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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/December 1908/College Standardization

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 73‎ | December 1908

COLLEGE STANDARDIZATION
By Professor W. LeCONTE STEVENS

WASHINGTON AND LEE UNIVERSITY

IN war between nations the standardization of armies is universally recognized to be the first essential of efficiency. The function of every leader, every fighter and every carrier is distinctly understood. Likewise in the domestic war of commerce, which is chronic, the organization of great corporations, with division of labor and singling of industrial functions, is the greatest promoter of both production and distribution. In theory the great corporation is a public blessing. In practise its beneficence has been somewhat concentrated, the benefit to the public being only incidental, but loudly proclaimed. The organized corporation receives from the state a charter, intended for the protection of the unorganized public. The corporation is justly held responsible to the state for the performance of the functions specified in its charter and for the avoidance of injustice to the public. The most troublesome problem of our country at present is connected with the enforcement of laws intended to protect the public from the greed of corporations, from false capitalization, from unjust discrimination in rates, from the corruption of legislation by indirect purchase of special privileges. Whether a tariff should be intended for national revenue or for protection to the special interests organized into great corporations is a question the settlement of which is already clear enough, but practically it may perhaps be reserved for a future generation. Whatever may be its settlement, the corporations are here to stay and no return to the simpler conditions of a half century ago can be expected. We are adapting ourselves to present conditions and in time this problem will be solved as others of no less magnitude have been solved by our fathers.

One of the real benefits to the public due to the existence of great corporations has been the development of a general demand for standardization. Everything must be measured that can be bought or sold. The results of work must be numerically compared; new units of measurement must be devised as soon as needed; secondary units must be derived from them; and familiarity with these must be readily attained by the public. Corporations must be compelled to give to the public a correct valuation of properties controlled, of profits earned, of wages paid, of business methods employed. Some corporations, such as national banks, have been for years already subjected to such regulation, with advantage both to themselves and to the public. The enforcement of the laws relating to banks has rarely ever been a hardship except to those that have made themselves unsafe by recklessness. Stockholders and depositors have a right to protection; and this might easily be denied them if the inspection of banks were denied. Such is human nature, that the temptation to dishmonesty is greatly reduced by the consciousness of responsibility and the knowledge that untruthfulness in accounts will be sure to bring its own natural punishment with little delay.

In the work of education the process of standardization is as inevitable as in other great industries, despite the fact that the training of the young is not directly merchantable and that industrial competition is not so conspicuous here as in transportation or manufactures. The American public-school system is an enormous educational industry, divided into as many state corporations as there are states in the union, and with as many subsidiary corporations as there are cities where municipal school systems are supported by local taxation. The growth of this aggregation of school industries since the close of the civil war has been proportioned to our national growth in population. The annual profits can not be expressed in dollars, but the value of the system as a popular investment is manifested by the willingness of the people to pay for the maintenance of such schools. During the twenty years from 1880 to 1900 the population of the United States grew from 50,000,000 to 75,000,000, and the enrolment in schools from 10,000,000 to 15,000,000; in each case an increase of 50 per cent. In the same interval the total estimated property of the country grew from $42,000,000,000 to $94,000,000,000, an increase of 119 per cent.; and the total expenditure for schools from $80,000,000 to $214,000,000, an increase of 162 per cent.

The rate of increase in expenditure for education was thus about one third greater than the rate of increase in wealth. The average expense to each person in the country for the maintenance of schools rose from $1.56 to $3.36. For salaries of teachers and superintendents the outlay rose from $56,000,000 to $137,000,000. A passing comparison may be here made with the amounts paid by the national government to the army of war pensioners; in 1880, $56,000,000; in 1900, $140,000,000. The function of a war pensioner is to teach patriotism, even if he has never been near a battle. His reward has much exceeded that of the teacher who has really earned his salary. There is need for a consistent system of standardization in comparing the value of the war pensioner with that of the teacher.

