UW Admissions and the Budget Cuts

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After the Seattle Times published a front page article: Why Straight-A Students Won't Get into the UW this Year there has been a firestorm of comments in the media and blogosphere--and I have gotten quite a few emails about it.

Let me give you my take on this article and on a variety of related topics ( budget cuts, the quality of the UW student body, and the quality of out-of-state students) from the viewpoint of someone in the system and the undergraduate adviser for my department.

First, it is a fact that the UW has been hit by large budget cuts over the past few years and that the impacts have been profound. On top of the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars of State support over the past two years, the proposed state budget cuts UW funding by roughly a third--190 million. Tuition increases (13% authorized) only make up a small proportion of this. A few more years of such State cut-backs and tuition increases and the UW will be essentially be a private school.

The impact of past cuts have been substantial and to give you a feeling for this let me tell you what has happened in my department. First, we have lost teaching assistants (TAs). I teach 101 and we used to have 3 for 240 students. Now I have only two (and there is a possibility it might be one next fall). Let me assure you that this TA reduction has a significant impact for students--less help, less interactions from the TAs. In addition,we have lost roughly half of our state-supported staff. In the "old" days there were funds for curriculum improvements and equipment for undergrad labs. No more.

To keep the doors open, we have increasingly used research funds to fill gaps when appropriate (and sometimes when it is not), but this action has taken away funds that should have been applied for long-term improvement of our research efforts. And while our competitors in other states have gotten new buildings, ours has major problems, from inferior labs to lack of power/cooling for our computers. And deductions for medical insurance, parking, and other fees are going up rapidly for all staff and faculty. Most departments are not replacing faculty that retire or are hired away by other schools--the UW teaching staff is shrinking.

The state budget cuts are so large that the UW administration has turned to a desperation measure: increasing the number of out-of-state students. This is clearly a hot-button topic--one inflamed by the irresponsible article in the Seattle TImes headlining the rejection of "straight-A" students...more on this later. Out-of-state students pay three-times more tuition than in-state undergrads--and supply net financial surpluses. Importantly, by accepting more out-of-staters the UW can secure enough funds to SUSTAIN THE NUMBER OF IN-STATE STUDENTS. This is such an important point that it bears repeating. The State is cutting funding so substantially that economizing (getting rid of TA, bigger classes, less profs) is not enough to maintain the current in-state student body. So by increasing the number of out-of-state students in-state student support can be partially stabilized.

At first, the UW was simply going to increase the number of out-of-state students, with the same number of in-staters, but things got so bad they were forced to a small (150 slots) drop of in-state students (replaced by out of state) to make things balance. Now lets us take up some major myths.

Myth 1: Out-of-state-students generally have inferior grades/SATs than in-state students.

Not true. In general out-of-staters have superior records--this is based on my direct experience and from UW statistics. Consider the students accepted this fall that indicated an interested in atmospheric sciences. The GPAs for in and out of staters were essentially identical (3.80), but the out-of-state students had math SAT scores that were 76 points higher. This is a huge increment.

Myth 2: The UW is rejecting straight-A students with excellent qualifications in lieu of weaker out-of-state students.

The Seattle Times made a big deal about this. The truth is that UW admission is based on more than just grades...and it has to be so. There has been huge grade inflation, particularly in our state. An "A" grade does not mean what an "A" signified 20-30 years ago. Many students have 3.8 GPAs and beyond. That is why the UW has wisely turned to a more holistic evaluation. Are the courses taken challenging? ("A"s in less challenging courses don't mean so much). Does the student has strong SATs? What about extracurricular activities than demonstration interest and motivation? So it is theoretically quite possible for an A student not to get in if other factors are not strong. And top schools like Stanford follow the same approach. Even with all that said I suspect the very few 4.0 GPA students with reasonable course loads and board scores are rejected by the UW.

My next point will probably get me into huge trouble. So be it--it needs to be said.

Not all UW students belong in the UW.

Ok, I got it out. My feeling (one shared by many UW faculty that I have talked to) is that the UW student body can be divided into roughly three parts:

The Golden Quarter: About 1/4 of our students are simply stellar--bright, motivated, prepared...as good as you get in ANY school. They do well in college and generally go on to highly successful careers. They take advantage of the huge opportunities of the UW (e.g,. participation in research). Just a pleasure to teach and interact with.

The Middle 50%: These are students with the ability to do well, but their motivation and interest varies. They are happy with B grades and even the occasional C. Some of these students can really be turned around, while others are happy to float through.

The Bottom 25%: These students basically aren't interested in learning. For them, the idea is simply to pass with minimal grades. The UW is high-school continued and they are here because they didn't know what else to do or were pressured by family and friends. Most of the them came to the UW with very weak backgrounds (far weaker than any serious freshman should have). For example, many of these folks are not comfortable with basic high school math--like fractions and solving simple algebraic equations. They shouldn't be wasting the classroom space.

Now some of the problems above are due to our state's poor K-12 educational system and you know I have discussed the math part many times. A large percentage of our high school students are coming to college unprepared: they can't do basic math, they can't write well (or spell well), or work creatively. And the problem is just not their skills but their attitudes towards learning.

When I teach 101 I am really shocked by these attitudes--many expect that the exams will just be the homework with different numbers and that they can do a make-up if their grade is poor (you should see the look when I disabuse them of this notion!) Many have the attitude that their poor grades are the INSTRUCTOR's problem. Each class I am stunned by how many students are playing with their cell phones and smartphones during class--or spending most of the class on their laptops. And I don't think this is an issue of class quality...my ratings are uniformly high.

So lets get back to the UW admitting more out-of-state students. From my perspective, this is a good thing. Yes, it helps partially make up for the legislature's draconian cuts. But more importantly, the UW is a nationally, if not internationally, leading university and we SHOULD be drawing students from far afield, with the assurance that a large proportion of the students (say at least 50%) come from our state. The UW is more than just about educating students...it is a vital research enterprise that provides intellectual vitality to the state. We supply individuals that will help ensure the economic future of Washington..and quite frankly the origin of the the students doesn't matter as much as where they end up (here). To put it another way, the UW is an effective tool to effect a brain drain of the nation's best into Washington State--something necessary by our poor attempts to educate our own students.

By drawing more nationally, the UW student body will progressively get stronger and as these students graduate the reputation of the University will strengthen (as has happened for Michigan). And replacing the bottom 25% with highly motivated, successful students is really a good thing for everyone...including the students that don't really belong here. Many of them never graduate anyway.

I think the above direction is inevitable, since the State Legislature looks at the colleges and universities as a big piggy bank to be raided....and we are all to blame for this situation...at least everyone who has voted for the Eyman initiatives or supported candidates who don't understand the importance of investing in our schools and our future. And for those--including many in our education schools---who have allowed the quality of state instruction to decline to such a low level.

Perhaps strangely, I am very optimistic about UW's future. We will go through some wrenching years as we transition to being essentially an essentially private school--and the UW administration will have to be careful to maintain the core strengths of the institution as we adapt (they are doing a good job at this so far). But after roughly five years we will be on our own...no longer dependent on the vagaries of the State legislature and state coffers..and no longer worried about the next ill-advised initiative. Tuition will rise to perhaps 12,000-15,000 a year...a bargain for such a excellent education (thankfully we starting with very low tuition compared to comparable schools). And some of the tuition increase will go into scholarship aid, insuring that those of lesser means are not prevented from getting a UW education. The UW funding will be stable again and the student body will be stronger. A better time.
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