College re-openings are risky

With the fall semester looming, colleges and universities are split on resuming in-person instruction (“How Colleges Can Keep the Coronavirus Off Campus,” The New York Times, June 1).  I understand their predicament.  They want to protect the health of students while at the same time not deprive them of a traditional education.

The problem is that no matter what steps officials take, they are fighting against what young people do naturally.  I’m talking about congregating in close quarters.  We already see evidence of that now that the lockdown has been lifted.  Young people violate social distancing at bars and at beaches very often without wearing face coverings.

Schools can require students to sign a contract promising to adhere to stipulated rules.  But in the final analysis, such efforts will be in vain.  That is particularly the case at residential colleges and universities because students are always in close proximity to each other.  If schools are really committed to the health of their students, they should rely exclusively on distance learning until a vaccine is available.

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Doctorate is a bad investment

College graduates at one time or another may be thinking about returning for a doctorate in the belief that it will enhance their chances of landing a good job (“Are You Sure You Want to Go to Grad School?” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, June 3).  But based on the best evidence available, it’s a big mistake.

I’m referring now specifically to those who want to eventually become a tenured professor, although it also applies to work in the private sector. That’s because only about 20 percent ever do so.  There are certain notable exceptions.  A doctorate in STEM will open doors because STEM holders are so much in demand in academe as well as in the corporate world. Remember that a PhD is primarily a research degree.  It doesn’t prepare its holders to become an effective teacher.

It takes on average five years to get a PhD in most fields.  During that time, professors load candidates up grading papers and teaching discussion groups.  The stipend they receive for their work barely covers the rent, let alone anything else.  Given the total picture, it’s hard to understand why anyone would pursue this long-haul degree.

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Affirmative action under renewed debate

In 1996, voters in California made it illegal to consider race in deciding who is admitted to state colleges and universities by approving Proposition 209. But there is a proposed constitutional amendment, ACA 5, that wants to restore affirmative action (“Ward Connerly Rides Again,” The Wall Street Journal, June 2).

Today’s opponents of restoring affirmative action are primarily Asians, who would be the ones disproportionately penalized. The truth is that they would overwhelmingly constitute the student body at colleges and universities if objective criteria were the sole basis for admission.  But it isn’t.

SCOTUS has sent confusing messages on the subject of racial discrimination in academia.  On one hand, the high court has said that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.” Yet it has also said that diversity is a worthy goal, which has allowed schools to artificially cap the number of Asians admitted. The Ivies once did the same thing with Jewish applicants.  Apparently, racial preferences refuse to die.

It’s hard to predict the outcome, but sentiment in California has changed because the state is now more diverse, with people of color now the majority.  As a result, voters may decide to restore affirmative action.  If they do, they will pit ethnic groups against each other, further exacerbating relationships going forward.

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College admissions will never be the same again

Although change in how students are admitted to college has long been underway in this country, the pandemic has accelerated it (“Will the Pandemic Revolutionize College Admissions? The Wall Street Journal, May 30.)  Yet no matter how much effort is put into making admissions fairer, there will always be complaints.

I’m referring now to the decision by the University of California to eliminate the SAT and ACT.  As long as no national curriculum exists in this country, UC cannot possibly come up with its own version that is a significant improvement.  Other countries serve as evidence.  In Japan, for example, the curriculums are almost all the same throughout the country, even though standards vary among upper secondary schools.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that its students perform so well.

I still maintain that college is not necessary for a good life.  I say that particularly today because of the cost of getting a degree.  What about vocational education?

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Later school start times debate

The pandemic has allowed teens to choose their own bedtimes.  Not surprisingly, they prefer to go to sleep around midnight and awaken around 8 or so (“How Teens Can Get More Sleep,” The New York Times, May 28).  This pattern leads to the debate whether starting school a bit later than at present may result in greater learning.

Although it’s true that brain patterns of teens are different than adults, should schools change their schedules to meet their preferences?  If learning is the No. 1 consideration, then the answer is affirmative.  I realize that starting school later will necessitate changes in bus schedules and in less free time for those who are already involved in many extra-curricular activities.  But that is a small price to pay.

On the other hand, if the goal is to prepare teens for life after high school graduation, then changing the schedule will shortchange them. I say that because the typical work day starts at 9:00, or in some fields at 8:00.  How will young people adjust to that reality?  Employers are not going to change.  Yes, there are some companies that allow their employees to work from home at their own hours, but that is not yet the standard.

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Grad students deserve labor protections

Without graduate student workers, colleges and universities could not operate.  Nevertheless, they are paid very little and receive no paid sick leave. As bad as their situation is, it’s about to get even worse as a result of the pandemic (“Universities to Grad Students: Drop Dead,” The Nation, May 27).  At UC Santa Cruz, for example, 54 have been fired from their teaching assistantships.

