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Monday, May 28, 2012

Why college degrees aren't worth much anymore

I am in Denver at this writing caught up in a fury of family business, which came at the same time as some final readings of editorial projects for which the last call for updating and revision was made.  

During all the hectic activity, a recent moment over coffee with some colleagues who were winding up their classes for the year has lingered.  The colleagues were from two institutions and both are in the sciences.  One of the professors was troubled.  He said he had given incompletes to half the students in one class.  They had failed the final examination, and, therefore, the course, and he gave the incompletes so they could retake the final and bring their grades up to passing.  And, he pointed out that failing half of the class would be regarded as a deficiency on his part.

This professor is known for his strenuous efforts to help students succeed by holding special tutorial sessions outside of class and working intensively with them in the laboratory.  Still, he says his efforts produce meager results.   He goes to the extra efforts because most of his students come into his classes poorly prepared, and he wishes to give them all opportunity to bring themselves up to a competitive level.  However, few avail themselves of the opportunity.  The problem is that they don't study.  That was a point agreed upon by all the professors at the table that day:  students do not come to class prepared and they do not put much effort into their studies.  

My colleague said that the  class in which he gave the incompletes is one required for a number of professional programs the students are enrolled in.  Even a passing grade of C might not indicate the level of knowledge of his subject that a professional in these fields is expected to command.  

Professors find themselves caught between two forces.  On one hand, there is a  general expectation that all levels of education should be producing high levels of competence.  The public and politicians go ballistic at low graduation rates and reports that college graduates are not performing competently in areas they are presumed to have studied.  On the other hand, teachers at all levels are under pressure to accommodate the preferences and notional demands of students and their parents.   Faculty are held responsible for the failures of students.  The failure of students is now regarded as faculty failure.  At the college level, as in K-12, there is tremendous pressure to dummy down courses and inflate grades, but those who exert that pressure also express concern over America's lagging test scores and competitive academic status.  

My colleagues in colleges say that placing blame on faculty for poor student performance has exacerbated an attitude and trend in colleges for students to slough off.  My colleague who gave the incompletes predicts that the students who failed his final examination will not perform well in taking the test over.   He says they simply do not study enough for his efforts to explain the material to them to have much effect.  They simply do not put in the effort needed.  His colleagues at coffee that day concurred.

National Survey of Student Engagement, 2011. The Washington Post. 

So does some national surveys of college student study habits. The National Survey of Student Engagement shows that since the 1960s, the amount of time the average student studies outside of class has diminished from 24 hours to 15.  College has, in effect, gone from a full-time job to part time for most students.  The gauge for how much time students should study was based upon the 40-hour work week.  It was that for every hour a student spent in class, he/she should put in two hours outside of class.  If a student was taking 12 semester hours in courses, the student would be expected to put in 24 hours of study for 36 hours a week expended on studies.  However, the fact was that the top students put in much more than that.  

During my time as an undergraduate, school was totally geared toward supporting study.  Study time and opportunity was the priority, and extra-curricular and social activities had to be scheduled around study time.  Perhaps the busiest place on campus from early in the morning until closing time at night was the library.  Dorms had quiet hours until 10 p.m. so that students had a quiet environment in which to concentrate and work.  The hour between 10 and 11 p.m. was when phonographs, for the few who could afford them, could be played and students could socialize.  After 11, quiet hours were imposed again so students could sleep or resume their studies.  Weekends were more relaxed, but students who had work to do could go to the library if there were too many distractions in the dorms.  The operating principle was that a college existed for the purpose of study and its primary concern was to facilitate and support that activity.  

In my case, my last years of undergraduate study involved 60 to 80 hours a week.  As an English major and philosophy minor, it took about 40 hours a week to keep up with the assigned readings.  As a graduate student, the 100-hour week was normal.  During the time papers were due, one could expect 16 hour days 7 days a week.  

In those years, many students also had part-time jobs. Leisure and recreation were not given much consideration in the academic scheme of things.

