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Friday November 17, 2000

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Size does matter

By Nick Zeckets

Are students actually learning anything at the University of Arizona? A new report funded by the Pew Charitable Trust entitled, "The National Survey of Student Engagement," measures schools on new benchmarks that deal more with interpersonal interactions. Despite initiatives to criticize large institutions like the UA, universities like ours offer a real world education that exceedingly hands-on schools lack.

NSSE joint sponsors, the Pew Forum on Undergraduate Learning and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, are attempting to reshape the way higher education is measured. Doing so is a positive move away from the US News and World Report college rankings, but still fails to take every aspect of undergraduate schooling into account.

Five new standards were incorporated into the study: level of academic challenge, degrees of active and collaborative learning, student interaction with faculty members, access to enriching educational experiences like foreign study and community service and level of campus support. As important as these all are, parents and educators expect too little in the way of student responsibility.

Each of the NSSE's criteria stresses faculty involvement. For the self-reliant student, an institution scoring high on the NSSE like Marymount College in New York or Denison University, too much involvement could create annoyance. Moreover, if the student is always prodded by teachers and group projects, self reliance may never develop. UA students are given the opportunity to experience all a college can offer while learning independence.

Speaking of learning to think independently, the NSSE reprimanded large universities for scoring low on the collaborative learning section. Many students dislike such learning, though, because depending on another student to finish a project with skill means that one's own academic fate doesn't rest in one's own hands. Piles of group projects are good how? Looking to classmates for grades also places responsibility elsewhere.

Students at Elon College, a liberal arts college of approximately 4,000 in North Carolina, are required to complete one of five "Elon Experiences" that include study abroad and interning. George D. Kuh of Indiana University at Bloomington and director of the study said that "there are some hidden jewels out there." Frankly, it's stupid to say that a large school like UA doesn't offer what smaller schools do.

One major complaint that the study had about most schools was student-faculty interaction. Ask the same 63,000 whining students who filled out the questionnaire whether or not they actually sought out their teachers during office hours. I bet my tuition they didn't. What do students expect? Perhaps barbecues every Friday at Professor So-and-So's would be best. Maybe the dean of students should throw a kegger every week or so. Get real.

Over 1,000 UA students went abroad last year. Out of 36,000 undergraduates, these students decided that studying in a foreign country would be a great experience. Add that to your list of "UA Experiences" Dr. Kuh, and smoke it. The UA campus never sleeps with comedy shows in the Cellar several times a week, plays incorporating hundreds of students entertain, world class athletes compete for the glory of the Wildcats and student researchers work closely with professors on projects as impressive as the Mars Pathfinder mission. What in God's name is the NSSE really trying to say? Parents, if your kid has no drive, no cajones and no discipline, send him to someplace like Elon where he or she can be babied into doing things.

UA should be proud of its top students. What kind of experience have you had here? If it's not been all that you wanted it to be, go talk to someone about it. Volunteer for Muracles, try out for a team, audition for a play, do whatever you want because on a campus this big there are an endless number of options for us all.

Large universities may not hold your hand through what may be the four or five most challenging years of your life, but they certainly offer everything. Be proud of all that the UA is and know that what an institution might lack in wussy support is definitively made up for in living. Be alive during these years of your life. Do not expect your resume to be set up by an experience-creating office. Make your own tracks at this large university by seeking out the experiences. That extra work will make you smart and independent.