Phil and I pay attention to what Bob Samuels says about California higher education for a few reasons. First, as a faculty member at UCLA, he sees the system from the inside. Second, as President of the University Council of the AFT, he is a good source for the union's perspective on issues. And finally, as somebody who has spent significant time studying the financial structure of California public higher education in detail, he has data and insights that beyond the usual anecdotal observations by individual faculty members. (I look forward to reading his book when it comes out this summer.)
So with all that as background, his comments on the scope of the bottleneck course problem are worth reading:
In my interviews with students, I have found that the biggest reasons for a delay in graduation is that students switch majors, they fail out of courses, they cannot get required courses, they do not qualify for their intended majors, they have to work to pay for their living expenses, they do not think there are any jobs for them after graduation, they pursue double majors, they do not receive adequate advising, they have medical problems and personal issues. Students also complain about the number of requirements for certain majors and their dislike of large lecture classes. A comprehensive survey of the UC system would help to determine what is really happening on a local level.
Another important aspect of this problem is the question of how much money individual campuses dedicate to undergraduate instruction. UCOP has reported on the increase in classes and the decrease in faculty relative to the number of students, but it is still unclear what has caused these changes. After all, during the last five years, while the state did reduce the UC budget by $1 billion, total tuition revenue went up by over $1.2 billion. It would seem that as students pay more for their education, they would get more support and smaller classes instead of less support and larger classes, but as this blog has stressed, the university continues to use undergraduate funds to subsidize many other university functions.
The focus on time-to-graduation is important because, as Phil and I detailed in the portion of our position paper that I published earlier today, a delay in graduation is costly to students and taxpayers alike. As Bob points out, we don't have a lot of clean data telling us exactly how much of the delay in aggregate graduation time is due factors that colleges and universities can control, like access to bottleneck courses or better student advising on what courses they should be taking, and how much of it is due to factors in the students' lives that are external to the school itself. This is important information to have, both to give us a sense of where the state should be focusing its efforts and in terms of monitoring the success of those efforts. Furthermore, at least some of the data can be gathered relatively quickly and easily---for example, through student surveys. While Phil and I do believe there is enough evidence that bottleneck courses are a problem to merit increased attention and funding, we also believe that getting more hard data quickly enough to influence the policy that is currently being shaped should be a high priority.
The financial aspects that Bob highlights in the second quoted paragraph are important too. Our position all along has been that there are a variety of ways to solve the bottleneck course problem and that technology is not a silver bullet. While we take no position on the specifics of Bob's math, it is certainly legitimate to ask whether budget money that is currently being applied to other priorities should be redirected to opening more course sections of bottleneck courses.