It's spring break right now at many local colleges and universities, but there's a lot happening in the world of higher education -- from budget crunches to an upcoming Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in admissions policies. WAMU 88.5's Kavitha Cardoza speaks with Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Education, about the big changes coming for colleges, and how they're likely to affect students, staffers and professors. Following are highlights of their conversation.
On the Supreme Court's upcoming decision on affirmative action in higher education institutions:
"It's a huge issue. It's been 10 years since the court took up the issue of affirmative action in higher education, and there's a chance they could bar colleges from considering race and ethnicity in admissions. Just about every college association has filed briefs asking the court not to do so. But many other groups and individuals want the court to ban affirmative action. The case comes out of the University of Texas, but it could affect all of higher education depending on what the judges do. The reality is that there are some colleges and universities, where they use affirmative action very heavily in admissions, so for them it would affect who gets in."
On how the Supreme Court's decision might go:
"If you look at the questions that were asked during oral arguments, it didn't look good for affirmative action; I could count only three justices whose questions suggested support of affirmative action." A lot of universities have signed on to massive online open courses or MOOCs. Anyone can take these courses, they're free but they are usually not for credit classes. And I know many university officials are excited about them being able to reach millions more students, but they're also keen to figure out how to make money off MOOCs.
On awarding academic credit to online courses:
"Very quickly there's been a push to award credit for MOOCs because they've been very popular, hundreds of thousands of students per class. And because of the budget problems we were talking about, many colleges are looking for ways to provide better education at less cost. So the universities are looking at ways to award credit and get paid in the process. There are some concerns. If you look at online education generally, not all students are as likely to be successful as others. Generally, very experienced students, highly disciplined students, well prepared students... they tend to do well online. Students who are first generation of college, who are at risk to dropping out, who haven't established good study patterns, they are less likely to do well. So there is concern that by relying on MOOCs or large online courses generally, to provide too much of an education for not well-prepared students that it could end up hurting students."
On what universities are trying to do to promote STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math education):
"They're trying to do everything they can. One of the things they are trying to do is get the message down to the grade schools that if you don't take the pre-college track and stick with math, serious math and science in high school, you basically can't all of a sudden decide you want to be a biologist as a freshman in college. You basically are closing doors or certain options early. Another thing they're trying to do is promote science education. There's kind of a revolution going on today in science education, Many people think the traditional lecture format is deadening. Many people say that takes away from what makes science exciting. So there's a lot of effort to chance those introductory courses so there's group work right away, so that students are working on practical projects, not just memorizing formulae and equations. That will engage students more, and they'll see the excitement of science. One of the other issues in science is that there are severe gaps in who goes into science. The numbers are so striking that one college can make a huge difference. For instance we reported this year that Clemson University has six African American tenure track professors in computer science. Now you might not think that's a huge deal, but that's 10 percent of all the African American computer science professors in the United States. Now what that means is that you don't have minority students going into fields that pay very well... that's crucial to the future of our economy."
[Music: "It Might As Well Be Spring" by Django Reinhardt from Complete, Vol. 18: 1949-1950 I'll Never Be The Same]