Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Class in Class

I discovered yesterday that my college is even more representative of its community than I had thought.

I knew that enrollments were way up -- and they are -- and I knew that the biggest gains were among lower-income students, particularly men of color. What I didn't know was the degree to which we're also expanding our reach on the upper end of the income scale. If you were to plot our enrollment gains this year with 'class' as the x-axis -- okay, I'm a big nerd -- you'd get something close to a u-curve. The big gains have been in students who otherwise wouldn't have gone to college, and among students who otherwise would have gone to more expensive places. Facility in class largely correlates with parental income, so we're getting more students on both extremes of the ability scale.

Some professors who were in on the conversation said that they're seeing the tension in their classes. In the disciplines for which there are no developmental courses, the range of drive and talent in class is usually quite wide. The professors reported seeing an even wider range this year, with more people on either extreme. In some cases, it's actually becoming a class management problem, since the top students sometimes lose patience with the bottom, and vice versa. And there are enough in each camp that it's hard to write the tensions off to the stray outlier.

The growing disparity of ability probably explains the newfound enthusiasm among some professors for prereqs. Over the years, more intro-level courses have specified something like "English 101 eligible" as a prerequisite, on the grounds that the course assumes college-level reading and writing ability. As more courses have built those walls, the great waves of students who don't qualify instead hit the remaining courses in larger numbers. Those professors note with alarm the declining ability of their classes, so they, too, campaign for prereqs. It's individually rational, but it creates some weird side effects.

Among other things, it makes group work much harder. When the disparities within the group are just too wide, the students on each extreme can start to resent the others. In a perfect world, of course, everyone would appreciate everyone else's unique strengths, but it doesn't always work that way.

Although we have developmental classes on one end and honors classes on the other, most of the courses here aren't 'tracked' in the K-12 sense. Intro to Psych is Intro to Psych. If you've just come from a K-12 system in which most of your courses were 'tracked,' the sudden change of approach is probably pretty jarring. From out of nowhere, you've got peers who are much farther away from you on both ends of the scale. And the teaching challenge, which is substantial in the best of times, is that much worse as the extremes expand.

I'll admit being of divided mind on this one. On the one hand, I'm glad to see that we're offering something of interest to the entire community. Part of that is out of fidelity to the mission -- the college is supposed to serve everybody -- and part of it is out of self-preservation. To the extent that the middle and upper middle classes see the college as partly theirs, we're in a better spot politically. But it's still frustrating to see the increasing class polarization in the larger society -- which I generally think of as negative -- make itself felt here, too.

Wise and worldly readers who teach: have you seen the u-shaped curve develop lately in your classes? Have you found an effective way to deal with it?