Waiting for the blowback in higher ed


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.

The second is Ivory Tower Blues, a new book by Canadian college professors James Cote and Anton Allahar. George Leef at Phi Beta Cons is reviewing it, and here are some quotes he references:

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”?

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3 Comments

Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture

3 responses to “Waiting for the blowback in higher ed

  1. Jami

    So what’s keeping us in higher ed from simply embracing a culture of high academic standards, hard work, and high expectations?

    The simple answer: Money

    The complex answer: Money

    I know that you will have a response to this, but ever since starting my job, I really have learned that money is just as important as everyone told me it would be. No matter how much I try to not make it the forefront of my life, I fail everytime. And I know that schools, businesses, non-profit organizations, and what have you have the exact same problem.

  2. I can’t argue with the money thing, but on the other hand, there seem to be so many college students, parents, faculty, administrators, and just general public who *want* to see high standards and a return to an academic approach to college, that you’d think there’d be a market for it. I think that there is, and there may be some quiet examples out there of colleges bringing in a lot of money because of it.

  3. I believe it is in the thoroughness of the higher education institutes self-study for continuous improvement. Some folks in the community and the feds say we have rested on out laurels. Check out a great resource of information at http://www.utakethecredit.com.