Dollars and illusions

Posted Jan. 25, 2009, at 9:36 p.m.

In a recent BDN OpEd (Jan. 6), Stephen Bowen, director of the Center for Education at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, asks Maine taxpayers to consider “What Maine state college educational spending really buys.” Like most reputable statisticians, Bowen compares and contrasts taxpayer dollar amounts as allocated to various educational programs and institutions; however, like most tricky statisticians, he falls victim to proposing remedies to the current budget crunch based on ill-defined and misleading information that does nothing more than compare apples with oranges.

I am no statistician, reputable or tricky. Instead, I am an English teacher; my currency is not dollars and percentages but metaphors and allusions. Bowen, on the other hand, dabbles in dollars and illusions.

My argument with Bowen is that he makes a huge assertion based on ill-defined, albeit seductive, numbers. He writes, “The University of Maine System is able to produce associate degrees more cost-effectively than the state’s community college system.” He goes on to reveal that, for example, in 2005-2006 it cost $80,131 per associate degree at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, but only $25,355 at the University of Maine in Presque Isle, a mere two miles away. What is his spurious recommendation based on this shaky data? Savings might be had by merging certain University of Maine and Maine Community College campuses.

Wicked bold assertion, I’d say, considering the fact that Bowen does not consider the differences in the quality of educational opportunities offered in the two systems.

These real differences in educational quality deal with class size and student-to-instructor ratio, the programs of study and degrees offered, and the overall educational climate. I have been teaching English to adults for a total of 22 years; I have been teaching English at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor for 14 years and I have been the EMCC English Department Chair for the past five years.

First, class size is a critical factor in securing the success of learning. The class size at EMCC has been capped at 25. In my department, speech classes are capped at 25, all writing classes and literature classes are capped at 20, while online writing classes are capped at 16; this means that the teacher-to-student ratio is no greater than 1:25 in any given class. At the university, on the other hand, the introductory speech class is set at a 1:200-plus ratio. That means one professor for 200-plus students (with teaching assistants on hand to tame the circus).

Writing class caps vary based on course levels, with lower level classes having greater numbers. Bottom line: Global educational studies support the no-brainer notion that a lower teacher-to-student ratio means more attention, more personalization, more connection, and therefore more real “active” and genuine and retentive learning. At EMCC we create community classrooms, places where students get to know the instructor and other students, and instructors get to know the students. Lesson: Small is good.

Second, the programs of study are glaringly different in the community college system from those in the university system. A two-year degree in history at the university should cost less than a welding degree at the community college. Does the University have to buy sheet metal? Bottom line: These are the qualified professionals who fix your car, check your dying air conditioner in July, build the foundation for your new horse barn, or take your X-ray when you throw a disc being a weekend warrior. Lesson: Thinking is okay but doing is better.

And third, the educational environment. Every semester, as a full-time instructor with close to 175 students, I have at least 20 students who are openly recovering from the university experience. They recall incidents of being treated as a number, not as a person, by the uber-degreed publish-or-perish-professor or the bean-counter administrator; of being told that they had to “get their act together” yet never being told what the actual “act” was; of being lost due to the inability to acclimate to the imposing university culture. Bottom line: A one-size-fits-all mentality does not work in education.

At EMCC, we take in all sorts of students, fresh out of high school and fresh from the lay-off line at the mill, some who might not be stellar but who can improve with developmental work and the right guidance. Lesson: One size does not fit all.

And therein lie the problems: Do not compare apples with oranges, do not assume that financial costs outweigh the cost of educating the real doers in our society and do not try to scare the taxpayers into throwing out a great product for a financial Band-Aid — a factory approach to education such as the university system.

Carol Lewandowski is chairwoman of the English Department at Eastern Maine Community College.

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