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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
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An Interview: Alexander W. Astin

  Alexander W. Astin
Alexander W. Astin is director of the Higher Education Research Institute and Allan M. Cartter professor of higher education at UCLA. He is nationally known for annual polling of freshmen over the past 34 years, revealing that youthful goals have changed strikingly: Saving the world has become less important to them than getting ahead in business.

One of the most frequently cited authors in his field, Astin has published 18 books and hundreds of articles containing research and recommendations for sweeping reforms in higher education.

This interview was conducted by Carl Irving, a San Francisco Bay freelance writer and frequent contributor to National CrossTalk.

Carl Irving: Your writings point out all sorts of faulty, inflexible traits in American higher education which downplay teaching and curtail help for those who need it most. How can one avoid pessimism about the future?

Alexander W. Astin: I have to be hopeful, because otherwise what's the point? I have to believe we can work on our problems, and I think in the case of the things I write and speak about, it's partly a problem of recognizing the problems that we have. A lot of it is definitional. We don't see what the problems are.

Take the case of the underprepared student as an example. Our attitude about these students almost turns the whole problem on its head. I use medical analogies because they can be useful in understanding how we approach education. Our current view of remediation would be like saying, "Well, you know, the problem with health care is that people get sick. If people didn't get sick, the health care system would be in much better shape. We could do a much better job if people could just stay well. So let's not treat the sickest people."

People are currently talking about getting rid of remedial education, and you can see how preposterous it would be if we talked that way about health care. People who are in need of a lot of educational help and intervention are the very people to whom we ought to be devoting our greatest resources, because the stakes are so high in terms of what happens to these people.

CI: Why are stakes so high?

AA: Voluminous evidence, hard data, show that of all the things about people that relates to their ability to become productive and contributing citizens, their degree of educational development is the single most powerful factor. It's more important than their race or their social status or any other thing. How much education people have -- their level of educational attainment -- is powerfully related to whether they become dependent in some way on society, or whether they become predators as opposed to productive and contributing members of society.

Education also relates to the kind of parenting they are capable of, the kind of family stability they show, how much they add to the tax base, and whether or not the offspring that they produce become productive and contributing citizens themselves. We have such a huge stake in raising the educational level of this society. And the social and human costs associated with people at the lowest levels of educational attainment are enormous, way out of proportion to the economic cost of raising their performance.

In other words, educating everyone is a whole lot less expensive to society, both monetarily as well as socially and emotionally, than to carry along in society large numbers of people with minimal skills, with minimal educational development. There are many reasons why we don't appreciate this problem, and one of them is that our educational system has tended to mimic private industry in the way it conducts its affairs.

We use a kind of a Darwinian perspective: We provide opportunities for people, and "if you can't hack it that's your tough luck." Survival of the fittest, and so forth. That kind of thinking in education is also reflected in the notion of competition: It's a sacred cow.

CI: Isn't that part of our history from the beginning?

AA: Not in education. Initially, believe it or not, it was predicated on the radical proposition that the purpose of education was to educate people. Today this is seen by some as a radical proposition. If, in fact, your job as an educational institution is to educate, then why would you not want to educate the people who are most in need of it? It's crazy.

CI: But wasn't that kind of thinking limited to a very homogenous New England?

AA: Sure. But a lot of elite private institutions still think that way. So even if they recruit relatively underprepared students, they still make a commitment: "Look, we admitted you. Now it's our job to make sure you get through this institution." And indeed they are very successful. So it's not that we can't educate certain groups of people or that they're beyond being educated, it's just a question of whether we value them enough to invest what we need to invest to help get them through the system.
There are a lot of other problems where higher education, not just K-12, is ultimately responsible. Higher education not only defines the standards and the norms of practice for all levels of education, but also the beliefs that shape our system. For example, there's the enormous emphasis paid to the highest achievers. We put a high value on teaching the "best students," and conversely there's a stigma attached to teaching the poorer students.

In medicine, this would be like assigning the field of oncology very low prestige because people with cancer are very sick and in need of a lot of medical attention.

CI: If you look about you, every respectable campus seems to push in that direction.

AA: We have a very schizophrenic higher education system. Foreigners tend to look at our system this way: It's wide open. Practically anybody can go to college somewhere. On the other hand, they fail to see that the internal structure of the system is very elitist. We have these centers of excellence where everybody's smart, where there's plenty of money and facilities, laboratories and libraries. And only the best prepared students can go to these institutions.

And then we have the poorest equipped and poorest funded institutions for the least well prepared. And what the educational rationale for that is, I don't know. I'm still searching for a rationale. But these arrangements are all supported by our beliefs. To me, the first step in trying to deal with these problems is to surface the beliefs that underlie these processes and practices. Some of these beliefs are very deeply imbedded in the academic psyche. They're so deeply embedded that we never acknowledge, much less question them.

