Wednesday, September 11, 2019

In Praise of UC Riverside Undergraduates

This year, U.C. Riverside is ranked #1 among national universities on the US News & World Report college ranking metric of "social mobility". This metric is based on six-year graduation rates among Pell Grant recipients (most of whose family incomes are below $50,000) and the relative graduation rates of Pell students vs non-Pell students.

UCR has long been notable for its success with first-generation college students, economically disadvantaged students, and students from historically underrepresented groups. Money Magazine ranks it #1 among "most transformative" public colleges (and #4 overall), based on having higher-than-expected graduation rates, earnings, and student loan repayment given the economic and academic background of its students. In 2014, when President Obama proposed a plan to rank universities based on graduation rates, percent of Pell recipients, and affordability, UC Riverside also came out as #1. Fifty-six percent of UCR students are Pell recipients, and the plurality (40%) are Latinx.

I often hear faculty from other universities complain about their undergraduates acting entitled to high grades and special treatment. I have not found this to be the case at UC Riverside. Last year, only one student complained to me about their grade, and the few who asked for accommodations or exceptions seemed genuinely to need them. Many UCR students work incredibly hard, juggling work, school, and sometimes difficult family lives. Students admitted to the U.C. system who want to party choose one of the coastal schools instead.

In theory, a school could achieve high graduation rates by making the coursework easy. Although grade inflation is widespread in academia, I don't think it is especially the case at UCR. My lower-division class "Evil", for example, requires substantial amounts of difficult reading, two essays, and three exams in a ten week term, including a comprehensive in-class final exam which students must pass in order to pass the course. Despite the difficulty of the course, it is among the most popular courses at UCR, always filling with as many spots as we can open up, usually 300-500.

Although students cannot pass Evil without passing the final exam, and about 10% normally fail the final exam, there is almost no cheating on the exam as far as I can tell. Potentially, students could cheat by going to the restroom and looking things up on their phones, but only a small percentage go to the restroom at all, and almost all of those students are quickly in and out. Only about 1% of students even spend long enough in the bathroom to call up a meaningful amount of information on their phone if they wanted to. Students in my Evil class would rather fail the final exam than cheat in that way. Those who do fail tend to blame themselves and retake the course, doing better the next time through.

You won't find me complaining about "kids these days". Not at UCR.

ETA (8:15 a.m.): Some speculations on how this comes about. Mostly, I think, it's explained by the population of students who choose UCR: solid enough academically to gain U.C. admissions, but not the ones who choose schools on grounds of attractive location or party reputation, and often commuting students from the greater L.A. area, with family ties that keep them local. Partly, it's a critical mass of diverse students, so that students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds don't feel unusual or isolated, and professors are accustomed to students from such backgrounds. And partly, it's the generally supportive and collaborative academic culture at UCR, in which staff, faculty, and peers all generally want to see each other succeed.

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