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Archive for Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Open admissions debated

October 25, 2006

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There is an old cliche that there are some issues about which reasonable people can disagree. I believe that the question of qualified admissions to state universities is one of these.

One of the reasons I moved to Kansas to come work at Kansas University was its populist tradition. I believe very strongly in the importance of making higher education available to everyone who wants it at an affordable price. I also believe that there are few people who cannot benefit from a college education if they have the desire and the commitment to do so.

Thus, the idea of a university that admits almost all high school graduates, the policy at KU when I joined the faculty, is an attractive one to me. Nevertheless, while I continue to believe in the goal of universal higher education in the United States, over the past dozen years I have become increasingly aware of the practical difficulties in achieving this goal.

The presence of unprepared or uncommitted students at a university causes significant problems. First, in order to provide remedial teaching for unprepared students, the university must commit substantial financial and personnel resources to the effort. Such a commitment, in an environment where funds are limited such as at KU, inevitably leads to a diminution of resources for teaching the remainder of the student body, making theirs a less positive experience. Indeed, many educators will argue - and I agree with them - that remedial teaching is more time-consuming and more costly than teaching regular classes.

Second, the presence of students who are at university for the "wrong" reasons - to party, to escape small-town family life, because they don't know what else to do - often is disruptive. To take just one example, such students often will make it more difficult for their roommates and dormitory neighbors to study.

I will testify personally that there are few more depressing things for a teacher than to have students in a classroom who are drunk, asleep or playing games on their computers while the lecturer is trying to teach something important. Yet, it happens when uncommitted and unprepared students find themselves in classes in which they really don't belong. It is for these reasons that more selective admissions standards make sense, even at a populist state university like KU.

I don't think that we can stop at this point, however. I have little sympathy for students who attend university in order to party for four years. They'd be far better off in a decent job learning responsibility. But I do care greatly about those students who want to continue their education but simply aren't yet at an academic level for which KU is appropriate. Kansas has an obligation to these students. With help and time they may well be prime candidates for admission at KU and other research universities.

In order to serve them the state needs to strengthen junior colleges and vocational schools, places where remedial education can be done more efficiently. A strong network of such "feeder" schools will both serve the educational needs of these students better and more effectively than KU can and make KU's educational efforts more focused and cost-efficient.

- Mike Hoeflich, a professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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