If Public College-Bound Students (and Their Parents) Only Knew

31 July 2018 Written by   Emily J. Isaacs
© Konstantin L/Shutterstock © Konstantin L/Shutterstock

Despite universal proclamations of the primary importance of teaching academic writing, and the fact that virtually all public universities in the US require one or two courses of First-Year Composition (FYC) (Isaacs 2018), the teaching of academic writing remains under-supported at the large public universities (MA- and PhD-granting). These institutions number just 464, but they collectively serve 36 percent of the 20 million students enrolled in any institution of higher education in the United States and 53 percent of students who attend a four-year institution.

Notably, inadequate support of first-year composition, and especially underprepared students, continues despite the rise and success of writing as a discipline (shown by the rise in scholarly productivity, disciplinary recognition by the federal government and the National Research Council [Phelps and Ackerman 2010], and the opening of new Writing departments that house vertical programs including majors and doctoral programs). The discipline is on the rise, but FYC, which is the impetus and training ground for many of the leading scholars in that discipline, is not. I believe this is not a problem that will change without a major and successful education campaign.

For four years I’ve worked in administration, having risen up the ranks unintentionally if not accidentally. I was called to serve as the director of writing, then department chair, and now associate dean because of my expertise, organizational skill, and understanding of public higher education (common traits among those of us who specialize in writing studies). Along the way, I have remained committed to seeing the least-prepared students succeed but have developed a deeper understanding for why that widely articulated commitment to general education writing, shared by so many from faculty to administrators, is effectively deprioritized and thus rendered only partially effective at large public universities. Especially at these schools, it can be nearly impossible to hire enough faculty at high enough pay to stay and invest in the university, and even to gain the small funds necessary for adequate assessment, training of faculty, and supportive tutoring for those students whose writing is the least developed.

I have excluded small public universities from this critique because my observation and research on public state universities suggests that writing instruction is more highly supported and valued at the smaller, BA-granting public colleges. At these colleges, based on my study of a stratified sample of 106 US state universities, we see several indicators of greater support. At primarily BA-granting institutions, 46.2 percent of the schools reported that the majority of their classes were taught by tenure-line faculty; in comparison, at primarily doctoral-granting institutions, just 20.7 percent of schools reported that the majority of their classes were taught by tenure-line faculty, and at primarily MA-granting institutions just 26.6 percent so report (Isaacs 2018, 60). My sample, drawn from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), tilts away from many of the largest public R1 universities at which very few FYC courses are taught by tenure-line faculty. If these were included, the percentages would undoubtedly be worse.

From this data and an understanding of the differences in mission between MA- and PhD-granting institutions and their BA-granting counterparts, I think there is little doubt that undergraduate general education teaching of writing is more important at BA-granting, small- to medium-sized public colleges than at the larger public colleges. I suspect the same differences exist at private universities, though several large elite private universities such as Dartmouth, Duke, Elon, Harvard, New York University, Princeton, and Stanford demonstrate a commitment to quality undergraduate writing instruction, evidenced by large FYC programs headed by high-achieving writing scholars who are given the support to hire professional staff and full-time lecturers to teach comparatively fewer students (through load and class size) than at their public counterparts. These schools are fabulously endowed and thus do not have to choose among priorities. I think we all hope they are a model for some, but their impact is ultimately small, reserved for the most fortunate college students.

At public universities that grant master’s and doctoral degrees, there is great competition for these resources. FYC doesn’t win these competitions, as it’s not tied to the university’s advancement in today’s higher education economy. At an institutional level, the priority is to develop the prestige and success of graduate programs and even undergraduate majors, the former of which supports the institution’s efforts to garner grants, and both of which add to the reputation and standing of the university at the state, regional, national, and, potentially, even international levels. These institutional benchmarks, an innovative major that attracts new students and a new doctoral program that elevates the university’s status, are consequently also what makes an administrator’s resume shine, enabling advancement and further disadvantaging the possibilities that FYC will be prioritized. Few administrators will advance by boasting increasing support for FYC.

But we can’t stop there. Avoid the trap of simply blaming administrators. Faculty careers essentially follow the same current: at public universities that offer graduate education, the pressure and glory is for research—increasingly, grant- or corporate-funded—but humanities faculty do their best to grow long CVs of publications as a counterpart to external funding. Faculty research is the road to advancement and thus is the priority; tenure-line faculty are implicitly or explicitly encouraged to spend less time on teaching, which means teaching small seminars and graduate courses, courses that require less writing than what is required in FYC, and seeking course releases through grants and other activities that align with research. For some writing faculty, the other, albeit less effective and slower route for career advancement, is administration—to writing program administration and perhaps beyond, at which point they become administrators. Thus all the incentives lead faculty and administrators further away from FYC and championing its needs.

I know well the many individual faculty and administrators at graduate-degree- public universities that make an extraordinary effort and are able to make a great FYC program, at least for a few years until the natural forces of self-interest and self-preservation reassert themselves. I have applauded them at conferences and marveled at their ability to win the resource argument, or to make a stone soup FYC program by extraordinary labor and love.

But extraordinary individuals can’t be the answer. There aren’t enough of them. In 2015, 36 percent of the 20 million students currently enrolled in higher education were at a large public university—that’s 7,144,784 students. Another way of putting it is that 53 percent of the students who are enrolled in a four-year institution are enrolled at one of these large, graduate-degree-granting universities. These students, their parents, and even taxpayers are paying undergraduate tuition to universities whose most powerful employees are incentivized to focus least on undergraduate general education instruction. The problem is that the funders—students, parents, taxpayers—don’t know that undergraduate education, and general education especially is massively deprioritized at these schools. As writing studies faculty our job, then, is to educate this population: tell them to run to the small public universities rather than the large ones. This is especially possible today as the nation is facing a demographic dip, a decrease in first-time freshmen beginning now and going through the next ten to fifteen years. Schools will have to fight for these students: why should it be assumed that the schools that provide the best affordable undergraduate education, the BA-granting public college, should be the one to lose this race? In the spirit of Linda Adler-Kassner (2008), what can we do publicize the institutional priorities that make the small public university a better educational choice for most first-time freshmen?


Emily J. Isaacs is an associate dean for academic affairs at Montclair State University and a professor specializing in writing pedagogy, assessment, and programming in higher education. She is the author of Writing at the State U: Instruction and Administration at 106 Comprehensive Universities. Her articles have appeared in Pedagogy, College English, Writing Program Administration, Writing Center Journal, and Journal of Teaching Writing, and she has coedited and contributed to several books, including Public Works: Student Writing as Public Text and Intersections: A Thematic Reader for Writers.

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