Jab at community colleges was arrogant and flat wrong

  • By Al Friedman
  • Sunday, September 12, 2004 9:00pm
  • Opinion

The appalling arrogance and elitism displayed by University of Washington economics professor Dick Startz in his Sept. 7 column (“Don’t let cost alone decide where you’ll go to college”) took my breath away.

According to Startz, students should take care to choose which college they attend, and they should disregard the tuition cost, because it will pale in comparison to the extra income that will be generated by that college degree. As a follow-on to this utterly mercenary advice, Starz informs us, starting out at a community college is “penny-wise and pound foolish” because “community college and university courses are rarely equivalent, even when the course names are the same. The level of intellectual rigor is much higher at the state’s universities.”

Clearly, Professor Startz would greatly benefit from climbing down off the Big Dog’s Ivory Tower and taking a walk around in the real world. Try telling a single mother working a full-time job and attending a community college that she should take out a loan because the extra thousands of dollars to go to UW is so much more worth it in the long run. Tell the same thing to an 18-year-old student standing in the bookstore, trying to figure out how to pay for the $500 worth of textbooks in his arms.

I would like to know how Professor Startz determined that community college and university courses are rarely equivalent, because that statement could not be further from the truth. For example, I taught a course at UW (Geology of the Pacific Northwest) in the late 1980s, then moved to Everett Community College, where I taught the identical course, using the same notes, assignments, texts and field trips. Did the level of intellectual rigor somehow decline once I left the confines of the UW campus? My experience is not unique, so it is ludicrous to allege that these courses are “rarely equivalent.”

I invite Professor Startz to peruse the statistics that compare the grade-point average of UW upperclassmen who attended that university through four years to the grade-point average of UW upperclassmen who attended community colleges for the first two years. Guess what? The latter is always higher!

The contrast between Startz’ column and two education pieces published on the same day by a Seattle newspaper could not be more illustrative. Dr. Charles Mitchell, chancellor of the Seattle community colleges, touted the strong and successful relationship between the UW and his schools. He pointed out that “41 percent of the students who receive baccalaureate degrees in our state begin their studies at community or technical colleges.” I guess all those people will be very disappointed to learn from Professor Startz that they were “penny-wise and pound foolish.”

The other column was written by Dr. Ronald Thomas, president of the University of Puget Sound, who decries that higher education “is often considered a consumer good more than a public good, a mere … training ground for the labor force rather than a … great national asset through which to … discover and expand knowledge, to critique and transform our culture.” What a counterpoint to the cold-blooded economics of Professor Startz!

I challenge Dick Startz to visit my (or any) Washington state community college and attend a calculus class, which will generally be taught by an experienced math instructor (ours average more than 10 years in experience) in a classroom of less than 35 students. Then, go back home and contrast that experience with the typical 100-student UW calculus class, commonly taught by an inexperienced graduate teaching assistant who may or may not have a strong command of the English language. Now, tell me where you encountered the higher level of intellectual rigor! This experience will not be unique, as freshman- and sophomore-level class sizes at community colleges are almost always far smaller, yielding a superior learning environment.

Washington’s universities are fine institutions, and any student should feel privileged to attend them. It is not necessary to unfairly denigrate Washington’s community colleges to make that point. Perhaps Professor Startz should focus his economic prowess on convincing the Legislature to more fully fund the post-secondary needs of our citizens, instead of dishing out ignorant, spurious and gratuitous advice to those same citizens.

Al Friedman is dean of science, math and occupations at Everett Community College.

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