In most of our country the system of public education is well organized, and through the reports of superintendents every citizen can obtain all the information he wishes regarding school expenditures, courses of instruction, standards of scholarship, and general efficiency. Each state is supreme in the control of education within its own borders, and there is apparently little danger that public education will be made subject to the interstate commerce law and thus become subject to federal control. Although state organization is not equally thorough in all sections, the actual condition of public education in any selected state can be well ascertained by comparison of the reports required by law from all superintendents. Without the power of federal control the national bureau of education prepares and issues an annual report embodying a large mass of statistical information and discussion on education, most of which is gathered by voluntary contribution or by study of reports from all parts of the world.

When we pass from the domain of public education to that of private schools a change becomes perceptible. In the public schools there is well-defined gradation into primary, grammar and high schools, the high school generally including four years of well-adjusted work. In the private school there is no responsibility to the state, and each school fixes its own standards. There is more elasticity than in the public school, better opportunity for adaptation to individual needs, but less opportunity for an outsider to form a judgment of the pupil's attainments on presentation of a certificate of graduation. Much excellent work is done, but the opportunities for comparison between private schools are limited, and the opportunities for undue claims to excellence are great. These schools must continue so long as the need for unusual personal attention remains, or as parents are disposed to pay for the privilege of social exclusiveness. As they are usually not incorporated institutions, they can not be held responsible to the public for their standards, and are hence free from such inspection as is not specially invited. Some of them advertise largely, and pretentiously assume the name of colleges, institutes or military academies. In many parts of our country this is done apparently in obedience to popular demand, and is an index of the lack of local demand for standardization.

When we begin to consider the vast conglomerate of institutions that are incorporated as colleges, universities and technical schools we enter a region of chaos. If a school applies to a state legislature for a charter of incorporation as a college there is at present no standard generally recognized by legislators to determine what is a college. To most of them it means merely a school controlled by trustees who form a corporate body, and whose liberty must not be limited so long as they obey the existing laws of the state. It is greatly the exception to find in any state a law intended to protect the public from fraudulent colleges. Such a law was passed by New York a dozen or more years ago. Its main features are as follows:

For an institution to be chartered as a college, (1) it must have at least six professors giving their entire time to college work. (2) It must require for admission not less than four years of high-school work in addition to the preceding full work of the grammar school.

(3) It must give a course of four full years before granting its degree.

(4) It must have a productive endowment of at least $200,000. This of course excludes the valuation of land, buildings, equipment, tuition fees or special benefactions.

If this law were adopted and enforced in every state of the union it would exclude five-sixths of the institutions now bearing the name of college or university. Whether such a standard is just or unjust is not for these institutions to determine. It depends partly on the standards of the preparatory high schools that are under the control of the state. No institution should be permitted to assume the name of college whose standard of admission is so low as to allow access for students who have not completed the full high-school course of four years. It depends also on the consensus of opinion among the majority of those who are doing college work in the different countries of the civilized world. The standard of admission just set forth is below that required by the universities in England and on the continent of Europe, and above that which has hitherto been possible of attainment in the southern parts of the United States, where the high-school course is often only three years in length. All standards are the results of agreement, either tacit or formulated, and the consensus of opinion among educators in the more densely populated parts of the United States seems to be that the New York law is not unreasonable.

Most institutions that assume the name of college claim that for the average student four years of college work are needed to obtain a degree. But obviously if the starting point is low the ending point must be correspondingly low, since the capacity of the average student is fairly constant. The claim may be made that examination standards are kept high in spite of low entrance requirements, so that only the best students can expect to be graduated, or even to get through safely in the year's work for a given subject. The present writer once entered a college class in mathematics that had sixty members at the opening of the session, of whom sixteen were taking the subject for the second time. At the close of the session he was so fortunate as to be one of only fifteen who were successfully passed. Of the sixteen who were second-year men seven had failed, and of the forty-four first-year men only six had been successful. The standard of attainment was reasonable enough, but the prerequisites for admission had not been so clearly expressed as to give an adequate idea of the ordeal to which the applicant was to be subjected. If three fourths of a class fail, this does not necessarily mean that so large a fraction of its membership is made up of students who have been unfaithful or of less than usual ability. The amount of teaching may have been insufficient, or the discipline too lax, or the student may have been admitted at his own peril when safeguards ought to have been provided to shield him from certain failure. No guarantee of success can ever be given; but, if he fails, his misfortune ought not to be due to the imposition of a standard that is possible for only the exceptional man unless the subject is one that implies exceptional scholarship. Unnecessary failure is a calamity, and a fairly good student has the right to expect reasonable protection from it. Few institutions, however, venture upon such indiscriminate slaughter of the innocents as is implied in the case just cited. There may, of course, be exceptions, but in the majority of cases the real value of a diploma at the end of four years is quite fairly proportioned to the value of the entrance requirements at the beginning of that period.