Administrators claim that grad students function essentially as interns, meaning they are getting on-the-job experience toward their doctoral degrees while receiving compensation.  But the truth is that their institutions are the ones benefiting far more.  In this regard, universities and colleges are acting more like businesses than educational institutions.

When I was an undergraduate at UPenn in the 1950s, all of my discussion groups were taught by grad students, and all of my tests and papers were graded by them as well.  Perhaps things have changed a bit, but I doubt it.  Professors have long viewed grad students as cheap labor to be exploited.  I place the blame on administrators whose primary objective is to keep costs down.  The strikes and sick-outs by grad students will likely result in only slight changes.

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Online college degree is worth pursuing

There was a time in this country when possession of a bachelor’s degree in any field opened doors to a well-paying job (“The Future of College Is Online, and It’s Cheaper,” The New York Times, May 25).  But today, what matters the most is the major.

Employers seek workers who have the knowledge and skills that make them able to immediately contribute to the company’s bottom line.  They care not one whit if those were obtained online or on campus.  That’s why I don’t understand the appeal of spending on average $200,000 for a degree from a private college or even $100,000 for a degree from a public college.

The reason usually given is that an online degree cannot possibly offer everything that an on-campus degree can.  There is some truth to that argument.  But I submit that the price paid for the latter in today’s marketplace is too steep.  If it’s possible to get the wherewithal for a good job online, then I say it’s a bargain.

Everything in life is a trade-off.  Online courses make it harder to network, but the cost savings are substantial.  Online learning will require some major changes at colleges and universities.  Classrooms will have to be fitted with new technology, and professors will have to redesign their instruction.  But in the final analysis, I think the trend will be increasingly online.

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An inside look at the SAT

When the University of California announced that it will no longer require the SAT for admission, the news triggered the usual cries of elation or denunciation (“The University of California Will Stop Using SAT, ACT,” The Wall Street Journal, May 25). Anyone who follows issues in education I’m certain is quite familiar with both sides.  What I intend to do in today’s column, therefore, is to explain a side of the controversy that is poorly understood.

I’m talking strictly now about how the SAT is designed.  If the test were loaded up with items that measured only the most important content effectively taught by teachers – which I maintain should be the sole reason for its existence – scores would likely be bunched together. That would make it nearly impossible to rank students. In fact, items that are answered correctly by too many students are almost always deleted from subsequent editions.  That doesn’t mean the items are easy.  On the contrary, they are difficult, which is why students who get the items right will almost always perform well in college.

So what we have is an educational Catch 22: the more successful that teachers are in teaching the most important material, the more the SAT devalues that.  It must engineer score spread or else it cannot deliver on its promise to admission officers.  Designers have found over the years that the items best suited for that purpose are those measuring socioeconomic factors.  Therefore, what the SAT really does is to measure what students bring to the classroom, rather than what they learn in the classroom. (Notice the prepositions in italics).

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Mismatch in college admissions

In an attempt to diversify their student bodies, which SCOTUS said meets a “compelling state interest,” colleges have admitted black and Hispanic students with lower test scores than those of other races (“In California, the Dream of Racial Preferences Never Dies,” The Wall Street Journal, May 20).  Nevertheless, voters in California passed Prop. 209 in 1996 that banned consideration of race and gender in public education.

Although critics said that black and Hispanic enrollment would virtually evaporate at the state’s most elite schools, that hasn’t happened.  In fact, their overall enrollment in the UC system has dramatically risen above pre- Prop. 209’s level.

But I think there is more to the story than their sheer numbers.  I’m referring now to the non-cognitive effects.  Yes, graduating from elite schools certainly is an achievement.  But at what price?  When black and Hispanic students find that their grades and class rankings are below their classmates, what does that do to their self-esteem?

Richard Sander at UCLA’s law school attempted to answer that question in a co-written book “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It.”  Since then, he seems to have changed his mind.  I’d be interested in learning why.

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Safety measures needed before reopening schools

New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, will not reopen schools in September unless a five-point safety plan is adopted (“New York City Teachers Push for Specific Safety Measures Before Schools Reopen,” The Wall Street Journal, May 18).  I hope the plan, which includes widespread testing, temperature-taking, rigorous cleaning and protective equipment, is followed by all other school districts.

But I wonder how it will be carried out in light of the size of the district.  With 1,800 schools, it will be extremely difficult to do so.  The average class has 30 students.  How can social distancing be done?  There are simply not enough classrooms to space students out.

Elementary school will be even more difficult because so many activities involve children working closely together.  Will they be required to wear face masks?  If so, will they keep their hands away from their faces?

When I was teaching high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nearest restroom was too far away to allow me to thoroughly wash my hands and get back to my bungalow.  Moreover, soap dispensers were rarely filled and paper towels were absent.

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