May 15, 2003
Undergraduate tuition is approximately 70 percent as much as graduate tuition (in-state rates, Spring 2003). Which could lead a person to assume that undergraduate class sizes are only 40 percent larger than graduate classes. Or, if undergraduate and graduate class sizes were the same size, a person could assume that instructors for undergraduate classes were paid 70 percent as much as instructors for graduate courses (I can hear the laughing of English teaching assistants all the way over at my office!).
In reality, both of those assumptions are incorrect. The average undergraduate student has had to endure classes significantly larger than those of graduate students, and the highest-paid “best and brightest” faculty that we hire are seen more often by graduate students while undergraduates are more likely to see TAs and lecturers. I am not trying to say that the quality of instruction at the undergraduate level is inferior to that at the graduate level — rather, that we should consider for a moment how much better the undergraduate experience could be if the expenditure per student credit hour (SCH) was commensurate with the proportion of tuition paid.
Unfortunately, the recent trend is not good. Years of budget cuts have taken the biggest toll on undergraduate education. Reduced resources have led to fewer, and often larger sections for undergraduate courses. And fewer sections can mean that some sections are filled — a problem for bottleneck courses needed either as prerequisites to get into a program or as requirements to complete a degree path.
The loss/non-replacement of tenure-track faculty frequently results in undergraduate courses being taught by TAs and part-time lecturers. While these TAs and part-time lecturers often do an excellent job with their classes, the integration of content with other courses is often missing due to the (often) transient nature of the instructors.
At the same time that resources are dwindling, we are facing increasing pressure to improve efficiency and accountability. Translation — increased SCH’s per faculty member. Many units are responding to this pressure by creating lower-level (undergraduate!) survey courses that can be delivered to large numbers of students at a time. While not passing any kind of value judgement on the quality of these courses, I do want to point out that again it is the undergraduates who are bearing the brunt of the load.
The largest single product we have here at the University of Washington is the undergraduate degree. Many decisions need to be made in the next few weeks concerning the University’s budget, budget cuts, and reallocation of resources. Maintaining the quality of our primary product should be our biggest concern in all of those decisions.