initiative has encouraged faculty to review the content of each undergraduate major with the goal of limiting major requirements to a total of 45 units, where feasible. Significant numbers of campus departments have accepted this challenge. While these curricular changes are unlikely to produce significant dollar savings, streamlining course requirements will eventually contribute toward increased student throughput for a given investment of academic resources. The next step is to broaden this effort to examine all undergraduate requirements to ensure that they are cost-effective and in studentsâ€™ best interests.

A few things come to mind:

• These changes admittedly will produce few direct dollar savings. This alone does not make them a bad idea (in fact, keeping an open mind toward restructuring undergraduate education is a good thing), but making changes solely to increase student throughput?
• “The next step” is to make sure programs are cost-effective? Doesn't the University have an obligation to its students to obtain for them a high-quality education without milking them like so many cattle? Why are we not investigating the cost of programs first and foremost?
• Sure, we can reduce program requirements so that kids don't hang around as long, but is that the point of the University? Don't we stand for educating and informing tomorrow's citizens? Why would we want to allow them to leave without demanding anything less than a superior demonstration of ability and competence? Can that be obtained for most 20-year olds by culling requirements?

Of course, the system is facing tough times and an incredible $500 million in budget cuts; UCLA is taking on$96 million of these itself. I openly support the efforts made so far to at least question how our money is being spent in the fact of reduced funding. But to lay this on the backs of the undergraduate population by not only increasing their tuition but also reducing the overall quality of education? That seems indecent.

PS: of course, we cannot directly relate the quality of education with the quantity of education. However, as the American education system values liberal arts training — even engineers have to take some sort of art history class or the like — it is evident that we, as a society, place some importance on forcing people into topics they wouldn't otherwise investigate in the name of producing a more broadly-educated populace. These requirements recognize that many (if not most!) young adults in the undergraduate age range do not have sufficient internal motivation to perform far beyond the requirements set forth; it's not a question of aptitude so much as maturity.

By cutting required courseloads we are then necessarily cutting the baseline breadth of undergraduate education; college becomes even more of a party and even less of a study session. We owe it to the students to not become Penn State (or wherever the crown currently rests). It is the duty of the University to provide sufficient incentives and opportunities for students to pursue an educated life; telling them they can receive the most valuable piece of paper they will ever own by doing less is an incredible disservice.

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