The requirement of six professors giving their entire time to college work is one to which probably no exception can be taken by any who have real knowledge of the meaning of such work. A college to be successful must be well organized. Its head must be energetic, tactful, a good judge of men, thoroughly appreciative of high scholarship, a keen detector of efficiency in teaching, and the possessor of exceptional administrative power. Each professor must not only know his own subject, and how to teach it, but must be single-minded in his devotion to the interests of the institution. To devote most of his time, or even any considerable part of it, to the practise of a profession, with teaching thrown in as an incidental, is to ensure the sacrifice of the student's interests. Through the medium of the press he should keep in touch with the public, and especially with the educational and scientific world, but his main work is in connection with his students, and his income should be such as to make outside work unnecessary. So small a number as six of such men is scarcely sufficient to carry on the work of any modern college. If the New York law is objectionable the fault consists in prescribing a number that is too small rather than too large for a minimum.

The assignment of $200,000 as a lower limit for the productive endowment of a college is a very moderate recognition of what is implied in college teaching. With five per cent, as the rate of interest such a college would have but $10,000 as its income aside from students' fees. Assuming one hundred paying students at $100 each, the income is thus raised to $20,000. Of this, three fifths may be allowed for the cost of instruction, the rest being absorbed in the expenses of administration and operation. A salary allowance of but $2,000 is hence left for each of six professors, the president's salary being included in the cost of administration. The ratio of students to professors would be 100 to 6, or nearly 17, a number too large for the best efficiency. For reasons locally deemed satisfactory, many students are usually admitted without the payment of tuition, with no allowance to the professor for increasing his burden, so that the teaching ratio is raised from 17 to possibly 20 or more.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published, in May, 1908, the teaching ratios of 93 leading American educational institutions, deduced from data furnished by them. For example, this ratio is given for Johns Hopkins as 4.3; Haverford College, 6.5; Harvard, 8.8; Tulane, 9.5; Texas, 14.5; Drake University (Iowa), 25.7. For the 93 institutions the general average is found to be 11.9. Disregarding other considerations, the possible efficiency increases as the teaching ratio decreases. Since each student ordinarily has several subjects of study and thus multiplies the number of persons taught at a given time by each professor, an average of 50 in each class is allowable, this number being often greatly increased for lecture work and diminished for advanced class work. Experience has thus shown that for good college work the average teaching ratio should not much exceed a dozen, though lecture audiences may be limited only by the capacity of the audience room.

There are seven or eight American universities having each an annual income in excess of $1,000,000. Of those which are still willing to retain the more modest name of college considerably more than a dozen have incomes in excess of $100,000, and endowments in excess of $1,000,000. Nevertheless the assignment of $200,000 as a minimum productive endowment would cause the forfeiture of many charters. In early manhood the writers first teaching in an incorporated institution was in a "university" having a total endowment of $25,000. The connection was brief, and so was the life of the institution. The legislature that granted its charter was more obliging than well informed about educational standards.

A century ago such institutions as Harvard and Yale were almost without endowment and their annual budgets were nearly limited to the income from students' fees. But since the close of the civil war the growth of our country in wealth has produced unprecedented change in standards of all kinds. If the general standard of comfort in life rises with the prosperity of those in whose hands the greater part of the country's wealth is concentrated, the standard of college expenses may be expected to go up in like manner. Gifts have been showered upon institutions with favored surroundings and the ratio of total expenses to total attendance has been steadily rising. The college that has age, history and respectability without endowment is no longer sought by students who are prosperous enough to attend prosperous colleges, and its sad fate is not hard to predict.

