I’m trying to find the news in Tracy Jan’s decimation of my Alma mater in today’s Boston Globe.
*Gasp!* The state’s top students don’t go to the public, four-year University in favor of other — and, frankly, better — schools. This was the same issue when I was heading there in the fall of 1991 and will be the same issue in the fall of 2021, 2031, 2041 and….you get the point, yet, for whatever reason, it’s news right now.
Jan seems to rely on a lot of anecdotal evidence, like the father of a college freshman who had a 4.0 throughout high school that said “Michigan, California, North Carolina, Virginia — they are killer state systems. Massachusetts is just not thought of as in the same class.” The reality is, UMass, by the very virtue that it’s a public, land-grant university, isn’t in the business of competing for those students in the same way state systems in Michigan, California, North Carolina and Virginia compete for those types of students. But facts like that don’t matter when you’re out to commit journalism.
The numbers in the article, complete with pie charts and bar graphs, however, are what troubled me the most; one chart showed that the number of Massachusetts students going to UConn, UNH and the University of Vermont all increased between 1999 and 2009 (2000 and 2009 for UConn) without showing the increase in the number of Massachusetts students that enrolled at UMass (and, with two recessions and an increased overall enrollment, it did go up between 2003 and 2010, as evidenced via a quick Google search that led me to these fact sheets on UMass enrollment). The fact is, enrollment in state schools generally increased in the past decade, as did overall college enrollment as a result of a wide range of factors, including unemployment that sent many people back to school and increased access to financial aid and student loans.
In other words, it makes a certain sense that as enrollment in those out-of state school increased, so did the enrollment of students from Massachusetts at those schools.
Another chart shows where UMass students came from in 2009, without giving a historical comparison to show me if it’s significant that 80.8% of all UMass students came from Massachusetts (students in my intro to journalism and feature writing class, you may not be attending Stanford as Tracy Jan did, but please take note: if you submit an article that uses numbers but doesn’t give comparison numbers to show why they are significant, your paper will be returned to you, ungraded. Turn it in a second time that way and it will be graded with a grade that will not make you happy).
Other charts actually bolster the case for a UMass degree, showing the system holding its own against peer institutions in six-year graduation rates, faculty awards and National Academy members. The only real damning chart, in my opinion, shows that UMass is in the bottom five nationally for decreases in higher education appropriations. But even that is undermined when you see that UMass still does fairly well in the other categories.
Otherwise, it relies on quotes that are, frankly, predictable. I’m pretty certain you can get any chancellor of any state school in the country to say “It can be better and we’re going to make it better” when you ask them about their ability to recruit top-tier high school students, or about any other area where there is always room for improvement. And any high school senior is going to boast about making the right decision in selecting whatever college they chose.
Here’s my anecdotal argument (since that seems to count for something now): when I was at UMass, those of us from in-state said we were “only” going to UMass, while people from out of the state saw it as a decent school and even a bit of a prestige thing. Very few high school valedictorians enrolled in UMass, then or now, but the education now and then is decent and gave me and tens of thousands of people like me a leg up. We’re people who probably could have gotten into better schools but were undecided and a bit lost and needed a place like UMass — a big, smorgasboard of options — to help us find some direction and, in my case, passion for a profession.
I say this despite — or in spite of — the knocks it gets and the somewhat outdated reputation of UMass as a”party school,” because here is, for lack of a better term, an anecdotal fact: pretty much every, non-secular institution where the average age is 19-20 is a party school, including state schools in Michigan, California, North Carolina and Virginia.
The real trend in higher ed, as documented factually in other Globe articles, articles in higher education journals, and in an anecdotal sense in every classroom I have been in over the past three years, is that people are looking to save money by going to more affordable schools — at least for undergrad. There will always be upper middle class kids who will go off to noted private schools and top-notch, four-year state schools, but more and more, middle- and working-class families are looking to save money, and for many, an expanded state system — even if your son or daughter won’t be rubbing shoulders with lots of kids who got 4.0′s as high school students — is a great place to get a decent education at a decent price.
And this is a big part of the reason why I love working with the population I work with down at Bridgewater State. Most of those kids are smart enough to get into the Bentley’s, Babson’s, Emerson’s and Boston University’s of the world, and some may have even had Ivy league potential. Maybe mom and/or dad got laid off in this economic nightmare and this is all they can afford, or maybe they’re going to bang out gen-eds at Bridgewater then transfer. Or maybe they’ll do their full four years at BSU and save the money for a better grad school. For whatever reason, I see lots of students who could have gone somewhere “better” but chose the state higher ed system.
And some of them know they’re that smart.
If you want see a driven kid, find one who could have gone to those top-tier, state-system schools Jan gushes over in her article but, for whatever reason, they ended up at a Bridgewater State or a UMass. There’s a bit of a “fuck you, I can do this and don’t tell me I can’t” attitude that, frankly keeps me as an instructor on my toes. It’s really hard to be dismissive of a student’s shortcomings saying “well, they are just Bridgewater State students” after you’ve been on campus for much more than a semester.
And it’s really fun to be in that kind of classroom, whether you’re on my end or theirs.