A professor friend of mine with experience at both private universities and the University of California emailed me a response to my post a couple of days ago about funding of higher education. My description of public vs. private universities, he says, might have been accurate 30 or 40 years ago, but not anymore:
Whatever the merits of your plan to wean private universities off government support and concentrate our efforts on shoring up public universities — and there’s something to it — I have to take issue with something you wrote in it:
UCLA provides undergraduates with an education that's just as good as Harvard, and the country might be a better place if we all faced up to that and took Harvard and the rest of our super-elite universities off the pedestal we've placed them on.
Based on wide experience in both private and public universities, I’d have to say that this isn’t true. People who think it is true probably aren’t aware of just how much public universities have cut, or else aren’t aware just how intensive an education private universities provide. (What I’m going to say covers the humanities and social sciences; I’m less familiar with science and engineering.)
Public universities still have excellent faculties. Their scholarship is often first-rate, and their lecturing skill is probably no worse, on average, than it is in the Ivy League. The problem is that while lecturing is cheap and easily scalable, developing writing and critical thinking skills is expensive because it’s labor intensive. For students to really engage with the material they’re reading in books and hearing about in lectures, someone smart and knowledgeable has to lead a small-group discussion. For them to learn how to make an argument and defend it against objections, they have to write lots of papers, be able to work on them with someone who knows how to write and also knows the subject matter, and have them graded by someone in a position to make serious comments so they can do better next time.
Ivy League students sometimes complain that most of the discussion-leading and careful paper-grading — they call it “real teaching” and they’re right to do so — is done by grad student teaching assistants, since seminars with professors are scarce. But at the University of California these days — and I’m told it’s been like this at Michigan for decades — graduate and undergraduate funding cuts mean that most upper-level courses have no discussion sections and no teaching assistants. In other words, the real teaching doesn’t take place at all. Papers, if they're assigned at all — and increasingly they're not — are graded by "readers" paid so poorly that they can only spend a few minutes on each paper, are not available for writing assistance, and can't even be required, given their meager pay for long hours, to attend the lectures in the classes they're grading for. There's no way readers can grade papers carefully in such circumstances: they put check marks in the margin when something of substance is mentioned, and pass pretty much everyone through. As for professor-led seminars, never that plentiful, they’ve all but vanished: they simply cost too much.