Trouble in Higher Ed.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running the second installment of an interesting two-part essay on the declining expectations and level of learning taking place among college undergrads. The author, Thomas H. Benton, cites several factors at fault: students doing less long-form writing and reading, grade inflation, Boomer professors presiding over the largest age-gap ever in academia. These factors all tie into Academically Adrift, a new book by two sociology professors, Richard Arum of NYU and Josipa Roksa of Virginia. It’s a polemic against higher education’s incentive systems and the cushy environment that is the American university these days, where the goal seems to be how best to accommodate students, rather than challenge them.

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  1. caleb b. says:

    One thing that exists now that didn’t in the past is ratemyprofessor.com. I used it to pick my classes so I always took the easiest grading teacher that i could. It helped me get a 4.0 at a state school with a very good business program.

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  2. Consumer says:

    “where the goal seems to be how best to accommodate students, rather than challenge them” – what else would the goal be when education is run as a for profit business and the students are treated as “customers”?

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  3. Joshua Northey says:

    There are a lot of people seeking 4 year degrees who have no business being there. When I was a TA at a large state university easily 30-40% of the student body had no interest in learning. They were there to get a piece of paper, it was a continuation of high school, something they did because their parents expected it and it was the social norm in their peer group. I remember one department doing a student research project on student motivations. Friends/partying, and parents’ wishes, vastly outpolled academic or career advancement. It wasn’t close.

    They would cram for tests and forget the material within days, desperately seek out the easiest classes and teachers, and focus on getting done with the minimum amount of work possible. Unfortunately as a departmental and private tutor I had a lot of experience with these people.

    I don’t know if the solution is to make sure the more academically minded students have their own institutions to attend. Attending more exclusive schools isn’t 100% or even 50% of the answer because these schools are also filled with alumni spawn and trust funders just as uninterested in education. Even worse many people who are actually interested in learning cannot get into those schools because they went to a high school on the poor side of town and didn’t have parents who forced them to jump through the right hoops as a child. Trust me perfect test scores and fantastic recommendations won’t get you into a top school if you were raised by a drunken nobody. So you have every school saddled with a bunch of people going through the motions.

    Granted I did undergrad at a large state university, but in most 40 person sections there were only a half dozen people who seemed legitimately interested in the topic. It doesn’t affect the interested students that much, and it some ways it is better for them as they don’t have to compete for access to faculty or speaking time in class. It does water down the value of the degree quite substantially though. Knowing someone got a 3.4 at State University X, or even elite school Y doesn’t tell you very much about how competent they are.

    More likely the solution is making sure the “fakers” go to vocational schools (which would be better for them anyway). So many people come out of college completely unprepared for the job market. At the very least we should be delaying enrollment until people have had to attempt to work and support themselves for a couple years. That way they might have some idea what field they want to pursue. I am really struck by the disconnect between the types of things people want to do when they are in college (psychologist, criminologist, communications). and the types of actual college educated positions the economy needs (office lackeys of varying sorts).

    All the above is mostly direct at the liberal arts world, which I mainly experienced at two elite private and one large state university. I am not as familiar with the hard sciences/engineering, but my very uninformed impression is that they do a bit better job of both weeding out the uninterested and preparing people for the job market.

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    • Uthor says:

      “All the above is mostly direct at the liberal arts world, which I mainly experienced at two elite private and one large state university. I am not as familiar with the hard sciences/engineering, but my very uninformed impression is that they do a bit better job of both weeding out the uninterested and preparing people for the job market.”

      I only have experience at once school (UIUC about 8 years ago), but as an Engineer, the hardest classes are in your first two years when you’re taking all the math and science you need to understand the material that you will actually need to know in your career. It’s kidna hard to slack through differential equations (I tried to no success) or quantum mechanics.

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    • caleb b. says:

      @Joshua Northey

      Great post. All good points and I enjoyed reading your opinion. I only take exception with one… “seeking out the easiest classes and teachers, and focus on getting done with the minimum amount of work possible”. Wouldn’t an economist declare that this is rational maximizing? As I mentioned, I was a business major and I take pride in getting a 4.0 with the least amount of work possible. Employers don’t know/care if you made a C in a class from a thought provoking, challenging teacher. They see a C. That means that my A from Dr. Cakewalk gives me an advantage over you when the HR lackey is combing through the resume stack.

      Now suppose I am now hiring an assistant and must choose between two. One took all very challenging courses and a rigorous schedule and still achieved a 4.0. The other took the easiest classes, found the best shortcuts, and got the same 4.0. I think there are good arguments to hire either. One might be a highly disciplined student, but certainly wasn’t very efficient with their time. Now, of course, if one has a 4.0 in philosophy, then I know they probably won’t pass the drug test anyway so I won’t bother to interview that one.

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      • Charles A. says:

        I don’t think this is a very reasonable analysis. Your post seems to be premised on the idea that the point of going to college is to get a job regardless of your actual level of competency, rather than to better oneself intellectually in order to be competent enough to do a job well.

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  4. Mike B says:

    This might be the case at some schools, but as someone who has a network of friends at top ranked universities I haven’t seen anything like a crisis except perhaps in the portion of students who are afraid of math and hard sciences, but that isn’t really anything new. The number 1 complaint of the recent batch of College alarmists seems to be based on the singular measure of time spent studying. Well duh, of course students today can get away with spending less time in the library, technological productivity increases has affected coursework just as it has affected socks and microprocessors. What used to take hours to research by hand in a library now takes seconds online. What used to take days to hand type on a typewriter now takes hours on a computer. Academic expectations haven’t decreased, they have simply stayed the same as student productivity has increased.

    You seem to be forgetting the evolving state of higher education. 50 years ago today’s elite schools were simply the general schools where who could afford to attend attended and today’s lower level schools either didn’t exist or existed to train teachers, pastors or other specially public interest professions. Education has shifted one step to the right. High schools are what elementary schools used to be. Colleges are now what high schools used to be and graduate schools are now like old time colleges. It is a basic fact of life that once a level of education can no longer some restricted 5-20% of the population it cannot be as intense or rigorous as it once was, but that doesn’t mean that it is no longer useful or valuable.

    College by far an away still provides a quality opportunity for those who will reach out and take it. Yes there is something to be said that it is increasingly possible to glide through and emerge less prepared for a career than one’s peers. However who ever said that Colleges have to exclude those that do not wish to exert themselves? The college experience is important in and of itself and a college grad who glides through will be more equipped for a career than a high school graduate. For the student that chooses to apply themselves the opportunities are better today than ever. Employers know how to determine which students are truly distinguished and which simply partied harty. At the worst case diploma mills like University of Phoenix are identified and quickly devalued.

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  5. Lori says:

    I encourage you to read Astin’s analysis of the data used in Arum and Roksa’s book:

    In ‘Academically Adrift,’ Data Don’t Back Up Sweeping Claim
    http://chronicle.com/article/Academically-Adrift-a/126371/

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