From two very different locations in North America, we have two similar stories about declining standards and lack of student preparation in higher education.
[Update: Make that three.]
The first is a two-part series by Bill Maxwell. Maxwell is a newspaper columnist who left his job to become scholar-in-residence at Stillman College in Alabama, only to leave after two years of getting nowhere with the students he wanted to help. Part one is here, part two here. I suspect there are two sides to Maxwell’s story, and Maxwell himself seems to have had unrealistically high expectations for Stillman and for himself. But it is still a harrowing, even depressing, read.
As more and more students with inflated grades, but lower levels of academic interest and ability, have entered Canadian universities year after year, many professors have given in by watering down their courses and inflating grades.
Many professors find their jobs difficult when working with undergraduate students who have been implicitly promised a product (degree) in exchange for their tuition.
Professor Thomas Collins “admitted to some naivety when he returned to the classroom in the mid-1990s, and considerable shock at how standards had slipped in twenty years and how ill-prepared students were for the English courses he taught, especially first-year courses. From his experiences in the trenches during his first year back, he concluded that he could not assume even a moderate level of literacy from [these students] …Presumably because they think, or have been led to believe, that they are at least proficient in English.
These are only two perspectives, and one can’t draw general conclusions based on these alone. But at many places I encounter, both in my own experience and in others’, there does seem to be a growing problem in higher ed that is reflected by these pieces. Namely, while there are certainly excellent colleges out there — and excellent students at every college, regardless of the college’s overall quality — campus cultures and institutional directions are increasingly dominated by those who want the “product” (diploma) without the work, without the basic skills, and without having to be curious about anything. And faculty and administrators are increasingly accommodating this behavior.
I know for a fact that college students do typically want to be educated in a rigorous way — even if they don’t readily admit it — and certainly parents, faculty, and administrators want that too. So what’s keeping us in higher ed from simply embracing a culture of high academic standards, hard work, and high expectations? Why are colleges so shy about saying, in effect, “If you come here, you are a student and a scholar-in-training first and foremost; you cannot expect to make it here if you don’t buy in to this idea, and you will have the time of your life if you do”?