When I became a professor, I noticed that customs had changed.  Dorms were cacophonous places.  However, students in those early years of teaching still made studies a full-time proposition, even if they did so in a distracting environment, which did compromise the thoroughness of their work at times.  However, they did come to class prepared, and professors had to be ready and able to field a barrage of questions about the materials, and students came to class with the assigned material well in mind and demanded clarifications and explanations raised by supplementary readings.  The diligent students set the pace and the standards for the class work.

When I came to Northern State University,  I experienced some real culture shock.  It was apparent that many students had not read assigned materials and that they had not the foggiest idea of what lecture and discussion were covering.  In my early years at Northern, there was a sharp division in the student body between those who prepared for class and worked hard at their studies and those who sloughed off and made, at best, a very casual acquaintance with the materials.  The difference in quality of work was stunningly apparent, but the serious students who wanted the knowledge and worked for a diploma that signified knowledge and accomplishment set the standard.  And they were resented for it.  However, that faction of students became smaller and smaller as the years progressed.

One incident illustrates the situation.  Two young women, who were both striving for graduate school scholarships, shared a room in one of the coed dorms.  While they tried to spend the evenings at their studies, other students harassed them and chided them for making college difficult for other students.  The harassment got so serious that the two women decided to break their dorm agreement and move off campus.  Another professor and I were asked to intervene on their behalf in breaking their residence hall lease.  The matter became one of threatening the college with a law suit for not providing an environment which enabled the students to perform their work, and the college very quickly approved their move off campus.

However, the matter did not end there.  Some of the young men who had been harassing them gathered outside their apartment one night and attempted to continue their disruption of the students' work.  It escalated into a law enforcement incident when neighbors called the police.  And the women were subjected to menace and disparagement when they came to  class.  

A common complaint among the serious students was that their work was compromised by other students who cheated.  This matter became so wide spread that the faculty union issued an advisory on the matter and urged professors to give multiple versions of any multiple-choice tests and to include essay questions.  It also became a policy among many professors that anyone caught looking at another student's test paper would be disqualified from completing a test.

South Dakota students contend that their home state provides them with a superior work effort.  Still, my visits to campuses throughout the country shows many students who work more diligently and display a work ethic vastly superior to that demonstrated by many of the students I have encountered in South Dakota.  The claim is not supported by the facts.
An unfortunate aspect of the anti-academic student attitudes was that it gave the institution a reputation.  A number of faculty were recruited to travel to Sioux Falls to participate in a college recruitment fair, where each college had a booth where prospective students could ask questions and meet faculty members.  We were chagrined, to say the least, when high school students would pass us by giggling about Northern State Junior High School.  Even though such a reputation does not fairly represent the serious and hard academic work that takes place on the campus,  the fact is that the attitudes of the anti-students forms the public perception of a college.  

Many students have the attitude that a college diploma is merely a piece of paper and all it signifies is that a student has jumped through another hoop by whatever means to satisfy some arbitrary qualification for entrance into the work world.  It does not represent for those students evidence of intellectual achievement and accomplishment.  

Some schools have grown alarmed at this devaluation of a college degree and are taking measures in more stringent admissions and more rigorous course work.  The result is a growing trend to make a distinction between serious institutions of higher learning and the "diploma mills" that cheapen the meaning of a college degree.

This distinction has, in fact, been operative for some time.  In admitting students to graduate schools or hiring for jobs that require substantial demonstrations of competence,  degrees from some schools do not qualify.  

At many institutions, the recruitment and retention of students to meet budgetary needs has resulted in an effort to make a degree easier to come by.  The decline in student effort is something many institutions accommodate in order to meet their budgets.  Tuition gets higher but the value of degrees gets lower.

In the discussion over my colleague's efforts at bringing his students up to a level of competence, we agreed that many students do not want to do the work and should not be in college unless they do.  This might mean that students will have to come to terms with their failure and either bring their work up to standard or flunk out.  And that means that some colleges should probably close rather than perpetuate inferior and inadequate standards.  

If colleges compete, it should be to see who produces the best scholarship among its students, not who provides the most pleasant and work-free environments for obtaining a degree.  

The harsh fact is that some degrees are not academically worth anything.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States