Saturday, July 18, 2009

On access

One thing I really enjoy about being at UC Berkeley is the genuine diversity of the undergraduate population. When I was an undergraduate at a private university, I rarely encountered transfer students, and when I did, they had transferred from Columbia or Smith. That's not to say that the population there wasn't diverse in its own way (geographically, for instance, it beat Berkeley by a mile), but here there's a regular stream of transfer students, and "transfer" almost universally means "transferred from a community college." Cal is an élite university, but it's also part of a much wider state higher education system.

One of the big concerns with the current budget crisis is its impact on UC's commitment to access. It's obvious that access will be reduced: UC and CSU are taking fewer students and raising fees. At UC Berkeley, Chancellor Birgeneau has estimated that reduced course offerings will cause students to graduate a semester later on average, which is in essence another fee hike, not to mention time that those students will never get back. This is all happening while private colleges are dropping their need-blind admissions policies, further shutting down opportunities for lower-income students.

So it will be harder for many Californians to get to campus.

But access is not just about being physically present, or being able to afford the fees. Pierre Bourdieu wrote some very famous books about this, in fact!

Power is coded in the university; hierarchical relationships are shifting and unclear (the eternal TA problem, for instance), and boundaries between the professional and the personal are invisible. I suspect this is one reason the "customer" model of the university is so attractive to some students; they don't know how to be part of an academic community and negotiate those invisible boundaries, but they do know how to be consumers. It's a system they know.

To really benefit from going to college, you need to go to class and do the reading, of course. And that's clear-cut for most people; the syllabus says "do this," and you do it or you don't do it, but in any case you know what you were supposed to do.

But that's just the beginning. College is also a place for building peer networks, for becoming acculturated in academic life (which is also a certain class acculturation), for gaining experience, confidence, professionalism, and kinds of social capital that can't show up on a transcript. And for that, you also have to venture out into the gray areas.

Suppose you want to better your lot in life by applying for a Rhodes scholarship. If the "access" we offer is meaningful, then this should be perfectly possible. But when my sister applied for the Rhodes, she needed twelve letters of recommendation. How do you get those twelve faculty letters? You have to feel entitled enough to the attention of your professors that you can persistently show up at office hours, ask them to read your work, and ask them to write nice things about you. In some ways, it very much resembles asking for a personal favor.

And you have to ask even if you went to a public high school where you had to go through a metal detector every day; even if, unlike some of your classmates, you've never traveled abroad or gone skiing or worn expensive shoes. Even if your childhood friends or your parents seem to suspect that by going to an élite school, you've abandoned them. Even if you're short on cultural capital, in other words, and feel that perhaps you're not entitled to ask.

Meanwhile, a high student-to-faculty ratio means long lines of students camped outside professors' offices, and work-study means having fewer daytime hours in which to do that kind of camping. Two sociologists found that
fully a third of all Rhodes Scholars between 1947 and 1992 earned undergraduate degrees from just 3 universities: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Harvard alone produced 1 in 5 Rhodes Scholars over this 50 year period. (10)
When you consider even the logistics alone, it's not surprising.

One of the most disheartening things about the current budget cuts is the reduction in small seminars that's resulting around the UC. UC Irvine even looks to be canceling its transfer seminars, which are supposed to help transfer students orient themselves in their new university. This will disproportionately affect the students who do not come from privilege.

While administrators are right to worry about brain drain in the faculty ranks, we should also worry about brain drain among undergraduates--undergraduates who don't come pre-marked as "brain" because they don't come with cultural capital or a diploma from Exeter, but who are some of the UC's most important people.

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