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Alexander Astin

The Freshman Mind Yields Its Secrets to a Dedicated Sleuth

April 18, 1999|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is the author of "Something Better for My Children: How Head Start Has Changed the Lives of Millions of Children."

American higher education devalues teaching the very students it could help most, argues UCLA professor Alexander W. Astin, and shouldn't get off the hook by dropping remedial programs for poorly prepared students. Much quoted for the surveys of entering college freshmen that he initiated more than 30 years ago, Astin contends that "many faculty are brainwashed in their graduate training that remediation is a low-level activity, it's demeaning, so we hire part-time people to do it. But it's our most important work." Money and status are concentrated at elite institutions like his own, and not at community colleges, which have the bulk of the students and the most need.

Astin, director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, is a jazz pianist by avocation. His thoughts on the skewed values of higher education are a verbal riff based in part on listening to the students he surveys. His views are unpredictable. For example, survey data show that entering freshmen benefit when colleges expose them to diversity by preaching it, including it in courses and encouraging students to interact across racial lines. These students stay in school, are more satisfied with their programs and "care enough about the racial problems to want to do something about them," Astin says. Yet, he parts company with some avid supporters of affirmative action "because all of the energy was put into arguing whether we ought to use race in admissions."

That deflected attention from the real question of "why do we need affirmative action in the first place?" Astin says. "What are the social and economic conditions that create these discrepancies in preparation across different racial groups?" Astin would like supporters of affirmative action to agree to limit the practice over time in return for meaningful support from opponents for programs designed to end those discrepancies.

Astin's benchmark American Freshman surveys, begun in 1966, have polled more than 9 million students. His institute tracks many of them beyond college. The researchers now make headlines annually because they chart the mood swings of college generations; in January, the survey revealed that women felt more stress in their freshman year than men. Astin, whose background is in developmental psychology, says he is seeking what works best to produce successful students and citizens.

Confessing he was an indifferent student as an entering freshman, Astin said he hadn't had to work hard in high school and focused on music. He played the trumpet at 7, and his brother, the actor John Astin, played the violin. Sandy, as the 66-year-old Allan M. Cartter professor of higher education is known, majored in music at Gettysburg College, then switched to psychology for his doctorate at the University of Maryland. His wife, Helen, also a professor of higher education, is UCLA's former associate provost and helped establish the university's women's studies program. The couple has two sons and two granddaughters.


Question: One particularly damning trend in your freshman survey is students reporting increased boredom in their high-school classes. At the same time, we read that the California State University system is trying to reduce its need for remedial classes. Are those things linked?

Answer: I think they are. The remedial issue is particularly interesting because the Cal State people don't seem to understand that that's their most important work. They want to dump it on the secondary schools or the community colleges or whatever. Higher education trains those teachers, school administrators and principals. We set the standards for the curriculum in those schools, so for us to stand back and disavow any responsibility for the fact that these people need remediation is not only self-serving but it's just inaccurate.

It worries me that higher education is sort of off the hook on this one. The poor folks in K-12 [kindergarten through high school] are taking the beating for problems that are very often out of their control--either issues of funding or class size or poor neighborhoods.


Q: You're saying higher education in general has to do a better job?

A: Exactly. If you can imagine efforts at working with the lower schools [as Cal State is doing] being successful over a period of time, and one would hope they would be, what are we going to do in the meantime? Just kicking these students out of the CSU is crazy. It's shortsighted in terms of the state interest. Why do we want a bunch of people with marginal literacy flooding into cities and towns of our state? We have a self-interest in educating these people well and valuing that part of our work. Many faculty are brainwashed in their graduate training that remediation is a low-level activity, it's demeaning, so we hire part-time people to do it. But it's our most important work.


Q: What can colleges do to prevent boredom in their own classes?

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