With the growth of endowments and the enlarged scale of expenditure in all institutions of learning the student's tuition fee has been steadily becoming a smaller fraction of the cost of instruction given him. He generally pays less than half of what he costs. Every college student is now the beneficiary of organized charity, and the self-sustaining college is a thing of the past. The larger the number of students the more unprofitable is the work pecuniarily, unless the growth in attendance is accompanied by corresponding increase of endowment to balance the excess of total annual cost over receipts from tuition fees. In ordinary business the condition is reversed; the larger the scale the greater are the profits possible.

From the popular business standpoint the success of a college is more readily measured by its number of students than by the quality of its work. So urgent is the demand for numbers that it is not uncommon to see the need for increased equipment disregarded, the library prevented from growing and remaining stuffed with out-of-date rubbish; and the professors overworked. As soon as the teaching ratio exceeds a dozen the need for increasing the teaching force becomes imperative. This can not be done if the endowment is too small to permit the payment of living salaries to competent assistant professors. The most ready resource is to impose the duty of teaching upon inexperienced young holders of scholarships, or to grant the remission of tuition fees to selected undergraduates on condition that they perform the function of assistants in the laboratory, the library, or the office of the language professor. If the efficiency of these undergraduate assistants were proportionate to their pecuniary needs, or to their willingness to do their best, such procedure might have some justification. These undergraduate names are recorded, both in the register of students and in the faculty list, and on dividing the number of students by this nominally enlarged faculty number the alleged teaching ratio is brought down so as to present the appearance of efficiency. The public is misled and the college made to appear stronger than is warranted by the facts.

If objection is urged against what has just been set forth, the ready reply is that the only way to impress the public and to attract benefactions is to grow rapidly and let the public know it. The resort to cheap labor in employing inexperienced undergraduates for assistants, and including them in calculating the published teaching ratio, is to be regretted; but it is locally deemed a less serious evil than any check in the rate of growth, even if the endowment fund remains stationary. It is urged that this course is necessitated by the sharpness of competition for students; that catalogue statements must be interpreted liberally, because competitors disregard their printed entrance requirements; that many preparatory schools do not give four years of high-school work, and hence the colleges must adapt themselves to this condition. Some school principals reply that they are anxious to give the fourth year of work, but can not retain their pupils because the colleges admit these as special students; and articulation between school and college, though most desirable, is thus impossible. The inevitable result is loss of confidence, on the part of these schools, in the disposition of college authorities to deal justly or consistently with them. Rapid growth is indeed desirable, but growth of the faculty is quite as important as growth of the student body. If faculty growth is impossible then the standard of admission should be raised, and the severity of examinations increased, until the student body is cut down to such dimensions that an equitable teaching ratio is recovered. This necessity is fundamental. A reputation for thoroughness, for strict accordance between profession and practise, is better than large numbers. The faculty should be limited to trained specialists, and the students naturally expect instruction from teachers of more maturity than can be expected from those who are members of the student body. There can be no reasonable objection to the employment of student-assistants if their responsibility is limited enough and no use of their names is made by including these in the published list of apparently responsible instructors. To quote from the second annual report of the Carnegie Foundation (p. 18):

The instructing staff includes every person giving regular instruction in the institution except undergraduate assistants. These latter manifestly should not be counted in the teaching force even when they give some teaching. They are primarily college students.

For colleges whose feeding schools are largely compelled to limit themselves to three years of high-school work an abrupt change to the standard of the New York law is very difficult, if not impossible. If honestly carried out, the change necessitates great loss in numbers. The natural resource for aid is to secure a rise of standard in the local high school, which is in no way subordinate to the college and has no representation in its catalogue. A student coming with defective preparation may resort to this school until the full entrance requirements are fulfilled. Many applicants would undoubtedly be lost to the college on account of unwillingness to continue in the high school, but this is the price that has to be paid for standardization. Within a few years there will be improvement for the college, in both numbers and quality, due to the advance of standard. In Virginia the improvement in high schools during the last ten years has been very marked, and their reactive effect on the colleges is distinctly recognizable.

