Problems at Both Ends Of the 'Pipeline'

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Colleges and universities pay a high price, their leaders say, for the failure of high schools to teach mathematics and science adequately.

Edward J. Bloustein, president of Rutgers University, says that some "20 to 30 percent of students" attending U.S. colleges and universities need remedial training in mathematics. Many "haven't taken the necessary courses in mathematics in high school," while others meet formal requirements but still "don't measure up" to expectations, he contends.

Statistics support his claim. A national survey of four-year institutions conducted in 1981 by the Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences found that enrollment in remedial mathematics at four-year colleges increased 72 percent between 1975 and 1980. In 1980, 25 percent of the mathematics courses taught at four-year public institutions were remedial; 42 percent were remedial at two-year colleges.

"I've seen college freshmen who don't know how to add one-half and one-third, and last year I met a student who didn't know the meaning of the word fraction," says Sandy Athanassiou, a learning-resource specialist who coordinates a remedial math program at the University of Missouri. A 1982 survey of incoming freshmen at the university indicated that 24 percent of the students anticipated needing remedial work in math.

Academic administrators may not be able to calculate the social costs of this problem, but they say they are painfully aware of the immediate financial toll. Ms. Athanassiou's remedial center, for example, costs $300,000 a year to operate. And according to the California Postsecondary Education Commission, the cost of running remedial programs in all subjects in the University of California system was $6.6 million in 1980-81; in the state-college system, the cost was $9.3 million; and in the community-college system, it was $66.3 million.

Last summer, the Louisiana Board of Regents for Higher Education estimated that the state's colleges and universities would spend about $13 million on remedial education in 1982-83, more than twice what they spent in 1979-80.

Leaders of both public and private institutions agree that they share the blame with high schools for the decline in mathematics and science achievement among today's students.

"Open-door" admissions policies, they acknowledge, took the pressure off students to work hard in high school. By being "lax in setting our own requirements, we failed in the same way" that parents, schools, business, government, and the society at large have, Mr. Bloustein acknowledges.

Recognizing that, many institutions are now spelling out for high-school students what specific courses they will need to take in all areas to be successful in college. And they are upgrading their entrance requirements, calling for more years of study in the so-called "academic core" subjects--in mathematics, science, and language arts.

Well over half the states have announced--or are in the process of formulating--more rigorous admissions standards for their public colleges and universities. Most of these new requirements include more years of study in mathematics and science.

"We are receiving into college a group less equipped to receive the culture we are designated to transmit," says Mr. Bloustein, who notes that unless the situation is changed students will live "less fruitful lives," have "mistaken notions about employment," and "diminish the nation's economic position in an increasingly sophisticated world market."


Acknowledging a share of the blame for the problem as well as a clear financial interest in admitting students who are better prepared, a number of colleges are responding to the pressure in their local communities for solutions by working with local schools on a variety of educational-improvement projects.

Cooperative arrangements are being established that provide inservice training for teachers; use faculty expertise to develop school curricula; make university facilities available to students during the school year, including internships that give high-school students "hands on" experience in research labs; develop special summer programs for high-school students; help bring technology and computer-assisted instruction into the schools; and accelerate the work of gifted students.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a special report last winter that documented collaborative efforts nationwide. The report recommended that "every college and university establish a partnership with one or more school districts to provide educational and cultural enrichment as determined by principals and teachers at the schools."

The College Board has also been taking steps to improve the preparation of high-school students. In 1980, it launched Project EQuality, a 10-year program to develop a model set of "competencies" that high-school graduates should have, and a curriculum to achieve them. Project officials will also ask colleges to adopt these competencies as a preferred standard of preparation; study successful remedial programs in colleges and share the findings with high schools; enlist the help of business and labor to determine which of the academic skills are most relevant to the world of work; and encourage the creation of school-college pilot projects designed to improve academics in the schools.

In May, the College Board detailed the skills in six fields of study that every student aiming for college ought to master.


But even as they attempt to address the problem at the precollegiate level, college and university leaders point out that they have serious math and science problems that are totally unrelated to the schools. Poorly trained undergraduates constitute only one on a long list of problems that have plagued academic programs in the sciences over the past 15 years, they say. Among them:

The 'Brain Drain.' Faculty members in chemistry, engineering, electronics, and computer science have been leaving academe in growing numbers over the past few years for better-paying positions in business and industry and for better working conditions.

At the same time, the student demand for courses in computer science (the total number of earned bachelor's degrees boomed by 367 percent from 1971 to 1980) and engineering (in which bachelor's degrees increased by more than 50 percent between 1975 and 1980) has put tremendous pressure on colleges to come up with teachers and programs.

But the search for faculty becomes increasingly difficult, officials say, as industry's lure for trained scientists grows.

