UMass Dartmouth. Credit: Anne Mostue / WGBH
Long before two bombs exploded under a bright blue sky on Boylston Street on Marathon Monday, English professor Richard Larschan would take the time at the beginning of the semester to look up students enrolled in his class.
“I made very active use of the student information system,” Larschan said.
Larschan wanted to know whether his students were ready to meet the expectations he had for them. Could they cut it? Did they understand the course workload?
In the past ten years, he noticed a disturbing trend at UMass Dartmouth: More and more of his students couldn’t cut it; they didn’t understand his expectations.
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Larschan estimates at least 10 percent of his students were subject to dismissal, meaning they should’ve been expelled due to poor grades or high absentee rates. When he went to the Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences, Larschan says, the dean would just throw his hands up in the air, as if this problem were well above his pay grade.
"Inevitably, if you’re trying to increase enrollment and there’s a limited applicant pool, you have to make accommodations to accept people who are really not fully prepared,” Larschan said.
So, when Larschan learned that Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was still enrolled at UMass Dartmouth in April, despite his failing seven courses and two consecutive semesters, he wasn’t completely surprised.
“As all accounts reveal, he was an active drug dealer," Larschan said. "To the extent that you have someone who is known as a drug dealer on your campus, that alone should have been cause for dismissal.”
Tsarnaev’s case may be extreme, yes, but Larschan and other higher education observers agree: Behind all the headlines and the recent uproar over Rolling Stone’s cover story, there’s a 19-year-old kid whose experience on campus is indicative of a national trend.
From UMass Dartmouth to the University of California Davis, students – no matter their academic standing – are being treated like customers who, if they can pay, can stay. Meanwhile, administrators are replacing full-time faculty with adjunct professors who have second and third jobs, says Jeffrey Selingo, author of College Unbound.
“The number of students now in colleges and universities is up a third between now and the later 1990s," Selingo said. "At the same time, academic standards in high schools have gone down, yet we’re continuing to increase the number of students going to college.”
The problem in the U.S., Selingo argues, is that you have very few other options when you graduate from high school.
“You go to the military," he said. "You get a job, and probably not a very good one. Or you could do nothing. And thus, many people go to college who I don’t think are quite ready. At 18, they might be better off doing a job, getting an internship or an apprenticeship and then going to college maybe at 21 or 22 when they’re more ready for it.”
But some colleges and universities desperate to fill seats are very worried about their graduation and retention rates because it affects their rankings and prestige, so they tend to retain students who probably should move on.
“A smaller and smaller proportion of university budgets actually go to support instruction,” said Richard Vedder, who teaches economics at Ohio State University, and directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. In the 21st century, he says, the mediocre, mid-quality state school is in danger of extinction as tuition increases continue to outpace inflation.
And Vedder says the Tsarnaev case, unusual and extreme, should set off alarm bells for the higher education community.
“Too many students are admitted who the colleges know full well have a very, very low probability of success," Vedder said. "And you could argue that they’re committing consumer fraud by letting the students on and believing that they might succeed.”
Vedder says the schools that will survive in the new higher ed landscape will be the ones that adapt.
“I think they’re just going to have to rethink the way they do their business," he said. "Instead of spending 15 to 20 percent of their money on administration, maybe they should spend 5 percent.”
And Vedder says they should expel students who are not making the grade.
At UMass Dartmouth, interim Dean Jen Riley refuses to explain why Tsarnaev was still enrolled, saying she can't talk about individual students. And she dismisses the notion raised by some professors that students at UMass and elsewhere are handled like paying customers.
“I think there’s a culture that treats higher education like a commodity, rather than students recognizing that when you come here something is not given to you," she said. "You earn your education and you have to put the work into it to create those outcomes that will benefit you post-university life.”
It’s been a rough few months for UMass Dartmouth. The campus was evacuated during the regional manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. Earlier this month, the Rolling Stone magazine cover story on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev portrayed the university as a “middling school.” The campus community took offense, and the university removed copies of the magazine from its bookstore shelves.
For Larschan, it seemed like as good a time as ever to hang it up – to retire. And he has.
He says he first read about Tsarnaev’s academic record in the New York Times, before accessing it on the student information system. Then, before administrators told him not to disseminate Tsarnaev's transcript, he sent it to some of his colleagues.
“The message I sent to them basically was: Good heavens," he recalled. "This is the kind of thing that has been happening and that I’ve been trying to get them to prevent in the way of keeping students who are obviously disaffected and don’t belong here.”
As he enters retirement, Larschan hopes UMass Dartmouth and other higher education institutions will refocus on their primary mission: educating students.