Among the most insidious of the evils in colleges that strive for numbers is the indiscriminate admission of special students, and of students on certificate from so-called accredited high schools which are not subjected to inspection. The theory of accrediting is that the school gives its certificate of graduation only to students who have successfully completed the full period of four years, with final examinations quite equal to the entrance examinations of the best colleges. The student takes examination on all his subjects immediately after studying them, under conditions to which he is accustomed, and not under the harassing stress of a college entrance test. The work of the college examining board is thus greatly reduced, and the responsibility for the student's possible failure is borne by those who have taught him and have deliberately vouched for him. The school is included in a special published list only after careful inspection by the college authorities or by a state official. If its pupils fail to maintain themselves creditably after admission to college the school is dropped from the accredited list, with danger to the principal, who may be displaced on the ground of incompetence if he is the head of a public school. Such displacement has been produced more than once in the northwest. If these conditions are fulfilled there is little ground for complaint, except that the applicant for admission does not take a general review of all his work before entering college, and hence he has forgotten much of what was once studied. On this account the formal entrance examination is estimated to require about a year more of work than entrance by certificate.

But in some parts of our country, notably the southern and southwestern states, inspection of accredited schools is almost unknown. For one college probably an accredited school is merely a school that can furnish students, and admission by certificate serves the convenient purpose of removing responsibility from the college authorities without fixing it anywhere. The president knows his own interests, and avoids expressing adverse criticism if a student admitted is found badly prepared, because the principal may be offended and may advise his pupils to go to another college. The principal of M. Academy finds young A, who is a good athlete, determined to quit school and get into some college team. He knows that a certain college is urgently in need of athletes and not exacting about entrance requirements. He gives to A a certificate which is accepted on sight, and no questions are asked. The football season is better than usual, but A fails in the first examination season and drops out. Nobody is held blameworthy, and M. Academy is encouraged to send more athletes whenever these can be secured. It is not deemed important that four years of solid preparation should be insisted upon, but this would be very acceptable if an entering athlete comes with such an unusual qualification. Even if he has no perceptible preparation he may be admitted as a special student, whose name helps to swell the registry list. One such is known to have entered at the beginning of the baseball season, going off with the team on the day after registration. On his return, when asked what were his subjects of study, the sober reply was, "Latin, economics and academics." Neither the professor of Latin nor of ecenomics ever formed his acquaintance, and the professor of academics could not be found. But all entrance requirements had been fulfilled for admission to spherics, if this name be applied to ball play. The obvious moral is that no special student should be allowed membership in an athletic team. The mere fact of such membership is presumptive evidence that he is a special fraud.

The criticisms expressed in the present discussion are the outcome of observation, conversation and correspondence extended through a number of years. They are applicable, at least in part, to a variety of institutions, no one of which is here singled out as a special object of attack, either directly or by implication. The facts are well known to many who are engaged in the work of college education, and there is no wish here to individualize. One of the worst causes of their existence has been the all-pervading pressure of intercollegiate athletics. An institution with few professors and many students, which has much ambition for athletic reputation and therefore has admitted athletes with little discrimination, is confronted with an embarrassing choice of alternatives. It is well established that the average scholarship of athletic teams is low. Those who openly contend that a high standard of scholarship is preferable to a high standard of athletics are exposed to the danger of unpopularity among students, and perhaps-among others. Unwelcome criticism based on known facts may be deemed inconsiderate or in bad taste, but evils are rarely ever rectified by ignoring them.

About a thousand American institutions of learning are said to have been chartered as colleges, universities and technical schools, or at least permitted to call themselves by such names. There is no hope that fraud will cease to be practised among them, for every one of them is an index of local civilization, and legislatures are generally willing to incorporate colleges whose standards suit their constituencies. But a hopeful road to improvement is found if every legislature can be induced to follow the example of New York, settling by statute the conditions to be fulfilled for the issuance of a charter of incorporation. Every such charter should be granted for a limited period, such as ten years, and all charters should be revoked if the institutions holding them are unable to meet the requirements of the law. The strong institutions would not be affected, and would have no difficulty in securing decennial renewals. Charters now in existence can not legally be affected, but no new applications for charters would be made with the plea that these are intended to meet future expectations rather than present conditions. It is not to be expected that the law for Virginia or California would be the same as for New York or Florida; but the valuable gain would be the establishment of a definite standard in every state of the union, while the usual condition now is that of no standard whatever. The crying evil is false pretense, the assumption of misleading names, the claim to excellences that do not exist.