A survey conducted by the American Council on Education indicated that a total of nearly 1,600 (about 10 percent) of faculty positions in engineering were unfilled as of September 1980. Of these, 45 percent had been vacant since 1979.

The so-called "brain drain" is affecting not only research universities but the nation's community colleges as well. Robert McCabe, president of the nation's largest two-year institution, Miami-Dade Community College in Florida, speaks for many of his colleagues when he points out that his faculty members in data processing, computer science, electronics, and business are being hired away by corporate recruiters.

Eating the 'Seed Corn'. Not only is the business world luring away existing faculty from academe, higher-education leaders point out, but it is also taking the best students in mathematics, engineering, and science. These are the talented young scholars who traditionally would have gone on for their Ph.D.'s and then replenished the faculty ranks. Businesses can, and do, offer "three times the salary" of a graduate assistantship to new recipients of baccalaureate degrees in sought-after science fields, according to Mr. Bloustein.

Declining federal support for graduate programs and facilities, student uncertainty over the availability of financial aid and fear of incurring large debts, and a current glut of professors in many academic disciplines have also led students away from academe, those who study higher-education trends say.

The result of the various forces propelling talent out of the academic world is a situation many university leaders have described as society "devouring its seed corn"--robbing colleges and universities of a generation of graduate students who are needed to produce the scientists and engineers of the future.

The average age of tenured faculty in mathematics, engineering, and the sciences is about 50, according to Robert Rosenzweig, president of the Association of American Universities. When these professors retire in 10 or 15 years, colleges and universities will be hard-pressed to find first-rate people to replace them, he says.

The number of students earning doctor's degrees in engineering declined by 31 percent during the period between 1971 and 1980, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (nces). Moreover, a growing number of engineering graduates (more than 50 percent) are foreign students, many of whom may return to their homelands, according to Mr. Rosenzweig.

Mr. Rosenzweig notes that the high percentage of foreigners, over time, creates "instability" in the faculty ranks. Given the importance of engineering technology to our society, he says, it is "clearly an unhealthy situation" to have the most highly trained segment of the technological workforce composed of other than U.S. citizens.

In the physical sciences, the number of master's degrees and doctor's degrees awarded dropped 18 and 30 percent, respectively, from 1971 to 1980, nces reported.

Bachelor's degrees in mathematics have dropped 54 percent, master's degrees 45 percent, and doctoral degrees 40 percent since 1971, according to nces

Deteriorating Facilities. Cuts in federal funds have forced many states and institutions to increase expenditures on equipment; moreover, universities are making major investments in computer hardware that some observers believe "they are not prepared financially to make."

According to Mr. Rosenzweig, research instrumentation and facilities are in poor shape because of a "deteriorating capital base." He says many buildings that house research were built in the 1950's and 1960's--and sometimes long before that at older institutions--and are out of date. Their research equipment is "a generation behind" that of industry, he contends.

Introduction of the Computer. Besides struggling to provide enough computers and computer instruction to meet the "massive demand," colleges and universities, like the nation's schools, are working to determine "how much computer power on what type of instrumentation to use,'' as well as what type of skills in computers to require of students, says Mr. Bloustein.

Carnegie-Mellon University, Dartmouth College, Stevens Institute of Technology, and other institutions are developing broad policies on the uses of computers on campus.

In many instances, the schools are not only requiring all undergraduates to work with the technology, but are also requiring them to purchase a certain type of desktop computer that the school buys in bulk and sells at a discount.

Mr. Bloustein argues, however, that such plans are a "wasteful use of resources" and "a luxury students and institutions cannot afford.''

A better use of computer power,he says, is to provide a "constellation" of a large central mainframe computer with decentralized desktop units--the strategy that some universities adopted in the 1970's before the advent of the relatively inexpensive microcomputer.

"To put everyone on mainframe is a mistake, just as every student having a microcomputer is a mistake," Mr. Bloustein says.

Community colleges are buying microcomputers to help low-achieving students improve basic skills, as well as to meet the growing demand for courses in computer programming and data processing.

The "thirst to use computers is unquenchable," and it is "placing an enormous strain on the college budget," says Mr. McCabe of Miami-Dade Community College.


College leaders emphasize that in addition to whatever efforts are made to strengthen the quality of mathematics and science education on the undergraduate level or in the graduate schools, more attention needs to be placed on improving the quality of instruction in the nation's secondary schools.

Education needs to be viewed as a continuum, they insist, and efforts are needed to bolster each part of the education system.

"Education needs to be looked at as a pipeline. ... If a student doesn't pursue a sequence of courses in mathematics through 10th grade, that student precludes the opportunity for graduate study in math and science," says Michael J. Pelhzar Jr., president of the Council of Graduate Schools.

Graduate educators, he says, have had a tendency to look "too much at the top," worrying about where the Ph.D. is going instead of nurturing the pool "eligible to be considered for the Ph.D."

Vol. 02, Issue 39

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