One such belief is that it reflects poorly on me if I have to teach poorly prepared students. It would be painful -- but perhaps a little bit refreshing -- if we could come to admit that. Another belief has to do with seeing education from a competitive point of view where you look myopically at your school or your kid or your college: The only thing that matters is maximizing the benefits your kid gets or your college or the school gets, and not being able to think systemically about all the schools and all the kids

There's an analogue here with ecology and the environment. You throw the milk carton on the ground. This has implications. It may be a short-term benefit for you: You get rid of it and don't have to look at it any more. It doesn't clutter up your house or your car anymore. But it makes the overall environment worse.

You might vote for vouchers because you want some extra money to send your kid to a private school. But you don't realize that by stripping your kid away from the public school, you contribute to the crippling of those schools, to the further stratification of the K-12 system. And, of course, increasing inequities are absolutely predictable if we ever go to a voucher system. Inequalities will become even more "savage" and more widespread. It's a prescription for educational disaster.
To promote vouchers by arguing that it somehow will benefit poor people or people of color is disingenuous. And the "competition" argument is so transparent. In business, if more people want to buy your product, you expand; but in education, when a lot of people want to buy your product, you have to become more selective.

Harvard could be ten times bigger than it is and CalTech could be 50 times bigger, given the applicant pools to these places. But they don't expand, they just become more selective. And that's the difference with business. Profit is not what the schools and colleges are after. They're after exclusivity and uniqueness and selectivity. The voucher system would just create more stratification.

CI: Over the years, you have published studies contending that the goal of "being smart" had been overdone. You once wrote, "We need to focus more on measuring how effectively we develop knowledge and understanding and much less on congratulating ourselves on the accomplishments of our top young faculty and top students."

Five years ago you published a study in which you praised a number of elite private, residential, medium sized campuses that do make progress with diverse enrollments, because your study found that they were blessed with first-rate teaching by faculties who simultaneously did respectable research. Competition among students was less important than elsewhere, and they were more likely to study interdisciplinary subjects, take courses in history, do more writing, earn credit by volunteering for part-time public service.

You argued, "That could happen anywhere, if faculty chose to do so." Do you feel less hopeful these days that such institutions could be useful role models in America?

(Note: colleges which fit Astin's model and granted him permission to be identified were Bard, Bryn Mawr, Carlton, Colorado, Harvey-Mudd, Occidental, Pitzer, Smith, Swarthmore, Wheaton and Williams.)

AA: I think there's a lot to hope for. But if we want to emulate some of the good practices in those elite private colleges, we have to make some tradeoffs. And the question is whether we're willing to make these tradeoffs. There's the case of the big public institutions like the California State University, for example, where the tradeoff would have to involve a tremendous de-centralization of the educational process, breaking up some of these huge departments. So, you don't have 80 psychologists in the psychology department, but you begin instead to distribute those people into smaller pedagogical units with interdisciplinary work, team teaching, and that kind of thing. As a result, you get each educational unit down to a more manageable size.

These elite private colleges are manageable because they are of a size and focus that we can conceive of in some kind of meaningful way. All the faculty and staff are united in a common mission to educate the undergraduate. But those great big college factories are very hard to conceptualize and manage, with the organizational structure focussed at the departmental level.

As soon as you have a big enough critical mass of faculty in any discipline, they want to do graduate work. They want to have graduate students and emphasize research. If you get enough academics together in any field, a large enough group, in an environment where research is encouraged, then you get that peer pressure to overvalue scholarship, and the undergraduate suffers.

CI: Do you think a smaller, decentralized situation would change that?

AA: It would force people to work together across disciplines. That's one of the things that happens in a good liberal arts college. You can't just live in your department, because it's not a large enough venue to do your work. You're not just a biologist or a historian, but you're a member of the faculty of this college.

CI: You say so much depends on the faculty outlook. You once wrote: "If they choose, faculty at almost any institution can interact more with undergraduates in their research, teach more interdisciplinary courses, or give more written evaluation of their undergraduates' work." Wonderful sentiment, but is there any basis in fact anywhere in the United States?

AA: It can work. MIT sort of pioneered in that; UCLA developed a similar program a dozen years ago. At UCLA we have more than 1,000 faculty and thousands of undergraduates who work with those faculty on their research. It's a tremendous success. It continues to grow. The faculty like it.
Despite the stereotypes about "publish or perish," there are many faculty in this and every other research university who care deeply about their teaching and their undergraduates. But the norms of the institution don't support that. So, a lot of faculty are demoralized about that, because they realize they don't have permission, so to speak, to really engage with the undergraduates, because they have these competing expectations from their colleagues.

CI: Will it take a Great Depression or some similar disaster to shift more decisively in this direction?