In contrast with the New York standard may be mentioned a certain "university" in Florida. Its catalogue in 1903 presented a faculty list of 69. Of the 450 students 6 were in the kindergarten course, 35 in the primary department, 141 in the school of music, 58 in the college of liberal arts—doubtless very liberal—and 210 scattered through other departments of less importance. This fortunate university "received its charter from the Legislature of the State of Florida." Of its faculty "the majority have pursued graduate courses in American or European Universities" and are "Christian men and women "; hence it would be uncharitable to think that good work is not done. In the mathematical courses the work offered includes "osculation, roulettes, Jacobians, gamma functions, various volutions of cubics and quartics, homographic division, reciprocal polars, conic invariants, and covariants."

The national pure food law has lately mitigated the evils of false pretense in the sale of food and drugs. We are in need of similar protection against those who secure charters for universities with kindergarten departments. The chief function of these universities is to nullify the meaning of college degrees.

In the second annual report of the Carnegie Foundation the president, Dr. Pritchett, says (p. 37):

Some thoroughgoing financial statement of investments, annual receipts and expenditures should be required by law of all chartered institutions. There is the same reason for a college to exhibit in a business-like way its financial history as for any business concern; and every institution should do this as a matter of good faith.

Probably the mere possession of a charter from the state might be considered sufficient reason for the annual rendition of such a report to the state superintendent of education. He would naturally publish a comparative summary for the different institutions thus represented. For the larger institutions the treasurer's report is always printed and is subject to inspection by those who may be specially interested in it. The financial statement is summarized by each treasurer according to his own plan. Probably it might be best for a common plan to be used by all institutions in the same state. Of late years there has been so much criticism of "bought patronage" that it would be wise for each institution to publish the total amount remitted from students' fees without mentioning the name of any beneficiary. The impersonality of such a statement removes all reasonable objection to such publication.

In addition to its financial statement it would perhaps be very desirable that every college should be subject to examination in such matters as the maintenance of its professed standards of admission and graduation. No detailed investigation of this kind would be possible without treading on delicate ground. It has been suggested that this function might be delegated to a state commission; but the intrusion of politics would be a serious danger, probably nullifying the benefits sought, even if the facts were attainable. In such matters there is probably no resource but the assurance that the reputation of the institution is obliged in time to suffer if its dealings with the public are not what the public wants. If a high standard of admission is professed and violated, students are quick to detect the fact and to circulate their impressions; and no prying is needed to learn what is generally thought to be the truth. They are the most wide awake and relentless critics that the college can have, and they are more efficient than catalogues, bulletins or commissions in determining the public estimate of its character.

No national law for the protection of genuine educational institutions can be secured, because the control of education is not among the political powers delegated to congress by the constitution of the United States. The case in America is quite different from that in Germany, where professors are commissioned by the imperial minister of education. But within the last few years a national agency of great importance has been brought into existence by the organization of the Carnegie Foundation. The Carnegie board has adopted the New York law as an initial aid in classifying the American educational institutions that seek to secure the benefits of the foundation. The granting of retiring pensions to those who have grown old in the work of college teaching is an uplift that benefits the general cause of education quite as much as the individual beneficiaries of the fund. The annual reports and bulletins of this board have been among the most important contributions to educational progress that have ever been published in this country. In a study of the financial status of the professor in America and in Germany the data were secured by which an illuminating comparison is made between about 160 of our leading educational institutions, including at least two thirds of all those to which the name of college, university or technical school is properly applicable. Although the first wish of the donor was that the fund should be limited to institutions that are not under the legal control of church or state, this limitation has been interpreted with the utmost liberality. The fund has been enlarged to include state institutions of high standard. A college, originally sectarian, may retain with its denomination a relation of "traditional friendship and sympathy, but not one of control." About sixty institutions are already on the accepted list, and others are striving to throw aside denominational shackles or to improve up to the standardized requirements. To attain an end by causing competitors to strive for a prize is better than to make them obey what they may deem a repressive law, even if the law is judicious. The Carnegie Foundation is quietly preparing all the states of the union for improvement in their laws about the chartering of colleges, and it is to-day the most effective agency that tends toward college standardization.