AA: The leadership in our institutions has a lot more influence than they're willing to admit. Those institutional heads and deans, they have plenty of power, and one way to use that power would be to mobilize the faculty who do care about these issues. In service learning, for example, you can extend a traditional academic course to include a "laboratory" or field experience where students perform service in some community agency that gives them an opportunity to apply the course theory in the field. That's one of the most promising elements; it's still a marginal activity in most institutions, but the trend is definitely upward. There's a lot of stirring in academia around these issues of student engagement, citizenship, and paying more attention to undergraduate education.

We can fix some of the problems that we have, but we have to undergo changes in some of our attitudes and beliefs about certain things. I think higher education has got to take the lead on this, because we need to change ourselves before we can expect others to change.

CI: Your studies discovered that residential students were more likely to benefit. But your case depended on those small, elite, private colleges.

AA: Our research going way back shows that the most important thing a freshman can do is to leave home and live on campus. It's not so much a matter of where you go or what you spend; residency is the number one decision. But we have a mass community college system where virtually no students live at the college. The reality is the community colleges have by far the largest number of freshmen coming out of high school. These people ought to have a residential experience, a chance to create a community of peers.

CI: You found that residential students got much more out of college, for instance, by doing more extensive reading and writing. But could community college students really get that much out of, say, literature and psychology, as at a Williams College or a Smith College?

AA: There are plenty of community college kids who could really get into Plato or Henry James or William James. With a little bit of preparation, they could appreciate that kind of thing. Someone who was considered a bit of an elitist, Robert Maynard Hutchins, argued long ago that if it's good enough for the elite students, it's good enough for everybody. He thought everybody ought to have the same exposure to the classics. He was pretty hard core about that.

CI: After a lifetime of urging reforms, do you see any significant movement in those directions? For instance, 20 years ago you argued for measuring student progress at individual campuses. You urged educators to adopt what you termed "value added" or "talent development" to measure students' progress once they were enrolled on a campus. Was anybody listening to that?

AA: One of the problems with research and scholarship and the new ideas they generate is that they take a long time to germinate. About 15 years ago, I had very serious melancholia about my work because I felt I was just writing books and articles that had no benefit. But I learned that if you've got a good idea it takes time for it to get into the culture, the folklore of the people who can think about it and act on it.

But the idea of tracking students' progress over time really caught on. I would guess that by now more than several hundred institutions have, in one way or another, picked it up and used it. The idea came out of a critique I've been making for years about the way we go about trying to become "excellent." In a nutshell, my criticism was that in most institutions "excellence" meant the acquisition of resources or pumping up your reputation: You can become "excellent" either by virtue of having lots of resources -- endowment, smart students, a famous faculty, a good physical plant -- or, you are "excellent" because others think you are.

I've been on several boards of trustees and I can see that same thinking among the board members. Nothing would make the board happier than to acquire more resources, and to build up their reputation: The new U.S. News ranking comes out, and they all get excited.

I've been arguing that we ought to define our excellence in a completely different sense -- in terms of our educational effectiveness, our goal being to develop the talents of our students. The economic idea of "value added" is a similar concept: You have a product and by intervening in the development of that product you make it more valuable.

The intent of the educational "intervention," then, is to improve the condition of the students in some way, adding to their capabilities. So I began saying we need to rethink the whole notion of excellence: It's not what resources you have, or what others think of you, but rather what you contribute to the student's development. A number of institutions have picked up this idea.
Our studies showing the value of the residential experience have been used by state universities in California and New Jersey, for instance, to justify construction of more residence halls. And our most recent research on service learning provides very powerful evidence about the efficacy of that kind of teaching. We hope that these findings contribute to the spread of service learning.

CI: Do you sense enough change in sentiments in recent years to support the changes you recommend?

AA: Educators are not waiting around to have people like me advise them on how to change their programs. You've just got to keep plugging. If you think you've got a good idea, or you have some important new research evidence, you keep pushing it and, if it has any merit, eventually people will start to pay attention and it will start to register. But it's not just doing good research; you also have to push people to look at, reflect on, the results.

My newest agenda is that we need to get more into knowing who we are, being aware of our beliefs, of the things that drive us and make us do what we do. I think academics have got to start sitting down and talking with each other about the meaning of what they're doing. Why are we doing this? What does it mean to us? What do we really care about?

A lot of us in academia don't talk about spirituality and stuff like that. It makes us very uncomfortable. But the fact is that we're spiritual beings. We do things because of our passions and beliefs and the things we care about. All the great philosophers, all the great religious traditions, say it starts with knowing yourself.

In academia we don't know ourselves very well. We're not reflective. We don't ask, "What's our work all about; what are we really trying to do?" And I think if we are able to create better opportunities for faculty and staff to talk openly and honestly about such matters, a lot of things would start to get better. And I think there's beginning to be some movement in that direction.

Photo by Axel Koester, CrossTalk

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